July 21, 2014
As a young writer, ERNEST HEMINGWAY (1899-1961) knew he could recreate American fiction if he held a true, remorseless bead on the scenes before his eyes and the sentences forming in his head. Bravado and self-belief kept him trying and failing; when war came, experience coalesced with ambition, and he began to carve a vision as nature carves a river. The issue of his first thirteen published years — novels, stories, nonfiction — remains deeply compassionate and heroically unsentimental, both modernist and timeless in its witness of brutality in war and peace: savaged corpses and mystic landscapes, gangsters and gang rapes, epidemics of despair circling the earth. No view of Hemingway as mere macho mythmaker will survive an immersion in this work.
The pomposities of middle age landed hard: For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) is both a work of great power and a bilious self-parody. By his fifties he was badly weathered and averse to shock, artificer of best-selling fable and willing inmate of his own prison: “Papa Hemingway.” But consider: if he’d not become Papa, not fed himself and his public on bullfights and bullshit, he’d surely have killed himself much earlier than he did, defeated by all he’d seen and felt, written or failed to write. “Papa” kept Hemingway alive for that last decade — during which he wrote A Moveable Feast (1964), among the loveliest chronicles of youth we have, in whose pages it is unimaginable that anyone, least of all its author, could ever die.
READ MORE about members of the Hardboiled Generation (1894-1903).