Most scholars call him the greatest American writer of the 20th century. Some even go as far as saying that he was the greatest American writer ever. What do we really know about him? We know that he was a philandering, macho drunk with a temper, whose new kind of direct prose set him apart from the pack. But what made him that way? What made him tick? Let’s trace back the steps of Ernest Hemingway.The story begins in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. Hemingway was born on July 21, 1899 in a religious but artistic household. He grew up loving nature and outdoor activities, whereas school wasn’t something he lived for (except for English classes, of course). Upon his high school graduation in 1917, Hemingway had dreams of joining the fighting men of World War I. His father opposed his decision but that didn’t stop the young man from trying to enroll. He applied to the Army on a number of occasions but was always rejected on account of a faulty eye. He decided instead to go with his second choice and became a junior reporter for The Kansas City Star, a prominent newspaper of the era. His job was to cover the crime beat, reporting on what went on at the hospitals, police stations, and train stations. It was during that time that he learned how to write succinctly.
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Six months after having started at the newspaper, he saw an ad before it was printed. It urged young men to join the Red Cross and become ambulance drivers. The physical requirements weren’t as strict as in the Armed Forces and he was accepted. He got a taste of war in Italy, evacuating the wounded from the battlefield. On July 8, 1918, Austrian artillery hit the young man. The injuries were so severe that he had to be hospitalized in Milan. In spite of over 200 scars on his right leg, he desperately fell in love with one of his nurses, Agnes von Kurowsky. They had a brief romance but her career was her first priority. Hemingway proposed to her, but she turned him down claiming that the seven-year age difference was too much for her. The 19-year-old was heartbroken. The war soon ended and he returned home to recuperate. He found modest work writing for Co-operative Commonwealth, a monthly magazine, and met another older (and wealthy) woman, Elizabeth Hadley Richardson. They were married in September 1921. The Hemingways moved to Paris, where he worked as a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star. As expatriates they befriended other American intellectuals living in the City of Lights. Among them were Ford Madox Ford, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. They encouraged Hemingway to publish his works of fiction. His first collection of short stories, In Our Time, came off the printing press in 1924 (and a year later in the U.S.).
This group of friends, which Gertrude Stein had famously nicknamed the “lost generation,” became a source of inspiration for Hemingway and he wrote his first novel about it. The Sun Also Rises was published in 1926 and was extremely successful, both commercially and critically. Later that same year, Hemingway left his wife and son for Pauline Pfeiffer, a reporter for magazines like Vogue and Vanity Fair. His wife Hadley had one condition for granting him a divorce: Ernest and Pauline had to stay away from each other for six months to see if they would still be in love afterward. Hemingway granted her wish but it was a difficult time for him. He even considered suicide, as he had written in his letters to Pauline.Hemingway married Pauline Pfeiffer in January 1927 and they remained in Paris for the remainder of the decade. During that period, he traveled a lot to treat himself to his favorite hobbies such as fishing, hunting and bullfighting. These were the type of “manly” activities he would write about for years. The couple moved back to America and settled in Key West, Florida. A routine was quickly established where Hemingway would write, go fishing, get drunk in town, participate in the odd bar brawl, and feel sick — and guilty about it — afterward. He continued to publish short stories and his reputation was still growing. His early short fiction was about life in Michigan and World War I and he later wrote about more mature characters living grand adventures in Florida and Africa. In 1929, he published A Farewell to Arms, a war romance based on his own experience with Agnes von Kurowsky during World War I. The enthralling tale was his greatest triumph yet. In the years that followed, he continued to go deep-sea fishing and bullfighting, and even went on hunting safaris in Africa.
In the late ’30s, the Spanish Civil War exploded. Always wanting to be where the action was, Hemingway relocated to Spain and spent the war as a journalist again. His politics, however, wouldn’t let him stand by to watch the events powerlessly. He took it upon himself to assist in raising money for the loyalists who were fighting General Franco and his fascist regime. This experience served as the basis for his most celebrated novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, which was published in 1940 and remains his greatest success. Meanwhile, he had met fellow journalist Martha Gellhorn and fell in love with her during their time in Spain. He left Pauline and his second son and married Martha in 1940. The married couple relocated to San Francisco de Paula, Cuba. When the United States entered World War II in 1942, Hemingway founded the Crook Factory, a company whose sole purpose was to uncover Nazi operations on the island. After he terminated this business in 1943, he turned to sub-hunting. He patrolled the Cuban shores day and night in his fishing boat looking for German submarines. As the tide of the war turned and the Allies switched to offensive strategies, Ernest and Martha became war correspondents in England. That wasn’t enough for Hemingway and soon he boarded Royal Air Force planes during bombing runs. Later, he integrated an American unit and crossed the English Channel on D-Day. Unofficially part of the 22nd Regiment of the 4th Infantry Division, he fought his way across Normandy and through the Battle of the Bulge. Military authorities quickly realized that the journalist would rather fight than write about it and they court-martialed Hemingway since he was violating the Geneva Convention. In the end, he was cleared of all accusations.
For all her qualities, Hemingway could not be with Martha anymore. She was a career woman and it was something with which he couldn’t deal. They divorced and he found refuge in the arms of journalist Mary Welsh, who had been his mistress of late. He felt guilty about his failed marriage(s) and continued drinking heavily. Back in Cuba, he resumed his writing in 1946. Since his younger days, he had always been accident-prone. A second plane crash was added to his numerous car accidents and he suffered grave injuries (leading to several false reports of his death in the papers). But he continued to travel and write. In 1953, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for his novella The Old Man and the Sea and a year later he won the Nobel Prize in Literature for his illustrious career. A year after Fidel Castro and his troops entered Cuba, Hemingway left the island and moved to Ketchum, Idaho with his wife, Mary. His health was deteriorating at this point, both physically and mentally. Writing was becoming difficult for him and his memory was failing him. He was hospitalized twice and underwent treatments and therapy, but his depression was too deeply ingrained. On July 2, 1961, Ernest Hemingway chose to follow in his father’s footsteps and used a shotgun to take his own life.
Hemingway’s style of prose was bare, detached and direct, probably the most imitated writing approach of the century. His notoriously basic sentences and down-to-earth dialogue were a mirror of the sincere yet cynical aspects of the life he had decided to live. He is remembered as a self-confident man, someone who commanded authority and who wasn’t afraid to be decisive. He was an adventurer at heart and reflected the image of a grand hero. But deep down, he was withdrawn, disturbed, and emotionally scarred. Only by searching for the truth behind the myth can we truly understand the extent and meaning of Hemingway’s body of work.Hemingway was fortunate enough to find fame and fortune in his own time. His books have been popular ever since the ’20s and several of his manuscripts have been published posthumously. His works have been adapted to the big screen over 30 times and Hemingway himself has been a character in several films and TV events, most famously in 1996’s In Love and War, starring Chris O’Donnell as Ernie Hemingway and Sandra Bullock as his first love, Agnes von Kurowsky. In addition, dozens of books have been written about him, which is proof enough that the legacy of Ernest Hemingway is here to stay.