Saturday, July 2, 2011

Hemingway's Death Fifty Years Later

I can remember exactly what I was doing fifty years ago today, on July 2, 1961. I was walking through Piazza del Duomo, one of the main squares in Florence, Italy, on a hot early summer morning when I saw the headline on a newsstand: `E MORTO HEMINGWAY. He was one of my heroes, as the recently deceased Albert Camus had also been, and I stood there frozen in front of the headline. As soon as they noticed it, the people in the piazza around me paused in silence. Those who wore hats took them off; others bowed their heads and crossed themselves. Italians considered Hemingway one of their own. He had been awarded medals for his service on the Italian front in WWI and they loved his novels and stories, especially those with Italian settings.
I was twenty-three years old. I had been living in Florence since the fall of 1959, studying Medieval literature at the University and teaching English at the International Academy, a private school for high school graduates and college students, who wished to pursue careers in diplomacy. Writers like Hemingway and Camus, whose classically paired down French prose was influenced by Hemingway’s, were very important to me as a budding writer. I had already completed my first novel, set in Greece, and I was working on a second, set in Florence, involving a love affair gone awry between a young expatriate couple.
I had been reading Hemingway since ninth grade. There were passages in The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms, as well as from some of his stories like “In Another Country” and “A Clean, Well-lighted Place,” that I knew by heart. The Hemingway who had inspired me to write was not Hemingway the big-game hunter or Hemingway the adventurer of later years. It was the early Hemingway, the young writer, who had learned his craft in 1920s Paris, surrounded and influenced by important avant-garde writers like Gertrude Stein, James Joyce and Ezra Pound. I had gone to Europe not so much to study literature as to imbibe the cultural, artistic and intellectual atmosphere that had nurtured the Lost Generation of writers and artists I admired as an undergraduate, reading everything I could find about their lives and their work habits. I chose Florence not Paris because I also wanted to study the poetry of Dante and his contemporaries on the very ground of its creation, in the original language.
Still, I had followed Hemingway’s later life in newspapers and magazines. I continued to read his more recent novels and stories, and I had been thinking of him a great deal as I devoured the novels and stories of the late Cesare Pavese, an Italian writer, who was much influenced by Hemingway’s style and sensibility, and who had committed suicide himself in 1950.
I can’t imagine what sort of impact the death of a master like Hemingway might have on an impressionable young writer today, although I’m aware of how the recent death of the incredibly gifted young novelist and philosopher David Foster Wallace had on many writers of his generation. Though I had not read a lot of Wallace before he died, I, too, was devastated by the news of his suicide, saddened as I also was about the promising life that was cut short.
When Hemingway’s death was first announced, it was suggested that it might have been accidental, that the shotgun that had killed him had gone off when he was cleaning it. But those of us who knew Hemingway through all his novels and stories , though we might not have known much about the depression he suffered in the years leading up to his death, or the terrible bouts of paranoia that his later biographers described, knew, or intuited, that he had ended his own life. His suicide was the stoical act of a Hemingway hero, a man who had pushed himself to the limits of human endurance and, in the process, had understood that when something was over—a love affair, a battle, a life—it was over. Given his depression, exacerbated, as we later learned, by an array of physical and psychological symptoms, not to speak of alcoholism, it could not have been easy for Hemingway that he seemed no longer able to write. Nor that he had been forced to leave Finca Vigia, his great home and refuge in Cuba since the 1940s, and was, at the time of his death, an exile in his native country, while also under surveillance by the FBI. (See today's New York Times op-ed page for a column by Hemingway's friend and collaborator, A. E. Hotchner, which corroborates the FBI surveillance).
After his death, Hemingway’s art was subjected to the critical eye of feminism, an important and perhaps even necessary reappraisal, though today some of the most astute and sympathetic critics and scholars of Hemingway are women like Rose Marie Burwell, Hilary K. Justice, Jacqueline Tavernier-Courbin and Debra Moddelmog. Nevertheless, his finest biographer, in my view, is Gloucester native James R. Mellow, whose Hemingway: A Life without Consequences is the benchmark against which all future biographical and scholarly work on Hemingway must be measured.
There was much that Hemingway taught us, we young writers, who dreamed of living and writing as he had. He showed us what a perfect sentence looked like and how feelings could be reflected by the things we described or that our character’s encountered. He helped us to understand the importance of place and the equally important precept that you did not need to say more than was necessary to set a scene or describe a character. Indeed, his greatest contribution lay in his teaching that what lay under the surface of things had as much or more dramatic impact as what one could immediately observe or report, and the writer's responsibility was to suggest it not tell it.
On this blog, on July 22, 2009, I posted my own appraisal of Hemingway on the occasion of the publication of a revised edition of A Movable Feast, Hemingway’s masterful sketches of his early years in Paris. "Hemingway Revisited" can be read at While neither complete nor definitive, it is my tribute to a very great writer whose work will live as long as we have literature and whose death, fifty years ago today, I remember with equal sadness.