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Hemingway was lucky as a young unpublished writer arriving in Paris in the 1920s with an introductory letter from his mentor Sherwood Anderson (whom he was to thank by writing a parody of Anderson’s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 recognise the presumptive reality in a simple declarative sentence. From that he devised the writing strategies he would follow for life: when composing a story, withhold mention of its ruling circumstance. When writing a novel, implant it in geography and know what time it is on every page. When writing anything, construct the sentences so as to produce an emotion not by claiming it but by rendering precisely the experience to cause it. By these means he made what he called “true sentences” and became the most influential writer of his generation. You see his influence in Steinbeck, in John O’Hara. To this day, the Hemingway voice predominates among purveyors of mysteries and film noir. And a subsequent generation of American writers—William Styron, James Jones, Peter Matthiessen—spellbound as much by the mythic figure Hemingway had become as by The Sun Also Rises, and A Farewell to Arms, took themselves to Paris to write. The manly code of conduct—finally the only value Hemingway felt remaining in a world blown apart in the first world war—made him the writer for the young. He was the battle-scarred, heavy drinking, life-appetitive friend of film stars, bullfighters, second-rate royalty, nightclub owners and newspapermen. Always, he was good copy.
Hemingway’s Eurocentric taste-making—his “lost generation” characters teaching the provincials back home where to go, what to drink, what to eat, as well as his great white hunter values applied equally to birds, beasts, deep sea fish and women—may suggest why there’s been a turning away on the part of contemporary readers. Today, we are socially aware in ways few in the 1920s could have understood. In Hemingway’s time, some states had still not ratified the 19th Amendment giving women the vote. Endangered species of wildlife were not a particular concern. And his literary use of antisemitism and racism—although he was not alone, there was TS Eliot, there was F Scott Fitzgerald—does seem to call into question the moral standing assigned to Jake Barnes or Harry Morgan, the heroes of The Sun Also Rises and To Have and Have Not.
But there is immanent in the overall work of this writer a 19th-century romance of the self, in a 20th-century guise that we find mannered, if not disappointing. At the end of For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway’s novel of the Spanish civil war, his hero, the American volunteer Robert Jordan, stays behind to hold off the advancing Falangist forces so that his band of partisans can safely retreat. Jordan is left awaiting death. The Spanish civil war is finally no more than a means for testing an American’s moral calibre: “And therefore never send to ask for whom the bell tolls,” it tolls so that I can be me.
Hemingway’s politics were generally sound, he knew politicians and parties for what they were. But he never wrote the Great American Novel. His friend, John Dos Passos, not at all a writer figure, was to do that with the USA trilogy. We are concerned today with ideas Hemingway never touched, with complexities of thought, issues of identity, and problems of government that render his code childish, and insufficient. But he lived hard and bravely and died by his own hand—one presumes from spiritual exhaustion, physical depletion; a broken man, perhaps haunted by the writing voice he had cultivated and that finally imprisoned him. It was his achievement to do great cleansing things for American literary language. Whatever that was turgid, ornate, over-modulated or rhetorical, was swept away, if not only by Hemingway, then most effectively by him. He was purely obsessed with writing a true sentence. That, if nothing else, renders us devotional, as to a patron saint.