Hemingway’s influence is evident in countless writers, from Nelson Algren to Norman Mailer to Elmore Leonard. When I caught up with Leonard to ask him what exactly Hemingway meant to him, the answer came quickly. “He says so much in a few words,” Leonard says. All the books being pushed on students when Leonard was at the University of Detroit in the late 1940s, he says, “were too wordy, everyone except Hemingway.” It was like a breath of fresh air to the college student.
When Leonard — who’s known for such hard-boiled classics as Rum Punch and Get Shorty and on whose work the current FX series Justified is based — started to write in 1950, it was the dialogue and the brevity of Hemingway’s prose that inspired him — and it’s what he tried to carry on in his own work. He especially connected with Hemingway’s short stories, which he recommends to anyone starting out with Hemingway.
“Characters describe themselves by how they talk,” Leonard says. “In the short story Hills like White Elephants, you know everything about the characters through the dialogue. … You’ve gotta read his short stories. [They] are brilliant.”
The fact that Hemingway was also a man of action undeniably adds to the author’s allure — on and off the page. Whether he was sparring with heavyweight champ Gene Tunney or getting into fisticuffs with film legend Orson Welles (they quickly mended the fence over some whiskey afterward), Hemingway unquestionably put himself where the action was.
He experienced his first taste abroad when he volunteered as an ambulance driver during World War I. Wounded by shrapnel, he eventually fell in love with (but was ultimately rejected by) his nurse. He would later use material from this episode in his life in his book A Farewell to Arms.
In the 1920s, it was on to Paris and Pamplona, Spain, where he listened to the voice of a lost generation and studied the art of bullfighting. This, of course, was the background for The Sun Also Rises, which was published in 1926.
In 1937, with two great novels already in the bag, he left his home in Key West, Fla., and once again set off for Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War as a journalist for the North American Newspaper Alliance. From these experiences came the 1940 novel For Whom the Bell Tolls.
By World War II, Hemingway was living in Cuba, and it was during this time that he had his fishing boat, the Pilar, turned into a battleship of misfits (equipped with machine guns and grenades) in order to search for Nazi U-boats off the northern shore of Cuba. He was in Europe for D-Day as a war correspondent and was awarded the Bronze Star in 1947 for his meritorious service in combat areas. His comments in the introduction to his play, The Fifth Column, perfectly illustrate his gusto: “Each day we were shelled by the guns beyond Leganes and behind the folds of Garabitas hill, and while I was writing the play the Hotel Florida, where we lived and worked, was struck by more than thirty high explosive shells. So if it is not a good play, perhaps that is what is the matter with it. If it is a good play, perhaps those thirty shells helped write it.”
Despite Hemingway’s winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1953 for his novella The Old Man and the Sea, and then the Nobel Prize in Literature the following year, the decade of the 1950s would come to mark the writer’s downturn. He was known to be ?accident-prone, and the list of injuries he had sustained during his adventure-filled life was growing (including a ruptured kidney and liver, as well as numerous concussions), plus he had also battled hepatitis; his body was beginning to give out on him. His words in a saved (but unused) draft of his Nobel Prize acceptance speech foreshadowed the events to come. “There is no lonelier man than the writer when he is writing except the suicide. Nor is there any happier, nor more exhausted man when he has written well. If he has written well everything that is him has gone into the writing and he faces another morning when he must do it again. There is always another morning and another morning.”
The writer struggled to live as stoically as the characters he created. To some he was a caring and loyal friend, to others a bully and a philanderer. In late 1960, suffering from depression and hypertension, he was admitted to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. There, electroshock treatment was performed on him roughly a dozen times. He left the hospital a shell of his former self and endured difficulties with both memory and writing. He also began suffering from intense paranoia, most notably fearing the FBI and the IRS. In April 1961, Hemingway twice made attempts to end his life. Another stay at the Mayo Clinic followed, as did more rounds of shock treatment. Released from the barred windows and close surveillance of his hospital room in late June of that year, he would not let control of his life be taken from him again.
As you look back at Hemingway’s life, the sudden unexpected exhilaration that initially greeted you as you explored and embraced his bold adventure is, in the end, replaced with an overwhelming emptiness at the tragic way it turned out. Unfortunately, though, mental illness, particularly depression, ran deep within his family. His father committed the same purposeful exit in 1928, and, in the years to come, the final act of suicide would continue with his brother, a sister and, finally, a granddaughter.
Bud Purdy flashes back to the last dinner he had with Hemingway at Christiania Restaurant and remembers his friend’s paranoia. According to Purdy, Hemingway, sporting a comb-over to hide his baldness and looking closer to being in his late 70s rather than just 61, feared that a couple of guests at a nearby table were FBI agents spying on him. His paranoia had grown to epic proportions by that time. I then ask Purdy about Hemingway’s death, and the old rancher sums it up plainly.
“He liked life. He liked living … walking and writing. Life wasn’t worth it when he couldn’t live like he wanted to.”