Ernest Hemingway’s gripping storytelling continues to enthral..

Preeti Mehra

Though author and journalist Ernest Miller Hemingway passed away almost five decades ago, the day of his birth, July 21, is still marked by a weeklong festival that includes a Papa Hemingway Look-Alike contest. A prolific writer and impetuous journalist, Hemingway is still remembered in the bars and streets of Key West, Florida, where he lived in the 1930s.

Marked by understatement and grace, Hemingway’s works are now part of the American classics. Best known for novels A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea, he was part of the 1920s expatriate community in Paris, a World War I veteran, 1953 Pulitzer Prize winner and a 1954 Nobel Laureate.

What’s unique about Hemingway is that he is read by adults and adolescents alike, his readers picking from his simple prose what appeals to them instinctively. Take, for instance, the poignant story-telling in The Old Man and the Sea. A young boy who adores his fishing teacher, but has to sail on other boats at his parents’ will. An old fisherman, who commands all the strength in his tired limbs to challenge the elements, jostles with a giant fish in the vast sea. And the panning out of friendship, loneliness, commitment and fortitude.

Or, A Farewell to Arms. Published in 1929, the story recounts the romance between Frederic Henry, an American soldier, and Catherine Barkley, a British nurse. The plot is considered to be highly autobiographical, based on Hemingway’s relationship with Agnes von Kurowsky.

The 1940 novel For Whom the Bell Tolls is set against the Spanish Civil War and relates the story of protagonist Robert, an American who fights with the Spanish soldiers on the Republican side. Based on Hemingway’s experience of living in Spain and reporting on the war, it is a work that he is noted for.

Multi-faceted man

Hemingway the man has many facets to him. Four times married, his life had a chequered history, from reporter to war veteran to an established author. Born in 1899 in Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, he lived in a six-bedroom Victorian house built by his maternal grandfather, Ernest Miller Hall, an English immigrant and Civil War veteran. Hemingway’s mother was a music teacher, but it was his father’s interests that he took to — hunting, fishing and camping in the woods. These activities were also the reason for Hemingway’s familiarity and close relationship with Nature and the raw elements, a fact that is obvious in most of his works.

It was right after high school at 18 years that Hemingway became a cub reporter for The Kansas City Star. It is said that though his stint here lasted only six months, all through his life he followed the Star’s style guide. The short simple sentences, clear flow, seem to have come from there.

Being open to adventure and wanting to see action in World War 1, against his father’s wishes, Hemingway tried to sign up for the American army. When he failed the medical test due to poor vision, he joined the Red Cross Ambulance Corps. It was on the Italian front that Hemingway experienced the hard realities of war which later figured in several of his novels and short stories. In A Natural History of the Dead he narrates his first encounter with death when he was left to pick up human remains after an ammunition factory near Milan blew up.

However, his career as an ambulance driver did not last long. He is reported to have been wounded soon after, and later received a medal for military valour from the Italian government for helping other wounded soldiers to safety despite his own injuries. Hemingway’s first brush with romance is also said to have happened around the same time. While convalescing in a hospital he met nurse Agnes von Kurowsky who was much older than him. However, their relationship broke up later, leaving behind memories immortalised in the novel A Farewell to Arms and A Very Short Story.

Penning successes

After the war, Hemingway returned to his journalistic career and joined the Toronto Star newspaper. Later, he worked as associate editor of the Co-operative Commonwealth, a monthly journal. After his first marriage Hemingway shifted to Paris where he covered the Greco-Turkish War for the Toronto Star. It is here that he became part of the American expatriate circle that came to be known as the ‘Lost Generation’, a term he himself used in the epigraph to his novel The Sun Also Rises, and his memoir, A Moveable Feast. It is also here that he struck up a friendship with both Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound, his mentors in later years. It was here again that his first book ,Three Stories and Ten Poems was published.

Thereon, there was no looking back for Hemingway as a writer. His debut as a writer began with the publication of short stories but it was his full-length novel The Sun Also Rises that brought him notice beyond his immediate Paris crowd and won him critical acclaim.

In 1927, Hemingway divorced his first wife and married Pauline Pfeiffer, a Roman Catholic. He too converted to Catholicism and later moved with her to Key West, Florida. Here he had to deal with the tragic death of his father who committed suicide using an old Civil War pistol. It is in Key West that the author established his writer’s den and did a large part of his lifetime’s writing. And the rest is literary history.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated August 14, 2009)
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