"Sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going," Ernest Hemingway once wrote, "I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, 'Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.'"1 In his search for the truest sentence, Ernest Hemingway changed American fiction. He came of age in a golden era of American literature. The names of his drinking buddies would still be filling required reading lists decades later. But Hemingway didn't want to merely mimic styles that had already proven successful. "How simple the writing of literature would be if it were only necessary to write in another way what has been well written," he once said—and Hemingway rarely chose the simple path.2 Instead, he took American prose, threw his weight behind it and laboriously moved it to a new and different place.
Hemingway was not a scholar; he never went to college. He served his apprenticeship in journalism, the trade of chronicling real life, and was influenced by the style guidelines hammered into his head as a cub reporter at the Kansas City Star, where stories were measured carefully by the inch. He was always looking for that single phrase or sentence that would illuminate pages of things unwritten. He celebrated in his fiction the struggling, the striving and the stoic, characters whose actions reflected an id-driven archetype of man. The masterpiece that won him all the big prizes and clinched his place in the canon of literary greats is a slim novella that compresses the epic struggle of life and death into a story about an old man wrestling with a fish.
His biography is important. Hemingway always believed that the best writing came from personal experience, and his novels and stories were influenced heavily by the settings of his own life. His fiction reflected his various interests and experiences, whether it was bullfighting, African big-game hunting, or driving an ambulance in the First World War. More than just thinly-veiled autobiography, Hemingway used the personal basis of his work as a challenge to himself as a writer, remarking that "good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you.... If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer."3
Hemingway's created an image of himself that was larger than life, literally—people always thought he was taller than his actual height of six feet. His reputation, however, was no accident, and in maintaining Hemingway the myth he alienated many people who had to deal with Hemingway the man. He exaggerated or outright lied about some of his exploits in hunting and war. He had great difficulty maintaining friendships and marriages. Though he professed not to care for praise, he sought it out and got cranky when it wasn't given. He could be charming and charismatic or bullying and boorish—often to the same people. And his obsession with manliness—well, let's just say that the guy had a few issues with his mom. And though his writing championed those who never gave up, in the end he surrendered in his own battle against depression, ending his life in suicide. But as Papa wrote in The Old Man and the Sea, man can be destroyed, but never defeated. More than forty years after his death, Hemingway's work lives on in his own bibliography and in the countless authors he inspired.