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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Modernist Portraits Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)

[3841] Anonymous, Young Hemingway (far right) with His Family (1906), courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Library.

Hemingway once stated that his goal as a writer was to create “one true sentence.” The characteristic pared-down style he developed influenced a number of subsequent authors. Known for his emotionally recalcitrant characters, Hemingway created stories of men proving themselves in physically demanding conditions and trying to come to grips with a world that after the horror of World War I seemed largely out of their control.

Born and raised in a Chicago suburb, Hemingway was one of six children. His father was a doctor and his mother a schoolteacher. Following graduation from high school, Hemingway worked as a reporter for the Kansas City Star, but remained there only a few months. The eighteen-year-old Hemingway intended to join the army when the United States entered World War I in 1917, but a problem with his eye disqualified him. Instead, he became a volunteer ambulance driver in Italy and later served in the Italian infantry. He was wounded by shrapnel not long after and carried a fellow soldier to safety despite his own serious injury. This event profoundly influenced his future thinking about himself and his place in the world; brushes with death and the idea of wounds, both physical and psychological, would haunt his later fiction. As the first American wounded in Italy, Hemingway became known as a hero, which also became part of the persona he adopted in ensuing years. After only six months abroad, he returned to the United States, feeling that he had changed significantly while America had not. He became a correspondent for the Toronto Star and in 1920 married Hadley Richardson. The couple moved to Paris, where Hemingway met many significant literary figures, including Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound. Stein especially encouraged his literary efforts. Sherwood Anderson and F. Scott Fitzgerald read his work, gave him advice, and helped secure the publication of In Our Time, a collection of his stories.

The novel that established his reputation as a literary figure, however, was The Sun Also Rises, published in 1926. Written in what would become known as the “Hemingway style,” the novel’s terse prose and dialogue would pave the way for a new style of fiction writing, stripped-down and spare in comparison to the novels that preceded it. Men without Women, another collection of short stories, was published in 1927. A Farewell to Arms, about an American officer’s romance with a British nurse, appeared in 1929. Hemingway’s interest in politics heightened in the 1930s; between 1936 and 1939 he served as a newspaper correspondent in Spain, covering the Spanish Civil War, the setting of his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). During World War II he again served as a correspondent, and following the war he settled in Cuba. His marriage to Hadley broke up in 1927; he married three more times.

While traveling in Africa in 1953, Hemingway survived a plane crash, which injured him badly. His health was never fully restored, and in the 1950s, despite winning the 1953 Pulitzer Prize for The Old Man and the Sea and the Nobel Prize for literature in 1954, Hemingway suffered from recurrent bouts of depression as well as paranoia. He committed suicide in 1961, at the age of sixty-two.

Teaching Tips

  • “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” is a good text to use for considering how Hemingway defines masculinity. The places described in the story are largely places lacking women, places where men may prove themselves physically and mentally. Yet the story is ultimately about man’s helplessness and powerlessness; as in other Hemingway works written following World War I (for example, The Sun Also Rises), masculinity is not particularly secure, and Hemingway’s writing seeks to come to grips with this loss of power and control. Students may want to speculate about Harry’s relationship with and attitude toward his wife and other women in his past.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: Like Hemingway, the main character of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” is a writer. What does the story suggest about the way writers think? What is the significance of the subjects Harry wants to address in his writing? How do you interpret the settings of the stories he wishes to write and the setting in which he is dying? What could the dream at the end of the story mean? What is the significance of his going to Kilimanjaro?
  2. Comprehension: Hemingway was known for his stylistic innovations. In this story, he uses italics to construct a parallel narrative to the primary one. How do the italicized and unitalicized sections of the story work together? How are their styles different? What is revealed in the italicized sections that does not appear elsewhere?
  3. Context: Harry is dying from gangrene that developed from a trivial and untreated scratch. What does this cause of death say about the masculine valor Harry prizes? Look at other post-World War I texts that deal with manhood and its relation to death, such as T. S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” or E. E. Cummings’s “next to of course god america i.” What commentary do these works make on the amount of power and control men have over their lives?
  4. Exploration: What modernist techniques does this story employ? What do you see in the narrative structure or style as specifically modernist? Consider this work in conjunction with T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land or “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” or the spare poetry of William Carlos Williams.

Selected Archive Items

[3841] Anonymous, Young Hemingway (far right) with His Family (1906), 
courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Library. 
Photograph of Ernest Hemingway as a child with his father, mother, brother, and sister. His family was wealthy and lived in a suburb of Chicago where residents generally espoused conservative politics. Hemingway’s mother would dress him in girl’s clothing well into his childhood.

[3850] Anonymous, Hemingway in His World War I Ambulance Driver’s Uniform (1917), 
courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Library. 
Posed portrait of Hemingway in military dress. Hemingway incorporated into his works the brutality he witnessed during World War I.

[3854] Anonymous, Hemingway Trying His Hand at Bullfighting in Pamplona, Spain (1924),
courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Library.
Gelatin silver print of Hemingway in Spain. Bullfighting figures prominently in Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises.

[3860] Anonymous, Hemingway on Safari in East Africa (1934), 
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, the John F. Kennedy Library. 
Hemingway posing with large antlers from animal carcass. Death and injury were important themes in Hemingway’s writing, possibly due to the injuries he received and witnessed as an ambulance driver during World War I.

[4408] Anonymous, Ernest Hemingway 1923 Passport Photograph (1923), 
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.
Hemingway was one of many American authors who worked in Europe. The expatriate artists claimed that Europe offered freedom from restrictive American mores.

[5980] ABC Press Service, Scene During the Siege of Teruel, Spain (1938), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-112445]. 
Photograph of fighting, casualties, and old building in Teruel, Spain. Teruel was the site of a Republican victory in the Spanish Civil War. Hemingway supported the Republicans, writing The Fifth Column to promote their cause.

[5981] Arribas, 18, Julio (1937), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-3911]. 
Propaganda poster showing civilian with gun in front of ghost of soldier. On July 18, 1936, the Spanish Civil War began and Barrio, of the Republican Party, became prime minister.

[7824] Emory Elliot, Interview: “Hemingway’s Masculinity” (2001), 
courtesy of Annenberg Media. 
Emory Elliot, professor of English at the University of California, Riverside, hypothesizes about why masculinity was such a significant issue in Ernest Hemingway’s life and work.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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