Today is the 50th anniversary of the death of Ernest Hemingway. In remembrance, we bring you the writer’s own voice from 1954, reading his Nobel Prize acceptance speech at a radio station in Havana, Cuba. Hemingway’s influence on Twentieth Century literature was profound, both for the originality of his prose and the tragic alienation of his heroes. One of the most beautiful and frequently quoted examples of Hemingway’s style is the opening paragraph of A Farewell to Arms:
In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.
“Hemingway’s appreciation of the aesthetic qualities of the physical world is important,” wrote Robert Penn Warren in 1949, “but a peculiar poignancy is implicit in the rendering of those qualities; the beauty of the physical world is a background for the human predicament, and the very relishing of the beauty is merely a kind of desperate and momentary compensation possible in the midst of the predicament.” That predicament, wrote Warren, “in a world without supernatural sanctions, in the God-abandoned world of modernity,” is man’s full consciousness of his own impending annihilation. Here is a stark passage from “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”:
What did he fear? It was not fear or dread. It was a nothing he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanliness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it was all nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada. Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee. He smiled and stood before a bar with a shining steam pressure coffee machine.
“What’s yours?” asked the barman.
Caught in an existential cul-de-sac, Hemingway’s characters find meaning through adherence to what Warren called the Hemingway Code: “His heroes are not defeated except upon their own terms. They are not squealers, welchers, compromisers, or cowards, and when they confront defeat they realize that the stance they take, the stoic endurance, the stiff upper lip mean a kind of victory. Defeated upon their own terms, some of them have even courted their defeat; and certainly they have maintained, even in the practical defeat, an ideal of themselves.”
Fifty years ago today, after enduring years of declining health, Ernest Hemingway met death upon his own terms. Looking back on it in 1999, Joyce Carol Oates wrote: “Hemingway’s death by suicide in 1961, in a beautiful and isolated Ketchum, Idaho, would seem to have brought him full circle: back to the America he had repudiated as a young man, and to the method of suicide his father had chosen, a gun. To know the circumstances of the last years of Hemingway’s life, however, his physical and mental suffering, is to wonder that the beleaguered man endured as long as he did. His legacy to literature, apart from the distinct works of art attached to his name, is a pristine and immediately recognizable prose style and a vision of mankind in which life and art are affirmed despite all odds.”