Skip to main content

Feature

Celebrating Ernest Hemingway’s Century

By Richard Carter | HUMANITIES, July/August 1999 | Volume 20, Number 4

Ernest Hemingway, who once said all writers are liars, strode across the face of the century with a simple declarative sentence and a tough attitude. He would have been a hundred years old on July 21, 1999.

In the course of an extraordinary life, he wrote books and short stories that were acclaimed for their unflinching honesty, elegance, and spare irony. Among the principal works were To Have and Have Not, For Whom the Bell Tolls, In Our Time, The Sun Also Rises, Men Without Women, A Farewell to Arms, Across the River and into the Trees, and The Old Man and the Sea. In 1954 he won the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Nobel committee declared, "We express our admiration for the eagle eye with which he has observed, and for the accuracy with which he has interpreted the human existence of our turbulent times; and for the admirable restraint with which he has described their naked struggle."

Ernest Hemingway was born in Oak Park, Illinois, an upper- middle-class Chicago suburb. Clarence Hemingway, his father, was a doctor; his mother Grace had artistic and social pretensions. His childhood was idyllic, filled with fishing trips and excursions with his father. Yet the Oak Park of his boyhood, he said, "was a place of wide lawns and narrow minds."

On July 2, 1961, battling manic depression, intense pain, and an army of physical ailments, Ernest Hemingway died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his Ketchum, Idaho, retreat.

The life and work of Ernest Hemingway is being honored in this his centennial year with events in his native Oak Park and in Ketchum. The Illinois Humanities Council and the Ernest Hemingway Foundation in Oak Park are sponsoring an exhibition called "In Our Time: A Look at the Twentieth Century Through the Life and Work of Ernest Hemingway." It opens at the Hemingway Museum in Oak Park and later travels to other sites across the nation. The theme of the exhibition is Hemingway as a man and writer in a historical and artistic context. In addition, an international literary conference will take place from July 19 through July 21 in Oak Park.

The Idaho Humanities Council is commemorating the centenary of Hemingway's birth with a week-long institute for teachers addressing the topic of Hemingway and the birth of modernism. Michael Reynolds, who has just completed his five-volume biography of Hemingway, will deliver the keynote lecture on the evening of July 21 in Sun Valley.

Six feet tall, 250 pounds at his heaviest, Hemingway was an American "star" who shared his cosmos with Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, and Marilyn Monroe. He was an unabashed admirer of Theodore Roosevelt and the pursuit of the "strenuous life." Like TR he had little use for "soft living." He liked the outdoors, big game hunting, fishing, bullfighting, and checkered flannel shirts. Like TR, he tested the limits of his physical and mental endurance. Not a particularly successful athlete as a boy, he took up boxing to build his strength after he learned that TR, a sickly child, had done the same. In 1933, he booked his first safari with the same man who took TR thirty years before. And he grew a TR moustache.

"He sucked all the oxygen out of a room," the poet Archibald MacLeish remembered. He was intense and driven. His marlin fishing would last ten hours every day for sixty days. No days off. He would attend forty bullfights in a season. Whether it was focusing on one man, woman, or dog, nothing else seemingly existed for him at the moment.

His life for years was a moveable feast: moving between homes in Key West and Cuba and traipsing around Europe. From afar, it looked like a marvelous tapestry; up close it bore the moth holes of drinking, failed marriages, and personal decay.

Ezra Pound, writing to Ford Maddox Ford in Paris, said the twenty-three-year-old Ernest Hemingway was the finest prose stylist in the world.

The intensity of his writing stripped the unessential from a story. His literary style took its definition from what was not said, much like the silent-but-strong archetypes of American westerns so typified by his close friend Gary Cooper.

His spare prose caught the tempo of Gertrude Stein's "Lost Generation." After the First World War long-breathed paragraphs of prose gave way to terse, staccato irony.

Between 1925 and 1929 he wrote a series of books defined by their cool distance that established his reputation, including one of the finest novels to emerge from World War I: A Farewell to Arms.

Perhaps the most memorable image of Ernest Hemingway remains the figure typing on the manual Underwood that appeared on the back of the dust jacket of The Sun Also Rises. His dark good looks, open-necked khaki shirt, sleeves rolled up, his very brawniness proclaim the writer not as a mere observer, but as the man of action.

"For him the truth was never enough," says Michael Reynolds, his biographer. Ernest Hemingway rather raucously proclaimed "I've been in five wars and I've been wounded in all of them." Yet he not only exaggerated the details of his own exploits shamelessly, he often lied outright.

He may have killed two Germans in the push toward Paris after Normandy. Later he said it was 120. And the number grew as the years passed. To his credit, he did liberate the bar of the Ritz Hotel in Paris where he established his "headquarters."

By the end of World War II he bore little resemblance to the dashing young expatriate who charmed the 1920s Paris salon of Gertrude Stein and defined courage as "grace under pressure." He was at times an insufferable bully of middle years and widening girth. At the end of his third marriage, he would begin to reclaim his artistic turf and reinvent himself: "Papa" Hemingway with snow white beard, fisherman's knit pullover, complete with halo supplied courtesy of the photographer Karsh of Ottawa. Literary sainthood arrived with The Old Man and the Sea and the Nobel Prize.

His final decade was a steady descent. Two plane crashes, an old injury to his right knee, crushed vertebrae, and four major concussions left him a physical wreck. After 1954 he was in so much pain he could not sit down. Add to this high blood pressure, diabetes, insomnia, and liver damage brought on by years of drinking. The physical transformation was shocking by 1960. He had shrunk from over 250 pounds to 165. His eyes stared blankly.

Worst of all, he could not write.

Years before he had written, "All stories if continued far enough end in death, and he is no true storyteller who would keep that from you."