Ernest Hemingway was a man's man with an embarrassing secret. He was a focused author with particular writing habits who stood while he worked. He survived two plane crashes and had four wives. He lived an exciting life and shared it with us through his written words.
All my life I've looked at words as though I were seeing them for the first time.
Ernest Miller Hemingway was born on July 21, 1899, in a conservative Chicago suburb then known as Cicero, Illinois - since renamed Oak Park. He was the second child of six. His father, Clarence Hemingway, was a doctor who taught his son about science. His mother, Grace Hemingway, shared her love of music and the arts with her children.
The Hemingways owned a cabin in northern Michigan, and that is where young Hemingway learned to hunt and fish.
Hemingway's childhood was "normal," with one notable exception - his mother chose to raise Ernest and his older sister, Marcelline, as twins. Sometimes she dressed them as twin girls, in ruffled dresses and bows or hats; other days she dressed them in boys' clothing. She gave them identical toys to play with, including dolls and air rifles. When the twins were dressed as girls, she referred to Ernest as "Ernestine." Their mother held Marcelline back in school so that her pretend twins could be in the same class. Hemingway later forbade his mother from granting interviews - even threatening to cut her off financially - in an attempt to keep this period of his life private. Unfortunately for him, his sister published a book revealing all the details.
Hemingway demonstrated an early interest in writing. In high school, he wrote for his school paper, "Trapeze and Tabula."
After high school, Hemingway disappointed his father, who wanted him to become a doctor, by skipping college and entering the working world. He took a job writing for the "Kansas City Star" at $15 per week. His editor gave him a style sheet with advice that would serve him well throughout his writing career: "Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative." Hemingway elaborated, "On the 'Star' you were forced to learn to write a simple declarative sentence. This is useful to anyone. Newspaper work will not harm a young writer and could help him if he gets out of it in time."
Hemingway left the "Kansas City Star" in 1918 to serve in the Great War, but he failed his physical due to his poor vision. Nevertheless, he went to Italy and served as an ambulance driver in the Italian Army. He was wounded in both legs during a mission, but he still managed to carry an injured soldier to safety. He was one of the first Americans to receive the Italian Silver Medal of Bravery. Hemingway later commented, "When you go to war as a boy you have a great illusion of immortality. Other people get killed; not you... Then when you are badly wounded the first time you lose that illusion and you know it can happen to you."
Hemingway was taken to a hospital in Milan for treatment. While there he met a nurse, Agnes von Kurowsky, who enjoyed flirting with her male patients. She was seven years older than Hemingway. He asked her to marry him and she accepted, but then she left him for another man. This heartbreak helped to inspire Hemingway's later works, "A Very Short Story" and "A Farewell to Arms."
At the age of 20, Hemingway left Italy and joined the staff of the "Toronto Star."
In 1921, Hemingway married a wealthy socialite, Hadley Richardson, whom he had met through friends when he lived in Chicago. An author friend, Sherwood Anderson, remarked that Hemingway should go to Paris if he truly wanted to be a novelist; soon he and his new wife followed that advice. They joined a group of literary American expatriates, including Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ford Madox Ford. Stein called this group "The Lost Generation." Hemingway met many important writers and artists of his generation during his time in Paris, including Pablo Picasso, Ezra Pound, and James Joyce.
Hemingway and his wife lived on Hadley's trust fund and Hemingway's income from the "Toronto Star." He worked on his fiction with guidance not only from his fellow expats, but also from James Joyce. Hemingway later wrote, "If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast."
In 1922, Hemingway traveled to Switzerland, to cover a peace conference. Hadley followed soon after. At a train station, someone stole a suitcase she was carrying that contained most of Hemingway's early writing.
Hemingway and his wife had a son, John Hadley Nicanor Hemingway, better known as "Bumby," in 1923. The author gained his famous nickname, "Papa," after the birth of Bumby.
Traveling with the expatriates gave Hemingway inspiration to write his first novel, plus Fitzgerald's publication of "The Great Gatsby" sparked his competitive nature. Hemingway finished writing "The Sun Also Rises" in the following year.
Hemingway published "In Our Time" soon after. His parents read the copy they had received from the publisher, then they sent it back because they disapproved of the book's coarse and vulgar style. Hemingway wrote a letter to his father in 1925, trying to explain his philosophy: "You see I am trying in all my stories to get the feeling of the actual life across - not to just depict life - or criticize it - but to actually make it alive. So that when you have read something by me you actually experience the thing. You can't do this without putting in the bad and the ugly as well as what is beautiful." While some of Hemingway's readers were shocked by his indelicate prose, many others enjoyed his coarse and honest style.
More Adventures in Life and Love
In 1927, Hadley divorced Hemingway, after she learned of his affair with their mutual friend, Pauline Pfeiffer. In the same year Pauline became his second wife. Hemingway cut ties with the Paris expats, then settled in Key West, Florida. Hemingway enjoyed his time in The Keys, organizing boxing matches and famously befriending a bootlegger known as "Sloppy" Joe Russell. In 1928, Hemingway and his wife had a son, Patrick.
News came in December that Hemingway's father had shot himself - he had been suffering from depression and other health problems. Hemingway prophetically remarked, "I'll probably go the same way."
A sea captain gave Hemingway a cat with six toes - considered by seamen to bring good luck - and over the course of time that cat's descendants have multiplied at the Hemingway's home-turned-museum in Key West.
In 1929, Hemingway published "A Farewell to Arms," about an officer's disillusionment and desertion. Although Hemingway's style seems straightforward, achieving that effect sometimes took a great deal of effort. He once commented, "I rewrote the ending to 'Farewell to Arms,' the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied."
Hemingway broke his arm in a car accident in 1930. The resulting compound spiral fracture took about a year to heal - and, as luck would have it, the injury affected his writing hand. Meanwhile, he and Pauline had another son, Gregory Hancock, in 1931.
Hemingway spent much of the 1930s seeking adventures which would in turn inspire his writing. He enjoyed big-game hunting in Africa, bullfighting in Spain, and deep-sea fishing in Florida. A major theme in Hemingway's work was the portrayal of tough, courageous people who were forced to battle unstoppable foes, only to lose hope. As he had learned to do in his youth at the "Kansas City Star," Hemingway used straightforward prose. He favored pithy dialog and understatement.
After Hemingway regained the use of his hand, he wrote and published a nonfiction book about bullfighting, "Death in the Afternoon."
Pauline's uncle sent the couple on an African safari in 1933, fulfilling a long-held wish for Hemingway. He bagged a lion and other animals before contracting dysentery. He had to be airlifted to Nairobi for treatment. These experiences inspired him to write "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" and "The Green Hills of Africa." Protesters in Berlin burned a pile of his books in a bonfire in 1933, as a statement against modern decadence.
In 1937, Hemingway traveled to Spain to report on the Spanish Civil War. In his company was a reporter he had met in Key West, Martha Gellhorn. 1940 brought a divorce from Pauline and marriage to Martha. These newlyweds settled in San Francisco de Paula, Cuba, in a farmhouse known as Finca Vigia.
Later Years and A Physical Writing Style
Finca Vigia included a special writing room for Hemingway, in a square tower at the southwest corner of the house, but he preferred working in his bedroom. He climbed the stairs to the tower only when his characters demanded it of him.
Hemingway preferred to write while standing, sometimes on paper clipped to a board, sometimes on a typewriter. He once said, "Writing and travel broaden your ass if not your mind and I like to write standing up." When writing by hand he often used an x to represent a period, and he often ignored conventions of capitalization. He kept track of his production - his number of words written per day - on a chart.
Hemingway published "For Whom the Bell Tolls" in 1940. It is the story of an American who joins with the Loyalists in Spain during the Spanish civil war. Hemingway later said, "'For Whom the Bell Tolls' was a problem which I carried on each day. I knew what was going to happen in principle. But I invented what happened each day I wrote."
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, Hemingway used his fishing boat, Pilar, to patrol the waters around Cuba for German subs. This activity drew the unwelcome attention of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.
Hemingway worked as a war correspondent during World War II. He was present during the D-Day landing. He refused to obtain a press pass for his wife in 1945, forcing her to cross the Atlantic on a ship that was carrying explosives. This angered her, and their marriage ended soon after.
Hemingway had already proposed to his future fourth wife, Mary Welsh, while still married to wife number three. He married Mary, a feature writer for "Time," in 1946. Although they argued a lot, they would stay married for all of Hemingway's remaining days. They spent winters in Cuba at Finca Vigia, and the remainder of their time in Idaho. By 1950, the house in Cuba had a domestic staff of nine, fifty-two cats, sixteen dogs, and three cows.
Hemingway started working on a long novel about the sea. Before he was finished, he showed part of his rough draft to an editor, who told him that the majority was unpublishable. The segment that was publishable, however, was released as "The Old Man and the Sea," about the struggle of an old Cuban fisherman against a mighty fish. For this book Hemingway won a Pulitzer Prize.
He wrote what would be published in 1964, posthumously, as "A Moveable Feast," using notes that had been in storage for years. The book chronicles his years spent in Paris in the 1920s. His portrayals of some friends, including Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald, have been described as unnecessarily mean-spirited. He and his fourth wife retired permanently to Idaho.
In 1954, Hemingway was awarded a Nobel Prize. He was unable to attend the ceremony because he was recovering from a double plane crash in Africa. After their original plane crashed into a utility pole, Hemingway had a head wound and his wife had broken ribs. They boarded a second plane the next day, then it crashed. Newspapers printed stories about his death, but Hemingway was alive.
Hemingway sustained many injuries, including a concussion. He lost function of his kidneys. His injuries caused high blood pressure, and his prescribed medications caused depression as a side effect. During his recovery, he enjoyed reading reports of his untimely death. Hemingway said, "Certainly it is valuable to a trained writer to crash in an aircraft which burns. He learns several important things very quickly. Whether they will be of use to him is conditioned by survival. Survival, with honor, that outmoded and all-important word, is as difficult as ever and as all-important to a writer."
Hemingway developed feelings of paranoia in later life, thinking that someone was monitoring his activities. No one believed him. To overcome his paranoid thoughts, he went to the Mayo Clinic, where he received electroshock therapy. Hemingway was then released to convalesce at his home in Ketchum, Idaho, but he was mentally shattered. When more shock treatments were prescribed, he begged his wife not to make him go. Despite his wishes, the therapy took place.
On July 2, 1961, Hemingway died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was found by his wife, Mary, at their home in Idaho.
Hemingway wasn't being paranoid, however, when he thought he was being followed. The director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, had been keeping tabs on him for years, building a file on Hemingway with 124 pages of information.
Hemingway's father may have had hemochromatosis, a genetic disorder that inhibits the ability to metabolize iron. The condition can cause mental and physical problems. There is an extensive history of suicide in Hemingway's family, including his father, two siblings, and a granddaughter.
These facts, taken in their entirety, make his own suicide seem inevitable.
Ernest Hemingway is famous for living hard, working hard, and playing hard. He had strong opinions about everything, including the craft of writing. He put forth the iceberg theory: "If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one ninth of it being above water."
In his concise, hard-hitting style, he once described the writing process at its primal level: "There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed."