The fall, rise and fall of Ernest Hemingway

He was America's most celebrated writer. Anxious and depressed, he killed himself with a shotgun. It was an explosive end to a dangerous life.

On the 50th anniversary of his death, the publication of a psychological study of Ernest Hemingway has thrown fresh light on the cause of his suicide at the age of 61.

The Nobel Prize-winning author, hero-worshipped by every red-blooded American male, got up one morning, chose a shotgun from his firearms cupboard and blew his brains out in the porch of his Idaho home.

Mary Welsh Hemingway, his wife, took several months to admit that her husband's death was suicide; she initially claimed it was an accident. It's taken nearly 50 years to understand why this four-times-married, hard-drinking adventurer should kill himself.

For many Americans he was the perfect man, combining within himself both Wild West and literary genius.

Driven by a thirst for action, he was a swashbuckling, well-travelled fighter who loved danger, whether war reporting in Europe, hunting water buffalo in Africa or fishing for huge marlin in the Pacific.

Yet he was also a great writer, producing classics such as A Farewell to Arms and The Old Man and the Sea, for which he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1954.

So who was this man? Why was he so drawn to death – whether in battle or hunting wild animals? Why against all advice did he drink so much? And finally, why did he choose such a death?

Some answers have been offered by psychiatrist Christopher D Martin. He believed that two key experiences in Hemingway's childhood shaped much of what was to come.

As a child, it was his mother Grace's habit to dress him in long white frocks and style his hair like a little girl's. He hated his mother, referred to her as 'that bitch' and spent the rest of his life being as manly and macho as he possibly could.

He also disliked his father – a bully and disciplinarian who beat him – and used to fantasise about shooting him. When he was 29, however, his father shot himself and left Hemingway feeling endlessly guilty for having wished him dead.

Beneath the surface

Masked by his controlled prose was a desperate and daring life. He blotted out much darkness from his past with alcohol and danger. 'I spend a hell of a lot of time killing animals and fish,' he told Hollywood actress Ava Gardner, 'so I won't kill myself'.

How could such agony and pain be buried beneath the sparse, understated sentences for which he was famous? (His shortest story: 'For sale: baby shoes, never worn.')

Perhaps the most controlled art – the painter Rothko, the poet T.S. Eliot, the composer J.S. Bach – is often the most passionate, more moving than the storms and swirling emotions of artists who wear it all on their sleeves?

You Decide

  1. Do writers have to live the adventures they describe?
  2. 'Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know,' said Hemingway. So can only stupid people be happy?

Activities

  1. Read some of Hemingway's writing. Study his style. And then write your own brief story – it might only be a couple of paragraphs – in the style of Hemingway.
  2. Research the subject (See 'Become an Expert') and write a piece called 'How to be a good war reporter'.

Some People Say...

“Strong silent types are usually just covering up a vacuum.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What was Hemingway's 'Iceberg theory'?
That's how he described his style of writing, where there was more below the surface than above it. As he said, 'If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.'
And he started as a war reporter?
He was drawn to war. He was an ambulance driver in Italy during the First World War – where he was shot in the leg – and he returned to Europe as a war reporter to cover theSpanish Civil War and World War II.
IsThe Old Man and the Sea his best work?
That's a matter of opinion but he thought so. He wrote the first draft in eight weeks and considered it 'the best I can write ever for all of my life.'

Word Watch

Nobel Prize
Prestigious annual international awards given in recognition of cultural and scientific advances in the world.
Marlin
A huge and powerful fish, which requires strength and skill to catch. Considered by many sea fishermen to be the pinnacle of their sport.
Sparse
unflowery, simple, stripped-down, bare, minimalist.
Spanish Civil War
A major conflict in Spain from 1936 – 1939, fought between socialists and right-wing groups in which around 500,000 people were killed.

Subjects

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