Remembering Ernest Hemingway, Fifty Years After His Death

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.”

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  • Roy Niles says:

    The best of the things I have done and expe­ri­enced in life were a con­se­quence of being taught by Hem­ing­way how best to take the advan­tage of expe­ri­ence, I am in the best sense of the word one of his many chil­dren.

  • Robert Willhite says:

    Hem­ing­way had a way with words that cut to the core of man and his sur­round­ings.

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