Ernest Hemingway: Nobel Prize & Suicide
The last decade of Ernest Hemingway's life was marked by professional accomplishment and personal disaster. By his fifties, a life of hard living and hard drinking began to catch up with him. His ailments included liver problems, diabetes, depression and the lingering physical damage related to his many injuries. Hemingway had endured a lifelong streak of freak accidents, from that skylight accident in Paris to the time his infant son stuck his finger in his eye and tore his cornea. In 1954, while on safari with Mary in Africa, the couple was seriously injured in two successive plane crashes (the plane that came to rescue them after the first crash crashed as well). He was recovering from those injuries at the same time that his literary career and personal fame reached its peak.
In September 1952, Life magazine published Hemingway's novella The Old Man and the Sea. The book focuses on Santiago, a weathered, quiet, long-suffering Cuban fisherman who spends days at sea wrestling with a marlin, only to see the fish eaten by sharks on the way back to port. Hemingway's literary reputation had dwindled in recent years, thanks largely to his 1950 novel Across the River and Into the Trees, which was regarded as about as bad a book as Ernest Hemingway was capable of writing. The story of Santiago and the elegant telling of his epic, Christ-like suffering was wildly popular among critics and readers. Writers flocked to Hemingway's home to do profiles of Papa, the fishing, hunting writer of near-mythical status. Even Hemingway, his own harshest critic, was pleased with the book, calling it the "best I can write ever for all of my life."11 The Old Man and the Sea won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953 and in 1954 Hemingway was honored with the Nobel Prize for Literature. Upon presenting the prize, the secretary of the Swedish Academy said that Ernest Hemingway had done more for American literature than any of his colleagues, as a writer who "makes us feel we are confronted by a still young nation which seeks and finds its exact form of expression."12 Hemingway was still recovering from the plane crashes and was unable to travel to Sweden to receive the prize. The American ambassador accepted it for him and read his speech aloud, which included the phrase: "Things may not be immediately discernible in what a man writes, and in this sometimes he is fortunate; but eventually they are quite clear and by these and the degree of alchemy that he possesses he will endure or be forgotten."13
Hemingway's depression, which had plagued him at times throughout his life, worsened in his later years. By the time he and Mary moved to Ketchum, Idaho, in 1960, Hemingway was receiving shock treatments for depression that made him lose his memory. The loss of his memory, the store of details and experience upon which his writing was based, was more than he could take. The man who valued striving and surviving above all else could no longer carry on the fight. A first, unsuccessful suicide attempt occurred in spring 1961. Then on 2 July 1961, just a few weeks before his 62nd birthday, Ernest Hemingway positioned himself in the foyer of his Ketchum home and shot himself in the head with a double-barreled shotgun.
He was buried in Ketchum. His epitaph was a poem he wrote for a friend years earlier: "Best of all he loved the fall/ The leaves yellow on the cottonwoods/ Leaves floating on the trout streams/ And above the hills/ The high blue windless skies/ Now he will be a part of them forever."
Hemingway often inscribed letters and books with the French expression il faut d'abord durer—first, one must last. Hemingway's lasting contribution to American literature includes not only his own impressive bibliography, but the books of countless of other writers who were inspired by his prose. John Updike said that "an entire generation of American men learned to speak in the accents of [his] stoicism"; Raymond Carver recalled that his generation of aspiring young writers "managed to work Hemingway's name into just about every conversation we had."14 Writers who counted him as an influence included Hunter S. Thompson, J.D. Salinger and Jack Kerouac, all of whom developed their own voices that in turn inspired new generations. Hemingway would have liked that. For as he said in his Nobel prize acceptance speech, "How simple the writing of literature would be if it were only necessary to write in another way what has been well written. It is because we have had such great writers in the past that a writer is driven far out past where he can go, out to where no one can help him."15