Ernest Hemingway: Journalist, Novelist, Philosopher


The Old Man and the Sea. For Whom the Bell Tolls. A Farewell to Arms. “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” Ernest Hemingway is known for his powerful novels and short stories, but he was also an adept and experienced journalist, working for newspapers and magazines such as Life, The New Republic, and the Toronto Star. Hemingway’s literary contributions to the English-speaking world are profound. But in order to really understand his writing, the astute reader must understand both Hemingway’s time as a journalist and his personal philosophy. The first unlocks the key to Hemingway’s celebrated style and “iceberg” theory of writing, and the second is essential to understanding the content of Hemingway’s stories. In this essay, which I’ve adopted from a lengthier school project, I attempt to shed some light on Hemingway’s writings by looking at Hemingway’s personal and professional lives, both of which shaped his writing tremendously.

Hemingway started work as a reporter at the Kansas City Star fresh out of high school, but left the States to serve in the Red Cross ambulance corps in the First World War, quickly serving time in the hospital himself for shrapnel wounds he received in Italy. Hemingway was hailed as a hero at home, but found returning to civilian life difficult. His initial attempts at writing upon returning to the States were unsuccessful, and the stories he produced were decidedly unlike his later popular prose. Perhaps, then, the world owes the Toronto Star a favor for taking young Hemingway on as a freelance writer between 1920 and 1924. This stint seems to have tided Hemingway over, providing him with ample opportunities to practice his craft until he published his collection of short stories In Our Time in 1925, followed by The Sun Also Rises in 1926. These were followed by more short stories and the novels A Farewell to Arms, (1929) To Have and Have Not (1937) and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940.) The 1930s and 1940s found Hemingway living like a celebrity, but the Second World War saw him return to journalism, traveling to China and later serving in Europe with the invading Allied forces. Unfortunately, his writing after the war suffered until his 1952 publication of The Old Man and the Sea, his last published novel before he committed suicide in 1961.

But the Toronto Star gave Hemingway a chance to do more than just make money: it helped cement his distinctive style as a writer. Charles Scribner, Jr., in his foreword to Dateline, Toronto: The Complete Toronto Star Dispatches, a collection of Hemingway’s journalistic work, notes Hemingway’s “uncanny knack for dialogue” and his desire to “get the inside story.” The desire to discover the core of a story is a longstanding journalistic trait, but Hemingway’s grasp on dialogue is truly impressive, and it became one of the cornerstones of his work. See, for example, Hemingway’s story “A Free Shave,” (1920) a three-page long hard news story, about a quarter of which is composed of dialogue. Or consider this extended piece of dialogue from “Trout Fishing in Europe” (1923.)

“Well, Papa, no fish today,” I said.
“Not for you,” he said solemnly.
“Why not for me? For you, maybe?” I said.
“Oh yes,” he said, not smiling. “For me, trout always. Not for you. You don’t know how to fish with worms.” And spat into the stream.
This touched a tender spot, a boyhood spent within forty miles of the Soo, hoisting out trout with a cane pole and all the worms the hook would hold.
“You’re so old you know everything. You are probably a rich man from your knowledge of fishworms,” I said.
This bagged him.
“Give me the rod,” he said.

It’s inspiring to see this exquisite dialogue capped neatly with simple journalistic phrases like “he said,” especially when one compares it to Hemingway’s later works, like the opening lines from his 1936 short story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”

“The marvelous thing is that it’s painless,” he said. “That’s how you know when it starts.”
“Is it really?”
“Absolutely. I’m awfully sorry about the odor, though. That must bother you.”
“Don’t. Please don’t!”
“Look at them,” he said. “Now is it sight or is it scent that brings them like that?”
The cot the man lay on was in the wide shade of a mimosa tree and as he looked out past the shade onto the glare of the plain there were three of the big birds squatted obscenely, while in the sky a dozen more sailed, making quick-moving shadows as they passed.

The impact journalism had on Hemingway’s writings is quite clear: he borrowed journalistic styles and relied liberally on the techniques he had developed as a journalist, following the basic rules for writers he had learned from his first job at a paper. Even his early interests — interests that would later transform into books — shine through here and there. In his story “Mussolini, Europe’s Prize Bluffer,” for example, Hemingway briefly displays his interest in personal bravery and his dislike of fascists, as he criticizes Mussolini for everything from his “genius to clothing small ideas in big words” to his wardrobe of “black shirt and his white spats. There is something wrong,” says Hemingway, “even histrionically, with a man who wears white spats with a black shirt.” But more interestingly, Hemingway says that “brave men do not have to fight duels, and many cowards duel constantly to make themselves believe they are brave.”

“Brave men do not have to fight duels, and many cowards duel constantly to make themselves believe they are brave.” — Ernest Hemingway

Earnest Hemingway‘s’ experiences with human conflict did not begin during the first World War. He came from an unhappy home, and when his father eventually committed suicide, he felt it was his strongwilled mother’s fault. He had his own conflicts with his parents, who disapproved of his first books In Our Time and The Sun Also Rises, and his personal life was marred by repeated divorces and remarriages. Little wonder his books glorified the triumph of man in the face of all odds and lionized “grace under pressure” as expressions of manliness. But Hemingway went beyond that, embracing a sort of existential worldview that found value in life while largely rejecting absolute values. Perhaps not quite a nihilist or atheist, Hemingway instead built a religion of man.

In an ironic way, this extolling of life led to Hemingway’s fixation with mortality, which can be seen very clearly by examining the treatment of death in Hemingway’s novels and short stories. His early fascination with bullfighting was captured in his journalistic work, but it matured into his nonfiction book Death in the Afternoon. Written a year after his father committed suicide, Death in the Afternoon centers around the theme of mortality, the consistent theme of a bullfight and a persistent focus of Spanish culture and its embrace of death as the end of life, contrasted unfavorably with other cultures that focus on life while ignoring death. For Hemingway, bullfighting was the greatest “celebration” of his humanistic religion, because it not only recognized death but always ended with it. According to Hemingway, one should be aware of — and accept — his demise. However, this concern with death must not be allowed beyond the bounds of this world; for Hemingway, the ideal bullfighter (and by extension, man) is not concerned with the possibilities of life after death.

The theme of facing death with dignity crops up throughout Hemingway’s work, from The Old Man and the Sea and The Sun Also Rises to “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” At the end of For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway’s hero Robert Jordan is left facing imminent death, and decides to die fighting rather than committing suicide. Likewise, Harry, the protagonist of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” learns to face his death with a certain dignity as he suffers from a gangrenous leg that he knows will be fatal. In the beginning of the short story, he lashes out selfishly and viciously at those around him, vividly aware of his failings as a human and a writer. But just before he dies, he comes to a determination: “He could beat anything, he thought, because no thing could hurt him if he did not care. All right. Now he would not care for death.”

In a strange way, the sum of a man can be seen in how he faces death, the inevitable menace that most men fear and dread but that men like Harry come to grips with and accept calmly. Believing that death was the end, or at least that man should be unconcerned with it, must have reinforced Hemingway’s belief in the “need to live each moment properly and skillfully, to sense judiciously the texture of every fleeting act and perception.”

Hemingway’s suicide appears consistent with his underlying tendency towards existentialism, combined with the focus on action as the fundamental element of manhood. For the man who believes in seizing the day and facing death with dignity, suicide can be the quintessential choice, for in choosing man faces death on his own terms, instead of waiting passively or hoping for outside deliverance instead of relying on oneself.