Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Importance of Being Ernest

By Nick DeLuca

Journalist. World War I hero. Consummate drinker. Bare-knuckle brawler. Safari voyager. Big game hunter. Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winning author.

These are just a few broad descriptions that can be used when discussing the paramount author of the 20th century; however, he was more than just a handful of adjectives. He still is. His legacy survives as a literary icon, a master wordsmith with a knack for getting the most significance out of a sequence of words or phrases that seem to be of the least importance. He is an author by whom all other authors are measured. He is Ernest Hemingway.

Born in Oak Park, Illinois—a western suburb of Chicago—in 1901, Hemingway took to writing while in his junior year in high school. As part of a journalism class, students were required to submit articles to the school’s newspaper, The Trapeze. Upon graduation he had written and published articles for, as well as edited, The Trapeze and The Tabula—the school’s yearbook—and took a job reporting for The Kansas City Star. It was by taking this job that Hemingway would build the foundation of his famous writing style and come to revolutionize the literary world.

A five-year old Hemingway (far right)

There is a reason that Hemingway is taught in almost every college level English curriculum across the United States. Hemingway’s highly touted, and arguably greatest achievement was the novel The Sun Also Rises. In it he accurately and acutely describes the lifestyle of the 1920’s American expatriates living in Paris known as the “Lost Generation.” By describing the events and people surrounding him during his stays in Paris and Spain, Hemingway came to develop his famous tightly written prose and self-described “iceberg theory” where the facts float above water and the supporting structure and symbolism operate out of sight. His semi-autobiographical approach also helped to secure realism in his works, using this in The Sun Also Rises as well as many of his later acclaimed works such as his World War I love-tragedy, A Farewell to Arms; his Spanish Civil War based, For Whom the Bell Tolls; and his Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winning novella, The Old Man and The Sea.

But Hemingway is able to transcend the ink, the page, and the classroom and touch his audience in a personal and inspiring way. Scottish immigrant and writer Andre Van Loon credits his inspiration to Papa. 

“My family moved to Scotland when I was fourteen. In order to learn English as fast as I could, I read as much as I could. I read all of Hemingway in a matter of months. Reading Hemingway made me want to be a writer. To write as purely and excitingly as Hemingway at his best is one of my longest lasting ideals.”

After the success of A Farewell to Arms made him financially independent as a writer, Hemingway often took safari trips to Africa, fishing trips to Cuba, and bullfighting trips to Spain as a spectator and keen enthusiast. During one of his safari excursions he was injured in two successive plane crashes, burnt in a brush fire, and drank enough to incur diabetes. He lived the remainder of his years in constant pain and irritation, eventually taking his own life by putting a 12-gauge shotgun to his head in 1961. But perhaps it was his ability to convey his suffering through his writing that made his most discouraged audience members, like Timothy Bernard, connect with him and deter themselves from the clutches of depression.

“I was in my late 30s and had recently had some major foot surgeries. I kept working a full schedule despite being on crutches. I became physically exhausted and soon I was emotionally exhausted too. I sunk into a deep depression the likes I had never experienced before or since. I picked up The Old Man and The Sea and it spoke to the joys and sorrows of life. There was such power in helplessness, such honesty in failure. It was as if each of Hemingway’s words were lifted high above the ground by a crane, then released with such precision and power that they were permanently planted on the page. I started reading more of his works and appreciated how he doesn’t back away from life…or death,” Barnard commented.

On Sunday December 13, editor Sandra Spanier and actor Corey Stoll—who plays the role of Hemingway in Woody Allen’s 2011 romantic comedy Midnight in Paris—among others, came to the JFK Library to present and discuss the recently published The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Volume 1, 1907-1922. The letters give insight into the lesser-known early years of author, describing his various relationships with family members, his budding friendships, and his time abroad during the war.

Spanier said the letters go beneath the “very spared, disciplined, honed-down style of his published works and reveal a very chatty, gossipy, conversationalist. We get a very different picture of Hemingway than what we get from his published works or public persona.”

In 2002, Hemingway’s home in Cuba was opened to a team of American scholars including Spanier. Over 3,000 letters and personal correspondence were found in the home’s contents. Spanier is now embarked on a promotional tour with her book on the West Coast and Pacific Northwest. 

Hemingway is one of my personal heroes. His no-nonsense, straightforward, tell-it-like-it-is prose and persona are aspects that I strive for as an aspiring writer. His protagonists capture essence and direction of his moral compass, often emulating his masculine athleticism, resourceful intelligence, and stoicism under pressure. We are lucky to live in the post-Hemingway world; afforded the opportunity to indulge ourselves in his stories and escape from any weight or anxiety forced upon us from the stress of our lives. His works have effortlessly slipped the bonds of simple fiction into, and will forever hold their places in, the American canon. 

Here is a link to listen to Hemingway's Nobel Prize speech.

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