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The Sun Also Sets

Res Publica

August 2016

by Hayden Eighinger

“Ultimately,” she concluded, “someday I hope to be comparable to Ernest Hemingway.” She gleamed proudly as I gave a nod, wished her luck, and excused myself from the conversation. We had been talking for some time about our mutual love for Hemingway’s novels and her dream to become a famous author. I realized then that she did not understand Hemingway as he understood himself; instead, she only understood him as a figure influential to American literature.In a moment largely out of character,I didn’t tell her what I was thinking.I didn’t tell her that her dream was foolish; that the price of being Hemingway was one that she would – and should – never truly want to pay.

Renowned for his terse tragic stories, Ernest Hemingway is held by many to be one of the greatest writers in American history.Too often we aspire to the glory of legendary men like Hemingway without understanding how they became so renowned;we desire instant glorification,seeking their ends while blissfully ignorant of their means. Such dreams are dangerous because they are destined to fail. We will surely find the weight of glory too much to bear, and it will crush us with the truth: greatness is born from suffering.

Although Hemingway’s achievement is certainly enviable, the desire to equal his literary greatness turns out to be a Faustian bargain: his genius could only be attained through a life of suffering. On more than one occasion he was asked to author a book on his approach to writing. Not surprisingly, he never agreed to write it.“There is nothing to writing,” he said.“All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Hemingway understood that good writing was not the product of a masterful technique. Instead, good writing is the expression of meaningful experiences. For Hemingway, these were experiences of pain expressed in the blunt language of reality. The cost of achieving such glory was the subjection of his soul to a lifetime of torture. Had his life been happy, his great writings would have never even been imagined.

Hemingway was a young reporter and barely 18 when he signed up to be an ambulance driver in World War I. In Italy,he was wounded by mortar shrapnel that left him hospitalized. While recovering, Hemingway fell in love with a nurse. After the war,he returned to America and made preparations to marry her – only to receive a letter that she had married another man. Hemingway then resumed his career as a journalist, eventually meeting his first wife and settling among the American expatriates in Paris as a foreign correspondent. Later to his own chagrin, he became involved in an affair with the woman who then became his second wife. According to his personal friend, A.E. Hotchner, Hemingway’s nature was defined by this affair: his regret and self-loathing doomed him to a life of dissatisfaction and empty pleasures. It was around this time that Hemingway also published his first novel, The Sun Also Rises. Out of this affair, Hemingway the legendary novelist was conceived.

Hemingway continued to struggle with love hereafter. In 1937, he volunteered to report on the Spanish Civil War, where he met and fell in love with another reporter. His second wife promptly left him, and he soon married this third woman. History repeated itself when Hemingway left to report on World War II, where he met his fourth and final wife, proposing to her after only their third encounter. In 1954, Hemingway was in consecutive plane crashes that left him and his wife almost dead. He sustained crippling injuries that inhibited his ability to enjoy his favorite activities – hunting, fishing, and writing – and contributed to his alcoholism. By 1961, his mind had begun to deteriorate alongside his body, and Hemingway ultimately committed suicide with his favorite shotgun.

Each of his novels and many of his short stories are based largely on his own struggles. The women who haunt the protagonists in A Farewell to Arms,The Sun Also Rises, and For Whom the Bell Tolls all bear striking character resemblances to the women whom Hemingway had loved.The struggle with the marlin in The Old Man and the Sea is likewise symbolic of Hemingway’s own struggle with the love that he had always sought. In many ways, the suffering of his characters simply reflects the suffering of his own experiences. Hemingway wrote little that was truly fictional; instead he paid us his hard-earned blood money through fake names and (sometimes) embellished circumstances.Like the wrath of an ancient deity, the power of Hemingway’s writing was only achieved through a worthy blood sacrifice.

I want never to be Ernest Hemingway: anyone who has experienced his pain cannot bear the lessons. This is true even for Hemingway himself; that’s why he sought solace in the kiss of his 12-gauge. I don’t know that Hemingway ever consciously chose suffering simply for the sake of his craft; nevertheless,the regret and pain reflected in his writing show us why we ought never to be like him if we can help it.

So to my friend I must apologize: I should have told you the importance of not being Ernest. Whenever you have the choice, you ought to opt for happiness. A life nailed to Hemingway’s cross of self-loathing – however legendary – will simply bleed out.