Hemingway, Ernest (1899-1961)

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Hemingway, Ernest (1899-1961)

At the height of his popularity, Ernest Hemingway was hailed as the greatest writer of American literature, a hero of several wars, a world-class sportsman in the fields of bullfighting, boxing, hunting, and fishing, and a connoisseur of food, wine, writing, and painting. He was viewed as a colossus who strode all fields of action, excelling in all the manly pursuits. At his worst, Hemingway was derided as a writer who specialized in evasion and repression; an illiterate, inarticulate ox who avoided literary circles to disguise his own limitations; a bully, misogynist, and homophobe with the world's most famous castration anxiety; a self-aggrandizing egotist and poseur who shamelessly promoted the legend of his exploits in popular magazines; a belligerent and jealous writer who betrayed and publicly insulted all the authors who helped his career; an overpaid, glorified journalist who sold his talent to feed his ego, ending up as a rich, decadent alcoholic who succumbed to dementia in later years, and who finally took his own life when he realized that he could not write anymore.

Born Ernest Miller Hemingway in Oak Park, Illinois, on July 21, 1899, Hemingway developed his terse style by writing for the Kansas City Star in 1917. In 1918 he volunteered as a Red Cross ambulance driver in Italy, where he was badly wounded attempting to save a soldier's life. Hemingway's war experiences and his severe injuries seem to have carved a deep scar in the young man's psyche, and he suffered from insomnia and a fear of sleeping in the dark. All his early writing reveals a preoccupation with violence and wounds, and a terror of death. The honesty with which Hemingway wrote about naked emotions in the 1920s—which contrasts sharply with the bloated legend of himself that he promoted in the 1930s and beyond—was immediately greeted as a major innovation in modern writing. His rapid development and swift rise to acclaim derived from his willingness to learn from older writers: while living in Paris among the expatriates he sought, and followed, the advice of Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Ford Madox Ford, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Though most famous for his terse, stark narrative style and realistic dialogue, Hemingway was certainly not the first to write plainly and simply; he did not singlehandedly overthrow the decadent conventions of the Victorian novel. Many predecessors, including Mark Twain, Gertrude Stein, and Sherwood Anderson, had cleared the prolix path that Hemingway strode more boldly. He did however drive verbal terseness and austerity to its limit, setting an unsurpassable standard, while avoiding Stein's and Anderson's eccentricities. Hemingway's early prose was taut and brittle, achieving its effects through extremely subtle suggestion while refusing to be "literary." He jettisoned the worn accouterments of alliteration, assonance, simile, and metaphor to look directly at life and report only what he saw, unencumbered by literary conventions. This does not mean, however, that Hemingway's fiction was stripped of emotion, as it may seem to a careless reader. Hemingway refrained from describing emotion, avoiding phrases like "he felt," or "he thought," and discarding adverbs and adjectives, but he suggested the characters' emotions by reporting what they saw, noticed, or did. For instance, in the short story "Big Two-Hearted River," Hemingway conveys the anxiety of a veteran, Nick Adams, returning home from the war and trying to repress his painful memories. But the author does this not by telling us that Nick is trying to repress his thoughts, but rather by meticulously reporting Nick's concentration on mundane but consoling activities such as fishing and making lunch. Such indirect and subtle effects were quite powerful when done well, but could result in long passages of pointlessness when done badly, as in some of his later work.

Also notable in his early writing is a willingness to portray what his characters really felt rather than what they were supposed to feel. He did not care to write edifying stories: if his character felt empty and hollow after an event that was supposed to make a respectable man feel sad, the story gained power through its honest realism. The most successful specimens of Hemingway's method were his short stories. His first novel, The Sun Also Rises (1926), also managed to sustain the dramatic tension and power of the shorter works. Hemingway made extensive revisions at Fitzgerald's suggestion, and the book revealed remarkable parallels with Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1925). But ironically Hemingway soon displaced Fitzgerald as the major new author of the postwar generation. Fitzgerald had been feted as the author of the Jazz Age, and appealed to collegiate readers stateside. Hemingway became known as the author of the "Lost Generation" (though the phrase, made famous by Gertrude Stein, referred cynically to the same generation as Fitzgerald's Jazz Age). Hemingway made a stronger impression among war veterans, and The Sun Also Rises became the most significant work of the growing genre of post-war novels about world-weary veterans. The book was amazingly influential: young women began talking like the flippant heroine, Brett Ashley, and young men started acting like Jake Barnes or Hemingway's other male characters, muttering tough-sounding understatements and donning the repressive sackcloth of machismo. Hemingway's portrayal of the wounded, taciturn hero resounded among men who might not ordinarily read "serious literature," and validated an archetype in popular culture which survived for several generations in icons such as John Wayne, Charles Bronson, and Clint Eastwood.

Hemingway's next novel, A Farewell to Arms (1929), returned to the theme of the wounded soldier, and the pastoral charms of escape and a "separate peace." It was a bestseller, as all of Hemingway's subsequent books would be, and secured his reputation as a major author. Unfortunately, A Farewell to Arms marked the end of Hemingway's rapid development and uncompromised artistic integrity. In 1932, he published Death in the Afternoon, a handbook on the art of bullfighting. Treating bullfighting as a tragic ritual, the book provides many insights into Hemingway's views on death, performance, courage, and art—all important themes in his fiction. Although the book has interesting digressions on literature, it also has entire chapters devoted to specific bullfighting techniques or appraisals of long-dead bullfighters which make for very tedious reading.

But the real subject of the book was not bullfighting; it was Hemingway. In Fame Became of Him, John Raeburn identifies nine personae that Hemingway projected in Death in the Afternoon and in later autobiographical works: world traveler, arbiter of taste, bon vivant, heroic artist, exposer of sham, initiated insider, battle-scarred stoic, sportsman, and manly man. Three of these—arbiter of taste, world traveler, and bon vivant—form a cluster of roles typical of the literary gentleman. Writers can often be counted on to offer tips on wine, dining, arts, and travel. In these roles Hemingway was similar to the effete, foppish dilettantes whom he usually detested, such as Ford Madox Ford or Henry James. To a lesser extent, the roles of heroic artist, exposer of sham, and initiated insider are also common among writers. The heroic artist who suffers for his muse was a familiar pose of the Romantics (particularly Byron), and the exposer of sham has a long pedigree in satirical writing. The battle-scarred stoic had become a common, though resonant, figure in post-war writing. The initiated insider was partly related to the veteran figure, but initiation into a select fraternity of like-minded fellows became quintessentially Hemingway. He pretended to follow a code of conduct which was all the more dignified for being unspoken, above defense, and inscrutable to outsiders.

But the uniqueness and popularity of Hemingway's public personality lay in joining these highbrow roles with those of sportsman and manly man. Readers knew of his interest in fishing, hunting, and bullfighting from his early fiction, where these sports were embraced as pastoral pleasures of escape for the physically or mentally wounded, solitary pastimes for taciturn men. But when described as Hemingway's own hobbies in his non-fiction, they lost the therapeutic element—presumably because Hemingway was loath to admit any psychological wounds—and became games of competition, obligatory tasks of masculinity, demonstrations of "cojones," or balls. Indeed, Hemingway seemed to devote the rest of his life from the 1930s onward to proving his cojones, perhaps embarrassed by theories that Jake Barnes, the protagonist of The Sun Also Rises whose penis was shot off in the war, was an autobiographical character. In later works Hemingway seemed to dissociate himself from such vulnerable characters, and also alienated himself from writers—an unmanly lot—by quarreling with, defaming, and even threatening almost every major writer of his generation. He derided homosexuals in Death in the Afternoon, dismissing the artistry of Gertrude Stein, Oscar Wilde, Andre Gide, Walt Whitman, and Francisco Goya on the theory that they were inherently flawed and therefore disqualified as artists.

Such masculine posturing proved enormously popular, and soon after Death in the Afternoon Hemingway began a series of essays for the newly founded men's magazine, Esquire, which was marketed toward a sophisticated, though not intellectual, audience. He wrote 36 Esquire essays on topics such as fishing, hunting, and wine. He even wrote beer ads disguised as essays. Whereas Death in the Afternoon had a professed artistic impetus in Hemingway's desire to view death in order to write "truly" about the experience, the Esquire articles lacked any artistic purpose and were pointedly non-literary. Hemingway was beginning to fashion a new character, whose name was Ernest Hemingway. He continued this farce in another book of non-fiction, Green Hills of Africa (1935). A personal account of Hemingway's safari adventure, Green Hills of Africa reads more like a novel than Death in the Afternoon, sporting vivid descriptions of action and dialogue. But Hemingway's style of writing "truly" faltered the more he wrote about himself: the book simply promoted the virile Hemingway legend without revealing anything intimate about the author. The Esquire experience and his swelling fame distorted his self-awareness and blurred his ability to distinguish fact and fiction. His self-aggrandizing grew more frequent as the burgeoning medium of photojournalism got bigger and flashier. Hemingway's striking demeanor and handsome, husky appearance made him a favorite of glossy magazines such as Life and Look, which wedded big colorful photos to the trenchant aphorisms Hemingway was happy to provide.

Another product of Hemingway's African adventure was the short story, "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," which told of a writer who, dying of gangrene while hunting in Africa, realizes too late that he has squandered his talent. The protagonist laments "poor Scott Fitzgerald" as a writer ruined by his fascination with the rich. Hemingway thus deflected suspicion that the ruined writer of the story might represent himself by this slanderous jab at Fitzgerald. Whether or not he needed this decoy to write with his old frankness, he wrought a rich and complex story. However, most critics recognized that the declining writer was Hemingway himself, and soon it would be obvious to everyone.

When Hemingway finally returned to novel writing in 1937 with To Have and Have Not he was a very different writer from the artistic innovator of the 1920s. Whereas his earlier fiction masterfully portrayed vulnerable characters through extremely subtle prose which seemed to mirror the repressed nature of the character himself, in To Have and Have Not repression triumphs over revelation. Masking his own vulnerabilities, Hemingway also masked those of his characters, stripping them of human interest. His latest protagonist, Harry Morgan, a tough-talking weapons smuggler in trouble with the mafia and the government, betrayed no weakness and awoke no pathos. After losing his arm in an accident, he stoically responds, "[If] you lose an arm, you lose an arm." The novel was barely distinguishable from pulp fiction. Hemingway's half-hearted attempts at political significance made the work more embarrassing than redeeming. During the Depression, critics of the New Left favored novels of social relevance, like those of John Steinbeck or Sinclair Lewis. Many writers of the 1920s, such as Fitzgerald and Thornton Wilder, had fallen out of critical favor for their indifference to politics. Hemingway, who seemed to appeal to the common man because of his simple prose and simple pleasures, was urged by some critics to write more socially relevant stories. He capitulated with To Have and Have Not, and found favor with the more naive members of the Left, but most critics recognized the novel as politically simplistic. Although the novel was a bestseller, and Hemingway was more popular than ever, his critical reputation sunk to its lowest.

Whereas William Faulkner had spent the 1930s producing one masterpiece after another in the most astonishing series of achievements in American literature since Henry James, Hemingway had churned out a preponderance of facile nonfiction, mostly in slick popular magazines. Always jealously competitive, Hemingway responded to the challenge of Faulkner's achievement and set out to regain the championship he had held in the 1920s. The result was For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), his longest and most ambitious work. The novel seems to have been intended as his masterpiece, embracing a wider range of themes than any of his previous novels. However, Hemingway's carefully crafted style was ill-suited for such a broad canvas, and the novel's sheer bulk diluted the potency of his prose. The novel was almost as politically simplistic as To Have and Have Not. Although Hemingway strove to weave grand themes of nature, technology, and the unity of mankind, his truer, deeper preoccupations were still with the solitary man proving his mettle and facing death alone. The hero, Robert Jordan, was cut from the same cloth as earlier Hemingway heroes, solitary, glum, absinthe-drinking men. Robert Jordan was a professor of Spanish, but the intellectual side of the character was sketchy, unconvincing, and incongruent with his more familiar Hemingwayesque traits. The intended effect of the novel was unachieved. Hemingway failed to unify his themes and symbols, all the more ironic since the unity of mankind was the overarching theme. Nevertheless, the novel was extraordinarily successful, selling 360,000 copies and generating a movie.

Hemingway continued to make money by writing for Collier's magazine as a war correspondent in Europe during World War II. The 1940s were highly profitable for Hemingway, and brought him fame as a war hero (although the extent of his military participation is disputed). He did not return to novel writing until 1950. At the pinnacle of fame and arrogance, Hemingway consented to an interview with Lilian Ross, in which he boasted about his forthcoming work and his enduring position as "champ" in American fiction. This memorable character sketch, entitled "How Do You Like It, Now, Gentlemen?," was very different from the usual adulating articles honoring Hemingway as a champion sportsman and manly man. Although affectionate, the sketch revealed Hemingway's eccentricities and egotism. He called himself Papa, posing as the wise, grizzled old man of American letters. He claimed that he had once lived with a bear in Montana, where they drank and slept together. But what proved to be most embarrassing to Hemingway was his boast that his forthcoming novel would be his best ever. When Across the River and into the Trees appeared four months later, it was almost unanimously regarded as the worst novel of his career. It was an abysmal work, so poorly written that it seemed a parody of his own style, riddled with his pet words "good," "true," "well," and so on. Though not without redeeming qualities, it is best enjoyed as a parody of the famous Hemingway style from the master's own pen.

The contrast between Hemingway's published boastfulness and the critics' sudden disfavor became even more painful when Faulkner won the Nobel Prize that same year. Five years earlier Faulkner had been a well-kept secret, and Hemingway (in his role as initiated insider and arbiter of taste) had been able to confide to Jean-Paul Sartre and others that Faulkner was a better writer than himself. Once Faulkner won the Nobel Prize, and myriad belated accolades tumbled his way, Hemingway could no longer regard himself as the champ of American letters, as he had boasted in the Ross interview, and he turned on Faulkner, declaring that no one ever wrote a decent novel after winning the Nobel Prize. Meanwhile, Hemingway labored over a long autobiographical novel, Islands in the Stream. The novel was disjointed, tedious, and uninspired. Aging, alcoholic, and unhealthy, Hemingway seemed to be losing his talent. However, he salvaged the last part of the novel and published it as an independent work in Life in 1952 as The Old Man and the Sea. A painfully poignant tale of an aged fisherman who catches the biggest marlin of his life and loses it to sharks, the story was told in a beautifully simple, chaste style that surpassed anything Hemingway had written since the 1920s. Struggling with artistic and physical decline, Hemingway had made one final effort to write truly, and succeeded by reaching inside himself to wrench out the painful theme of failure. "Man was not made for defeat. A man can be destroyed but not defeated." The Life issue sold five million copies, and the story was instantly hailed as a masterpiece. In 1954, Hemingway won the Nobel Prize, largely on the achievement of The Old Man and the Sea.

Throughout the 1950s Hemingway worked on a novel, The Garden of Eden, but remained unhappy with it and withheld publication. He also discovered a cache of memoirs he had begun in the 1920s, and proceeded to revise and expand them into a book called A Moveable Feast. The rediscovered writings reminded Hemingway of his youth, when he was establishing his reputation as a bold new artist of uncompromised integrity, and made it painfully clear that the aging writer had squandered his talent for the gratifications of fame. Although he had accused Fitzgerald and Faulkner of ruining their talent on stories for the Saturday Evening Post and movies for Hollywood, Hemingway had compromised his talent even more grotesquely by creating an absurd fabrication of himself. His public persona was his own worst character and had infected most of the characters he had created since the 1920s. Realizing that he could no longer write, nor maintain his own egotistical standards, Hemingway shot himself on July 2, 1961.

The adulation continued years after his death, and posthumous novels, stories, and nonfiction continued to appear well into the 1990s. But biographies also appeared, and emerging evidence gradually revealed Hemingway to be a despicable man motivated by egotism, jealousy, and a sexual insecurity that led him to ridicule others and prove his own manhood ad absurdum. Such macho posturing already seemed out of place in the 1960s, and utterly ridiculous by the 1990s, though academic interest in Hemingway continued to thrive under deconstructive and feminist approaches to literature. By the turn of the century it seemed unlikely that Hemingway would ever regain the swollen stature of his middle period. However, his influence over American literature is immense and ubiquitous. As one of the major prose stylists of the English language, he has bred more imitators than any other American writer. But few authors were able to attain the suggestive power and subtlety of Hemingway's finest work. Faulkner captured it in his stark, brittle potboiler, Sanctuary, and Fitzgerald employed a certain Hemingwayesque subtlety amid the softly echoing motifs of Tender Is the Night. But more often one found mere verbal imitation by inferior authors such as Erskine Caldwell, who simply borrowed the outward trappings of conscientious monosyllables and tough dialogue for their otherwise conventional narrative and perfunctory symbolism. Hemingway's best fiction set a standard that few could attain, not even the later Hemingway.

—Douglas Cooke

Further Reading:

Baker, Carlos. Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story. New York, Scribner's, 1969.

Burgess, Anthony. Ernest Hemingway and His World. New York, Scribner's, 1978.

Larson, Kelli A. Ernest Hemingway: A Reference Guide, 1974-1989. Boston, G. K. Hall, 1990.

Raeburn, John. Fame Became of Him: Hemingway as Public Writer. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1984.

Wagner-Martin, Linda. Ernest Hemingway: A Reference Guide. Boston, G. K. Hall, 1977.

Weeks, Robert P., editor. Hemingway: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, Prentice Hall, 1962.