Earnest Hemingway: Would Be King

Earnest Hemingway: Would Be King

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Earnest Hemingway: Would Be King

In the period immediately before World War I, there was a revolution in all art forms. The impressionists in France, late in the nineteenth century, had abandoned photographic realism to imply their emotional impressions of a scene. By the time of Picasso and Braqueat the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, painters were analyzing shapes, deconstructing them for component elements, or later, doing away with representationalreality all together. Composers like Igor Stravinski and Charles Ives introduced atonal, dissonant passages into music. Artists did not want to create in the same manner as theirpredecessors; they wanted to extend the range of their art. Beyond the arts, Sigmund Freud demonstrated the existence of the sub-conscious, a theory that would revolutionize the field of psychology. Einstein changed the face of Physics by proposing the theory of relativity and Werner Heisenberg predicted that complete and accurate depictions of phenomena wereimpossible. It was a time of sweeping change; the world if literature was no exception.

In poetry, Ezra Pound was reacting against the metronomic beat of Victorian poetry. His credo was "Make it new." He insisted that writers use no superfluous word and avoidabstractions at all cost. T.S. Elliot followed Pound's technique, his voice and the voice of post-war Europe coming through in his masterpiece, The Wasteland. In fiction, James Joyce was insisting on removing the obvious presence of the author. Gertrude Stein was experimenting with sentence structure and word repetitions, trying to immerse her readers in a sense of ongoing present. Sherwood Anderson, like Joyce, wrote stories that did not snap shut at the ending, but developed gradually, aimlessly, their intent being a revelation of character. All these authors defined character less through authorial description and more through what the character said and did. Earnest Hemingway knew and studied with many of the best modernists. Their influence accentuated the spare laconic style he had already developed in high school. The spare unadorned, grammatically simple, declarative sentences, largely devoid of adjective or adverb, also echoed Hemingway's own philosophy. For Hemingway, loss was inevitable: fate, circumstance, something always brought on the end. Love expired, through death or disenchantment, fame always dwindled, youth and vitality crumbled through the years; life itself was nothing more than a unpredictable feast of the senses. His philosophy is both stoic and existential: one should not complain, one should show grace under pressure (Hays, 41) Also, one should care about one's craft because it was the individual's actions which defined the character.

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In some respects Hemingway was a study in contrasts. There is, first, the immensely competitive, ambitious young man who strove to excel in every thing he undertook; someone others looked up to, proud of his physical capabilities and his artistic prowess. He could be shy and diffident as well as an incorrigible braggart; a sentimentalist, quick to tears, or the stoic warrior, master of fear and pain; a generous friend or a ruthless overbearing enemy; a non-hero longing for heroic status; a man of action harnessed to the same wagon as the man of words; a non-intellectual contemplating the highest human concerns. There was the romantic liar for which the line between truth and fiction was never clearly defined. He was proud of his manhood, his capacity for drink, his talents as a fisherman, map reader, wing shot, and poet. He was a persistent worrier, plagued all his adult life with insomnia and violent mood swings. There was the fierce individualist who shunned politics, economics, and fashion. He believed in art, in sport, and in nature. There is, at last, the temperamental manic-depressive, who once said he would have liked to be king and decided for himself, the right time to die.

No one person can be given credit for the stylistic changes that occurred in fiction writing during the first half of the twentieth century. Hemingway, along with a cast of others, set into motion a revolution in English literature. I found it interesting that Gardner chose Elliot as his embodiment of verbal genius rather than one of the other modernists. I pickedHemingway because he does not live up to the stereotypical portrait of a writer. He was not the bookish student. He never went to college, opting instead for a job in journalism, and then an assignment overseas with the red cross. He loved his art and devoted a great deal of time to perfecting it, but also did other things for which he is well known. He was talented in a number of areas, most of which turned up in his writing. He lived to write, in fact, creating the characters and adventures of his fiction though his own escapades.

Earnest Miller Hemingway, named for his maternal grandfather and great uncle, was born on July 21, 1899 in Oak Park Illinois. He was the second child, the first boy among six children. His father, Clarence Edmonds Hemingway (called Ed), was a general practitioner, who supplemented his large family practice by working as a physician for Chicago insurance firms. Earnest's mother was a trained opera singer who became a singing teacher and much later a painter. "Grace Hall Hemingway was a strong-willed woman and an early feminist who insisted on maintaining her family name, as few women did then" (Hays, 17). Earnest's parents were devout, pietistic Christians, who neither smoked nor drank. The family vacationed each summer at their house on Walloon Lake in Northern Michigan. As a child, both in Illinois and in Michigan, Earnest accompanied his father fishing and on nature hikes, learning about the out-doors, and becoming an avid sportsman.

At the age of two, Earnest insisted the he was "fraid a nothing," (Hays, 18) and at five he invented a tale for his grandfather about stopping a runaway horse. Like most children, he involved himself in make-believe acts of bravado. When he grew up he attempted to live out many of these fantasies, using the adventures as material for his fiction. From his mother he inherited a love of music, an artistic temperament, a strong will, and defective eyes. From his father he got a knowledge and love of nature, hunting, and fishing, and he seems also tohave inherited a manic depressive mental disorder that affected both men throughout their lives, ultimately driving both to suicide.

His youth was normal, even idyllic, on the surface. In June 1917, he graduated from Oak Park High School with a good background in English literature and competence in history, biology, Latin, and music. He played cello in the school orchestra, boxed with friends, was on the swim team, water basketball squad, and football team. He was also very active in the high school's literary magazine and newspaper. His interests varied according to his talents. He could play sports and roughhouse with the best of the boys. His mother's musical background gave him a keen appreciation for art. He was a big, handsome boy, enthusiastic, charming, and quick with a joke. He carried these qualities into adulthood, as well as his love of writing, which became his most persistent passion.

Hemingway was proud of his physical stature; he was around six feet tall and throughout most of his life weighed between 210 and 235 pounds. He enjoyed football but never had much success at it. Early in 1916, Earnest discovered an enthusiasm for boxing. For a time he used the music room for a ring, bringing his friends, usually smaller than he, in to spar. Earnest often spoke in later years that he learned to box before he was sixteen from professional fighters in Chicago. These claims were never substantiated but he told them with such whole hearted conviction that his listeners swallowed them whole. He liked to support his tough kid image by implying that his bad left eye was the result of a training injury. He was a bit of a showoff, often inflating his stories to capture his listeners imagination. His powers of storytelling were so honed that one could not discern Hemingway's truth from his fiction. He used his life, specific events, friends, wars, and lovers, to create his art. In one of his letters to Maxwell Perkins Hemingway said "...whatever success I have had has been through writing what I know about" (Phillips, 21).

After graduation Earnest got a job on The Kansas City Star , then one of America's best newspapers. America had entered World War I, but his parents wishes and his own poor eyesight kept him out of the army. Important for his development as a writer, the Star had a style sheet that insisted that reporters use "short sentences, short first paragraphs, and vigorous English" (Hays, 18). This plain style would soon change the face of American literature, which, at the time, still favored the ornate prose of the late nineteenth century. He covered the police and hospital beat often enraging his boss by failing to keep in touch with the newsroom. His draw to action inevitably took him overseas. At the end of six months in Kansas City he volunteered for duty as a Red Cross ambulance driver in Europe. He was assigned to Italy, and his first duty in Milan was carrying dead victims of a munitions plant explosion. It was an unromantic introduction to war; many of the dead were women, decaying in the June sun.

His next assignment was in the Dolomite Alps east of Milan, driving ambulances, but there was little fighting there, not enough for a romantic young man, ready to be in the thick of things. Hemingway volunteered for Italy's eastern front as a canteen worker, someone who passed out Red Cross chocolates and cigarettes to the troops. At Fossalta di Piave, around midnight, he crawled in front of the Italian listening post on the banks of the Piave River; there he was hit by an exploding trench mortar shell, "a missile about the size of a five-gallon can filled with scrap metal" (Hays, 19). Over 227 metal fragments and two machine gun bullets were taken from his legs at the time. Hemingway explained the bullets by saying that after he had regained consciousness he had tried to carry back an injured Italian to the aid station and was hit by machine gun fire. This story was never proven and some think that the bullets were simply part of the shrapnel debris. He was the first American to be wounded in Italy and survive. American newspapers made a hero of him and Italy awarded him two metals.

From July through October he recuperated at the Ospedale Croce Rossa in Milan, where he met and fell in love with Agnes von Kurowsky, an American Red Cross nurse seven and a half years his senior. A brief attempt to return to the front was cut short by a case of jaundice, and the war ended in November. He left Italy in January 1919 without Agnes, believing she would follow him to the States, but she fell in love with an Italian officer andwrote Hemingway of that fact in March. The news was devastating and he took to bed for several days with a fever. He also suffered from insomnia and insisted on sleeping with the lights on in his room. After the initial blow, still limping, still mourning the loss of his first love, he began trying to write formula stories for slick magazines, none of which were ever published.

In the summer of 1920 Earnest had a falling out with his parents at Wallon Lake. He moved to Chicago shortly after and became a writer for The Cooperative Commonwealth, a monthly magazine. That fall he met Hadley Richardson, a St. Louis woman eight years his senior. He also met and was befriended by short-story writer and novelist Sherwood Anderson. Hemingway and Hadley were married the next fall, lived briefly in Chicago, and sailed for Paris in December. Anderson gave them letters of introduction to modernist experimenter Gertrude Stein, who encouraged Earnest to practice spare, unadorned, descriptive, sentences, compressed with meaning, "one true sentence," as he put it. They lived on Hadley's inheritance and feature stories that Hemingway continued to sell to the Toronto Star Daily and the Star Weekly. He made friends and learned from Stein and other modernists such as Ezra Pound, Ford Madox Ford, and James Joyce.

Like the intellectual circle in Vienna, the Paris crowd interacted on both a personal and professional level. They were friends and artists who pushed one another towards excellence. According to Gardener, it is not uncommon for creative individuals to quickly find others of like mind. Indeed, Hemingway through Anderson met the most talented writers of his generation in Paris and forged friendships that would continue for many years.

In the summer of 1923 Hemingway visited Spain and saw his first bullfights. He was enamored with the sport and returned to Spain many times for that reason. Bullfighting became a fixation much like boxing. The essential man verses man, man verses beast contests struck a chord in the Hemingway's soul; both became the topic of numerous stories and books-the most famous being the novel Death in The Afternoon and the short story Fifty Grand. A number of short passages describing bullfighting also appear in Hemingway's first American title, a collection of short stories first published in Paris called In Our Time. Many critics are of the opinion that Hemingway's best works were his short stories. In Our Time contains some of his most renowned stories and therefore could be considered his greatest single collection. By the time of its publication he had developed the style that would later be immortalized in thirteen more books. His contribution to fiction writing was a style, a way with words, that had not been used before. Some critics argue that his writing is chauvinist, and it may very well be, but he lived in different times, times that cannot be judged by today's standards. He was a literary genius, who appealed to the critics as much as he appealed to the masses. Indeed he wrote for himself, because he was called to the pen, and because he saw no other way of life. In an interview Hemingway was asked when he decided to become a writer. In response he said that he had never thought otherwise. Hemingway possessed a number of the same characteristics displayed by the seven individuals chosen by Gardner. He was competitive and worked hard to hone his skills as a writer. He came from a middle class background, a two parent household, and a relatively normal childhood. There was a moral and religious atmosphere around the home. As Earnest grew older he was drawn to exotic lands and war as a means of adventure. He began writing unadorned, descriptive sentences while also contemplating the actions which drive emotions. The crucial moment of Hemingway's writing career came in Paris while in contact with many of the European modernists. Sherwood Anderson could be considered his mentor, in that he opened doors and literary circles for young Earnest. Hemingway attempted to live out his fiction: traveling extensively, joining American troops during World War II when he was well into his thirties, big game hunting in Africa, deep sea fishing, boxing in Bimni, bouts of heavy drinking, numerous wives and more numerous affairs. His life provided enough material for volumes of work. Depression didn't get the best of him until his body failed to live up to his imagination. Like Gardner's portrait, Hemingway sought marginal status to sustain his creative powers. His adventures left behind wives, three children, and friends who could not keep his pace or failed to fit the image he wanted to fulfill. Eventually, limited by age, and weakened by diabetes, he was entered into the Mayo Clinic and received electroshock therapy for depression. Sunday morning, July 2, 1961, he committed suicide by shooting himself in the head with a double barreled shotgun.

Hemingway's genius was sharply tied to his character. Although he knew that the end was inevitable from a very young age, he never wanted to go gray. The February before his suicide, he was asked to contribute a few lines for a presentation volume to newly inaugurated President Kennedy, he could not. His powers had failed him; broken with his aging spirit. Death freed him from bodily pain and perhaps a worse fate, the inability to write.

A writer must be a keen observer of human behavior. Hemingway said that he could leave a crowded room with a picture of everyone in that room locked in his mind. Hemingway was gifted in four of Gardner's seven intelligence's. His verbal skills were closely tied to his ability to understand himself and others. His interpersonal skills are evidenced by his great number of friends and followers. Unlike the poet who can produce without concentrating on character, the novelist must meet and interact with people on a regular basis. Without that dynamic, the writer will undoubtedly find themselves starved for material. Hemingway's friends, lovers, and enemies were under his watchful eye, their actions and reactions surely a resource for his fiction. Gardner does not delve into the idea that the genius must rely on more than one form of intelligence. For his art, it was essential that Hemingway have both inter and intrapersonal skills. Indeed, for his particular adventures, he needed to have physical kinesthetic talent as well. The man was more than just a writer. Perhaps Gardner saw an easier target in Elliot; someone out of a more classic literary mold.

With an individual as prolific as Hemingway, it is difficult to determine exactly when his creative breakthrough took place. I tend to believe that it came with the first collection of short stories published in America, In Our Time . It is also difficult to say exactly when Earnest began writing seriously. He had been developing his style since high school, working on the school paper and drawing up a few short works of fiction. His first book, Three Stories and Ten Poems was published in 1923, the same year as the first editions of In Our Time . That would be exactly ten years from when he began high school. It might be stretching it to apply the ten year rule to Hemingway's life because he remained productive throughout. It is certain, however, that Earnest retained some of his childlike qualities well into adulthood. Throughout his life he attempted to prove the claim he made as a two year old, the claim that he wasn't afraid of nothing. His lasting infatuation with bravado and quest to live out childlike fantasies was fuel for his active imagination.

The question of madness often arises during the discussion of genius. Hemingway did commit suicide, but if one examines his personal philosophy, the decision to take his own life was not surprising. He had always been aware of the great demise, of William Carlos William's nada; the nothing that we were all eventually destined to become. Suicide cut the strings before they were painfully drawn out. Hemingway attempted to suck life dry of anything and everything he could fathom. He wanted to experience it all and then write about it as honestly and perfectly as he could. The compulsion carried him away from his traditional family, away from his country, away from wives and children, away from friends; into the arms of new friends, new wives, new experience, and new life. He spilled blood and tears so that his fiction could survive. The compulsion was necessary, just like for Picasso, Einstein, or Freud. He could have been Gardner's verbal genius, but from what I know of Hemingway, he probably wouldn't have cared either way.


Baker, C. (1969). Earnest Hemingway: A Life Story. Charles Scribner's Sons: New York.

Hays, P. L. (1990). Earnest Hemingway. Continuum: New York.

Phillips, L. W. (1984). Earnest Hemingway On Writing. Charles Scribner's Sons: New York.
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