The Old Man and the Sea, For Whom the Bell Tolls, A Farewell to Arms – these are but a small selection of novels written by Ernest Hemingway during his lifetime. They drew much acclaim and helped to establish his position as one of the twentieth-century literary greats. But have you read any of his books? While many applauded him, he equally had to fend off his critics. Love him or hate him, his novels are here to stay, and while some have likened Hemingway’s prose to that of an adolescent, it is his style of prose upon which the light brightly shines.
In understanding how Hemingway became one of the greatest writers of literature in the twentieth century, it is important to look at Hemingway the man to gain an appreciation of his life and experiences and then you will see how they informed and shaped his writing. His life story reads like a novel and is bestowed with richness and all the usual trimmings such as love and loss.
The young Ernest was tall, lean and athletic and enjoyed outdoor pursuits such as fishing and sailing. War, fighting, and death played a prominent role in his life, and the man was voracious, energetic and passionate, embracing experiences and absorbing them body and soul with an insatiable appetite. He enjoyed the company of his male friends and this brought out his competitive streak.
Ernest Hemingway was born in Illinois in 1899. His father was a doctor, and his mother had been a promising opera singer. When he left school at the age of seventeen, he joined the Kansas City Star for several months as a reporter. These early days gave him experience as a writer while war raged overseas in Europe.
At the age of eighteen, Ernest answered the call for ambulance drivers for the American Red Cross and found himself posted to Italy. He went because, as he once said, “I wanted to go . . . My country needed me, and I went and did whatever I was told.”
The world was in the grip of war and, like many young men of his generation, he was eager to make a difference, to do his duty and above all to witness this major event. Working close to the front, it was only a matter of time before he was injured or worse and that day came after one month.
While he recovered in hospital, he fell in love with a nurse, but the relationship was not to last, something which devastated him and it was from his entire experience in Italy that his novel, A Farewell to Arms was born. Within the story, a love affair blossoms, a precious jewel amidst the horror and total despair of war. Often dubbed the best American novel to have come out of World War One, it cemented Ernest Hemingway’s reputation as a leading writer of his time.
Hemingway in France WW2
Afterwards, Ernest returned home to America and a hero’s welcome and became a reporter for American and Canadian newspapers. He spent time in Europe covering the Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922) and later, the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). It was from this that Ernest drew on his experiences in his novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940).
Between 1944 and 1945 he travelled to London and Europe, as a war correspondent and he witnessed the first Allied landings on D-Day from a landing craft at sea. From his view of Omaha Beach, he saw the first, second, third, fourth and fifth wave of troops who had fallen in their struggle to reach cover. He witnessed battles and was present at the liberation of Paris – a city he knew well having lived there years earlier.
In 1950, his novel Across the River and Into the Trees was published and garnered much criticism. A year later, when he had completed The Old Man and the Sea (1952) partially spurred on by a swell of fury, he said that it was “the best I can write ever for all of my life,” (E. Hemingway, 1952). The Nobel Foundation awarded Hemingway the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954 “for his mastery of the art of narrative, most recently demonstrated in The Old Man and the Sea, and for the influence that he has exerted on contemporary style,” (The Nobel Foundation).
While Ernest was beginning life as a reporter, he never lost sight of the rules impressed upon him. Write short sentences and keep them simple. Use short first paragraphs and vigorous English. Over the years, he shaped modern literature with his pared-down prose. He became the masterful pruner of words and his lean prose harnesses a strength that shapes and informs and therein lies the brilliance.
And so it was that a young Ernest Hemingway transcended his journey as a reporter, drawing upon his experiences to become one of the greatest and most cherished writers of the twentieth century, forever immortalised in the works he left behind; his legacy of a lifetime of war, love and loss amongst other things. War undoubtedly left its mark on Hemingway.
War undoubtedly left its mark on Hemingway and he was renowned for writing about it and his first-hand accounts from his front line coverage served as fuel for his own writing. Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr has been quoted as saying, “The way we write about war or even think about war was affected fundamentally by Hemingway.”
After the Great War, Hemingway had to deal with returning to civilian life just as any soldier at that time and in his own town, nothing had changed. But war had changed the men who returned. In his book, “Soldiers Home”, a soldier, Howard Krebs, returns home from war and struggles to reconnect with his life and his family. Krebs cannot love anymore, or pray and feels as if his soul was taken from him by the war. Within this short story, the aftermath is dealt with in such a poignant way, as if Ernest was therapeutically working his own way through the mist as he wrote.
Hemingway’s prose, renowned for its sparseness, its pared-down style, is magical. It was a new twist on literature, and a different way of writing. He used unpretentious words that spoke volumes. And yet, as simple as the prose may seem upon first sight, you soon discover the genius behind the pen, the master crafter, and the beauty conveyed from each page. His novels scream to be read over and over and each time you do so you will discover something new. Hemingway’s prose makes the reader think, assimilate and perceive for there is much to uncover, and it is his style, his unique approach to writing that has propelled him into the literary canon and identified him as one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century.