The man who happened, from triumph to tragedy
Widely regarded as one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, Ernest Miller Hemingway shaped the course of popular literature while helping define the culture of contemporary American life. A prolific writer, Hemingway garnered global fame for his terse yet poignant writing style that has provided inspiration for generations of writers to follow.
Born in the last year of the 19th century, Hemingway’s formative years were spent gathering experiences that would later found his creative pursuits. The son of conservative parents Clarence Edmonds and Grace-Hall Hemingway, Ernest claimed to have never liked his name, believing it to be a less than mediocre reference to the bumbling hero in Oscar Wilde’s play “The Importance of Being Ernest.”
Embracing the outdoors as a youth, Hemingway spent considerable time at the family’s summer home in Michigan. Taking up hunting, fishing and canoeing, Ernest developed an early affinity for exploration, his interests in the unknown taking him all over the world in his later years. Although skilled in the subject of English, Hemingway found little interest in his other classes, gravitating towards the school newspaper as his creative outlet.
With writing and journalism becoming his passion through high school, Hemingway’s life took an unexpected turn with the emergence of World War I. Signing up as an ambulance driver, Hemingway found himself within the thralls of war by early 1918. Severely wounded while on duty, the experience changed Hemingway’s perspective on war and life,
“When you go to war as a boy you have a great illusion of immortality. Other people get killed; not you … Then when you are badly wounded the first time you lose that illusion and you know it can happen to you.”
Suffering a series of untimely and damaging injuries throughout his life, Hemingway’s painful World War I experience would mark an unfortunate trend of disasters that would befall the young writer.
Using his experiences at war and at home as inspiration for the short story, Big Two-Hearted River, the story would mark a trend in the creative efforts of Hemingway, as some of his work would maintain a semi-autobiographical voice based off his own experiences.
Throughout his time spent overseas, Hemingway would meet various artists and personalities that would provide the writer with inspiration and insight. While in Paris, Hemingway was introduced to the likes of Juan Gris, Joan Miro and even the formidable Pablo Picasso. A chance bar encounter with his young contemporary, author F. Scott Fitzgerald led to a friendship of mutual respect and admiration. Confiding in the Great Gatsby author, Hemingway once confessed, “I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.”
As a writer, Hemingway’s talent was abundant. Known for his concise prose, and curt style, Hemingway developed the unique ability to say more with less, often times challenging himself to sum up his own stories in six words or less. Also notable for his use of ‘vigorous English,” Hemingway’s writing was direct, forceful and poignant, reaching his audience in a remarkably authentic manner.
Penning numerous novels and short stories in his lifetime, Hemingway’s adventures around the world provided the author with plenty of inspiration. His time as an ambulance driver during World War I and his eventual return to the states inspired Hemingway’s first novel The Sun Also Rises, while his African safaris inspired his work on big game hunting, Green Hills of Africa. One of his most popular works titled the Old Man and the Sea was written in Cuba, and told the story of an old fisherman out at sea. The work received the Pulitzer Prize in 1952.
Although his works garnered global fame and recognition, Hemingway endured a series of devastating experiences that gradually chipped at his health and sanity. While eager to become the rugged outdoorsman symbolized by his father, illness and injuries hindered Hemingway effectively limiting his mobility and progression. Suffering from two plane crashes in Africa, and bouts with anthrax and pneumonia, the effects of these occurrences infiltrated other areas of the author’s life. Known to have engaged in numerous affairs during his four marriages, Hemingway battled with alcoholism throughout his life while still maintaining a prolific and respected writing career.
When Hemingway’s father committed suicide, his death served as a dark precursor to Hemingway’s untimely demise. Falling into a deep depression in his later years, Hemingway took his own life by gunshot in July of 1961. He was 62 years old.
Although depression characterized much of Hemingway’s later life, his legacy as a writer is still visible today through the work of writers, thinkers and creatives who have come after him. Winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954, Hemingway’s accolades pale in comparison to the writers influence. One of the greatest writers in American history, the significance of Hemingway’s work will forever lie in its timeless relevance to American culture.