A Hemingway Surprise

Ernest Hemingway: Between Two Wars

an exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum, New York City, September 25, 2015–January 31, 2016
John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston
Ernest Hemingway and Agnes von Kurowsky, the American nurse who was the inspiration for the character of Catherine Barkley in A Farewell to Arms, Milan, 1918

In the early photographs, Hemingway has a bold expression—stepping forward, saying “This is me”—accompanied by a squint that holds the camera at a certain distance. The attitude stops short of an available emotion. Toward the end of his career he would grow used to hearing himself demoted for an excess of surface and showmanship, as if his identification with the roles of celebrity, sportsman, and revolutionist, the friend of boxers and movie stars, implied a distrust of literature itself. This criticism was a plausible half-truth. At heart, he was a listener, and to a large extent a mimic, with the intellect to judge and sift the voices that he heard. Of all the moderns, Hemingway was the foremost defender of revision as a proof of serious craft. The more you could throw away, he said, the surer you could be that something of substance was there to begin with.

As the wonderful exhibition at the Morgan Library makes clear, with its generous sample of photographs, books, corrected proof pages, and letters to and from the writer, Hemingway was already ambitious for fame in his teenage years in Oak Park, Illinois. His adolescent pieces show a strong pull toward genre fiction of the “boy’s adventure” type. (In his Paris Review interview with George Plimpton, he would rank “the good Kipling” and Captain Marryat alongside Thoreau, Twain, Turgenev, Mozart, Bruegel, and Cézanne among the artists he had “learned the most from.”) A fondness for boyish subject matter and excitement would never leave him; you can see it in the keyed-up manly dialogue and fast melodrama of his play The Fifth Column.

But though Hemingway disliked “the trauma theory of literature,” especially as applied to himself, a particular grown-up experience seems to have formed him as much as any experience after childhood can do that for a writer. He was wounded in an Austrian trench mortar attack on July 8, 1918. His stories about soldiers who are recovering from battle injuries—“In Another Country,” “Now I Lay Me,” and “A Way You’ll Never Be,” all of them extraordinary work—introduced and brought to perfection a style that nothing in English had prepared his readers for.

In the last of these stories, Nick Adams (as usual a stand-in for the author) rides his bicycle past the scene of a battle and “saw what had happened by the position of the dead.” This opening is followed by a one-sentence paragraph: “They lay alone or in clumps in the high grass of the field and along the road, their pockets out, and over them were flies and around each body or group of bodies were the scattered papers.” The next paragraph is a straightforward…

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