American Portraits: Ernest Hemingway
May 31, 2023
Early Life and Rooseveltian Ethos
Ernest Hemingway, born in 1899, was brought up in Illinois, and his childhood was influenced by the values of the 19th century, especially the ‘strenuous life’ ethos, famously advocated by Theodore Roosevelt, played a significant role in Hemingway’s upbringing. Roosevelt’s philosophy emphasized living life to the fullest and pursuing one’s chosen path with vigor, whether as a soldier, librarian, or writer. This philosophy greatly influenced Hemingway, who adopted an aggressive work ethic and set high standards for himself.
Post-World War I Career and Writing Style
After World War I, he returned to Oak Park in 1919 and struggled to adjust to post-war America. He worked as a stringer for the Toronto Star, filing occasional pieces, and began his journey to become a great fiction writer. Sherwood Anderson provided letters of introduction to literary figures like James Joyce and Gertrude Stein, allowing him to explore experimental writing styles. He learned to write in a spare, minimalist manner, avoiding excessive adjectives and embracing a more concise prose.
Writing Style and Response to World War I
His writing style was characterized by its minimalism and the ‘Iceberg Theory,’ where he only showed a fraction of the message above the water and left the rest for the reader to infer. He developed this style during his time in Paris, where he was mentored by literary figures like Gertrude Stein. World War I had a profound impact on Hemingway, leading to his disillusionment with the values of the 19th century. His writing often reflected the trauma and emotional turmoil experienced by his characters, with a focus on their journey to restore equilibrium.
Response to the Great Depression
During the Great Depression, Hemingway’s popularity started to wane as his lifestyle of luxury, fishing, hunting, and living the good life in Key West contrasted with the economic hardships faced by the American people. He faced criticism from literary reviewers who expected him to address the economic struggles and the need for collective change in his writing. In response, Hemingway initially defended his right to write about whatever he chose but eventually began to reflect the realities of the era.
Attraction to Key West
His move to Key West in 1928 was influenced by his desire to leave behind the associations of his first marriage in Paris. His writer friend John Dos Passos had spoken highly of Key West’s appeal for writers due to its outdoor pursuits, fabulous winter weather, and the ability to focus on work. They purchased a house there, thanks to Pauline’s wealthy uncle, and quickly integrated into the community. He developed a close connection with the working-class people of Key West, particularly those involved in marlin fishing and deep-sea fishing, who taught him their trades.
Role in World War II
During World War II, Hemingway became a correspondent, covering the war. He initially spent 1941 and 1942 in Cuba, where he used his boat for anti-submarine patrols. With the assistance of the US government, he patrolled the waters in search of submarines, armed with machine guns, Thompson guns, and grenades. In 1944, he followed his wife, Martha Gellhorn, to Europe and spent time in England and on the front lines with an infantry division.
After World War II, Hemingway’s post-war career had its ups and downs. He married his fourth wife, Mary Welsh, in 1946, and continued to live in Cuba. His World War II novel ‘Across the River and Into the Trees’ received negative critical reviews, which deeply affected him. However, he rebounded with ‘The Old Man and the Sea,’ which garnered widespread acclaim and led to him winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. Unfortunately, Hemingway suffered severe injuries in two plane crashes while in Africa, which further exacerbated his health issues.
Final Years and Legacy
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Hemingway began to suffer from depression and struggled with the realization of aging. Despite being a great man who had lived life to the fullest, he found it challenging to adjust to the limitations of old age. Hemingway was treated at the Mayo Clinic for depression and underwent electroshock therapy, which unfortunately had the opposite intended effect, making him more suicidal. He tragically took his own life by shooting himself in the head. Just before his death, he had completed the manuscript of ‘A Moveable Feast,’ a memoir of his time in Paris, which showcased his renewed writing abilities.
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