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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES - BIOGRAPHY
Ernest Hemingway once gave some advice to his fellow writer F. Scott Fitzgerald. If something in life hurts you, he said, you should use it in your writing. In A Farewell to Arms Hemingway followed his own advice. The painful experiences of his own life that, consciously and unconsciously, he placed in this novel help make it a major artistic achievement.
The first of these experiences was a physical "hurt" that occurred on July 8, 1918. On this date, two weeks shy of his nineteenth birthday, Hemingway lay in an Italian army aid station, his legs riddled by shrapnel and machine-gun bullets.
The story of how he got there goes like this. By 1917 the United States had entered World War I, which had begun three years earlier. Although Hemingway was old enough to be in the service, his bad eyesight made him ineligible. (Characteristically, he later bragged that his vision had been hurt in boxing matches with dirty fighters. Actually, the damage was congenital.) But bad eyes or no, Hemingway had an urge to go to war. He wrote his sister, "...I'll make it to Europe some way in spite of this optic."
Make it he did by joining the Red Cross as an ambulance driver. He was sent to the mountains of northern Italy where the Italians, allied with England, France, and the U.S., were fighting the Austrians, allied with Germany.
Ambulance driving was too tame for him, and when a chance came to get closer to the action, he grabbed it. The Red Cross, concerned about the welfare of front-line troops, set up emergency canteens close to the battle lines. Hemingway eagerly volunteered to man a forward post. His job was to dispense chocolate and cigarettes. Or, as he wrote, "Each aft and morning I load up a haversack and take my tin lid and gas mask and beat it up to the trenches. I sure have a good time."
It was on one of these "good time" trips that he was struck in the legs by an Austrian shrapnel burst. Near him lay a screaming man, gravely wounded. Despite his own injuries, Hemingway hoisted the man and took off for the command post to the rear. He had gone partway when he took two machine-gun rounds, one in the knee, the other in the foot. He fell, but he got up again and staggered to the post, still carrying the Italian soldier. He was treated and evacuated to a hospital.
Hemingway obviously draws on this experience to create Frederic Henry's fictional wounding in Farewell. His suffering enabled him to describe Frederic's with telling physical detail. But his literary use of the wounding goes deeper than the merely physical. For while Hemingway superficially recovered from his wounds, psychically he seems never to have gotten over them. His view of the world was permanently darkened by his youthful brush with death. Twenty-four years later in World War II he spoke about it himself. "I was an awful dope when I went to the last war," he said. "I can remember just thinking that we were the home team and the Austrians were the visiting team." He learned that the game had neither referees nor rules, and concluded that the only admirable way to play was to take whatever came along with tight-lipped stoicism.
And there you have the essence of the Hemingway hero. Although his name changes from novel to novel, he remains basically the same person. He is often wounded: Henry in Farewell, Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises, and Nick Adams in the stories of In Our Time. He invariably lives in a violent world: Henry in World War I, Barnes in the ritual violence of the bull-ring, and Robert Jordan (For Whom the Bell Tolls) in the Spanish Civil War. Most important, the hero, in public anyway, bears his miseries well. In private, at night, it's often another story.
The second pain that Hemingway used in his writing was an emotional hurt, a faded love affair. This, too, related directly to Farewell.
When he was recovering from his wounds in a Milan hospital, he was one of but four patients tended by eighteen nurses. One of these was a pretty American, Hannah Agnes von Kurowsky. Hemingway fell for her and, in a way, she for him. But she was seven years older than he, and she was also a dedicated nurse. Although they went out together and exchanged love notes, their affair never went beyond what his biographer calls "the kissing stage." Hemingway, though, seems to have had every intention of marrying her, taking her home, and getting a job and settling down. Agnes thought otherwise.
So he sailed and she stayed. She wrote from Europe, hinting that it would be better to let things die. Later she was blunt. She had fallen in love with an Italian; she wished Hemingway well, but it was over.
He blew up. He wrote to another nurse that if Agnes sailed back he hoped she'd fall down the gangway and knock her teeth out. Later he boasted that he had "cauterized" her memory with "booze and other womens." That's doubtful. The hurt was too deep. We know that he kept Agnes's letters all his life. We know that he had three failed marriages. We also know that the women in his novels, notably Catherine Barkley in Farewell, are his least successful characters. They seem idealized, too sexually compliant-perhaps what, as a nineteen-year-old, he envisioned Agnes would have been if she hadn't "gypped" him and fallen in love with someone else.
The third hurt was a social one-alienation from his family. It had been building for some time but it came to a head shortly after the breakup of his love affair. The break, when it came, was lasting.
Hemingway's parents were God-fearing Christians and patriotic Americans, staunch upholders of middle-class values. Hemingway thought them boring. He went out of his way to do things counter to his mother's wishes. She gave him cello lessons; he set up a boxing ring in her music room.
And after he tasted European civilization on his short tour of duty in the war there was no holding him back. He came home, but not to stay, choosing to live instead in other countries. From 1921 to 1924 he was a European correspondent for the Toronto Star. In 1924 he quit his job to live in Paris and concentrate on his own writing. And though he remained unmistakably American in outlook, he spent much of his life living and traveling abroad, in Europe, Africa, the Caribbean.
His characters, too, are usually far from home. They have no families or else they have family troubles. Henry in Farewell sends only cryptic postcards to his family, and speaks of a home full of quarrels.
The fourth hurt-a literary hurt, if there can be such a thing-stemmed from an accident that forced Hemingway to reappraise his early writing and transform it into the influential and finely crafted art for which he is so well known.
Typically, this accident happened when he was traveling. In November 1922 he was covering a diplomatic conference as a journalist. He finished, and notified Hadley, his first wife, to meet him for a short vacation. Thinking she was doing him a favor, she stuffed all his manuscripts in a suitcase so that he could work on them. She put the suitcase down for a minute in a train station, and somebody snatched it. In it was the manuscript of a long story about an ambulance driver in Italy in World War I, a nascent Farewell to Arms. We'll never know how good a story it was, but indications are that its language was a great deal more flowery and juvenile than the clipped and polished prose that constitutes the novel. What would have happened to Hemingway's writing if he hadn't been forced to start from scratch, we'll never know. We do know that he used this seemingly unfortunate accident to his advantage. He developed a spare, hard-hitting style that was a break with the decorative writing of the past.
That style found an eager audience. Published in 1929, A Farewell to Arms was one of the first in a series of works that for thirty years would make Hemingway the very image of the successful American writer. (Two of his earlier books had met with widespread critical approval-his group of stories, In Our Time, Published in 1925, and his second novel, The Sun Also Rises, published in 1926. His first novel, The Torrents of Spring, is generally considered a failure.) Three years after Farewell came the publication of a book inspired by Hemingway's love of Spain and bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon. Winner Take Nothing was published in 1933; The Green Hills of Africa in 1935; and To Have and Have Not in 1937. During the Spanish Civil War he worked as a war correspondent, an experience that he mined for his 1940 novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and he served as a correspondent again during World War II. The novel that resulted from that service, Across the River and into the Trees, was not well received. In 1952 he published The Old Man and the Sea, which helped earn him the Nobel Prize for Literature two years later. The prize cited, among other things, his "style-making mastery of the art of modern narration."
Unfortunately, in a life like Hemingway's, the hurts pile up. While he was able to turn them to some advantage as a writer, the sum of their influences on him as a man was destructive.
In the first place, life dealt him numerous physical blows even after the war. Though he loved sports, particularly boxing, he was at best a mediocre athlete, clumsy and, when he wasn't challenging someone smaller or less experienced than himself, easy to hit. He seemed accident-prone. In 1954 newspapers around the world reported him dead after two airplane crashes in as many days. He survived to laugh at the reports, but the accidents left him with serious injuries.
Too, some deeper psychological wound seemed to drive him to cover up feelings of inadequacy, sexual or otherwise, with boasts about his prowess as a writer and as a man. Some of his tales are so patently false as to be ridiculous. He claimed, for instance, to have been the lover of Mata Hari, the famous spy of World War I, even recording his account of the liaison for Caedmon Records, although by the time Hemingway first arrived in Europe in 1918, Mata Hari had been dead for a year. The same transparent falseness afflicts his story of his supposed derring-do with the Italian infantry. His posing grew embarrassingly more frequent as he grew older, diminishing the personality as the physical injuries diminished the body.
On July 2, 1961, he shot himself to death in his home in Ketchum, Idaho. What remains are his writings, the products of an adventurous and perhaps anguished life, testaments to the talent of a skilled literary artist.