Born July 21 (The Day of Tragicomic Controversy)
It is hard to imagine a writer who lived his life to the fullest more than Ernest Hemingway. His fabulous real-life adventures read like a novel, perhaps one reason why the novels he penned himself were not always of comparable quality to the experiences that stood behind and ultimately produced them. The Czech-Dutch novelist, Jan Stavinoha, when asked how Kafka could have written a book called Amerika without ever having been there, said that writers should always write about places they have never been. Stavinoha’s reply certainly fits many writers, such as Daniel De Foe who wrote Robinson Crusoe without ever having been to a desert island and also his Journal of the Plague Year without even having been present to record it. But there is another type of writer – Henry Miller, Oliver Sachs, Anais Nin, and of course Hemingway himself, who seemed to live life principally to gain the experiences needed to write about it. As Nietzsche said: “ Artists are merciless toward their experiences…they exploit them.” Dutch writer Berthe Meijer once quipped: “An unhappy childhood is a writer’s goldmine.”
As Hemingway travelled from the lakes of Upper Michigan to the bullfight rings of Spain, to the mountains of Africa, to the Spanish Civil War, recording actual WWI experiences as an ambulance driver and in WWII as a theatrical liberator of Paris, he took his readers with him to worlds which were exotic and bizarre to them but simply everyday realities to him. Even his final masterpiece, The Old Man and the Sea, was firmly based on his own big-game-fishing endeavors in the Caribbean. Perhaps this is the key to understanding Hemingway’s work and is an explanation of why his short stories emerge as his finest literary creations. After all, Hemingway began as a cub newspaper reporter, and this simple fact explains why and how he wrote about real life experiences, making them grist for his literary mill. Of course we will never know (as in the case of Norman Mailer and Henry Miller, for example) what really happened during Hemingway’s adventures and consequently how much of his novels The Sun Also Rises, For Whom the Bell Tolls, To Have and Have Not, and A Farwell to Arms actually happened or how much was made-up fantasy or a mixture of fact and fiction. Probably he was best as in his short stories, particularly the early Nick Adams stories and later some of the tales that emerged from Cuba, Africa, Spain and France. As a reporter he had learned about the economy of word usage, and his concise punchy style was better suited to shorter works than to longer ones. Gertrude Stein put the final touches on the Hemingway style, making him even more acutely aware of every word he used, and of crafting highly concise, incisive literary statements.
Many stories were told about this writer with an insatiable appetite for life, including those Hemingway told himself – almost single-handedly liberating Paris in 1945, for example. The man had a huge ego which needed to be fed by public acclaim, at any cost. But perhaps Norman Mailer created the ultimate tale, a fantasy which he expressed in a well-known interview after Hemingway’s suicide. Being unable to simply accept the fact that Hemingway just killed himself in a prosaic manner, for whatever reasons, Mailer created this Hemingway-esque story, which may have been true, about how every morning the sick, depressed, badly aging Hemingway went downstairs in his home, put the stock of his favorite rifle on the floor and the barrel in his mouth. He would explore – delicately, slowly – the deadly zone, pushing the trigger ever so slightly with his thumb for a few minutes, and then stop. One morning, Mailer reports, Hemingway discovered in the last split second of his life that he had gone too far. Such was his hunger for deadly danger and challenge, when it was no longer possible for him to seek them out in more athletic real-life adventures.