Happy birthday, Ernest Hemingway!
Ernest Hemingway was born on this day in 1899 in Oak Park, Ill. He fought in World War I, traveled widely, hunted big game and lived, among other places, in Cuba, Florida, Wyoming and Paris. In Paris, he was mentored by Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound; his 1923 passport photo, above, shows him as an intense and handsome young man. He won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1954.
Hemingway was famous for his direct, terse prose style and his tendency to focus on issues of masculinity. His best-known novels include "The Sun Also Rises," "A Farewell to Arms," "To Have and Have Not," "For Whom the Bell Tolls" -- all published by 1940 -- and 1952's "The Old Man and the Sea." He was also a prolific short story writer.
Convinced he was being followed by the FBI (he was) and in increasingly fragile mental health, Hemingway took his own life on July 2, 1961. Considering Hemingway on the anniversary of his death, book critic David L. Ulin wrote that the author was "an early example of the writer as celebrity, as famous for who he was as for what he wrote -- and yet, half a century after his death, he is misunderstood, if we think of him at all." Ulin wrote about a short story by Hemingway:
I think of "Cat in the Rain," perhaps my favorite of his stories, which in three concise pages portrays a marriage on the cusp of unraveling, without ever making that overt. The young American wife at the center of the narrative is dissatisfied but only aware of it as an undertone. As her husband reads, uninterested, she stares out the window of their Italian hotel room, then tries to rescue a cat caught in the rain. The story unfolds over the course of only a few minutes, but these minutes are intensely weighted, especially when the wife goes downstairs and runs into the hotel-keeper, an older man who is everything her husband is not. "The wife liked him," Hemingway writes. "She liked the deadly serious way he received any complaints. She liked his dignity. She liked the way he wanted to serve her. She liked the way he felt about being a hotel-keeper. She liked his old, heavy face and big hands."
You can read that passage in a variety of ways: as a deft character description or as an example of Hemingway's aesthetic in action, with the repetition of "She liked" working to remind us of the story as a written artifact. Yet most important is how the spareness sets up the emotion, by forcing us to inhabit these sentences for ourselves.
What is Hemingway asking us to do, after all, if not to compare this man, in the wife's eyes, to her husband, who does not and will never match up? He doesn't need to say it; we can see it, and its implications for the future of their relationship. If, as he once wrote, "all stories, if continued far enough, end in death," he is revealing to us here a way station, freighted with both past and future, a catalyst, an epiphany.
Happy birthday, Ernest Hemingway.
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Photo: Ernest Hemingway's 1923 passport. Credit: U.S. National Archives