The first-ever museum exhibit devoted to the work of Ernest Hemingway, one of the icons of 20th-century American literature, reveals both the writer and the man. While focusing on Hemingway’s most productive years (multiple drafts of early short stories, edited manuscripts, correspondence with key players in his life, inscribed copies of his books, and photographs are all on display), the retrospective notes the burden writing became for him in his later years, not uncommon for authors, particularly novelists. Yet, a burst of creativity toward the end of his life produced The Old Man and the Sea in 1952, winning Hemingway the Pulitzer Prize.
Looking out of my journalist’s lens, I wasn’t surprised to learn how heavily news writing influenced his trademark style. His transformational moment came in 1917 when he took a job as a cub reporter at the Kansas City Star. He learned the essentials of good writing from the paper’s style sheet: “Use short sentences, use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English.” Other rules: “Avoid the use of adjectives. Eliminate every superfluous word.” He remained at the Kansas City Star for just six months—crucial months when he developed the economical and understated writing style that endured throughout his career.
World War I framed the second phase of Hemingway’s life, another brief but influential period. He left Italy soon after suffering a serious injury. He went on to Paris and it was there he transitioned from journalist to fiction writer, authoring his first collection of short stories, In Our Time (1925) and his first novel, The Sun Also Rises (1926). His goal as a writer, he said, was for the reader to “experience” his stories. How many of us were first drawn to Hemingway’s novels to escape our relatively mundane lives and inhabit, for at least a few hours, a foreign land? He wrote to his father in March of 1925: “The country is always true, what happens in the stories is fiction.” His wartime stint as an American Red Cross ambulance driver formed the basis for his novel, A Farewell to Arms (1929).
Still a young man, Hemingway achieved literary fame during the fourth phase of his life, the period he lived in Key West (1929 to 1939) and Cuba (1940 to 1944). It was in the 1930s that he published For Whom The Bell Tolls and Death in the Afternoon, the latter’s extensively researched work on bullfighting filled with commentary on literature, painting, music, and architecture. He acquired his famous boat, Pilar, named after his wife, Pauline, in 1934, and used his time on this boat as story material.
Returning to Europe and the theater of war, Hemingway also returned to journalism, reporting on World War II for Collier’s. The magazine published his account of the Normandy landings, “Voyage to Victory,” in July of 1944, one month before the liberation of Paris.
Pausing at the inscription of his life’s span—1899 to 1961—it struck me that he was born just a few years after my grandparents. Thanks to Ernest Hemingway, I have experienced the Great War where my grandfather was a soldier, and the Second World War of which both my parents were survivors.
The exhibit continues at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City through January 31, 2016.
About the author: I began my career as a magazine writer and correspondent for regional and national publications. My debut novel, Tasa’s Song, was inspired by my mother’s early life in eastern Poland, and won a Bronze Medal for Historical Fiction from the Independent Publisher Award Program.