Donald Elder: Fifty Greatest Americans – Ernest Hemingway

Jun 14, 2015 by


An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Fifty Greatest Americans – Ernest Hemingway

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1. Professor Elder, as with Leonard Bernstein, we are shifted into other realms in this interview- the world of literature- and the world of Earnest Hemingway. What do we know about his early years?

Ernest Hemingway was born in Oak Park, Illinois, on July 21, 1899. The person that Hemingway became was clearly influenced by both of his parents. His mother insisted that he learn to play the cello, and even though the experience created a rift between them, Hemingway later wrote that his writing style benefited from learning about the structure of music. From his father, Hemingway gained an appreciation for the outdoors that influenced much of his literary work. Hemingway attended school in Oak Park, and was involved in numerous school activities ranging from sports to orchestra. A Journalism class that he took in high school put Hemingway on the path to becoming a correspondent, as upon graduation he went to work for the Kansas City Star. Here again, Hemingway felt that this experience provided him with an approach to writing that would serve him well when he became a novelist.

2. It is fairly well known that he was a war correspondent. What were some of the main events that he covered or was involved in?

Hemingway’s first experience with war came in World War I. While living in Kansas City in 1918, Hemingway decided to volunteer as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross. After he finished training, he was assigned to the Italian front. While bringing food and cigarettes to Italian soldiers stationed on the front line, an exploding enemy mortar shell gave Hemingway serious leg wounds. Before he would allow himself to be treated, Hemingway assisted other wounded soldiers. For this action, he would receive the Silver Medal of Bravery from the Italian government. This experience would serve as the inspiration for his novel A Farewell to Arms. World War I ended while he recuperated from his wounds, and after he left the hospital he returned to the United States. He soon became a writer for the Toronto Star Weekly. It was for this newspaper that he had his first experience as a war correspondent, covering the Greco-Turkish War. Over 15 years later, Hemingway was asked by the North American Newspaper Alliance to cover the Spanish Civil War. In addition to the newspaper articles that he wrote at the time, this experience gave him the inspiration for his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. Hemingway’s last experience as a war correspondent came during World War II. He witnessed the D-Day landings, and was among the first group of Allied soldiers to enter Paris in 1944. His final writings from a combat zone came in December of 1944, when he covered fighting in the Hurtgen Forest.

3. For a time, he was an expatriate in Paris. What do we know about those years? What was transpiring in the world?

World War I clearly changed Ernest Hemingway. Not only had he been seriously wounded, but he had also had his heart broken by a nurse that he had fallen in love with during his recuperation. After returning to the United States after the war, he seemed ill at ease in his effort to resume a normal life. At this time he met the novelist Sherwood Anderson, who suggested that Hemingway move to Paris. Anderson noted that the cost of living would be appreciably lower there, and he also believed that Hemingway would find the people living there creatively stimulating. Accordingly, Hemingway and his new wife moved there in the fall of 1921.

Anderson’s prediction proved correct, as Hemingway soon made the acquaintance of individuals ranging from Gertrude Stein to F. Scott Fitzgerald. It was while living in Paris that Hemingway wrote his first book, titled Three Stories and Ten Poems, and would follow that up with The Sun Also Rises. Hemingway would make excursions to other countries, but essentially called Paris home until 1928. By that time Hemingway had divorced his first wife and remarried. His second wife was an American, and when she became pregnant she wanted to have the baby back in the United States.

Accordingly, the Hemingways moved to Key West. Hemingway would never again live in Paris.

4. Hemingway’s name is almost synonymous with American Literature.  I suppose others would indicate Mark Twain as the premier American writer- yet somehow Hemingway always seems to overshadow Twain. Why the impact?

If you do a search on the greatest book ever written by an American author, whether the list is compiled by average readers or college professors, usually two works are in the top five: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. But a similar type of search looking for the greatest American authors of all time will almost invariably have Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway in the top five. This is because Twain and Hemingway had many more books that are noteworthy than either Fitzgerald or Lee. Twain usually gets a higher ranking than Hemingway, but it is my sense that Hemingway will someday surpass Twain on that list.

First, his style of writing resonates more clearly with Americans used to the terse dialog found in television programs.

Second, his theme of a protagonist striving for grace while under pressure mirrors more closely the challenge of living in twenty-first century America. But at any rate, I do not foresee Hemingway ever slipping any lower in any ranking system regarding American authors.

5. His later years were spent, well writing and fishing. What stands out in your mind about his later years?

From an early age, Hemingway had lived a strenuous life. As a result, he had suffered numerous injuries along the way. The worst of these came in 1954, when incredibly he was almost killed in two separate accidents involving airplanes. To complicate matters, he then suffered second-degree burns later that year in a fire. It seems in retrospect that these injuries darkened his mood. To help ease the physical and mental pains that he was suffering, Hemingway began to drink more heavily (some have suggested that he had been a borderline alcoholic for some time). Hemingway continued to write throughout the 1950s, and had one of his most prolific periods as a writer, but his behavior became increasingly erratic. Because of this he was twice admitted to the Mayo Clinic for electroshock therapy, but this seems to have little effect. Hemingway’s behavior worried friends, as they knew that Hemingway’s father and two of his siblings had committed suicide.

These fears were realized when on July 2, 1961, Ernest Hemingway committed suicide.

6. What have I neglected to ask?

In today’s day and age, most Americans undoubtedly view authors as individuals who live quiet lives devoted to honing their craft. Ernest Hemingway, however, shatters that perception. A person who lived life to the fullest, Hemingway combined a zeal for the strenuous life with a literary ability that has seldom been equaled. It is doubtful that we will ever again see someone like him.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.