Editor’s note: This article was originally published in July 2013.
If it weren’t for the fact that Ernest Hemingway has been a cultural icon since the 1920s, one could say that he has had something of a resurgence in popularity during the past couple of years. From Woody Allen’s caricature in “Midnight in Paris” to the more developed portrayal in HBO’s “Hemingway & Gellhorn,” he remains a pop-culture icon. Ernest Hemingway is, of course, one of the more famous authors in American history. But he was more than a writer — he was a character of his own creation. He portrayed himself and his world in the most vivid ways. Both his writing and his life remain powerful in our culture’s imagination.
Born in Oak Park, Ill., in 1899, Hemingway began his writing career in 1917 as a reporter for the The Kansas City Star and continued as a European correspondent for the Toronto Star. Within a decade, he had earned an international reputation as a writer. His journalistic pieces were well-known, and he even wrote some poetry on occasion, but it was for literature that Hemingway became famous.
Hemingway’s specialties were short stories and stark, punchy novels. His first successful collection of short stories was “In Our Time” (1925), and his first novel, “The Sun Also Rises” (1926), was widely regarded as a literary masterpiece immediately after publication. From that time until his suicide in Idaho in 1961, Hemingway wrote 10 novels and dozens of short stories, toured the globe, reported on wars, met world leaders, won the Pulitzer for “The Old Man and the Sea” (1952), and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature (1954). All his major works remain in print — in fact, annual sales of his works have increased steadily since his death and now top 1 million books per year.
In terms of style, Hemingway is considered to be one of the more influential English-language writers of all time. The official biography used by his publisher, Scribner & Sons, describes him as having done “more to change the style of English prose than any other writer in the twentieth century … [He] wrote in short, declarative sentences and was known for his tough, terse prose.” Hemingway described his own writing using the metaphor of an iceberg: The words on the page are only part of the story. The rest, “the underwater part of the iceberg,” is always just beneath the surface, giving life and depth to what is written. Numerous other authors, including Jack Kerouac, J.D. Salinger, and Hunter S. Thompson, have credited Hemingway as an influence.
For Christians, perhaps the most interesting thing about Hemingway’s writings is how they so vividly portray his worldview, which can be summed up in two words: truth and tragedy. Everything he wrote reflects those two ideas in some way.
Writing as an Exercise in Truth
Hemingway described all writing — fiction or nonfiction, it makes no difference — as a struggle to describe people, places, experiences, and ideas as truly as they could possibly be expressed.
“Good writing is true writing. If a man is making a story up it will be true in proportion to the amount of knowledge of life that he has and how conscientious he is; so that when he makes something up it is as it would truly be” (“By-Line: Ernest Hemingway,” p. 215).
“Sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.’ So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written” (“A Moveable Feast,” p. 12).
“All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was” (“By-Line: Ernest Hemingway,” p. 184).
“The hardest thing in the world to do is to write straight honest prose on human beings. First you have to know the subject; then you have to know how to write. Both take a lifetime to learn” (“By-Line: Ernest Hemingway,” p. 183).
Hemingway demanded this kind of truthfulness not just in writing, but in all of life. His combination of an unusual perceptiveness and exceptional writing skill enables his readers to see the world as he saw it. Many of his written works — which range in subject matter from war in Europe to bullfighting in Spain, skiing in Switzerland, the people of Paris and Key West, hunting in Africa, and fishing in Michigan and the Gulf Stream — consequently resonate as genuine and honest. They may not always be honorable or lovely, but they ring true because Hemingway is able to capture in words the world as he saw it.
Hemingway’s most memorable characters are often based on real people; they reveal how he perceived the people he met. Some are deep and dynamic, like Frederic Henry in “A Farewell to Arms” or Nick Adams, the hero of numerous short stories. Others are shallow caricatures meant to mock the people they represent, like the Bimini brawler in “Islands in the Stream” (1970) or the laughing lady in “To Have and Have Not” (1937). His descriptions of children can be particularly moving, as in the short story “A Day’s Wait.”
One of Hemingway’s editors, Maxwell Perkins, said of him, “If the function of a writer is to reveal reality, no one ever so completely performed it.” Unfortunately, Hemingway’s insistence on telling the truth does not provide his reader with many happy endings. As Hemingway saw it, life is ultimately always tragic.
Life as an Exercise in Tragedy
In his short story “Big Two-Hearted River,” Hemingway refers to swamp fishing as a “tragic adventure.” Sadly, the phrase also aptly describes the majority of Hemingway’s life. He certainly understood his profession to be tragic:
“Dostoevsky was made by being sent to Siberia. Writers are forged in injustice as a sword is forged” (“Green Hills of Africa,” p. 71).
“Madame, all stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and he is no true-story teller who would keep that from you” (“Death in the Afternoon,” p. 122).
Hemingway’s tragic adventure was not confined to his writing. His favorite pastimes also inevitably ended in tragedy: In hunting and fishing, either the animal dies or the hunter or fisherman experiences the tragedy of failure and loss. In bullfighting, either the bull is killed or the torero is gored.
Hemingway seemed bent on extending his tragic adventures into his personal life as well. He was married four times, with numerous other women along the way. According to one story, his last wife, Mary, threatened to kill one of Ernest’s lady friends if she caught them together. His relationships with his three sons were typically strained, past the point of reconciliation in at least one case.
Thus death and loss were ways of life for Hemingway, and he lived out his tragic adventure to the end. After several years of depression and mental deterioration caused by his lifestyle and genetics, Ernest Hemingway shot himself in the head with his favorite shotgun in his Ketchum, Idaho, home on the morning of July 2, 1961.
What does Ernest Hemingway have to do with the gospel?
The ideas of truth and tragedy encapsulate Hemingway’s life, writings, and worldview — or perhaps truth as tragedy is a better way of putting it, for Hemingway saw tragedy as the message that he was truthfully telling. And concerning the tragedy of this life, Hemingway was right. This world is utterly and completely fallen; that fallenness spares no one and extends itself to every area of our lives.
The saddest thing about Hemingway — the shortfall of his worldview — is that he understood the truth of tragedy so deeply but failed to understand the redemption that comes in Jesus. Without the hope that comes from that redemption, it is no surprise that he sought relief in such things as drink, dalliance, sport, and suicide but found no lasting satisfaction in them. The real surprise is that he was so driven to communicate the truth of tragedy to others, diligently writing starting at dawn each day. By his writing he became an apostle of a grim gospel.
Sadder still is the fact that Hemingway’s worldview is shared by so many in our world. Even those who talk themselves into optimism or distract themselves by one means or another are only temporarily avoiding the reality that a world without Jesus is just as Hemingway describes it:
“What did he fear? It was not fear or dread. It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too. … [H]e knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada. Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee. …
“Now, without thinking further, he would go home to his room. He would lie in the bed and finally, with daylight, he would go to sleep. After all, he said to himself, it is probably only insomnia. Many must have it.” (“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” written by Hemingway in 1926 at age 27. “The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: The Finca Vigia Edition,” p. 288.)
The first reason Christians should know about Ernest Hemingway is because they regularly meet people who share his worldview, whose hearts and lives reflect the hopelessness that he wrote about. Hemingway’s writing gives us a better understanding of exactly how such people see the world. Christians will find some of his work to be offensive, but it should not surprise anyone when the lost act lost. We need to temper our offense and respond with compassion and love, for our world can learn only from us that “everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame” and that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Every time we are confronted with a worldview like Hemingway’s, it is an opportunity to respond with the world-transforming power of the true gospel.
A second reason why Christians should read Ernest Hemingway is to learn how to write better. Above all other people, Christians know the power of words. Every Christian has experienced the power of God’s Word to change lives, and that same Word commands every Christian to be ready to articulate his faith. Learning to speak and write as well as possible is part of taking that command seriously. Few authors in history have been such a keen observer of people, such a vivid and moving reporter of life, and such a master of words as Hemingway, and he had much to say about developing the skill and style of writing. Who better to learn from than such a man? No one would say that we should ignore such unbelievers as Monet when learning about art or Jefferson when learning about politics. Why would we not learn how to write better from Hemingway?
That said, Hemingway is sometimes a challenging read. His major novels in particular use complicated structures and literary devices that have sustained decades of analysis. A reader new to Hemingway might be better off starting with his short stories, which are more accessible and perhaps best showcase his skill as a writer. For example, the short story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” which is among the finest pieces Hemingway ever wrote, is four pages long, while “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” presents his anthropology in just 24 pages. Both stories can be found in “The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: The Finca Vigia Edition” (1987), which is a thorough, but not quite complete collection as it has some notable missing pieces. The collection “Hemingway on Writing” (1999) is also helpful for those who want to focus on his philosophy of writing.
Hemingway is not the only writer who can teach us to write better while revealing something of how our neighbor understands life. He is particularly skilled at doing those two things, but other authors have useful perspectives as well, however true or good they might be. We must be alert to the worldviews they express in each case, be able to examine and interact with them, and by whatever means improve our ability to speak the gospel in response. Judging by our culture’s continuing interest in Ernest Hemingway, his worldview is still influential. This fact presents us with an opportunity to proclaim the truth that Jesus will redeem our tragic world.
Brian Douglas grew up in the Miami, Fla., area and now lives in Boise, Idaho. His interest in Ernest Hemingway began when he read “The Old Man and the Sea” while an undergraduate at Stetson University. He has since studied at Knox Theological Seminary (M.Div. & M.A.) and the University of Sussex. He serves as a ruling elder at All Saints Presbyterian Church (PCA) and teaches at The Ambrose School and Boise State University.