Hemingway with wife number four, Mary Welsh, in 1959: “His values applied equally to birds, beasts, deep-sea fish and women”
We know too much about Ernest Hemingway to think of his work apart from his life. With the success of his first novel, The Sun Also Rises (1926), he became a public figure. He worked, usually on a short lead time, from his own experiences: the places he’d been, the people he knew. If a novel encodes the writer’s life, Hemingway’s code is easily deciphered.
He was at home everywhere in the world except the provincial Illinois town where he was born. He made of Europe and Africa and Cuba the territories of his imagination. He liked to kill things: he shot lion in Africa, pigeon in France, grizzly bear in the Rockies, grouse in Wyoming, and when he wasn’t busy personally killing things he went to the bullfights in Spain. From the waters off the Cuban coast he once brought in a 512-pound marlin. After celebrating and getting drunk with his friends, he went back to the dock where the great fish hung upside down and used it as a punching bag.
His strenuous and peripatetic life was in contrast to the lives of most writers, for whom sitting still is required to get the work done. But the nomadic impulse suited him and fed his creativity. Periodically turning himself into a foreign correspondent, he went all his life to whatever war was available. (As teenager during the first world war, he was a volunteer ambulance driver in Italy, where he sustained serious shrapnel injuries.) He married and divorced three women and would leave his fourth wife a widow. He ruined his liver with alcohol. He was badly injured in two plane crashes in Africa—burned, bone-broken, internally damaged—that were only the culmination of a life of self-destruction that made him one of the most interesting public figures of his time.
Hemingway was lucky as a young unpublished writer arriving in Paris in the 1920s with an introductory letter from his mentor Sherwood Anderson (whom he was to thank by writing a parody of Anderson’s moralising fiction). Gertrude Stein befriended him, he met Picasso, Joyce, Ezra Pound. He would look at the Cézannes in the Musée de Luxembourg and perhaps he heard Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring—that work alone, signal of the new age.
His own contribution to modernism was to…