Ernest (Miller) Hemingway 1899–1961
American short story writer, novelist, nonfiction writer, journalist, poet, and dramatist. See also Ernest Hemingway Criticism, and Volumes 1, 3, 6, 8, 10, 13.
Hemingway is regarded by many as one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. Considered master of the understated prose style which became his trademark, Hemingway was awarded the 1954 Nobel Prize in literature. Both his novels and short stories have evoked an enormous amount of critical commentary; although his literary stature is secure, he remains a highly controversial writer. His narrow range of characters and his thematic focus on violence and machismo, as well as his terse, objective prose, have led some critics to regard his fiction as shallow and insensitive. Others claim that beneath the deceptively limited surface lies a complex and fully realized fictional world. His supporters note the supreme importance of the things left unsaid. As Hemingway commented in Death in the Afternoon (1932), the "dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water." Despite the fact that his style is variously applauded and denounced, Hemingway is one of the most widely imitated writers of contemporary literature.
Critical assessment of Hemingway's writing frequently focuses on the connections between his life and his work. Born and raised in affluent, suburban Oak Park, Illinois, Hemingway spent the greater part of his life trying to escape the repressive code of behavior set by his strict, disciplinarian parents and their society. His first break from home came in 1918 when he volunteered for service in World War I. Hemingway was stationed in Italy for only a few weeks before he was wounded and forced to return to Oak Park. Scarred physically and emotionally from the war and stifled by his home environment, Hemingway, according to some critics, began a quest for psychological and artistic freedom that was to lead him first to the secluded woods of northern Michigan, where he had spent his most pleasant childhood moments, and then to Europe, where his literary talents began to take shape.
Although Hemingway's most significant works include such renowned novels as The Sun Also Rises (1926), A Farewell to Arms (1929), and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), as well as his Pulitzer Prize-winning novella, The Old Man and the Sea (1952), critical response to his longer fiction has been less uniformly favorable than to that of his short stories. The short stories in his first major publication, In Our Time (1925), are increasingly considered to be some of his most successful works and are seen to embody the predominant stylistic and thematic concerns which mark all of his later fiction. The majority of these stories focus on Nick Adams, a protagonist often discussed as the quintessential Hemingway hero and the first in the line of Hemingway's "fictional selves."
Nick Adams stories are scattered throughout Hemingway's collections, including In Our Time, Men without Women (1927), Winner Take Nothing (1933), and The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories (1938). Although the Nick Adams stories were not initially identified as a unified sequence, Philip Young, a noted Hemingway scholar, edited a volume in 1972 which collects these stories and places them roughly in chro-nological order based on Nick's maturation. Young has been influential in directing critical attention to connections between Hemingway's work and his early life.
Like Hemingway, Nick Adams spent much of his early youth in the Michigan woods, went overseas to fight in the war, was wounded, and returned. The early stories set in Michigan, such as "Indian Camp," "The End of Something," "The Three-Day Blow," and "The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife," introduce Nick as a vulnerable adolescent attempting to understand a brutal, violent, and confusing world. On the surface, Nick, like Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises, Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls, and, in fact, all of Hemingway's protagonists, appears tough and insensitive. However, critical exploration has resulted in a widespread conclusion that the toughness stems not from insensitivity but from a strict moral code which functions as the characters' sole defense against the overwhelming chaos of the world. Cleanth Brooks, Jr. and Robert Penn Warren, in their influential exposition of the short story "The Killers," noted that "it is the tough man,… the disciplined man, who actually is aware of pathos or tragedy." Though he seems to lack spontaneous human emotion, the hero "sheathes (his sensibility) in the code of toughness" because "he has learned that the only way to hold on to 'honor,' to individuality, to even, the human order … is to live by his code."
One of the most popular and provocative of the Nick Adams stories is "Big Two-Hearted River." For many years its ambiguities puzzled critics and other readers. On the surface it simply recounts Nick's solitary fishing expedition along the Big Two-Hearted River in northern Michigan. However, there is an air of unsettling calm underlying the uneventful plot. As is characteristic of Hemingway's fiction, the terse, almost journalistic prose, the compressed action, and the subdued yet suggestive symbolism point to a deeper meaning than appears on the surface. In the late 1930s Edmund Wilson introduced the idea that the "thing left out" of "Big Two-Hearted River" is its entire social context. He proposed that Nick has recently returned from war and that the "touch of panic" which surrounds him is in fact his shock and withdrawal from the brutal nature of life. Nick's escape along the Big Two-Hearted River, like Huck Finn's along the Mississippi, can be seen in a wider context as a rejection of society as a whole. In 1952 Philip Young, expanding on Wilson's theory, suggested that all of Hemingway's fiction revolves around the psychologically wounded hero, which in turn reflects Hemingway's own relentless struggle to face the world with "grace under pressure." Earl Rovit notes that "in a sense, (Nick Adams) is a released devil of our innocence…. He suffers our accidents and defeats before they happen to us…. On this level, then, the Nick Adams projection is a vital defensive weapon in Hemingway's combat with the universe." Wilson's and Young's theories, though controversial, have been widely accepted and form the basis of critical interpretation of Hemingway's fiction.
Like William Faulkner, Hemingway began his literary career by publishing poetry; he also wrote a play, The Fifth Column (1937). But these works are considered less significant contributions to his overall literary achievement. In 1961, at the age of 61, Hemingway committed suicide, thus ending the life of one of the most influential prose stylists of the twentieth century.
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 6, 8, 10, 13, 19; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 4, 9; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1981; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 1.)
In this volume commentary on Ernest Hemingway is focused on the Nick Adams stories.