Writing is a serious affair and, like an affair, it is intense, fraught with frustration along the way and at times, a battle. Equally, it is bursting with passion and all manner of life experiences. Where and how are our best-loved stories born? Arguably experience is an essential element for many writers. The imagination is only part of the mix.
Ernest Hemingway is one writer who lived and witnessed the fighting of three major wars during his lifetime. Born in 1899 in Illinois, United States, he was working for the Kansas City Star when war broke out in 1914. He volunteered for the Red Cross before the Americans had entered the war and became an ambulance driver in Italy.
Seriously wounded by a mortar shell in 1918, he was rendered unconscious by the blast. When he came too, he picked up an injured Italian soldier lying next to him and carried him on his back to the first aid dugout. For his bravery, Hemingway was awarded the Italian Medal of Military Valour and the Croce DI Guerra.
The blast that injured Hemingway was ferocious; shards of mortar shell fragments ripped into his legs, chest, and head. He was also partially buried by earth in a dugout. In later years, his fiction would portray his war wounding and more besides. It left an indelible mark on Hemingway, the man, and the writer. He once said how he feared the dark and for years could not sleep without a light.
While recovering in a Red Cross hospital in Milan, he met the American nurse, Agnes von Kurowsky. Hemingway was nineteen and Agnes was twenty-six and engaged to a doctor. Over a period of a month or two, they grew closer, holding hands openly and writing notes to one another. Agnes reportedly carried a picture of Ernest with her wherever she went. Late in August, Hemingway wrote a letter to his mother informing her that he was in love. But just as summer gave way to autumn, their relationship also suffered change. Agnes was posted away, and although they maintained contact by writing letters, it seems that the distance apart gave Agnes time for reflection. By March 1919, Agnes wrote a letter to Hemingway breaking off the engagement. He was devastated, having been so in love. However, rather than lose himself in sorrow, it seems he chose to fight back and immersed himself in work and went on to achieve something great.
So, for Ernest Hemingway, going to war brought almost the equivalent of a lifetime’s experience. Not only was he physically scarred and injured, but psychologically scarred too. Putting his experiences to great use, he went on to forge one of his best-loved novels, A Farewell to Arms (1929), which portrays the love affair of a young ambulance driver and a nurse on the Italian front during the First World War. Working as a journalist covering the Spanish Civil War, he would later go on to write For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). This novel captures the essence of the Civil War, illustrating it in all its brutality.
During the inter-war years, he became acquainted with many of the modernist writers of the era, such as Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and Gertrude Stein. Working as a war correspondent in World War Two, he was present at the Normandy landings and the liberation of Paris. Hemingway went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1952 for his novel, The Old Man, and the Sea, while in 1954, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature.
His style as a writer bears a similarity to modernist writers in that his prose is very minimalist, tight and direct. Often things are unsaid and left for the reader to concur, but his prose is equally moving, beautiful and eloquent. According to James Nagel, Hemingway’s prose “changed the nature of American writing.”
In considering whether Hemingway’s war experiences informed his writing, Henry Louis Gates believed it was fundamental. After World War One, many of the modernist writers “lost faith in the central institutions of Western civilisation” and created a new style of writing through which meaning is established through dialogue, action, and prose permeated with silences.
He truly was one of the greatest writers, and it was a tragic day in July 1961 when Ernest Hemingway took his life. Having suffered from a form of depression, like his father before him, he committed suicide.
Arguably, without his experience, we would today be devoid of at least three of his greatest works. Like many writers and poets over the years, he has taken periods of political unrest and war and used them to illustrate the brutality and futility of such conflicts. His writing is no polemic but has the power to bring the reader to ponder and question while lost in the beauty of his prose.