Ernest Hemingway would have agreed with eighteenth century British playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who observed, “Easy writing’s curst hard reading.” The Hemingway whom Meyers presents is an artist driven by his art. He is obsessed, particularly in the 1920’s and 1930’s, with writing clipped, clear sentences and with using language with an exactness that few other notable writers have achieved. Meyers quotes Hemingway’s statement of his aesthetic credo: “Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.” Hemingway lived by this creed during his most productive and artistically important years. He compared a piece of genuinely good writing to an iceberg that is seven-eighths submerged, and he believed that every cut he made in his writing strengthened its underpinnings, its unseen parts.
Meyers deals briefly with salient elements of Hemingway’s early life, his family background, and his short-lived career as a reporter for the Kansas City Star. Hemingway’s move to Kansas City in the fall of 1917 marked a crucial turning point in his life, partly because it represented a break from the stifling atmosphere of his boyhood home in Oak Park, Illinois. Yet even more important, the work Hemingway did on the newspaper helped him to develop the sort of direct and concise journalistic style that later, in more polished form, was to become his literary trademark.
With the entry of the United States into World War I, Hemingway, who always hankered for action, tried to enlist in the armed services but was rejected because of a visual impairment. Not to be daunted, the young reporter volunteered late in 1917 to serve in the Red Cross Ambulance Corps, and in the spring of the following year, was called into active duty. Now commissioned a second lieutenant, Hemingway sailed for France on May 23 and soon was in Paris, the city that was, after the war, to be his base for several years.
Meyers’ account of Hemingway’s war experience is particularly illuminating and helps to explain much of the novelist’s psychological makeup. While serving in Italy a few miles northeast of Venice some five weeks after he arrived in Europe, Hemingway was wounded by an exploding mortar, and this event was to have a profound effect upon him in a number of ways. According to contemporary accounts, Hemingway received about two hundred pieces of mortar, and none, according to reports, entered his body above the hip. Hemingway, although wounded, carried an injured Italian soldier back to safety before allowing himself to be transported to a hospital. Meyers finds many interesting discrepancies in the accounts of what actually happened to Hemingway, and it is particularly interesting to compare this section of the book with Meyers’ accounts of Hemingway’s experiences in combat zones during the Spanish Civil War and during the final year of World War II, because in many instances Hemingway was less than truthful in reporting his war deeds.
During his recuperation in Italy, Hemingway saw many men who had been wounded, some in the genitals, and he speculated on the effects of such wounds on one who bore them. From this speculation, he was to derive the character of Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises (1926), certainly one of his most memorable fictional creations. Also during his recuperation, he fell in love with one of his nurses, Agnes von Kurowsky, who was seven years his senior. His first two wives, Hadley and Pauline, were older than Hemingway by eight and four years, respectively.
Although one cannot call Meyers’ treatment psychoanalytic, much of the material he has unearthed and presented in this book will lend itself to future psychoanalytic interpretation by scholars. Hemingway had strong Oedipal feelings toward his mother, a woman whom he professed to detest until the day she died. Grace Hemingway was shocked and embarrassed by her son’s writing and never praised him for any of his work. In an interview in 1951, shortly before her death, Grace said that she thought that Ernest had done his best writing when he was in high school, this of a man who was the next year to win the Pulitzer Prize and three years later was to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Probably because the young Hemingway always sought and never received his mother’s approval of what mattered most deeply to him, his...
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