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Ernest Hemingway

On July 21, 1899, all of American literature was about to change.  It's on that date that novelist Ernest Hemingway was born in Chicago's suburban Oak Park, Illinois.  As a writer, he would give the world some of its most popular novels, including The Sun Also Rises (1926), A Farewell to Arms (1929), For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), and The Old Man and the Sea (1952).  In time, he grew to become one of the most influential writers in the world and one of the first popular American writers to be taken seriously by the world press.

Rejected by the U.S. army during World War I for his poor eyesight (which he later erroneously claimed was due to boxing), Hemingway's determination to join the war effort landed him a post with the Red Cross as an ambulance driver on the Italian front.  At 17, he jumped at the chance to be a canteen-provider on the front lines, handing out chocolate and cigarettes to the troops during battle. 

On July 8, 1918, he was hit in the leg by an Austrian mortar shell.  Despite the wound, he managed to carry an Italian soldier to a  nearby command post.  Machine-gun fire struck him in the knee and foot, and he was eventually sent to a hospital in Milan, Italy, before returning to the family home in Oak Park.  

Hemingway had always wanted to be a writer.  He wrote a few short stories while he was recovering from his wounds, but he was frustrated that he wasn't able to convey the intensity of his emotions about the war.  He spent weeks lying around his parents' house, reading and talking to his sisters.  He was one of the first American soldiers to return from Italy, which made him something of a local celebrity.  He spoke publicly about the war in places such as Oak Park High School.  Although his parents encouraged him to leave home to attend the University of Wisconsin, Hemingway said that he had received all the education he needed in the war.

In 1920, when he was twenty years old, he began writing stories for several Chicago newspapers and magazines.  He became acquainted with writer Sherwood Anderson, who told him that if he was serious about becoming a novelist, he needed to move to Paris and live among the expatriate writers there.  Hemingway offered to become a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Daily Star, to be paid by the word.  They agreed, and Hemingway and his new wealthy socialite wife, Hadley Richardson, were soon on a boat to Europe, carrying letters of introduction to the likes of Gertrude Stein and Ford Madox Ford. 

The couple moved into an apartment in the Latin Quarter in a neighborhood filled with drunks, beggars, and street musicians.  Rent was 250 francs a month, or about eighteen dollars.  He wrote to his friend, writer John Dos Passos, "[My apartment] is on top of a tall hill in the oldest part of Paris and directly above a fine place called the Bal du printemps .... The noise of the accordion they dance to you can hear if you listen for it, but it doesn't intrude."  Hemingway liked to give the impression that he was a Bohemian, struggling just to get by, although, thanks to his wife, he actually had plenty of money.  The couple could afford to travel around Europe, go to the horse races, and eat dinner at nice restaurants.

Paris in the Twenties was filled with famous expatriate American and British writers, including Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, and Ford Madox Ford.  Hemingway often met with them at Sylvia Beach's English-language bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, or over tea at Gertrude Stein's home.  His friend, Gerald Murphy, called Hemingway "an enveloping personality, so physically huge and forceful, and he overstated everything and talked so rapidly and so graphically and so well that you found yourself agreeing with him."

Writing every day, Hemingway gradually perfecting his literary style, following his motto, "All you have to do is write one true sentence.  Write the truest sentence you know."  Sometimes he wrote in his apartment and sometimes in the local cafés.  He wrote in a letter to his father: "I'm trying in all my stories to get the feeling of the actual life across—not to just depict life—or criticize it—but to actually make it alive.  So that when you have read something by me you actually experience the thing.  You can't do this without putting in the bad and the ugly as well as what is beautiful.  Because if it is all beautiful you can't believe in it.  Things aren't that way.  It is only by showing both sides—3 dimensions and if possible 4 that you can write the way I want to."

In 1925, he took a trip to Spain and published a collection of short stories called In Our Time.  Although the book stirred little positive commentary, the trip served as the inspiration for his first big success, The Sun Also Rises (1926), about a group of Americans living hedonistic, directionless lives in Europe.  It was based on Hemingway's own life, and it chronicled a group of American expatriates who travel from Paris to Pamplona, Spain, for the Running of the Bulls.  In one of the epigraphs to the novel, he quoted Gertrude Stein: "You are all a lost generation," and Hemingway became known as the leading spokesman for the disillusioned post-World War I generation.

With the publication of his novel, Hemingway's life would never be the same.  The book was an international success.  But, just as his literary career was taking off, his personal life was beginning to show some cracks.  He had begun an affair with Pauline Pfeiffer, a close friend of both Hadley and he.  The following year, Hadley divorced Hemingway, who promptly took his second wife.

Hemingway had also begun cutting his ties with the Paris group that had helped him so much.  "I think Hemingway had some significant strengths as a writer and human being, but he also had profound weaknesses," said Hemingway scholar Dr. James Nagel.  "One of his weaknesses is that he seems not to have been very good at feeling gratitude.  He tended to turn his back on people who helped him."

Hemingway and Pauline moved to Key West, where he attempted to build on his reputation as one of America's preeminent writers with A Farewell to Arms.  Part way through the book, he received word that his father, Clarence, who had been battling depression and health problems, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head on December 6, 1928.

In a letter to Max Perkins, his Scribner's editor, he wrote: "I was very fond of him and feel like hell about it.  Got to Oak Park in plenty of time to handle things ... Realize of course that the thing for me to do is not worry but get to work--finish my book properly so I can help them out with the proceeds."

By the time A Farewell to Arms was released the following year, Hemingway had become one of the best-known writers alive.  Strangers approached  him at cafés. Young American men emulated him, speaking in staccato sentences from the sides of their mouths. 

In 1933, Hemingway fulfilled a lifelong dream when he and Pauline went on a hunting safari in Africa, where they bagged several lions and other trophy game.  The trip had been a gift from Pauline's uncle, and it would ultimately lead to several stories, including one of Hemingway's best short pieces, The Snows of KilimanjaroIn 1935, Hemingway recounted his safari experiences in The Green Hills of Africa, adding to his legend as a writer-adventurer.

In 1937, Hemingway traveled overseas as a correspondent to cover the Spanish Civil War.  The country was divided by the conflict, and Hemingway's reporting was well received in the States.  To many, he had become the ultimate celebrity reporter, the veteran of war, the heroic adventurer seeking his next thrill.

Hemingway had company on his trip to Spain, his new love, Martha Gellhorn, a reporter he had met in 1936 in Key West.  The author divorced Pauline in 1940 and married Gellhorn, and the two moved to a house on a large tract of land in San Francisco de Paula, Cuba.  They named the estate La Finca Vigia.

In 1952, when Life magazine published The Old Man and the Sea complete in a single issue, it sold more than five million copies in two days.

But at the height of his literary success, Hemingway was growing increasingly paranoid.  He was convinced that someone was trying to kill him.  In a telephone conversation with A. E. Hotchner, a friend and editor, Hotchner recalled the first time he ever heard Hemingway sound unsure of himself.  He had always been master of his own destiny, especially on issues relating to his writing: content, style, and publishing details.  He was working on The Dangerous Summer.  His dilemma was how to cut his 92,453 words down to 40,000 for Life Magazine, as his contract stipulated.  He complained to Hotchner of having nightmares about it.  He was also concerned about his eyes, which he said doctors had diagnosed as afflicted by keratis sicca, a condition that causes the cornea to dry up. 

Hotchner attributed the author’s growing insecurities to his eye problems, the stress from editing his Life Magazine piece, and news about Gary Cooper, a close friend.  Cooper had to have a prostrate operation, and Hemingway was upset about it, as the two men had become close friends.

When Hotchner visited the Hemingways in Havana, he convinced the author to let him give the manuscript of The Dangerous Summer to Life Magazine.  It was by now cut down to 53,830 words.  Hemingway confessed that he felt like he was “living in a Kafka nightmare” and that, although he acted happy, he was “bone-tired and very beat up emotionally.”  He related that, with Castro's guerillas marching on the capital, he and Mary would have to leave the Finca.  He came to that conclusion the night his dog was clubbed to death by a Batista search party.  Hemingway had loved the dog, just as he did La Finca, his art collection, his study, his boat, and his memories associated with Cuba.  Suddenly, he was forced to abandon all.

One evening, as Hemingway ate at a restaurant with friends, he grabbed the waiter by the sleeve and began shouting at him, demanding to know whether he was Spanish or Polish.  When the waiter told him that he was Polish, Hemingway screamed all the louder.

Hemingway's delusions continued to grow after he moved with his new wife, Mary Welsh, from Cuba to a mountain retreat in Ketchum, Idaho.  The writer was convinced that J. Edgar Hoover and the Feds were after him.  He told Hotchner that they had cars following him on the road and that his phone was tapped.  Once, when he was out with friends, he demanded that they leave because two men sitting at the bar were FBI agents following him.  They turned out to be traveling salesmen.

Hemingway's condition deteriorated.  While working on a manuscript, he found for the first time in his life that he could no longer write.  That was the final blow to his abilities as a man and as a writer, the two being intertwined.  On Sunday morning, April 18, at 11:00 a.m., Mary found him standing with a gun in one hand and shells in the other.  There was a note to her propped up on the gun rack.  She distracted him long enough for Vernon, his doctor, to arrive.  Hemingway gave up the gun without a struggle.

Vernon confided to Hotchner about Hemingway’s condition: “Hotch, honest to God, if we don’t get him to the proper place, and fast, he is going to kill himself for sure.  It’s only a question of time if he stays here, and every hour it grows more possible.  He says he can’t write any more—that’s all he’s talked to me about for weeks and weeks.  Says there’s nothing to live for.  Hotch, he won’t ever write again.  He can’t.  He’s given up. That’s the motivation for doing away with himself.”

Hemingway was admitted to the Mayo clinic, where he endured electroconvulsive shock treatment prescribed for severely depressed patients.  Irvin D. Yalom, psychiatrist at Stanford University School of Medicine, stated that Hemingway struggled all his life with severe characterologic problems.  By 1960, the signs of severe depression had become evident: anorexia, severe weight loss, insomnia, deep sadness, total pessimism, and self-destructive trends. 

The shock treatments he received were known to be ineffectual when strong paranoid symptoms accompanied the depression.  Hemingway complained that the treatments had destroyed his memory and his ability to write.  They were stopped in the middle of the cycle, and Hemingway returned home to Ketchum.  It was there that he finally fulfilled his grand plan.  He woke up on the morning of July 2, 1961, climbed out of bed, and took his own life.

John Hemingway, Ernest’s son, remembered a time when his father had warned him after he had become depressed about his termination from the army: “You must promise me never, never ... we’ll both promise each other never to shoot ourselves. Don’t do it.  It’s stupid.  It’s one thing you must promise me never to do, and I’ll promise the same to you.” 

Perhaps most fortuitous of all was the short story he had written in 1924, where a man put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger with his toe, blowing the top of his head off.  Hemingway died with his favorite shotgun lodged between his teeth...and the top of his head blown off. 

In all, five out of six generations of Hemingways have experienced the loss of at least one family member to suicide.  Besides Hemingway and his father, they include a brother, a sister, and the author's granddaughter, supermodel and Playboy centerfold, Margaux.  In the single generation that was skipped, Hemingway's son, Gregory, a cross-dresser and transsexual with a long history of severe depression, died of suspicious causes.

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