Born at the close of the 19th century, Hemingway embodied, for good or ill, a type of masculinity seldom encountered in the West today. He was born and raised in Oak Park, Illinois, into a conservative middle-class family. His musician mother, Grace, endeavoured to teach him the cello, but his physician father, Clarence, seems to have been more influential, spending their family vacations teaching his son how to camp, hunt, fish, and generally love and thrive in the great outdoors. In high school he was involved in a number of sports, but also excelled in English and wrote for his school paper.
Like many a famous writer before him, he began his career as a newspaper reporter, for the Kansas City Star. While he remained in the job for less than a year it had a huge influence on his writing style: the Star’s style guide mandated short, positive, powerful sentences which got straight to the point.
Meanwhile, the First World War was ravaging Europe. Rejected by the army because of his poor vision, in 1917 Hemingway joined the Red Cross and was dispatched to Italy as an ambulance driver. Determined to test his courage, he ventured as near the front line as he could, and was promptly wounded. By the time he was fully recovered the war was over and he was in love with a Red Cross nurse several years his senior, who ultimately rejected him. This may explain the plot of one of his most famous works, ‘A Farewell to Arms’, although (spoiler alert) in the story, the nurse dies instead.
Hemingway returned to America, where in 1921 he married the first of four wives, Hadley Richardson, who would be the other of his first child, Jack. He also returned to writing, producing ‘Big, Two-Hearted River’, a short story about a war veteran dealing with the psychological impact of the war, and taking up his journalistic career again.
It was this career that funded his return to Europe, where he joined the Lost Generation of mostly-young American emigres disenchanted with life in post-War America and seeking something which they seemed to find variously in the arts, romantic entanglements, drugs, and at the bottom of a glass. Hemingway tried most, if not all, of these, producing ‘The Sun Also Rises’ and having an affair with Pauline Pfeiffer, who would become his second wife after Hadley divorced him in 1927.
Pauline insisted that they return to America, where they settled in Key West and Pauline bore Hemingway’s second child, Patrick. It was here that Hemingway wrote his second full-length novel, ‘A Farewell to Arms’, and here that Hemingway received news of his father’s death by suicide. Hemingway was devastated, and began to believe that he would ‘go the same way’.
In the early 1930s he began to research a treatise on bullfighting, a sport which had formed the backdrop of ‘The Sun Also Rises’, and which he held in high regard as an expression of masculine virtue and valour. His third son, Gregory, was born in 1931, and in 1933 he went on a ten-week safari to Africa, where he exalted in the exhilarating of big game hunting, and also contracted dysentery. Then in 1937 he agreed to return to Europe to report on the Spanish Civil War. Although he didn’t remain long in Spain it was long enough for him to begin an affair with fellow reported Martha Gellhorn (who, in 1940, would become his third wife after Pauline divorced him), and to gain inspiration for another of his most famous novels, ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’ (1940).
Following his time in Spain, Hemingway moved to Cuba, returning to Europe in 1944, as a war correspondent based in London. True to form, he had another affair with another reporter, Mary Welsh, whom he married in 1946 and who was still his wife at his death. He was present at the Normandy Landings and the Liberation of Paris, where he was briefly reunited with some of his friends from the 1920s. So influential was his reporting that in 1947 he was awarded the Bronze Star by the US Military, an award for heroic or meritorious service in a combat zone. A few years later, in 1954, he received an even greater honour – the Nobel Prize for Literature. This was also the year in which he was involved in not one but two plane crashes while travelling in Africa, resulting in injuries serious enough that there were rumours that he had been killed.
He was also drinking heavily, and the combination of an active life with its attendant injuries and illnesses and the damage caused by excessive alcohol consumption meant that he spent the winter of 1955-56 bedridden. He recovered enough to make another trip to Europe, but his decline in physical health was matched by a decline in mental health. He continued to write, moving from Cuba to New York City to Idaho, worried about the manuscripts he had left in a bank vault in Cuba, about his taxes, and that the FBI were watching him (which they actually might have been: he had visited China briefly while Martha had an assignment there in 1941, was a recognised member of the ‘artistic community’, and the 1950s were the decade of McCarthyism). In 1960-1961 he was treated several times for depression at the Mayo Clinic.
Then, on July 2nd 1961, this most masculine of men sought the most masculine of suicide methods – he shot himself with his favourite shotgun, thus fulfilling his belief that his death would follow the same path as his father’s. It is likely that his depression was genetic, caused by a condition called haemochromatosis, in which iron accumulates in the body and damages the organs, causing both physical and mental deterioration. Today, the condition can be diagnosed and several treatment options, including old fashioned blood-letting, are available, but in Hemingway’s time the condition was little understood, and both his brother and sister also took their own lives.
Hemingway is buried at Ketchum Cemetery in Idaho, and in 1966 a memorial to him was placed just north of Sun Valley, above Trail Creek, Idaho.
Starting-points with Hemingway: Hemingway’s most famous works include:
Big, Two-Hearted River – short story (1923)
The Sun Also Rises (1926)
A Farewell to Arms (1929) F
or Whom The Bell Tolls (1940)
The Old Man and The Sea (1952)
So far I’ve only read ‘The Sun Also Rises’ and ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ – have you read any Hemingway?