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  • Ana Savković

Ernest Hemingway! Caught in the Stream

Updated: Aug 9, 2021

Image: Unsplash

"I have always had the illusion it was more important, or as important, to be a good man as to be a great writer. May turn out to be neither. But would like to be both."

Pilar - the nickname of Hemingway's second wife and the name of the boat on which the famous writer shot himself in both legs, courted women, wrote poetic letters, drank, spent time with his sons, caught fish and killed sharks. For the last twenty-seven years of his life, the writer went on Pilar whenever he needed comfort and escape from the problems and anxieties that plagued his mind and life. Three failed marriages with the fourth on the rocks, three sons who tried everything in their power to make their father proud, but also to somehow step out of his, as it seemed at times, endless shadow, numerous broken friendships, critics who praised him at the beginning of his career only to eventually tear him to pieces... it all took a toll on the famous writer. Towards the end of his life his physical and mental health worsened, and when he could no longer write, he decided that he no longer wanted to live. A year before he took his own life, he abandoned his beloved ship Pilar, which over the years witnessed the writer's many ups and downs and gave him refuge through many storms, and soon after that he left this world. In this week’s ZiNger we will study the life of Ernest Hemingway, with special emphasis on the last twenty-seven years, using Paul Hendrickson’s Hemingway’s boat: everything he loved in life, and lost, 1934-196 (Hendrickson, P. (2012) Hemingway’s boat: everything he loved in life, and lost, 1934-1961, London: Bodley Head).

Ernest Hemingway (July 21, 1899 - July 2, 1961) was an American novelist. He received the Pulitzer Prize in 1953 for his famous novel The Old Man and the Sea, and a year later he received the Nobel Prize for Literature. He is considered one of the greatest and most famous American writers whose works, as well as adventurous life, have served as inspiration to many. In his novels, which are considered to be the classics of American literature, and with which he strongly influenced twentieth-century literature, he presented real-life experiences. His frequent themes were violence and dealing with death.

He was born in Cicer (now Oak Park), Illinois. His father, Clarence Edmonds Hemingway, was a physician who loved nature and science, and his mother Grace Hall-Hemingway was a musician who had artistic inclinations. Clarence, known as "Ed," suffered from diabetes, heart disease and depression. Pressured by worries about the future and money, he committed suicide with his father's revolver. Unfortunately that was not the end to the suicides in the Hemingway family; the writer’s brother Leicester, sister Ursula and Hemingway’s granddaughter Margaux also took their own lives, as did Ernest himself.

The writer grew up in a Chicago suburb, but a family of six spent a lot of time in northern Michigan where they had a cottage and where the writer was taught by his father to hunt, fish in a lake and camp in the woods. That is where Hemingway's love of adventure and outdoor life developed. After graduating from high school, he began working for the Kansas City Star newspaper where he gained experience that to some extent shaped and influenced his distinctive, direct writing style. During World War I, he was an ambulance driver in the Italian army and was wounded while delivering chocolates and cigarettes to Italian soldiers. He was sent to an American hospital in Milan, where he fell in love with nurse Agnes von Kurowsky, whom he proposed to. Agnes accepted Hemingway's marriage proposal but then left him for another man. These devastating events served the writer as inspiration for the works A Very Short Story and A Farewell to Arms.

With a healed wound and a broken heart, 20-year-old Ernest returned to America and got a job at the Toronto Star newspaper. In Chicago, he met his first wife, Hadley Richardson. The young couple got married and moved to Paris where Hemingway began working as a foreign correspondent for the Star. In Paris, he became part of a group of artists and writers known as the “Lost Generation”. It was a term coined by American writer and Hemingway mentor Gertrude Stein, and made popular by Hemingway with his novel The Sun Also Rises. The “lost generation” consisted of artists and American writers who went to Europe after the First World War and gathered in Paris. Their works mirrored the hopelessness and “disorientation” they felt in the post-war period and indicated the futility of the modern world. Among the writers and artists whom Hemingway met in Paris and with whom he hung out were James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Pablo Picasso, and F. Scott Fitzgerald who, after the publication of his fourth book, Tender Is the Night, asked him to write his opinion of the book. Hemingway’s response actually indicates how the writer coped with pain and how he found a way to use it for his literature.

"Forget your personal tragedy. We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get damned hurt use it - don't cheat with it. Be as faithful to it as scientist... You see, Bo, you're not a tragic character. Neither am I. All we are is writers and what we should do is write... Anyway I am damned fond of you and I'd like to have a chance to talk sometimes... We have a fine boat. Am going good on a very long story. Hard one to write, Always your friend Ernest."

In 1923, the young couple had a son, John, known by the nickname "Jack" and at that time Hemingway began attending the famous festival in Pamplona where bull-runs are held. Visits to the festival served as inspiration for his novel The Sun Also Rises, after which Hemingway and Hadley divorced due to the writer's extramarital affair with journalist Pauline Pfeiffer, who became his second wife. Hemingway then established a pattern of behavior that he repeated throughout his life. He would start an extramarital affair that would result in divorce and a new marriage.

His second wife Pauline Pfeiffer gave birth to their two sons, Patrick and Gregory, and bought the family home in Key West, Florida. Hemingway continued his adventures; he was hunting in Africa, watching bullfights in Spain, catching fish in Florida... In 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, he began an extramarital affair with Martha Gellhorne, who was a war correspondent like him and who soon became his third wife. After his divorce from Pauline, he bought a house in Cuba, and the time spent in Spain during the Civil War inspired him to write the famous novel For Whom the Bell Tolls.

In the 1940s history was repeating itself; the world was at war again, and Hemingway was repeating his affair/divorce pattern. During World War II he was again a war correspondent and it was then that he met another war correspondent, Mary Welsh with whom he began an extramarital affair which resulted in a new divorce and a new marriage. Marriage to Mary Welsh lasted longer than all his previous marriages; Hemingway and Mary remained married for fifteen years, despite the fact that the writer had meanwhile developed feelings for another woman. Adriana Ivanchich was an eighteen-year-old Italian noble woman and the last Hemingway's muse and just like the famous writer, Ivanchich also committed suicide. Suffering from depression, Adriana hung herself from a tree in front of her house. Martha Gellhorne, Hemingway's third wife, also committed suicide by drinking cyanide, and the father of Hemingway's first wife, Hadley Richardson, strained by financial worries, took his own life, just like Hemingway's father. It seemed like death was everywhere, there was no escaping it.

The last years of the writer's life were as dynamic and dramatic as the rest of his life. In 1954, he wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Old Man and the Sea, continued his visits to Africa, survived two plane crashes, won the Nobel Prize, and wrote the memoir A Moveable Feast about his years in Paris. He moved to Idaho, where he spent the last days of his life in poor health, burdened with financial worries and fears of persecution, which is why he was treated at a clinic, where he received electroconvulsive therapy. Upon returning home, his ailments continued until his depression and inability to write led him to the decision to pull the trigger early in the morning, July 2, 1961, in the lobby of his Ketcham home. He was buried in Ketchum Cemetery. Hemingway’s friends and family found his growing fears and pre-death claims that he was being spied on by the FBI fictitious, an opinion that was later supported by the public until documents were declassified and it became apparent that the writer was indeed under FBI surveillance.

Many texts have been written about Hemingway's life and death as well as the harsh manner in which he often treated those close to him. But Hendrickson's biography provides readers with an insight into the other side of Hemingway's personality, one that the public did not have the opportunity to see that often, if at all, and it sheds a different light on the writer's character and life. Arnold Samuelson was one of many people to whom Hemingway selflessly gave his time, advice, and money. Samuelson was a 22-year-old with a little bit of journalistic experience and big dreams of one day becoming a writer. The adventurous young man, wanting to meet Hemingway, hitchhiked from Minneapolis all the way to Key West to meet his literary idol. When he finally met him face to face he could barely muster the courage to speak, and the writer, after hearing where he had come from just to talk to him, hired him to guard the ship he had just bought and called Pilar and decided to help him with his writing career. The time spent with the writer, who had only the best of intentions, unfortunately had the opposite effect on Samuelson and for the rest of his life he could not be persuaded to believe in his own writing skills. After his death, Samuelson's daughter published her father's book, which portrayed the other side of the famous writer, the compassionate and generous one.

"He came out and stood squarely in front of me, squinting with annoyance, waiting for me to speak. I had nothing to say. I couldn't recall a word of my prepared speech. He was a big man, tall, narrow-hipped, wide shouldered, and he stood with his feet spread apart, his arms hanging at his sides. He was crouched forward slightly with his weight on his toes, in the instinctive pose of a fighter ready to hit. He had a heavy jaw and a full black mustache, and his dark eyes, which were almost closed, looked me over the way a boxer measures his opponent for the knockout punch.

It was obvious he needed no bouncer to keep tramps off his property. He could handle that job himself. "What do you want?" he asked. "I bummed down from Minneapolis to see you," I said very ill at ease. "What about?" "I just want to visit."

The visibly irritated Hemingway softened and clearly felt affection or compassion for the young man who came all this way just to talk to him. His empathic side awoke and the writer drove Samuelson to town, after they had arranged a meeting time for the next day.

"We shook hands and I watched him drive off to the post office. He left me with that damned marvelous feeling you can have only once in a lifetime if you are a young man who wants to become a writer and you have just met the man you admire as the greatest writer alive and you know instinctively he is already your friend."

Samuelson spent a year with the writer who during that time advised and encouraged him to write about what he knew. Until the end of his life, Samuelson was fascinated, but also burdened by that one incredible year with the famous author; he felt that he would never come close to Hemingway's level of talent and his ability to create such outstanding literature. On one occasion he asked the writer how a man could know if he was talented, to which Hemingway replied in his own concise and sharp manner:

"You cant. Sometimes a man can go on writing for years before it shows. If a man's got it in him, it will come out sometime."

Samuelson was not the only one who, exposed to Hemingway's proximity, began to doubt his own abilities. The writer’s sons, Patrick, Jack and Gregory also didn’t know how to deal with the fact that their father was a mythical figure whose reputation was unattainable. They tried in various ways to make their father happy and become the men he imagined they would be when they grow up, fearless adventurers like him. But that journey led them to further pain and scars that never healed. Gregory, or "Gigi," was the writer's youngest son whose life was a story in itself. A doctor suffering from manic depression, a transvestite, father of eight children, divorced several times; Gregory eventually ended his life in a women’s prison. He had a complicated relationship with his father, whom, like his brothers, he admired and at the same time resented for many things.

"He always had this tremendous need to have a son who would do well, please him inordinately. But how we felt so compelled to do all these things to make him love us. Look, my Brother Patrick went off to Africa to be a professional hunter. So did I for a time. That's no way for an adult to spend his life, taking people out with guns to destroy animals. But this was the kind of person I consciously an unconsciously knew he admired. And so did my brother Pat. Pat would have been so much happier being a curator in a museum... I don't know exactly how it was done, the destruction. You tell me. What is it about a loving, dominating, basically well-intentioned father that ends up making you go nuts?"

Although the writer's relationship with his sons was demanding, and at times disappointing, Hemingway was a caring father with the best of intentions and a man who tried his best not to repeat his father's mistakes. His sons never experienced their father physically punishing them, which Hemingway’s father often did to him and his siblings. There is an interesting anecdote that shows how far Hemingway was willing to go just not to hit his son. On one occasion when Jack was little, he did something wrong and Pauline demanded that her husband physically punishes him. Hemingway took his son to the room, closed the door and told him to pretend to cry and beg while the writer hit himself with a brush. After reading the testimony of Hemingway's sister Marceline, who in her book gave painful details about their childhood and growing up, it becomes clear why Hemingway was so opposed to physically punishing his children and how he tried to be a better father.

"My father had another side to him... He kept a razor strap in his closet, which he used on us on some occasions... because of something we said or done, or some neglected duty of ours he suddenly thought about - we would be ordered to our rooms and perhaps made to go without supper. Sometimes we were spanked hard, our bodies across his knee. Always after punishment we were told to kneel down and ask God to forgive us."

Almost everyone who met him or read his works had their opinion of the famous writer, and one of them was Gertrude Stein, who knew him at the very beginning of his career and who was his mentor. Stein gave her opinion of the writer's true nature, which hid under numerous layers of rudeness that served as protection from the outside world.

"When I first met Hemingway he had a truly sensitive capacity for emotion, and that was the stuff of the first stories; but he was shy of himself and he began to develop, as a shield, a big Kansas City-brutality about it, and so he was "tough" because he was really sensitive and ashamed that he was.

Another person who had the chance to see the writer’s hidden caring side was journalist and future writer Edgar “Ned” Calmer. Calmer met Hemingway in Paris while working for the Paris Herald newspaper. Hemingway had a particularly great deal of understanding and compassion for Ned because he himself once did his poorly paid job, and because the young journalist abroad had a sick wife and a small child to take care of.

"From the beginning it was obvious in many ways that Ernest was generous and kind, with time and loans of money and patience, to other writers, of whom I was one."

Hemingway sponsored his daughter's baptism, searched all over Paris for a copy of his book Winner Take Nothing to sign it and give to his wife who was in a sanatorium for lung disease treatment, gave his opinion of the book Ned had written. Hemingway also gave him a check for $350 and with that money Ned paid for the trip home for himself and his family. Unlike other people whom the writer helped and who did not bother to return the service or money, Ned returned the money to him as soon as he could, which is why the writer called him Honest Ned. After Hemingway's death, the writer's lawyer sent Ned the check back - it had not been cashed.

When one reads about Hemingway and his life it is sometimes hard to believe that it was all the same person. The man who killed animals and verbally insulted people was the same man who in the midst of his suffering found a moment to respond to an old school friend who wrote him a letter because he heard he had ended up in a clinic. The man who tried to be brave and strong in front of the seriously ill son of family friends was the same man who, a moment after leaving his hospital room, cried inconsolably in the hallway. Perhaps Hemingway had spent his whole life trying to be strong and brave for everyone around him, while he broke down in solitude and sank deeper and deeper to the bottom, until he finally drowned in his pain.

Whether he completely succeeded in his intention to be a good man or allowed the stream to take him too far, only he knows. But one thing is for sure, Ernest Hemingway became the great writer he dreamed of becoming because, unlike many, he had the courage to set sail from the open sea into unknown waters and try to “catch” his dream. And when he finally caught it, he grabbed it with all his might and didn’t let go, until the very end, until it slipped out of his hands, like everything else in his life. Writing was what propelled him, it was the engine of his ship, and when that engine shut down because the writing was gone, so was he. Caught in his net, like a fish on dry land, without words like without air, Hemingway exhaled.

"We must live it, now, a day at a time and be very careful not to hurt each other. It seems as though we were all on a boat now together, a good boat still, that we have made but that we know now will never reach port. There will be all kinds of weather, good and bad; and especially because we know now that there will be no landfall we must keep the boat up very well and be very good to each other. We are fortunate we have good people on the boat."


#WeeklyZiNgers #ErnestHemingway


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