Fifty years ago today, Hemingway, physically and mentally a disaster, shuffled off his mortal coil via shotgun after returning from another session at the Mayo Clinic where his brilliant mind was destroyed by shock treatments. In the half century since, oceans of ink has been spilled chronicling every possible facet of his life. Someone even wasted their time writing a book about his cats. Like many celebs, he’s probably worth more dead than alive.
I’ve read most of the major biographies, and the best single-volume portrait remains Carlos Baker’s original Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story and for a more in-depth study read Michael Reynolds’s stunning multivolume chronicle. I’d like to recommend a forthcoming book by Paul Hendrickson called Hemingway’s Boat, which I just read for review. Coming in September from Knopf, Hendrickson looks at Ernesto from a different angle by presenting him through the eyes of friends and family. He lets you decide for yourself whether Hemingway was a good guy or a lousy son of a bitch. To me, he’s both. Probably a great guy to tie one on with, but to be friends with, no thanks.
Most importantly 50 years after Ernesto’s big bang is to forget all the crap that’s been said about him‚ even the good stuff‚ and read his books. His legend has become so large that in many ways it’s overshadowed the work, and that would have hurt him worse than the double load of birdshot through the head (although it’s his own damn fault). So read his books and know how good he really was, and all the hunting and the fishing and the bullfighting and the drinking and the macho trappings aside, he did reinvent American literature and inspired a thousand other writers who still are adding to its momentum.
My favorite of his works, although not his best, is The Sun Also Rises. I’ve probably read it 20 times and always notice something new. He wrote it when he was 26 years old. What were you doing when you were that age? I like to picture Hemingway sitting alone in a rented room overlooking the rooftops of Paris writing that book in longhand using a pencil sharpened with a pocket knife and a school kids composition book. He wanted only to be a great writer, and all through the years to the very end, at his core that’s still what he wanted. All the hairy-chested nonsense placed a distant second.
In The Sun he says the secret to “enjoying living was learning to get your money’s worth and knowing when you had it.” Every year on the anniversary of his death, I like to think that when he pushed himself out of bed that morning and sneaked downstairs to fetch the shotgun, that he knew he’d gotten his money’s worth.
Ernest, I raise my glass to you.