One Hundred years after his birth, Ernest Hemingway's proud and painful legacy endures.
Neil A. Grauer
From the Print Edition:
Ernest Hemingway, Jul/Aug 99
(continued from page 1)
Graduating from Oak Park High School, Hemingway landed a job as a cub reporter on the Kansas City Star. He was forced to write short, spare sentences, absent almost all adjectives. "Those were the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing. I've never forgotten them," he told an interviewer in 1940. "No man with any talent, who feels and writes truly about the thing he is trying to say, can fail to write well if he abides by them."
Hemingway quickly became an excellent reporter, but when the United States entered the First World War in 1917, he was determined to experience its drama--if not, perhaps, trench warfare. He volunteered for rescue service with the American Red Cross and was assigned to an ambulance unit in Italy, which was an ally of the United States in that conflict. His experiences there and his subsequent writings about them turned him into one of the century's great chroniclers of war. And the tall tales he told about his own exploits became the foundation of the personal mythmaking that established his celebrity. He always insisted that he knew more about war than any other reporter; that he could outbox, outfish, outhunt, outdrink, outscrew any rival. Eventually, his need to live up to those myths--and his growing alcoholism--hampered his ability to write.
On July 8, 1918, while handing out chocolate to Italian soldiers in a dugout, Hemingway was severely wounded when a mortar shell exploded a few feet from him. Hot shrapnel fragments tore into both of his legs and he was knocked down by the blast, badly injuring his head. He nevertheless gallantly pulled himself across the ground to try to help a mortally wounded soldier before being placed on a stretcher and carried off the battlefield. The Italian government awarded him the Silver Medal of Military Valor.
Courageous as he had been and wounded though he was, Hemingway began embellishing the story of what had happened within a week of the incident. He claimed that he had gotten up following the mortar blast, shouldered a wounded soldier, carried him more than 150 yards while being fired upon, and was hit twice in the legs by machine gun bullets. He later would claim that he subsequently enlisted in the Italian army, fought with its fabled shock troops, the Arditi, and had an aluminum kneecap as a souvenir of his service with them.
Hemingway's exaggerations of his military exploits went unchallenged by journalists and biographers for decades. He added to them in his writings; expanded on them during the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War; and allowed others to inflate his image with more myths later on.
For the record, Hemingway did not go ashore with the troops on D-Day, although his reporting of the invasion suggested that he had. He really did not "liberate" the Ritz Hotel in Paris when Allied troops drove the Germans from the city. Other soldiers got to the hotel first. Hemingway also never scored a put-down on F. Scott Fitzgerald by saying the only thing that distinguished the rich is that they have more money. In fact, after once grandly saying that he was "getting to know the rich," Hemingway himself had been the butt of that wisecrack, delivered by Irish writer Mary Colum in the presence of Hemingway's editor, Maxwell Perkins. And Hemingway never kept a six-toed cat at his home in Key West--contrary to the claims of tour guides that the six-toed felines there now are descended from Hemingway's original. An annoyed Patrick Hemingway told a reporter in 1997 that his father had cats at his home in Cuba, not in Florida.
Yet the exaggerations and myths aside, Hemingway's genuinely dramatic, moving experiences during the First World War later inspired some of his greatest works. He witnessed much of the war's ghastliness; and while recuperating from his wounds he met and later was rejected by his first great love, Agnes von Kurowsky, a 26-year-old nurse at the military hospital in Milan where he was being treated.
Shortly after Hemingway's return to the United States in January 1919, von Kurowsky wrote him to break off their relationship. Calling him "Kid," she noted the seven-year difference in their ages and said she had fallen in love with an older man. Hurt but proud, Hemingway would use his emotional wounds--then and later--as the basis for stories such as "In Another Country" and novels such as A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls that captured the imagination of readers for generations. The opening paragraph of "In Another Country," wrote Lynn, is the "matchless...creation of a poet working at the pinnacle of his power":
In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more. It was cold in the fall in Milan and the dark came very early. Then the electric lights came on, and it was pleasant along the streets looking in the windows. There was much game hanging outside the shops, and the snow powdered in the fur of the foxes and the wind blew their tails. The deer hung stiff and heavy and empty, and small birds blew in the wind and the wind turned their feathers. It was a cold fall and the wind came down from the mountains.
"This is to tell you about a young man named Ernest Hemmingway [sic], who lives in Paris (an American)...and has a brilliant future.... He's the real thing." --F. Scott Fitzgerald, letter to editor Maxwell Perkins, 1924
"...everybody you use in your stuff goes and gets a gun." --Guy Hickok, Hemingway friend, 1927
Throughout his life, Hemingway's fiction was largely autobiographical, with individuals and incidents thinly disguised and easily linked to real places and people--often far from flatteringly.
In 1920, Hemingway moved to Chicago, went to work for a publication called The Cooperative Commonwealth, and began submitting stories to major magazines--The Saturday Evening Post, Redbook--which rejected all of them. At a party he met Hadley Richardson, the lively, adventurous daughter of a self-centered mother and charming but incompetent father who killed himself when she was 12. Hemingway was immediately attracted to her and they were married on September 3, 1921.
After arranging to become the first foreign correspondent of the Toronto Star, Hemingway embarked with Hadley for Paris that December. They financed themselves with money he had saved and the trust-fund income she received.
It was a grand time for expatriates in Paris. Terrible inflation made the French franc cheap and life exceedingly pleasant for those with foreign currency. Hemingway and Hadley lived in spartan quarters, but they ate well, had an active social life and traveled widely.
Through introductory letters provided by author Sherwood Anderson, whom he'd met in Chicago, Hemingway soon joined one of the century's most celebrated literary colonies, becoming friends with many of its key members, including James Joyce, Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein.
Apart from his journalism, Hemingway worked fiercely on short stories and a novel, striving mightily, he later said, to "write one true sentence and then go on from there." His goal of a leaner, more pure form of writing was not easily achieved. "The sentences in his blue notebooks were a palimpsest of erasures, deletions, and insertions," Lynn observed.
From those notebooks came his first book, Three Stories & Ten Poems (1923), which his straight-laced parents considered "filth" and refused to have in their home. It was followed by In Our Time (1925), featuring the first of his stories about the youthful experiences of Nick Adams, a character that clearly was himself (although he denied it); Torrents of Spring (1926), a cruel parody of his first mentor, Sherwood Anderson, written to force his then-publisher, also Anderson's, to cancel Hemingway's contract so he could sign with Scribner's, a house of greater distinction. His next novel, The Sun Also Rises, about the "lost generation" of aimless, war-scarred expatriate Americans and English in Europe, featured characters modeled on the friends with whom Hemingway and Hadley had traveled around the Continent, and its success was substantial. It sold 23,000 copies its first year.
The Sun Also Rises quickly became a cult book. Critic Edmund Wilson wrote that Hemingway "expressed the romantic disillusion and set the favorite pose for the period. It was the moment of gallantry in heartbreak, grim and nonchalant banter, and heroic dissipation. The great watchword was 'Have a drink'; and in the bars of New York and Paris the young people were getting to talk like Hemingway."
After writing another astonishingly successful collection of powerful short stories, Men Without Women (1927), Hemingway published A Farewell to Arms (1929), which sold a stunning 70,000 copies within four months. It heralded his ascension as "the uncrowned king of the young American writers," as literary historian Tom Dardis observed.
Considered by many as the best American novel about love and war, A Farewell to Arms is the story of the tragically unconsummated affair between an American soldier emasculated by a war wound and an English nurse. Interspersing the tale of unfulfillable love with spare, compelling accounts of the grimness of the First World War, Hemingway states his philosophy of stoicism through his main character, Frederic Henry:
If people bring so much courage to this world, the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.
As Lynn observed, Hemingway's own epitaph might be "Strong at the broken places." He was "a more truly heroic figure than even the gaudiest version of his myth would grant him," Lynn wrote.
"Was not referring to guts but to something else. Grace under pressure. Guts never made any money for anybody except violin string manufacturers." --Ernest Hemingway, definition of a matador's courage in a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald, April 20, 1926
As early as 1922, Hemingway's marriage to Hadley was on shaky ground. She became pregnant the following year. Hemingway was not prepared to become a father and viewed the birth of John Hadley Nicanor Hemingway in October 1923 as a decidedly mixed blessing.
By 1927, Hemingway had become infatuated with Pauline Pfeiffer, a well-to-do, would-be writer who had met him and Hadley at a party in Paris. Pauline set out with determination to win Hemingway away from his wife, and Hadley finally agreed to give him a divorce. In retrospect, he always regretted the breakup with Hadley. "I wish I had died before I ever loved anyone but her," he wrote three decades later in A Moveable Feast, his posthumously published memoir of his Paris years.
Hemingway married Pauline in May 1927. By virtue of the largesse of her Uncle Gus Pfeiffer, they settled into a spacious Paris apartment and continued Hemingway's habit of extensive travel. Finding Paris less congenial--in part because many of his friends were angered by his transparent depictions of them in The Sun Also Rises--he spent less and less time in France. Thanks to his wife's ever-generous family, they moved to Key West in 1930 and by the following year lived in a house on Whitehead Street that Uncle Gus paid $8,000 to acquire for them. Hemingway produced some memorable work there, but he brutally denigrated Key West, then a rustic enclave of 10,000, as a "Jew administered phony of a town."
His next book, Death in the Afternoon (1932), was a nonfiction encomium to the art of Spanish bullfighting. An African safari in late 1933 and early 1934 provided the basis for another nonfiction work, The Green Hills of Africa (1935), as well as "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" and "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber"--both of which dealt ominously with the adverse effects of money and women on a man. Hemingway published To Have and Have Not, his only novel set almost entirely in the United States, in 1937. Poorly constructed and critically scorned, it describes the impact of the Great Depression on Key West and a local resident, a "conch" named Harry Morgan, who resorts to crime to survive and is broken by it.
Although Hemingway and Pauline had two sons, Patrick, born in 1928, and Gregory, born in 1931, their relationship was tempestuous. By the time the Spanish Civil War erupted in 1936, he was drawn by its drama--and by the opportunity it gave him to get away from his wife.
He happened upon an ideal companion for his trip to Spain when he walked into Sloppy Joe's in Key West in December 1936 and met Martha Gellhorn, then 28 and an up-and-coming journalist and author. In a repeat of history, Martha set out to capture Hemingway just as Pauline had snared him from Hadley. He proved a willing quarry.
Hemingway made the first of his three wartime trips to Spain in 1937. Martha followed and moved in with him at the Hotel Florida in Madrid. They went to fronts where the fighting was intense and their bravery was undisputed. His coverage of the conflict is considered among the finest war reporting ever done. Martha paid close attention and learned how to become a war correspondent. During the Second World War, she would outshine him--much to his dismay. In a list of the best works of twentieth-century journalism recently compiled by New York University, her book of war reporting, The Face of War, ranks right after Hemingway's reports on the Spanish Civil War.
During his trips to Spain in 1937 and 1938, Hemingway also gathered material for what became For Whom the Bell Tolls, one of the most acclaimed novels of the century. Its tale of an American's enlistment on the side of the Fascist-fighting Loyalist forces, and his love affair with a Spanish woman, was immensely popular with both critics and the public.
Hemingway's marriage to Pauline lasted until 1940, the year For Whom the Bell Tolls, much of it written in Havana, was published to rave reviews and stupendous sales, second only to Gone with the Wind. Martha had joined Hemingway in Havana and found him living in an appallingly unkempt hotel room. ("Ernest was extremely dirty, one of the most unfastidious men I've ever known," she said years later.) She searched for a home and found Finca Vigía, which she persuaded him to buy for $18,500. Once Hemingway's divorce from Pauline became final, he married Martha and they settled in on the finca (farm).
Hemingway later said that Cuba held many attractions for him--the cool morning breezes, which enabled him "to work as well there...[as] anywhere in the world"; the nearby Gulf Stream, where he found the finest fishing he'd ever experienced while plying the waters on his 38-foot powerboat, Pilar; pigeon-shooting matches and cockfights; the 18 varieties of mango that grew on his farm; the rum that went into the famous double frozen Daiquiris--the "Papa Doble"--made and named for him at El Floridita.
What he evidently did not find of interest in Havana were cigars. Although he had learned to smoke Russian cigarettes during the First World War, and once described himself in a humorous 1935 story about Key West as "sitting on the verandah enjoying a cheroot," he told a writer in 1950 that he didn't smoke because it diminished his sense of smell. In The Sun Also Rises, Count Mippipopolous makes a great ceremony out of clipping his cigar with a gold cutter and proclaiming "I like a cigar to really draw," but apparently that was a procedure and preference Hemingway rarely practiced.
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Dale Siemon — May 6, 2011 11:32am ET
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