Ernest Hemingway Biography


Early Years

Ernest Hemingway was born on July 21, 1899 in Oak Park, Illinois, a prosperous suburb of Chicago that was also home to the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. His father, Clarence E. Hemingway, was a doctor; his mother, who was very religious, had given up a promising career as a singer in order to rear six children, of whom Ernest was the third and the oldest boy.

Hemingway attended public school in Oak Park, and the family vacationed in the north woods of Michigan, where Clarence taught Ernest hunting and fishing and a general love of the outdoor life. Later, Hemingway would portray Oak Park's bourgeois values in an unflattering light in stories like "Soldier's Home"; his parents' marriage was the subject of the bitterly resentful tale "The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife," among others. On the other hand, Hemingway wrote with nothing less than adoration about life "Up in Michigan," in the story of that name and many others featuring his fictional alter ego Nick Adams. Clarence Hemingway committed suicide in 1928.

Upon graduation from high school at the age of 17, Hemingway left Oak Park for a stint as a reporter at the highly respected daily newspaper The Kansas City Star. Shortly afterward, he enlisted in a Red Cross ambulance corps stationed on the Austrian front in Italy during the last year of World War I. Hemingway was wounded almost immediately (he was delivering cigarettes and chocolate to Italian soldiers beyond the front lines) and sent to an American hospital in Milan, where he fell in love with an American nurse named Agnes von Kurowsky; these events inspired the Hemingway novel A Farewell to Arms (published 1929). After the war, Hemingway returned to the States in the hopes of beginning a career of one kind or another that would support him and Agnes, whom he planned to marry. That plan was shattered when she wrote from Europe to say that she'd fallen in love with another man.

Instead, Hemingway married Hadley Richardson in 1921; shortly thereafter, the couple moved to Paris, where the first of the writer's three sons was born. All the while, Hemingway was reading as much as he could, writing stories and poems, and trying to find his voice as a writer — a process that suffered a devastating setback when a suitcase containing all the copies of all the stories he had written to date (four years' work) was stolen from Hadley on a train to Switzerland.


Hemingway's formal education did not extend beyond high school in Oak Park, where he edited the school paper. His training as a writer continued, however, during his time as a reporter in Kansas City and as a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star. He covered the Greek-Turkish War of 1920; the experience inspired some of the most striking and effective of the inter-chapter vignettes in Hemingway's groundbreaking debut story collection, In Our Time.

Even more influential, perhaps, were the writers Hemingway met while living in Paris during the 1920s (the setting of The Sun Also Rises): the American expatriates Ezra Pound and F. Scott Fitzgerald, the Irishman James Joyce, and especially Gertrude Stein, also an American. (Stein's comment about Hemingway and his contemporaries — "You are all a lost generation" — became one of the epigraphs at the start of The Sun Also Rises.) Hemingway liked to claim that he learned about writing from the post-Impressionist paintings of Cezanne — an intriguing notion, though he never made it clear exactly what Cezanne taught him.

Any discussion of Hemingway's education would be incomplete without a mention of the attention and energy he devoted to the subject matter of his books. Just as he learned to write from the most talented contemporary practitioners of the craft, he apprenticed himself to acknowledged experts in warfare and the "blood sports" with which his work is so often concerned, eventually becoming an aficion (to quote The Sun Also Rises) of these pursuits. He learned about bullfighting from Spanish matadors, big-game hunting from a British guide in East Africa, deep-sea fishing from a native of the Bahamas, and military tactics from career soldiers met in World War I. Hemingway loved mastering the abstruse terminology and complex procedures of each of these activities. As any reader of his work knows, he also was fascinated by food and drink; the pages of Hemingway's fiction and nonfiction are filled to overflowing with references to foreign dishes and obscure wines and liqueurs. Finally, he was a quick study at languages and was relatively fluent in quite a few.

Literary Writing

Hemingway's first book published in the United States, In Our Time (1925), was a collection of stories (like "Indian Camp" and "Big Two-Hearted River") linked by the character of Nick Adams, who appears in many of them; by the short vignettes between the stories that tell a story of their own; by the theme of behavior in the face of life-threatening violence; and by the now-famous Hemingway style. The book was acclaimed upon its publication, and it remains a classic.

The Torrents of Spring, a novella that attempts in a rather belabored fashion to satirize the work of the American writer Sherwood Anderson, followed in 1926, as did The Sun Also Rises, a novel about expatriate life in Paris and Spain after World War I. In both subject and style, the latter book is a genuinely radical work of Modern art. (The specifics of its central conflict are never explicitly stated, for instance.) The Sun Also Rises is probably the most-admired of all Hemingway's books. Men Without Women (1927) comprises stories of bullfighters and boxers, including "The Undefeated," "The Killers," and "Fifty Grand." Men Without Women also contains "Hills Like White Elephants," a story told almost entirely in dialogue.

Published in 1929, A Farewell to Arms toned down Hemingway's revolutionary style to yield a more conventional — and a more moving — book than he had produced up to that time; the result was the novel's widespread popular success as well as worldwide fame for Hemingway himself. The story collection Winner Take Nothing followed in 1933. Less consistently satisfying than the two collections that preceded it, Winner Take Nothing nevertheless contained more formal experimentation, like the verbatim foreign dialogue in "Wine of Wyoming."

At this point in his career, Hemingway seems to have become distracted by his own celebrity. Eight years passed between A Farewell to Arms and his next novel, the slight and poorly-received To Have and Have Not (1937), which is really a collection of linked short stories that share a setting (Cuba and Key West, where Hemingway bought houses) rather than a true novel. In the interim, Hemingway wrote two books of nonfiction: a loose, baggy treatise on bullfighting called Death in the Afternoon (1932) and The Green Hills of Africa (1935), which was about big-game hunting. All the while, the Hemingway legend was growing — thanks in no small part to the author's own embellishments (and sometimes out-and-out lies) about his past. For instance, Hemingway claimed to have fought in the Italian infantry during World War I when he did no such thing.

Finally, in 1940, For Whom the Bell Tolls appeared. The book is a big novel about the Spanish Civil War, which Hemingway had covered as a correspondent and documentary filmmaker. Critics accused it, and him, of self-parody — and indeed, the novel's style is often unbearably mannered. Still, the best-selling For Whom the Bell Tolls stands among the early stories and his first two novels as Hemingway's main storytelling achievements.

During World War II, Hemingway occupied himself by reporting from Europe. He also hunted German submarines in the Caribbean from the deck of his fishing boat, the Pilar. In 1950, he finally published another book, the critically lambasted Across the River and Into the Trees. He recovered somewhat with The Old Man and the Sea (1952), a novella about a Cuban fisherman's struggle with a great marlin that might be Hemingway's answer to Moby-Dick. His most popular work, The Old Man and the Sea was the last Ernest Hemingway book to be published before the author's suicide in Ketchum, Idaho, on July 2, 1961. A Moveable Feast, his charming memoir of the years spent with other expatriates in Paris during the 1920s, appeared three years later.

Hemingway's fame, and the public's desire for more of his work, continues to be so formidable that the executors of his estate have brought out a number of books since his death that the writer himself had not considered fit for publication. Islands in the Stream (1970) reprises the Caribbean setting of To Have and Have Not. The Garden of Eden (1986), about a ménage à trois, dramatizes the author's fascination with androgyny, hinted at in The Sun Also Rises and near the end of A Farewell to Arms, as well as in stories like "The Sea Change." The Complete Short Stories: The Finca Vigia Edition (1987) contains some of Hemingway's unpublished short fiction. And 1999's True at First Light either reports on or imagines an affair between a Hemingway-like hero and an African girl.

Honors and Awards

The most influential American writer of the twentieth century, Ernest Hemingway was rewarded throughout his life for his achievements. Upon the appearance of his first published stories he received the kudos of his literary peers — giants like James Joyce and Ezra Pound. With the publication of A Farewell to Arms, he achieved best-sellerdom. By the time For Whom the Bell Tolls appeared, "Papa" Hemingway was recognized worldwide by millions who had never read a word of his prose; he had achieved a degree of celebrity that had never been approached by a literary writer and has not been matched since.

Near the end of his life, the adulation was made explicit, as The Old Man and the Sea was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1953. The following year, Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for Literature "for his powerful, style-forming mastery of the art of narration." Though his popularity has diminished somewhat in the past quarter-century due to charges of sexism and brutality in his life and work, Ernest Hemingway's influence lives on. Whether consciously or not, any writing teacher who advises students to "show, don't tell" is paying Hemingway tribute.