Ernest Hemingway: The Character of Wrestling

by Runar Eldebo

I have been reading Ernest Hemingway since I was 13, and I have all his books in my study. I read him a couple times a year, mostly The Sun Also Rises and A Moveable Feast, sometimes one of his short stories or his masterpiece, The Old Man and the Sea.

I cling to his words. I both love and fear the universe he furnishes, and I am there with him in his wrestling.

Perhaps with a national hero like Hemingway, you Americans either admire or despise him, either/or. And maybe this monument of yours is lost, and I can come across the Ocean, dig it up out of your national treasure, clean off the dirt, and give him back to you fresh so that you can recognize him.

What do I know? Let's get started.

First, I want to give you some glimpses of why I always come back to this giant and recognize him as one of my life-companions. Second, I would like to sketch briefly his life-story. Third, I want to suggest what to read and where to find it.

Why I come back to Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway was a hero in his time and he offered us a hero in each of his books. He gave us a character, a protagonist in each book who so resembles every other that we can speak of them in the singular. He himself was a colorful human being and his escapades were covered in detail in the media and through rumors. But maybe neither he nor his work is really understood and we just grasp the surface without digging into the depth of his character and his characters. For sure, I am not saying I will accomplish this, but I will share my admiration for him and his hero and maybe jog your interest a little.

Some say the Hemingway hero is the American hero and the American dream. I do not know, but I think it is fair to say that the Hemingway hero is there-though he is indeed not a success hero nor is he a success dream. He is more real life than most of us. In contrast to some who say he's an anti-hero, I say he is a true hero.

Recently, I was invited to Orchestra Hall in Chicago, together with people from the Boeing Corporation. One thousand fire-fighters were also invited. In the middle of a beautiful concert, the fire-fighters were introduced and we all saluted them with the hymn "God Bless America." The fire-fighters were called upon because of their heroics during 9-11. They are the heroes of today because they came so close to danger and made this world better. Hemingway would have loved their company. He thought of himself that way. We see when we read him that he is acquainted with failures and disappointments. He knows that life goes on and that nothing is what we expect, whether we survive or not. The sun also rises in the morning, with or without us.

There is no simple key to the Hemingway hero-and maybe not to the American hero or American dream either. Maybe Hemingway touches the soul of this country by not simplifying life. Maybe Hemingway's soul is like ours.

The very first short story in his first collection of stories helps us understand and undress the Hemingway myth. The book appeared in 1925 and is called In Our Time. There is an allusion in the title to a well-known phrase from the Church of England's Book of Common Prayer: "Give peace in our time, O Lord."

At any rate, the most striking thing about the volume is that there is no peace for sale. The next most striking thing is that most of the short stories are devoted to the spotty yet careful development of a crucial, long-ignored character, a boy—later a young man, named Nick Adams. He is Hemingway's alter ego. We follow a boyhood turning into manhood. Through the mastery of the author, a character develops and a mature consciousness emerges.

That first story, "lndian Camp," reveals a lot about the author and his childhood. It also reveals why his life was never easy. The story is about a doctor, Nick Adams' father, who delivers the baby of an Indian woman by Caesarian section with a jackknife. The woman's invalid husband lies in a bunk above his screaming wife during the treatment. When it is over, the doctor looks in the bunk above and discovers that the husband who has listened to the screaming for two days has cut his head nearly off with a razor. The point for Hemingway is not the shocking events. The point is the effect of these events upon the little boy who witnessed them. As a result, Nick Adams is a badly scarred and somewhat lost young man—part of the lost generation Hemingway would give voice to later in his writing. Too many difficult things happened too soon and too deeply in his life. Listen to the beauty in the writing:

"Why did he kill himself, Daddy?"

"I don't know, Nick. He couldn't stand things, I guess."

"Do many men kill themselves, Daddy?"

"Not very many, Nick."

They were seated in the boat, Nick in the stern, his father rowing... In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing, he felt quite sure that he would never die.

This is Hemingway at his best--in his first published book. There's not one word too many. He captures the moment and the reflection about that moment. He recognizes the difficult moment and through his consciousness of it he helps the reader see reality as it is. It gives us hope in overcoming and surviving this reality. Hemingway's art lies exactly here. He does not withdraw from the ugly and fearsome reality, but in different and fascinating ways he tries to overcome and survive it. I am not saying he does; I am saying he tries.

In this collection of stories, we cannot describe Nick Adams as a successful hero. We can say he is honest, virile and very, very sensitive. This is humankind according to Hemingway. This very first story is almost too close to reality. Both his father, Dr. Clarence Edmonds Hemingway, the prototype for Dr. Adams in this novel, and Ernest Hemingway himself were destined to destroy themselves like the husband of the woman did. In 1928, Dr. Hemingway committed suicide with a pistol, and, in 1961, Ernest Hemingway blew most of his head off with a favorite shotgun. They couldn't stand things, I guess.

The Hemingway hero dies a thousand times before he dies. He is in many difficulties before life becomes too difficult. From one point of view, the Hemingway hero challenges life all the time; from another he tries to overcome his fear all the time—but does not succeed.

Hemingway's first novel is The Sun Also Rises, with the theme from Ecclesiastes chapter one, "All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?" His hero this time is named Jake Barnes, one of the many Americans living in Paris during the twenties. It is a group of expatriates, a dissolute collection of amusing but aimless people. They identify themselves as the lost generation. Jake Barnes was emasculated in the war, wounded where a man is a man and thus hopelessly in love with Brett Ashley. Wounded as he is, there is not much they can do about their love. Nothing leads anywhere in the book, and that is perhaps the real point of it.

Jake is a Roman Catholic. Here is a beautiful passage from when Jake enters the Cathedral:

At the end of the street I saw the cathedral and walked up toward it. The first time I ever saw it I thought the facade was ugly but I liked it now. I went inside. It was dim and dark and the pillars went high up, and there were people praying, and it smelt of incense, and there were some wonderful big windows. I knelt and started to pray and prayed for everybody I thought of, Brett and Mike and Bill and Robert Cohn and myself, and all the bull-fighters, separately for the ones I liked, and lumping all the rest, then I prayed for myself again…. [I] regretted that I was such a rotten Catholic…but anyway it was a grand religion…. (pp. 96-97)

The bullfighters are the real heroes in this book. The journalists and writers seem to be on the side of life, but the bullfighters know why they are living. A bullfighter stands before the bull every other day, and this is what counts. Jake Barnes admires the bullfighters and seems to compare his own substance of life with them. He is trapped and left with nothing in the end.

His book A Moveable Feast was written about the time he was writing The Sun Also Rises, but was published later. It is a happy book, written during Hemingway's first marriage and at a time when he knew that he was an author after all. In A Movable Feast, he writes about sitting in a cafe in Paris every day writing his big novel, and he describes his way of doing it. He starts in the morning asking himself to write one true word, just one true word. Once he does, he is going. He quits writing in the afternoon by ending right in the middle of a sentence in which he knows exactly where he is going. That makes it easier to start the next day. Just one true word and then ending in the middle of where he knows he is going. That is the consciousness of the giant.

The title of For Whom the Bell Tolls comes from a poem by John Donne. The bell referred to is a funeral bell and the poem goes:

"And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;

it tolls for thee."

The novel is a beautiful love story between Robert Jordan and his Maria. The horizon for this love is war. Robert Jordan is an American volunteer fighting in the Spanish civil war—like Hemingway himself. Jordan falls in love with Maria, the daughter of a Republican mayor who has been murdered, and she herself has been raped. Jordan is wounded and left to die. But he has come to see some wisdom in his love for Maria and his sacrifice in the war, and this book ends without bitterness. Jordan is released in a way Jake Barnes never was. This book is a beautiful saga of love and war.

Against what horizon does our life take place? In my reading, I love the question of horizon. Robert and Maria love one another against the horizon of war, a horizon that says everything to them about substance, courage, character, and love. What is the horizon that speaks about our lives and gives them significance?

Last, I mention The Old Man and the Sea. This very short novel about an old Cuban fisherman earned Hemingway the Nobel Prize. After 84 days without a fish, Santiago ventures far out to sea alone and hooks a giant marlin in the Gulf Stream. For two days and two nights the old man holds on while he is towed farther out to sea. Finally he brings the fish alongside, harpoons it, and lashes it to his skiff. Almost at once the sharks begin to take his prize away from him. He kills them until he has only his broken tiller to fight with. The sharks eat all but the skeleton which he tows home. Half-dead with exhaustion, he makes his way to bed to sleep and dream of other days.

There is reverence for life's struggle and for humankind in this novel. It seems that in this short masterpiece Hemingway collected what was left in him. He published nothing really significant during the last nine years of his life.

A sketch of Hemingway's life

Ernest Miller Hemingway was born in 1899 in Oak Park, Illinois, a middle-class suburb of Chicago. He became a journalist for The Kansas City Star. During World War I, he was an honorary lieutenant in the Red Cross and, in 1918, was severely wounded in Italy. In the twenties he lived in Paris, writing for different journals, and beginning his career as a writer first of short stories and then of novels. He attracted major attention with the novel The Sun Also Rises. Sometimes his way of writing is called "hard-boiled prose," i.e. not one unnecessary word. He wrote the way things happened and gave glimpses of feelings rather than descriptions of feelings, maybe a little bit like the acting styles of Clint Eastwood or Kevin Costner of today.

He married four times: First to Hadley Richardson, the mother of his first son, then to Pauline Pfeiffer, the mother of his second two boys, and third to Martha Gellhorn, the novelist. Each ended in divorce. His fourth marriage was to the former Mary Welsh, the lady at his side when he killed himself in 1961.

Hemingway lived in Key West, Florida during the 30s as a sportsman and an athlete, drinking almost every day at Sloppy Joe's Bar. In the 40s he travelled a lot. He was a spectacular personality, well-known not only for writing but for his drinking, hunting, fishing, and womanizing. His Key West mansion is open to the public.

He found a residence outside Havana, Cuba and spent many of his last years on a hilltop at San Francisco de Paula, nine miles outside the capital. Those who remember him still say he was generous, extremely perceptive about people, deeply and widely read as a student of literature, a bit of a linguist, and an expert in navigation, military history and tactics.

It is said he read through the manuscript of The Old Man and the Sea two hundred times before he was happy to let it go. Two hundred times!

My suggestions about what to read

I suggest A Moveable Feast to introduce the author and his personality. There you find Papa Hemingway, as he is called by his own aficionados, at his best and in his prime. This is a story about life with all the dreams still there and the hero not yet disappointed.

Then you are ready for The Sun Also Rises, which I think is his best novel. You may argue against Hemingway's world, but you will not find it easy to prove that it is not the world we are, or have been, living in. This is a generation going astray like the flower-power generation later or the post-modern generation of today.

Maybe The Old Man and the Sea is my third suggestion. Here Papa Hemingway collects his life-experience and says it frankly to us: there is no victory in this life, yet we can still imagine fisherman Santiago, after fighting the fight of his life, happy or at least smiling.

A reading list:

Ernest Hemingway: (1925) In Our Time, New York: Boni and Livertight; (1926) The Sun Also Rises New York: Scribner's; (1940) For Whom the Bell Tolls, New York: Scribner's; (1952) The Old Man and The Sea, New York: Scribner's; (1964) A Moveable Feast, New York: Scribner's.

Leicester Hemingway: (1962) My Brother Ernest Hemingway, Cleveland: World.

A. E. Hotchner: (1966) Papa Hemingway. A Personal Memoir, New York: Random House.

Philip Young: (1962) Ernest Hemingway, New York: Scribner's.

Runar Eldebo is a Pietisten correspondent from the Mother land--Sweden--who teaches in the Swedish Seminary.

See all articles by Runar Eldebo