Ernest Hemingway the writer has long been celebrated as one of the giants of modern literature: a Nobel Prize-winner, an inspirer of endless imitators, a master of prose style, a creator of internationally acclaimed fiction. Hemingway the man, though, has not fared well at the hands of biographers and critics; his faults were too many and too obvious. He was a liar, a poseur, an ingrate, a braggart, and an unfaithful husband. During the years following World War II and particularly after he was awarded the Nobel Prize, Hemingway was often in the news, but the private Hemingway was little known to the general reading public until after the publication of Leicester Hemingway’s memoir, My Brother, Ernest Hemingway (1962). A. E. Hotchner’s Papa Hemingway (1966) depicted a largely repellent Hemingway in his closing years. A more favorable, full-length portrait appeared in Carlos Baker’s Hemingway: A Life Story (1969). Many later writers, including members of Hemingway’s family, added details that were sometimes favorable but often harshly critical of the man who was often confused with the personae in his writings, who seem so often to be based on their author.
What made Hemingway the man he was, and how near was his resemblance to the protagonists of his stories and novels? Michael Reynolds, the author of several earlier books on Hemingway, attempts an answer in The Young Hemingway, an intensive and revealing study of the formative years, particularly 1918 to 1921, which led, on the one hand, to Hemingway the master of the art of fiction and, on the other, to the posturing public figure and occasional rude boor who, as he approached his violent end, sometimes seemed an aging buffoon and at other times a pitiable, paranoid wreck.
The earliest influences on Hemingway were those of his family and what Reynolds calls the Village. During Hemingway’s boyhood, Oak Park was a residential community a few miles from Chicago. The men of Oak Park worked in the city and returned to the peace and quiet of the Village when the workday was over. Oak Parkers were conservative in politics and in their social, moral, and religious views.
Unlike his contemporaries Thomas Wolfe and James Joyce, Hemingway never wrote of the hometown in which he was reared and received his schooling. He did not forget, however, the orderly, comfortable world that he lost when he went to war.
The Hemingway family fitted well into the middle-class population of Oak Park: Dr. Clarence Hemingway practiced medicine, and his wife, Grace Hall Hemingway, taught voice. There were six children—Marcelline, Ernest, Ursula, Madelaine (Sunny), Carol, and Leicester.
Though Dr. Hemingway would have liked his eldest son to attend the University of Wisconsin and earn a medical degree, Ernest had no interest in medicine. He wanted to write, and journalism could provide the experience he sought. Through an uncle, he obtained in 1917 a job as a cub reporter for the Kansas City Star. Had it not been for World War I, Hemingway might perhaps have been a journalist for the rest of his life.
As a boy, Hemingway had been impressed by Theodore Roosevelt’s theory of the “strenuous life” as a molder of character. The war offered an opportunity for this kind of life. In 1918, rejected for army service because of his myopic vision, Hemingway became a Red Cross ambulance driver. He was sent to Italy, served there for about three weeks, was severely wounded by shrapnel and a machine-gun bullet, was hospitalized, and then came home to Oak Park in 1919. His wartime service was short, but the memories of those experiences would last him for many years.
Reynolds remarks that long before his return home, Hemingway “had begun to invent a life for himself, a life which Roosevelt forged and advocated.” As he told the Oak Parkers about his war experience, he embroidered in various ways. He said that he had been a first lieutenant in the Italian army and had fought in three battles. He did not say that he had driven a Red Cross ambulance and that he had been wounded while distributing chocolates to troops during his first and only battle.
For a time Hemingway relished the attention and admiration he attracted be being a local hero, but he needed to make a living and wanted to save money so that he could marry a nurse with whom he had fallen in love while in a Milan hospital. He was soon disillusioned and embittered, though, by a letter from the nurse telling him that she was now engaged to an Italian. (Hemingway would later exact revenge of a sort when he fictionalized the experience in the sardonic “A Very Short Story.”)
Hemingway did not return immediately to the newspaper writing he had done before he left for Europe, but he continued to write. He tried stories, some about the war, which were cliché-filled imitations of those in popular magazines such as Red Book and the Saturday Evening Post. Editors rejected all of them.
In 1918, Hemingway had left America a naïve nineteen-year-old boy with romantic visions of himself achieving glory in conflict. The reality of war had been very different from what he had anticipated. He thought of himself in 1919 as having matured during his months abroad and his introduction to a world far beyond Oak Park, but it was still some time before he would break away from his family and what he considered the restraining efforts of his parents.
Hemingway’s views of his mother and father were influenced by his parents’ relationship with each other. Grace Hemingway was not only a wife and the mother of six children, but she also took pride in her musical training, her competence as a teacher, and her ability to earn money. She was...
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