Ernest Hemingway is considered by some as the greatest writer in American History, by those who do not consider him so, he is still considered one of the greatest American writers. While many have written articles and entire books on the subject of Hemingway, one need only read his books and short stories to understand the man. Hemingway's writings are a window into his soul and very often mirror happenings in his own life. And his own life was as exciting as the stories told in his books. He was a volunteer ambulance driver in the First World War, involved in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930's, traveled extensively throughout the world, and wrote about it all. Many of his characters shared the same experiences as the writer in real life and are considered by some as part of him.
One of his books which directly paralleled his own experiences in the Spanish Civil War was For Whom The Bell Tolls. By exploring this book, one can delve into Hemingway's views on love, war, death and sacrifice. Another of Hemingway's works which many point to as an allegory of his own life was The Old Man and the Sea. While this book may seem to have nothing to do with Hemingway's personal life, it's themes were very similar to personal experiences of the author. This paper will discuss the idea that much of Hemingway's work was influenced by his personal experiences.
In order to understand how Hemingway's life was played out in his writing, an exploration of that life is necessary. Ernest Hemingway was born in Oak Park, Illinois on July 21, 1899 to a physician father and a musician mother. Hemingway spent his youth the center of attention, surrounded by his mother and sisters. Growing up he was the only boy, his brother being born much later, and excelled at sports. While attending high school, Hemingway published his first article in January 1916. After graduating high school, Hemingway became a junior reporter for the Kansas City Star but only stayed for 6 months. World War I had been raging in Europe for more than a year when Ernest Hemingway joined the Red Cross and volunteered to serve as an ambulance driver.
It was on the Italian Front where Hemingway served and won a medal for valor saving the life of an Italian soldier despite being wounded himself.
After returning home, at the age of 20, Hemingway went to work as a reporter in Chicago, where he met and married Hadley Richardson. Later he took a job in Toronto, but soon returned to Europe as a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star. He traveled throughout Europe covering stories on war, bullfighting, fishing, travel, and a variety of topics. When not traveling, Hemingway lived with his wife and newly born son in Paris, where he engaged in an affair with another American living in Europe, Pauline Pfeiffer, leading to the end of his marriage with Hadley.
Feeling guilty over the treatment of his wife, and wanting to get away from it all, Hemingway, his new wife Pauline, and their new son, Hemingway's second, moved to Key West. In the fall of 1928, Ernest Hemingway received the news that his father had committed suicide. This news devastated him and suicide would play an important theme in many of his future writings. It was during this time, in the 1930's that Hemingway achieved some of his greatest commercial success.
In 1936, Ernest Hemingway traveled to Spain to report on the Spanish Civil War. But as he spent more time with the Republican forces fighting against the Fascists under Francisco Franco, his actions crossed the line from reported to advocate. (Solow) Many of his experiences during this time were turned into his book For Whom The Bell Tolls which was published in 1940, after the victory of Franco in Spain. Upon his return to Key West, Hemingway divorced his second wife and married his third, a fellow correspondent he had worked with in Spain: Martha Gellhorn.
The period during World War II, 1941-1945, Ernest Hemingway, like many Americans, served as he could and was a correspondent in Europe. Hemingway followed American troops into battle and even earned a Bronze Star for valor for having been "under fire in combat areas in order to obtain an accurate picture of conditions" "through his talent of expression, Mr. Hemingway enabled readers to obtain a vivid picture of the difficulties and triumphs of the front-line soldier and his organization in combat." (Putnam)
After the war, Hemingway returned to writing books, something he had not done in years, and his novel Across the River and Into the Trees, published in 1950, was considered a flop. It was at this time, when many claimed he had lost his edge, that Ernest Hemingway wrote the book that many would declare as his best work ever. The Old Man and the Sea made Hemingway a commercial success again and earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 1952. (Tyler 129) Two years later, in 1954, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature and reached the peak of his success. (Huang) However, liver illness eventually took it's toll on the author as he slid into a decline. While he continued to work and publish articles, his health eventually caught up to him and in his last days was considered incoherent possibly suffering from dementia. On July 2, 1961 Hemingway imitated his father and committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.
The works of Ernest Hemingway reflect much of the writers own personal experiences. Many of the themes, characters, settings, and events are taken from real-life. For example, Hemingway turned his experiences on the front lines of World War I into the novel A Farewell to Arms. (Hays 23). Many of his African Stories were based on his time spent on safari in Africa during the 1930's. (Tyler 93-96) Sometimes Hemingway would interchange events and people as when his second wife Pauline's difficult childbirth of Hemingway's son, who was born in 1928, turned up in a scene in A Farewell to Arms. His experiences in Spain during the Spanish Civil War were turned into his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls along with themes of self-sacrifice, suicide, love, and a variety of other things from Hemingway's own life. His greatest work, and the one which earned him his highest praises, was The Old Man and the Sea; which not only was a reflection of his environment, he wrote it during his time spent in the Caribbean, but also of his personal condition. There is so much similarity between the man and his writings, that there can be no doubt that the works of Ernest Hemingway were inspired by his experiences in real-life.
One example of how Hemingway merged his real life with his fiction can be found in the novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. It is a story based in the Spanish Civil War where the characters resemble friends and colleagues of Hemingway, and the events are based on real-life events. Hemingway went to Spain as a correspondent, but slowly became involved in the events he was reporting on. (Solow) While in Spain, Hemingway found that the war was a very complex issue with many sides which all had a valid point-of-view. He wrote to a friend on this subject and stated that "The Spanish war is bad,…and nobody is right." (Josephs p. 4, citing Letter to Harry Sylvester, Feb. 5, 1937)
The novel For Whom the Bell Tolls involved an American named Robert Jordan who volunteered to fight with the Spanish guerillas, a faction involved in the war. Through Jordan, Hemingway discussed many of the experiences he had in Spain, including his claim to have seen a bridge blown up and a train destroyed. These are central events in the book which, years later, he claimed were actually true events. (Josephs 50) And many of the characters are representations of the different factions involved in the fighting. Fascist characters are slothful, anarchists are ignorant, communists are over-suspicious, all symbolizing the betrayal of Spain by foreign elements. (Meyer 16-17)
Hemingway's personal anti-war feelings can be seen in For Whom the Bell Tolls balanced with his practicality that evil must be fought. But this idealistic opinion can often be twisted into actions which turn out to be just as evil as that which one was trying to stop. Politics is often the corruptor of idealism and Hemingway took great effort to point out the political hypocrisy of all sides involved. The atrocities, committed by both sides, cooled Hemingway's idealism and made him disillusioned with the war, a major theme of the novel.
But Hemingway's main theme in the novel is that no man is an island, or the idea that a person cannot turn his back on his fellow man. This is a central theme which Hemingway ponders in the book as well as in real life. His volunteering to be an ambulance driver…