It’s Hemingway’s Birthday: A Reflection In Notes

Editorial Director, Life
07.21.15 6 Comments
ErnestHemingway

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THE WRITER

Forget for a moment the Hemingway legend. Ignore the breathless tales of his drinking or womanizing or hunting. Take away the fixed notions of Hemingway the boozy, ego-driven “character” and remember this: The man could write. His work, if you haven’t had a chance to read it, is a lesson in lean prose. It’s tightly wound, with punchy verbs and short sentences. Adverbs are scarce and emotions rarely explode — instead they fester until finally bubbling to the surface through subtle insinuations.

Before Hemingway was on the cover of Life Magazine, he was just another writer trying to make a name for himself, one sentence at a time. If you haven’t read them, his short stories make the best Hem-For-Beginners, and are often the most sterling examples of his work. Hills Like White Elephants, The Killers, and The Snows of Kilimanjaro are quick reads that reveal Hemingway at the peak of his artistic prowess. If that’s all TL; DR, the most famous piece of flash fiction ever written is often attributed to the author. The story goes that Hemingway was at a bar [obvs.] when a friend challenged him to write a novel in one sentence and he grabbed a napkin to scratch out, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Unfortunately, even though it features his trademark terseness, the apocryphal six-word sentence may not be Hemingway’s. If it is, he probably cribbed it from someone else.

Regardless of the veracity of that particular tale, Hemingway was a hell of a wordsmith whose best work deserves revisiting.

Ernest_Hemingway_Aboard_the_Pilar_1935

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THE LEGEND

Eventually, growing bloated in body and ego, Hemingway bought into the “Papa” mythos and made a big show of embodying it. Stories about him took the place of stories by him — particularly during his residency in Cuba.

One of the better legends surrounds a LIFE photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt, who tells a story of Hemingway threatening to kill him. Apparently, Papa thought Eisenstaedt had come a little to close to his boat during a fishing contest. Hemingway had already warned the photographer about this and Eisenstaedt had been careful not to breach their agreed-upon 200-foot buffer zone. The writer, drunk, accused the photographer of coming too close and claimed to have taken a shot at Eisenstaedt’s boat. Eisenstaedt said, “I don’t believe you” which infuriated Hemingway. He attacked, pushing his foe backward and growling, “Never say you don’t believe Papa.”

There are no shortage of stories like this — tales of Hemingway taking his kids to cockfights in Cuba, slapping critic Max Eastman with a book for daring to challenge his manhood, trying to hunt German subs from a fishing boat, and surviving two plane crashes in two days.

Ernest Hemingway

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THE BOOZE

Hemingway’s alcohol consumption is legendary. Lots of bars claim to have a specific history with the writer  (El Floridita, Harry’s Bar, Sloppy Joes, The Ritz in Paris — there are so many others).

One of the many drinks he made famous was a doble daiquiri made with 2.5 jiggers of white rum, juice from two limes and one grapefruit, and a half-dozen droplets of maraschino liqueur — all shaken with chipped ice and served in a goblet.

THE PLACES

The Hemingway legend is as tightly linked to travel as it is to writing and alcohol. Here’s where to chase Papa’s restless ghost.

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The author spent his teen years tramping these backwoods and wrote multiple stories based around his avatar, Nick Adams, in Michigan’s wilderness.

Paris. Hemingway hung with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein here during his early career. He and other members of the “Lost Generation” often dropped in at Sylvia Beach’s famous bookstore, Shakespeare & Company.

Spain. Hemingway went for the bullfights and stayed on to fly fish. Madrid was a favorite spot of his, as was Pamplona (home of the famous “Running of the Bulls”).

Key West. Hemingway lived in Key West for ten good years, fell in love with deep sea fishing, wrote steadily, and drank often. It could be argued that of all his homes, this is where he was the happiest.

Cuba. The Hemingway of Cuba was often drunk. That said, The Old Man and the Sea was based in Cuba and written there and is beloved for good reason.

There are so many others… Italy, The Alps, Idaho, the game parks of Kenya and Tanzania. The man got around, he breathed in the world, and, if nothing else, that full-of-life spirit is worth celebrating today by reading some of his work, plotting your own adventure, and tipping back a doble.

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