‘The Finest Life You Ever Saw’

Ernest Hemingway Collection/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston
Ernest Hemingway, Key West, Florida, circa 1928

Ernest Hemingway, the second oldest of six children, was born in Oak Park, Illinois, in 1899 and lived until 1961, thus representing the first half of the twentieth century. He more than represented it, he embodied it. He was a national and international hero, and his life was mythic. Though none of his novels is set in his own country—they take place in France, Spain, Italy, or in the sea between Cuba and Key West—he is a quintessentially American writer and a fiercely moral one. His father, Clarence Hemingway, was a highly principled doctor, and his mother Grace was equally high-minded. They were religious, strict—they even forbade dancing.

From his father, who loved the natural world, Hemingway learned in childhood to fish and shoot, and a love of these things shaped his life along with a third thing, writing. Almost from the first there is his distinct voice. In his journal of a camping trip he took with a friend when he was sixteen years old, he wrote of trout fishing, “Great fun fighting them in the dark in the deep swift river.” His style was later said to have been influenced by Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, journalism, and the forced economy of transatlantic cables, but he had his own poetic gift and also the intense desire to give to the reader the full and true feeling of what happened, to make the reader feel it had happened to him. He pared things down. He left out all that could be readily understood or taken for granted and the rest he delivered with savage exactness. There is a nervy tension in his writing. The words seem to stand almost in defiance of one another. The powerful early stories that were made of simple declaratives seemed somehow to break through into a new language, a genuine American language that had so far been undiscovered, and with it was a distinct view of the world.

He wrote almost always about himself, in the beginning with some detachment and a touch of modesty, as Nick Adams in the Michigan stories with his boyish young sister in love with him, as Jake Barnes with Lady Brett in love with him, as the wounded Frederic Henry with Catherine Barkley in love with him, Maria in For Whom the Bell Tolls, Renata in Across the River and Into the Trees. In addition to love, he dealt in death and the stoicism that was necessary in this life. He was a romantic but in no way soft. In the story “Indian Camp” where they have rowed across the bay and are in an Indian shanty near the road:

Nick’s father ordered some water to be put on the stove, and while it was heating he spoke…

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