NEW YORK, July 2, 2013 — In the end, the will to die was stronger than the will to live. On the morning of July 2, 1961, Ernest Hemingway aimed a double-barreled, 12-guage shotgun at his head, pulled the trigger and thus ended the short happy life of America’s most famous writer. He was 61 and we do not know what would-be books he took to his grave.
Fittingly, he often spoke of the power of silence, or as biographer Kenneth Slawenski reminds us about J.D. Salinger, the secret to great writing resides in the “fire between the words.” On the temptation to write long, Hemingway remarked that there are times to resist and to “say no to a typewriter.”
Was Hemingway a great writer? The greatest? That is an argument, so let us leave it at that, but without a doubt he was a prose stylist par excellence, even though his most beloved work, The Old Man and the Sea, was more poetry than prose, and it earned him the 1954 Nobel Prize.
He was the Babe Ruth of American literature. Often enough he did swat it out of the park. He was a boozer and a brawler but turned devotional when he sat down – or stood up – to write. Famed for that granite-like style, he claimed to have no style, only the blood, sweat and perseverance to cobble together the cleanest sentence possible. In virtually all his paragraphs there is a sense of urgency. This is also how he lived.
Writers who came along during his heyday and those that followed owe him a debt. Only with trembling fingers did we dare type even page one in the shadow of Henry James and Herman Melville. Hemingway taught us to be unafraid. By example, he proved that saying it simple, straight and true is far more authoritative than razzle-dazzle.
Thanks to his matter-of-fact articulation, we stopped being intimidated by the flowery prose of the past. If he could say it so plainly, so could we.
Depart from embellishments, was his message, just tell it as it is – and this was the lesson he learned early on from the Kansas City Star. Later, he complained that journalism “blunts the instrument” for fiction, and yet all his novels and short stories show the hand of newspaper reporting, like this, from the opening of The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber:
“It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened.” (Italics added by author)
Something did happen. So now we are drawn in, and in journalism that is a lede, or lead.
On war, Hemingway’s novels do not match up against Tolstoy or James Jones. Sentence-by-sentence, however, Hemingway pioneered a unique American voice.
Hemingway illustrated that simplicity, directness and repetitiveness, if done wisely and properly, can be powerful literary tools. Surely he learned some of that from Gertrude Stein, “rose is a rose is a rose,” but much of his rhythmic prose was biblically inspired, like this from King Solomon’s Ecclesiastes:
“All is futility and vanity… A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth endures forever.”
One paradox follows another in the life of Ernest Hemingway. He is still America’s most famous writer and yet, most of his years were spent overseas.
He was at war against nearly all his contemporaries, but gave time and even money to literary fledglings.
He was synonymous with virility but in his first novel, The Sun Also Rises, hero Jake Barnes can not satisfy Lady Brett Ashley. Moreover, in real life Hemingway was stricken by bouts of impotence. A visit to a Catholic church cured him and he remained a somewhat devout Catholic until the end.
How did it all fall apart? He became depressed and paranoid. At the peak of his fame, wealth and glory, why the onset of despair? He must have known this from the wisdom of the Hebraic Midrash: “Man has no profit for all his toil under the sun, for life and fortune on this earth are transitory.”
He complained that the FBI was tailing him. People said he was wrong. Turned out he was right. Depression and physical ailments made him increasingly incoherent and enfeebled. His doctors tried everything, including electroconvulsive therapy. Even at his worst, he was able to persuade them that he was well enough to go home, back to Ketchum, Idaho. A few days later he shot himself.
In accepting his Nobel Prize, by letter, he wrote: “Writing, at its best, is a lonely life.”
Ernest Hemingway was not afraid of writing. He was only afraid of living.
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