illustrated portrait of American author Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway

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Ernest Hemingway Biography

Ernest Hemingway played a major role in defining 20th-century American literature, but his life, art, and image are so deeply intertwined that it is hard to separate them. This is because he had such high standards, and because he insisted on a certain type of intense truth in his writing. Since he often wrote about the sort of experience that tested a man’s mettle, he repeatedly risked his life in high-adventure situations. Hemingway served as a Red Cross ambulance driver in World War I (where he was injured by both mortar and machine gun fire), reported on the Spanish Civil War and World War II, worked as a deep-sea fisherman, and went on big game safaris throughout Africa. He was in two plane crashes while visiting Africa and was so badly injured in one that some newspapers reported he had been killed. All of this and more showed up in his writing.

Facts and Trivia

  • Hemingway won the Italian Silver Medal for Valor for his actions in World War I. (Even though he had over 200 pieces of mortar shell in his legs, Hemingway carried an injured soldier to medical help.)
  • While his work was well-received by critics almost from the start, Hemingway himself was the subject of much criticism for his morals and behavior. This led to a lot of verbal conflicts—and even some physical ones.
  • In the 1920s, Hemingway was part of a group of American expatriate writers living in Paris. There he socialized and argued with writers such as Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and T. S. Eliot.
  • Hemingway married four times, often falling for one woman while still married to another one.
  • After battling depression and poor health for several years, Hemingway shot himself in 1961—just as his father had in 1928.


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Article abstract: Hemingway was one of the most influential writers in the twentieth century, both as a much-imitated stylist and as a larger-than-life celebrity.

Early Life

Born into a conservative, upper-middle-class family in Oak Park, Illinois, an affluent suburb of Chicago, Ernest Hemingway spent much of his life and early literary career trying to break away from the constraints of his youth. Hemingway’s father, Clarence Edmonds Hemingway, was a physician who had a great interest in hunting and fishing. The young Hemingway, whose father hoped that his son would eventually join him in his medical practice, became an avid outdoorsman at an early age.

During long holidays spent at the family’s summer home on Walloon Lake in northern Michigan, Ernest, who was not healthy as a youth, pushed himself to the limits of his physical endurance, as he did throughout much of his later life. He became an enthusiastic sportsman.

Grace Hall Hemingway, Ernest’s mother, was a cultivated woman, much interested in music. She dominated her husband, and Ernest realized early that his father was henpecked. Until her death, Grace Hemingway never had a positive word to say about her son’s work. She regarded Ernest’s writing as an embarrassment to the family because it dealt with a side of life that Grace considered seamy. Never able to win from his mother the approbation that he wanted, Hemingway was early attracted to older women who appreciated his work and who appreciated him. Three of his four wives were considerably older than he, and his first serious romantic encounter was with Agnes von Kurowsky, a nurse who tended him in Italy and was eight years his senior.

Hemingway completed high school in 1917, just as the United States was being drawn into World War I. He had no wish to go to college and was eager to serve his country. His defective vision precluded his serving in the armed forces, so after a summer at Walloon Lake, Hemingway, drawing on his experience in writing for his high school newspaper in Oak Park, went to Kansas City as a reporter for the Star, a celebrated daily newspaper of that era. He was to return to Oak Park only five or six times in his entire life after he made the initial break. In Kansas City, Hemingway served an intense journalistic apprenticeship for seven months before he left for Italy as a Red Cross ambulance driver in May, 1918.

Hemingway had been in Italy for less than six weeks when he was wounded at Fossalta di Piave on Italy’s boundary with Austria. Despite his wounds, he dragged an injured solider from the front line to safety. For this act of heroism, he was decorated.

After spending some time in an Italian hospital near Milan recovering from his wounds, Hemingway was sent home, where he was looked upon as a hero. He reveled in his newly won celebrity. After he regained his strength at Lake Walloon, Hemingway went to Chicago, where he held a variety of menial jobs. Soon he married Hadley Richardson, eight years older than he, and sailed with her for France, where he served as a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star. He arrived in Paris just as the city was reaching a postwar zenith of intellectual ferment and literary activity, and there he was to remain for the better part of the next decade, coming to know well such influential literary figures as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ford Madox Ford, Ezra Pound, and James Joyce.

Hemingway, handsome with his animated eyes, his ready smile, and his dark mustache,...

(This entire section contains 2367 words.)

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was soon the darling of Parisian literary society. His good looks and amiability won for him a legion of friends, many of whom ultimately came to see the darker side of his highly complex and often bewildering personality. Aside from his journalistic commitments, he began in Paris to work assiduously on his short stories and on a novel about the aimless postwar expatriates who lived a somewhat undirected existence in France and Spain. On a personal level, Hemingway was able to give purpose to his own life by writing about the aimlessness that characterized many of the Americans of his generation who lived in Europe at that time. He came to deplore the term he had popularized (borrowed from Gertrude Stein): the “lost generation.”

Hemingway’s first book, a collection of short stories interspersed with imagistic reflections, In Our Time (1924), was recognized by the literati as a work of considerable promise. Although the book was not a resounding commercial success, it was clearly the work of a serious author who had begun to master his craft.

Life’s Work

Hemingway’s first novel, The Sun Also Rises (1926), established him as an author of considerable significance, just as In Our Time had established him as an author of considerable promise. The Sun Also Rises, a book that was right for its time, depicts dislocated members of the postwar generation. Set in Paris and Pamplona, Spain, it featured Hemingway’s first extended treatment of one of his lifelong fascinations: the art of the bullfight. It was not merely the timeliness of The Sun Also Rises that established Hemingway as a serious artist; it was also the meticulous control that he exercised over his material and the care and authenticity of his spare descriptions that made both readers and literary critics realize that he was an author of extraordinary stature.

The Sun Also Rises was followed by A Farewell to Arms (1929), which was published in the year that Hemingway divorced his first wife, Hadley, who had borne him one son, John. The protagonist of A Farewell to Arms is an American disenchanted with a society that could let something such as World War I happen. He finally deserts the Italian army, in which he has been serving and which is in disarray. His disenchantment is intensified by the death of his lover in giving birth to their child.

In the years following A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway became an increasingly romantic figure, a rugged outdoorsman who spent much time attending bullfights in Spain, hunting big game in Africa, and fishing the waters off Key West, Florida, where he bought a home in which he resided when he was not traveling. Out of this period were to come such books as Death in the Afternoon (1932), an extended discourse on bullfighting in which Hemingway gives valuable insights into his own creative processes, and Green Hills of Africa (1935), which remains one of the most sensitively written books about big game and those who hunt it.

Out of Hemingway’s Key West experience came his novel To Have and Have Not (1937), a mediocre book whose action takes places in Cuba and Key West during the Great Depression. Hemingway’s next book, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), is an optimistic novel that calls for the unity of humankind. The book is set in Spain during the Civil War, which Hemingway had seen at first hand as a correspondent with strong Loyalist sympathies. For Whom the Bell Tolls was to be Hemingway’s last novel for ten years, after which he published Across the River and into the Trees (1950), an overly sentimental novel of little distinction.

Meanwhile, in 1940, Hemingway divorced Pauline Pfeiffer, his second wife and the mother of his sons Patrick and Gregory, after thirteen years of marriage. He married Martha Gellhorn, a writer, almost immediately and was married to her until 1945. Then he married Mary Welsh, also a writer, to whom he remained married for the remainder of his life.

When Hemingway returned from covering the Spanish Civil War, he bought Finca Vigia, a quite modest estate not far from Havana, Cuba, and this was to be his home until 1959, when the political situation under Fidel Castro forced Hemingway out of the country. He then bought a home in Ketchum, Idaho, where he was to spend the remaining years of his life.

During World War II, Hemingway first served as a correspondent in China, then, from 1944 until the end of the war, as a correspondent in Europe, crossing the English Channel on D-Day with the Twenty-second Regiment of the Fourth Infantry Division, with which he saw considerable combat in Normandy and later at the Battle of the Bulge. He also devised the Crook Factory, which, in 1943, undertook some ill-conceived and abortive missions on his boat, The Pilar, to try to destroy German submarines in the waters off Cuba.

Hemingway’s excursion into drama was with a play about the Spanish Civil War, The Fifth Column (1938). It was published in The Fifth Column and the First Forty-nine Stories (1938), a collection which includes such celebrated stories as “The Killers,” “The Snows of Kilamanjaro,” and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.”

Hemingway had a writing slump after World War II that plagued him for the remainder of his life. Across the River and into the Trees brought vitriolic reviews, and some critics thought that this book marked the end of Hemingway’s literary career. He published The Old Man and the Sea (1952) two years later, however, and this short, tightly controlled novel about Santiago, an old fisherman who almost dies during a three-day encounter with a marlin, helped to salvage his deteriorating reputation. In 1953, this book won for Hemingway the Pulitzer Prize and was also instrumental in his being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954.

The Old Man and the Sea was Hemingway’s last novel, although two earlier, unfinished novels, Islands in the Stream (1970) and The Garden of Eden (1986), were published posthumously. The last of these was constructed by Scribner’s editor Tom Jenks from more than fifteen hundred manuscript pages that Hemingway left on his death. Also published posthumously was A Moveable Feast (1964), a memoir which details Hemingway’s life in Paris during the 1920’s and which has much of the power and grace of his early work.

Hemingway began to suffer increasingly from depression and anxiety after World War II, and he was twice hospitalized at the Mayo Clinic for electric shock therapy. On July 2, 1961, after returning to Ketchum from his second hospitalization, Hemingway ended his life with a shotgun blast.


At a time when much writing was florid and verbose, Ernest Hemingway stripped language to the bare essentials for expressing fundamental thoughts and rendering the most accurate descriptions possible. Although he dealt with complex thoughts and emotions, Hemingway labored to achieve directness and simplicity of expression. From Gertrude Stein, he learned the effectiveness of verbal repetition as a means of achieving the rhythms of language. From Ezra Pound and from his early experience as a journalist, he learned to write exactingly, using accurate verbs and nouns, depending little on adjectives and adverbs.

Hemingway’s best work demonstrates careful control, close observation, accurate depiction, and the highest level of artistic integrity. It glorifies the dignity in life as seen in the works that deal with bullfighting, big-game hunting, fishing, war, drinking, brawling, and camaraderie. Hemingway’s concept of courage as grace under pressure underlies his finest writing.

As the fourth American author to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, Hemingway brought renewed attention to his country as a source of fine writing. Often a deeply troubled person, Hemingway went through life trying to demonstrate a courage that perhaps he was not convinced he really possessed. His increasing need to project a macho image stemmed from deep psychological sources which were intimately connected to his artistry.


Baker, Carlos. Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1969. Focuses on the origin, development, and reception of Hemingway’s writing. Information drawn largely from primary sources, including more than twenty-five hundred letters. Written at the invitation of Scribner’s, Hemingway’s publisher since 1926. Deals more with events than with ideas.

Baker, Carlos. Hemingway: The Writer as Artist. 4th ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1972. A solid consideration of Hemingway’s literary technique. Baker is knowledgeable but detached and objective. One of the better books on Hemingway.

Burgess, Anthony. Ernest Hemingway and His World. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1978. Although a pictorial biography, this book contains some remarkable literary insights and acute critical analysis. Shows how Hemingway introduced a new standard of language, one of “nerves and muscle.”

Grebstein, Sheldon N. Hemingway’s Craft. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1973. The book emphasizes technique and literary motivations. Shows sequential development to 1940, followed by a seeming diminution in Hemingway’s literary abilities.

Griffin, Peter. Along with Youth: Hemingway, The Early Years. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. Focuses on Hemingway’s life from birth until his marriage to Hadley Richardson and his departure for Paris. Prints for the first time a number of Hemingway’s poems and early contributions to his high school newspaper.

Hauneman, Audre, ed. Ernest Hemingway: A Comprehensive Bibliography. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1967; Supplement, 1975. These volumes, which again need updating, are the most comprehensive and reliable bibliographies of Hemingway’s work and of scholarship related to Hemingway.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Hemingway: A Biography. New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1985. Well written and intriguing. Meyers clearly demonstrates that Hemingway’s life was as interesting as the lives of any of his protagonists. Presents trenchant insights into Hemingway’s view of women, particularly as his view was shaped by his early relationship to his mother.

Rovit, Earl H. Ernest Hemingway. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1963. A useful overview which is now somewhat dated. Well researched although a bit hampered by the restrictions of length and format imposed by the series of which it is a part.

Wagner, Linda W., ed. Hemingway: Five Decades of Criticism. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1974. An intelligent selection of salient criticism from the earliest to the time following Hemingway’s death.

Young, Philip. Ernest Hemingway: A Reconsideration. Rev. ed. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1966. This second edition of Young’s superb critical study, first published in 1952, adds an interesting preface telling of the author’s difficulties with Hemingway over the publication of the book. Young hypothesizes that Hemingway’s heroes were modeled on himself and that his life in turn was modeled on the heroes of earlier American classics, particularly those of Mark Twain.