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Ernest Hemingway

Literary Greats (Part X)

by Kerry Meadows-Bonner

He was an American writer, journalist and novelist known for his sparse and uncomplicated writing style that was also economical and understated. He led an adventurous life ending in tragic circumstances and continues to have a strong influence on 20th century fiction.

Ernest Miler Hemingway was born 21 July 1899 in Oak Park, Illinois, Chicago to Clarence Edmonds Hemingway, a doctor, and Grace Hall Hemingway, a musician and suffragist. The second child and first son born into the educated and well-respected family.

With high hopes of carving out a future for herself as an independent, ambitious opera singer, Grace left Oak Park for New York in the fall, 1895 to study with famed Austrian operatic singer, Luisa Kapp-Young. During her time there she made her singing debut at Madison Square Garden with excellent reviews and a possible contract on offer, but, partly due to a childhood illness of scarlet and rheumatic fever that weakened her eyesight, she could not tolerate the stage’s bright lights.

By late 1896 she decided not to pursue a career in music and moved back to Oak Park where she and Clarence married, 1 October 1896.

Within a year of marriage, the first of six children would be born with an extraordinary amount of devotion from Grace, although that was limited to breastfeeding, lullabies and baby book scrapbooking as she was not the customary maternal type.

As an upper middle-class family, the household had servants but Clarence relished in being the main cook and baker for the family and oversaw most of the family’s day to day needs including laundry and other chores so Grace could practise her music.

During this era, American upper middle-class status was coming of age and a time in which discovery of prosperity was realized for the economic, cultural and social aspirations through children. This ideology was not lost on Grace and Clarence Hemingway who had put a lot of thought into raising their children before they came along and made sure they were raised in a good home, plenty of healthy food and fresh air and the benefits of a cultured and suburban living that Chicago had to offer.

With that knowledge, both parents succeeded in teaching their children everything from hunting (for food) fishing, firearm handling and safety and wilderness survival at their summer holiday home on Walloon Lake, Michigan.

In his teens, Ernest had typical experiences of school, work, church and summer holidays and his first interests in women and socializing. At Oak Park High School, he excelled academically and at sports, writing for the school’s newspaper where he showed particular talent.

Unconventionally, he chose to forgo college after graduating high school in favour of starting his writing career, as a cub reporter for the Kansas City Star.

From 18 October 1917 to 30 April 1918, he worked the local beat covering the local hospital, reviews and crime while getting the chance to branch out into investigative journalism. During those short six months he amassed a wealth of knowledge and his familiar writing style.

At the same time, World War One was in full force in Europe and Ernest had wanted to fight for his country since he was a boy. Due to poor eyesight inherited from his mother, he enlisted but was deferred and instead signed up as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross in Italy. He was accepted and sailed to Europe in May 1918.

Only one month after his arrival in Italy, he was wounded badly in both legs by a mortar shell and moments later by machine gun fire as he carried a wounded Italian solider to safety. The injury immediately gave him the title of “the first American casualty of the war” and he was coined a hero for his actions on the battlefield and awarded the Italian Silver Medal for Valour. Over two hundred shards of shrapnel was successfully removed from his body and while in recovery, he developed a crush on his nurse, Agnes von Kurowsky and wrote her almost daily. Alas, it was not meant to be when she told him she was too old for him. Gone but not forgotten, this event would help form the inspiration for his 1929 novel, A Farewell To Arms.

Ernest returned home to Oak Park, January 1919 but found life dull and uninspiring compared to the adventures of war and beauty of foreign lands. At nineteen, his brief time at war had matured him immeasurably but he found it hard to muster any interest in anything and spent nearly a year living back with his parents, reading and living off his insurance pay out from his war wounds.

In 1920, he moved to Toronto where he started freelancing for the Toronto Star Weekly newspaper on and off between 1920 and 1924. During his time, he met and fell in love with his first wife, Hadley Richardson and the two were married September 1921.

By November 1921 he was offered a position at the Toronto Daily Star and became their European correspondent giving he and his new bride a chance to live the Parisian dream and where we was introduced to and forged quick friendships with some of Paris’s prominent writers from Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein and James Joyce as well as painters, Joan Miro and Pablo Picasso. These friendships would be instrumental in his development as a writer and artist.

During their first two years in Paris, his reporting was extensive, and he covered everything from political conferences to lifestyle pieces about bullfighting and Europe socializing. Just as he had started to make a name for himself, they discovered they were expecting for the first time. Wanting better access to healthcare, they moved back to Toronto in 1923 where he continued writing for the Toronto Daily Star and waited for their child to be born.

Their son, John Hadley Nicanor Hemingway was born 10 October 1923 and by the following year they boarded a ship back to Paris so Ernest could continue making a name for himself.

From 1925 to 1929 he produced some of his most important fiction work including his short story collection, In Our Time and wrote his first true novel, the commercial and critical success, The Sun Also Rises in 1926. A Farewell To Arms and The Sun Also Rises continues to be praised today for the effect it had on the post-war generation with the latter as some of the first, true representations of the war.

In four years, he had fast tracked himself as one of the most important writers of the twentieth century, but his personal life had begun to show signs of wear. In 1927, he divorced Hadley and married his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, an occasional fashion writer for Vanity Fair and Vogue and in the same year, left Paris for Key West, Florida in 1928.

By June 1928, his second child, Patrick was born and a few months later, he received word that his father, Clarence had killed himself having suffered from numerous physical ailments that exacerbated his already fragile mind alongside financial distress.

After his father’s death he continued his draft of A Farewell To Arms and his Spanish Bullfighting dissertation, Death in The Afternoon (published in 1932) having become an aficionado of the spectacle after watching the Pamplona fiesta in the 1920’s.

In 1931 his third son, Gregory Hancock Hemingway was born and during the early 1930’s Ernest divided his time between Key West and Wyoming where he was able to fulfil his lifelong passion of hunting freely. Although happy, it was obvious to friends he was becoming restless and aside from a slew of short stories, he wrote only one novel during this time, To Have and Have Not published in 1937.

After the publication of To Have and Have Not, he left for Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War for the North American Newspaper Alliance where he would be reacquainted with journalist and writer, Martha Gellhorn who would become his third wife.

By 1939 he had temporarily moved to Cuba and Martha soon joined him. When his divorce from Pauline was finalized, he and Martha moved back to Wyoming where they married in 1940 and moved to Ketchum, Idaho that would become his new summer residence. It was here he became enamoured of the cats he saw from his travels in Cuba and would start a tradition of keeping dozens of them around the property, naming them after celebrities, a tradition still kept today at his Key West home, with many of the cats descendants of Ernest’s original cats.

By Spring 1944, Ernest returned to Europe to report the Second World War and again he was injured, this time in a car crash and suffered a serious concussion and required fifty stitches. Upon reaching her husband’s bedside, eager to berate him for his drunken accident, it only served to trigger the end of another marriage for Ernest. While in London, he had met another reporter covering the war, a more caring and adoring woman, Mary Welsh. In March 1946, they wed in Cuba where they lived for a few more years before returning to Idaho.

With plans to write another great novel on the war that never materialized, his last few years were a slow period creatively as it seemed he was more interested in bolstering his public image during this time than completing unfinished projects. It wasn’t until 1950 he would publish another novel, Across the River and Into the Trees.

Ernest continued exercising his wanderlust back to Europe and Africa during the mid- fifties where he was again involved in two accidents, this time from plane crashes where he sustained his worst injuries yet including a fractured skull, cracked spinal discs, ruptured kidney and spleen, nerve damage and vision and hearing impairment.

By 1960, even the rugged landscape of his Idaho home couldn’t hide the fact that something was seriously wrong and he sought help for his increasing depression that would lead to electro shock therapy that only hastened his demise.

With the side effect of memory loss from electro therapy, he could no longer write and so, on the morning of 2 July 1961, he rose early, selected his favourite shotgun from a closet in the basement, returned upstairs and in a spot near an entrance way, shot himself in the head, two weeks shy of his 62nd birthday.