Last reviewed: June 2017
American author known for spare, plain-language prose
July 21, 1899
Oak Park, Illinois
July 2, 1961
Because of his compelling prose style and his vision of heroism, Ernest Miller Hemingway holds a secure place among the leading fiction writers of the twentieth century. Born in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, Illinois, Hemingway was the second child of Clarence “Ed” Hemingway, a physician, and his wife, Grace Hall, a voice teacher. Though reared in a strict home, Hemingway developed as a youth the energetic lifestyle for which he later became known. He participated in competitive sports—football, boxing, swimming—and enjoyed hunting and fishing trips with his father. During high school, he wrote poems and short stories, and following graduation he became employed as a reporter for the Kansas City Star. During World War I, he was an ambulance driver on the Italian front and suffered severe shrapnel wounds. Sent to a military hospital, he fell in love with his nurse. Because he was intent on becoming a writer, Hemingway found a position with the Toronto Star. In 1921, he married Hadley Richardson, eight years his senior, and they moved to Paris, where Hemingway studied his craft and found stimulation in the company of Gertrude Stein and other expatriates of the Left Bank.
The Paris experience laid a firm foundation for Hemingway’s literary career. In the autobiographical Nick Adams stories of In Our Time, critics have discerned the basic themes of his later fiction. His first novel, The Torrents of Spring, parodied the prose of his friend Sherwood Anderson. In The Sun Also Rises, based on his experiences in Paris, Hemingway introduces his hero through the protagonist Jake Barnes, a veteran wounded during World War I. Like all Hemingway heroes, Jake lives by a code and accepts eventual defeat. The novel includes a galaxy of characters that represent the Lost Generation in Paris. Ernest Hemingway
Following his Paris years, Hemingway lived in Key West, Florida, in Cuba, and in Ketchum, Idaho, with frequent trips to other parts of the world, including African safaris. In 1927, he divorced Hadley Richardson and married her friend Pauline Pfeiffer; that marriage lasted until 1940, when he married Martha Gellhorn, a war correspondent and writer. After their divorce in 1945, he married Mary Welsh, to whom he remained married until his death.
Hemingway’s novel set during World War I, A Farewell to Arms, narrates the story of Frederic Henry, who is wounded on the Italian front, falls in love with his nurse, and flees with her from the war. To Have and Have Not features the Hemingway hero as a gunrunner and smuggler. Like other heroes, Harry Morgan is defeated after a courageous fight in which he adheres to his personal code. In For Whom the Bell Tolls, Robert Jordan, an American expatriate volunteer, undertakes a dangerous mission for the Loyalist side in the Spanish Civil War. He finds love amid danger and loses his life for a cause he values, demonstrating the quality of “grace under pressure.”
During World War II, Hemingway participated as a reporter, for which he was later awarded the Bronze Star, and became involved in fighting in France. Episodes that he witnessed and experienced form the background for Across the River and into the Trees, which is generally regarded as his least significant novel. Its hero, Richard Cantwell, an introspective colonel in his early fifties, finds romance in Venice while suffering from heart disease.
The Old Man and the Sea, which is essentially a novella, introduces the hero as an old man, Santiago the fisherman, who catches a marlin larger than his boat but is unable to protect it from sharks. According to his own understanding, he went out too far and was defeated attempting what no one else could have done. For this book, Hemingway in 1953 received the Pulitzer Prize, and the work was influential in securing for him the Nobel Prize in Literature in the following year. After the publication of The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway’s health gradually declined, his condition aggravated by injuries sustained in two plane crashes in Africa. He suffered depression (or possibly bipolar disorder), paranoia, and hypertension, among other afflictions, and, following the example of his father, committed suicide at his home in Ketchum, Idaho, on July 2, 1961.
From three thousand pages of unpublished manuscripts, editors have produced several posthumous publications. Islands in the Stream portrays the life of a hero grieving for the deaths of his sons and throwing his energy into a campaign against German submarines in the Caribbean Sea. The Garden of Eden, set in the 1920’s and based on the author’s relationships with his first two wives, depicts its writer-hero undergoing divorce and remarriage to a more suitable mate. True at First Light, edited by his son Patrick, is a fictionalized memoir of Hemingway’s last visit to Africa during 1953 to 1954. Interestingly, Under Kilimanjaro was published in 2005 as Hemingway’s final, autobiographical novel about his experiences on that same trip.
The autobiographical element is strong in all of Hemingway’s fiction; in each of his novels, the hero’s age is approximately that of the author’s. His works, which have often been the basis for successful films, retain their appeal for a large reading public and for students of literature. The most pervasive element of his writing is his development of a hero whose values are clear, who lives by a code, and who is doomed to defeat despite his efforts. A wounded man cut off from conventional society, he seeks adventure, prizes courage, faces danger, and courts death. He is sensitive and chivalrous toward women, but though he easily recognizes the presence of an ethical code in others, he lacks close friends. Having lost the innocence of youth, he struggles to wrest meaning from life. The hero assumes mythical proportions, as does the author himself, who lived as much of his myth as possible.
A second striking feature of the fiction is its style. Deceptively simple, it conveys deep emotion. Hemingway relies on the exact word, on understatement, and on the “iceberg principle.” By that he meant the omitting of everything that is not absolutely essential to the narrative. The result is clear, crisp, and often hard-hitting prose, with terse, pithy, direct dialogue.
Hemingway’s literary legacy lives on through the PEN/Hemingway Award for debut fiction, which was instituted in 1976 by his widow, Mary. It recognizes and encourages the work of beginning novelists and short-story writers.