Ernest Hemingway was a phenomenally talented writer of the twentieth century. He was the 1954 Nobel Prize winning icon of bigger-than-life proportions. In his writing, Hemingway created a world of overt masculinity and unparalleled adventure. However, with analysis we find that Hemingway’s life was not quite as heroic as his writing would lead us to believe.
Ernest Hemingway was born 21 July 1899 at the end of a genteel age in American history. He was born in Oak Park, Illinois nine miles west of Chicago. A century ago, Oak Park was not attached to Chicago except by train or Elevated rail lines. Hemingway’s father was a doctor, and his mother was a voice teacher. In 1901, an anarchist killed President William McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt became president ushering in a new, more robust age signified by the forming of National Parks and Forests. Gunboat diplomacy and Manifest Destiny were in full swing. World War I began in 1914 when Ferdinand, the Archduke of Austria was assassinated along with his wife Sophie in Sarajevo, Bosnia.
The United States entered the “Great War” a few years later, but when Hemingway attempted to enlist, he was repeatedly turned down because of defective vision. He then volunteered for the Red Cross as an ambulance driver and went to the front in northern Italy. While at Fossalta di Piave on 8 July 1918, as Hemingway was delivering cigarettes and chocolates to the soldiers, a Trench mortar round landed three feet away and severely wounded him. Several Italian soldiers were killed or wounded. With “some 200 pieces of shell lodged in him”, and while carrying a soldier to safety, Hemingway was struck by two machine-gun rounds, before succumbing to his wounds. Though a decorated hero, Hemingway was unsatisfied; he began weaving together stories that put him in units he never served in, and he even filled out applications for veteran’s organizations (American Legion), that misrepresented his military involvement. “The accident suffered by a noncombatant while handing out chocolate had to be transformed into action with the elite shock troops who had followed D’Annunzio in the Great War”, comments his biographer, Jeffrey Meyers.
Hemingway became the symbol of masculinity for much of America. He took Americans on a world tour with his writing and his exploits: from the life of an expatriate, to bullfighting, skiing, big game hunting and deep-sea fishing. He was also our intrepid reporter, sending back stories from such places as the Spanish Civil War, Mafia contract-hits in Ireland, an earthquake in Japan, and other newsworthy events of his day (Hemingway, By-Line).
After the war, Hemingway went back to Europe as a reporter for the Toronto Star. He set sail for Paris with letters of introduction in his pocket. He had met a number of famous writers since the war: the most famous was Sherwood Anderson. According to his biographer Carlos Baker, “Anderson volunteered to write Hemingway letters of introduction to some of the famous writers he (Anderson) had met in Paris”. Hemingway honed his early writing technique by sending stories back to the Star by telegraph. When Hemingway’s second book, In Our Time (1925), was released, it was critically compared to the work of Sherwood Anderson, his early mentor.
To break his ties with Anderson, Hemingway wrote a satirical novel The Torrents of Spring, parodying Anderson’s recently released Dark Laughter (1925). Gertrude Stein – mentor to the group – labeled the young and talented, expatriate writers and artists who gathered in Paris after the war, “You are a Lost Generation”: people such as: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Archibald MacLeish, John Dos Passos, Ford Madox Ford, Max Eastman, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound (Meyers 71). Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises (1926) about his friends and their exploits in post-war Paris and Spain. Hemingway turned the world on to the fiesta of San Fermin in Pamplona, Spain where the Running of the Bulls is held (Baker).
I believe Hemingway surveyed his literary history and then carefully chose the influences he would need to become the writer he wanted to be. Today the American tradition continues in that post-modern writers are either choosing Hemingway as a literary predecessor or are seeking the intellectual means with which to divorce themselves from his lineage.
Jeffrey Meyers notes that Hemingway “followed a Renaissance tradition of always going to the expert teachers to absorb what he wanted to know”. He traveled and lived, then studied and wrote about each new adventure and wonderful place. Hemingway showed the people of the world what he had found, so they could fall in love with it too. Marlin fishing off Key West and Cuba, bullfighting in Spain, and African Safari for the same animals he fell in love with at the Field Museum in Chicago when he was a boy.
By setting such a strong male role model, is it any wonder that the feminist movement attacked Hemingway, who died in 1961, and couldn’t then defend himself? The attack of the scholarly ranks began the dissection of Hemingway’s work primarily on the basis of its gender issues. The two main themes that are extracted are: 1. Homosexual activities in stories about bullfighters and soldiers. 2. Lesbianism/dominating women/one dimensional women sprinkled throughout most of the stories. Comley and Scholes say:
“[We] tried to show that the many women inscribed in the Hemingway text can be seen as variants of a basic repertory of female types. In examining a range of Hemingway’s fictional women we suggested that his most successful representatives be seen as combining features of more than one of his basic types or as taking on attributes of gender commonly coded as male.
Ruland and Bradbury add, “We are also in a time when […] women writers deconstruct male fictions in the quest for a female literary past”. The second theme is well represented by these two points, although I think deconstruction is only a variation on the theme that writers pick their own influences. Hemingway based his female characters on the women in his life; his domineering mother “The dark queen of Hemingway’s inner world” (Lynn), Gertrude Stein, and his wives and lovers.
The strength of Hemingway’s writing is that he wrote primarily from his own perspective. Hemingway wasn’t a woman; he didn’t purport to be one; should he then garner attacks? I think not. There is value in accurately representing a single point of view (male), and this has been ignored by the bulk of modern day feminism. It is not that Hemingway could not write about women, but that he chose instead to bask in a masculine world for all to see.
Hemingway had bigger personal issues than his perceived relationships with women; he was Bipolar. Mental illness and the artistic temperament bring up age-old questions. Do in fact, certain mental illnesses, in Hemingway’s case manic-depressive illness, give the writer the drive that makes him or her write? According to Kay Redfield Jamison, “Manic-depressive illness is much more common in writers and artists than in the general population”, “Most people who suffer from manic-depressive and depressive illness are not unusually creative, and they reap few benefits from their experiences” with these diseases. Again, according to Jamison, “What is even more striking […] is the number of suicides—four, in just two generations of the family: Hemingway’s father, brother, sister, and Hemingway himself”. The rate of suicide among manic-depressives in the population is 18.9%, or almost one in five (Goodwin and Jamison 230). Hemingway’s illness was accentuated and exacerbated by physical challenge.
While on Safari in Africa, Hemingway survived two plane crashes, one right after the other. “Friends remarked that the crashes had in effect made him turn inward and backward” (Lynn 576. Meyers adds, “The injuries from the second crash were much worse and several physical problems were to plague him the rest of his life”. “He had a bad temper, behaved recklessly and irrationally, drank heavily and was frequently out of control. He deliberately placed himself in risky situations in driving, boxing, skiing, fishing, hunting, and war” (Meyers). Many experts would call these, “self-medications” for a bipolar person, as is often the case. All are representative of specific influences on an unmedicated person’s life. Who really knew back then?
These physical and emotional traumas gave Hemingway a unique freedom of expression. The American tradition is that of seeking to be free, not that of being ruled by tradition. It’s of being free to choose ones antecedents. Ruland and Bradbury said, “This constantly renewing search, this constructing and defacing of literary monuments, this borrowing and assimilating and intertextualizing, shows us one way in which literary traditions are constructed—from the inside by the writers themselves” (xvi). Therefore, all American writers are self-made exponents of the world as they see it. In effect, the American way of life breeds apprentice-intellectuals, not suffering from the fashions of the day, and not afraid to dream a new dream.
I believe Hemingway is one of the greatest American writers, if not the greatest. Being at or near this lofty position, I think he, like any other great writer or artist, was then able to choose his own influences and create what he liked. Pandering to the whims of critics, the marketplace or future generations is not, or should not be, anywhere in the mind of such a creative artist.
Manic-depressive illness does not cause artistic ability anymore than earning a driver’s license makes one competitive in a Formula One racing car. It is possible that one may lead to the other, but one does not cause the other. Manic depression, or Bipolar, is at best a destructive mental illness that needs constant monitoring and care.
How I or anyone else enjoys Hemingway’s writing will depend entirely on what we bring to the experience; we do not need a secondary source to tell us what Hemingway really meant. In all creative endeavors, the artist and we are one; an interpreter is not part of the equation. As Hemingway writes:
If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water (Death).
The profound effect is that of the story still moving through you long after reading it.
Whether it was his experience in WWI as an ambulance driver, his onslaught of manic-depressive illness, the women in his life, or his various physical annoyances that truly made the writer, we will never know. Hemingway did a superlative job of drawing the reader into his world; it is one full of adventure and complete with an honest view from the masculine perspective. Ernest Hemingway is in all ways fascinating. His place in literary history is all but assured. The post-modern critics are not correct: Hemingway’s fiction still reads gloriously, and need not be read with annoyance, intrepidity, or a sense of loathsome incompatibility.
Baker, Carlos. Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story. New York: Macmillan, 1969.
Comley, Nancy R. and Robert E. Scholes. Hemingway’s Genders: rereading the Hemingway text. New Haven: Yale UP, 1994.
Goodwin, Frederick K. and Kay Redfield Jamison. Manic-Depressive Illness. New York: Oxford UP, 1990.
Hemingway, Ernest M. By-Line: Ernest Hemingway. Ed. William White. New York: Scribner’s, 1967.
Hemingway, Ernest M. Death in the Afternoon. New York: Scribner’s, 1932.
Jamison, Kay Redfield. Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. New York: Free Press, 1993.
Lynn, Kenneth S. Hemingway. New York: Simon, 1987.
Meyers, Jeffrey. Hemingway: A Biography. New York: Harper, 1985.
Ruland, Richard and Malcolm Bradbury. From Puritanism to Postmodernism: A History of American Literature. New York: Viking, 1991.