Study Guide

Ernest Hemingway Biography

  • Biography

    "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.'"blank">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.

  • Oak Park & Childhood

    Ernest Miller Hemingway was born on 21 July 1899 in Oak Park, Illinois, a comfortable suburb located just west of Chicago. He was the second child born to Clarence Edmonds Hemingway, a local doctor whom patients called "Doc Ed," and Grace Hall Hemingway, a once-aspiring opera singer who taught music and voice lessons in Oak Park. The family eventually grew to a total of two sons and four daughters. Decades later, it became clear that the Hemingway family shared a tendency toward depression and suicide. Ernest eventually took his own life, as did his father, his brother, and two of his four sisters.

    The tragic side of the family wasn't yet apparent during their days at Oak Park, an attractive, well-to-do enclave that Ernest would describe years later as a place of "wide lawns and narrow minds." Grace Hall was a strictly religious woman with a melodramatic and mercurial temperament. Not long after Ernest's birth she developed an odd fondness for dressing him and his older sister Marcelline as "twins"—sometimes as boys, with short hair and overalls, and sometimes as girls, with flowery dresses and long hair. This game of dress-up occurred frequently enough that three-year-old Ernest worried at Christmas that Santa Claus wouldn't know he was a boy. Ernest was six when Grace finally allowed him to cut off his long locks for good.

    Hemingway then spent the rest of his life proving his masculinity to himself and everyone else in his orbit. His friend, the writer John dos Passos, said later that Hemingway was the only man he ever knew who truly hated his mother. His bitterness toward his mother over his upbringing spilled out in the way he treated female characters in his fiction—and in the way he treated his four wives. "Deep in Ernest, due to his mother, going back to the indestructible first memories of childhood, was mistrust and fear of women," wrote Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway's third wife and a prominent journalist in her own right, in a 1969 letter to her son from another relationship. "Which he suffered from always, and made women suffer; and which shows in his writing." As much as he enjoyed his newspaper work, Hemingway quit in April 1918 after only six months on the job. There was a war going on, and he had bigger adventures in mind.

  • WWI

    For young people of Hemingway's generation, World War I was supposed to be the adventure of a lifetime. You simply had to be there. Many of those who did not engage in overseas combat because of age or other circumstances (like Hemingway's colleague F. Scott Fitzgerald) deeply regretted missing their chance. "Not for anything would I have missed the opportunity for a ringside view of the greatest spectacle to unfold in our time," wrote Henry Villard, a journalist and businessman who knew Hemingway during the war. "To many of us the war in Europe resembled a gigantic stage on which the most exciting drama ever produced was being played out."blank">A Farewell to Arms.

    Through friends he met Hadley Richardson, a St. Louis native eight years his senior. They married in September 1921 and settled in Chicago—briefly. Hemingway's friend and fellow writer Sherwood Anderson had told him that he really needed to check out Paris. It was cheap (the exchange rate favored the dollar over the franc), the bars were great, and all the really good writers were going there. Hemingway was convinced. In December 1921 the newlywed couple set sail for Paris to become part of one of the greatest literary gatherings of the twentieth century.

  • A Moveable Feast & Paris

    Anderson was correct that all the good writers were in Paris. Among the authors and artists who established themselves there in the years after World War I were Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Anderson himself. It was a cohort of young people whom Gertrude Stein nicknamed the Lost Generation—those who caught only the tail end of the excitement and drama of World War I and then faced the great letdown of the war's aftermath. Some expatriates in Paris at the time drank their days away in the cafes. Hemingway did plenty of drinking (for the rest of his life, he bore a scar on his forehead from a drunken collision with a Paris skylight) but was also a disciplined writer. He traveled around Europe writing pieces for the Toronto Star, using his immense powers of observation to record life for the newspaper. One of his editors, Charles Scribner Jr., called Hemingway "one of the most perceptive travelers in the history of literature."blank">The Sun Also Rises) or had no veil at all (A Moveable Feast).

    In Paris the Hemingways befriended a woman named Pauline Pfeiffer, a fashion reporter who sometimes traveled with the couple. She and Ernest began an affair. Hadley divorced him in 1927, and a few months later he and Pauline married. In his memoir, Hemingway blamed Pauline for seducing him, saying that a the ploy of befriending a woman in order to steal her husband was "the oldest trick there is." It might have been an old trick, but it was one that Hemingway fell for more than once in his lifetime.

  • Key West, Cuba & WWII

    In 1928 the new Mr. and Mrs. Hemingway moved to Key West, Florida. It was a big year personally for Hemingway. In June his second son Patrick was born. Then in December, in a tragic foreshadowing of Ernest's own suicide, his father Clarence shot himself after struggling for years with health problems. Hemingway took his father's death hard and returned to Oak Park to arrange the funeral. The following year he published A Farewell to Arms, which he wrote mostly at his in-laws' house in Arkansas. The novel is set in World War I and follows the doomed relationship between a young, stoic American ambulance driver serving on the Italian front and a British nurse. Sound familiar? Like much of Hemingway's early fiction, it drew heavily on his personal experiences. The narrator also embodies many of the key characteristics of the "Hemingway male": stoic, courageous, impervious to flattery or praise, happy in pursuit of drink, women and other manly objectives. The novel was critically and commercially successful, enough so that Hemingway could pay the bills and not have to worry about his next paycheck.

    After years of studious devotion to his fiction, Hemingway spent the decade after the publication of A Farewell to Arms taking a bit of a breather. He, Pauline and their children (his third and final child, Gregory, was born in 1931) settled in a house in Key West. He was able to travel and delve deeper into his various passions. In 1932 he went to Spain to research bullfighting for Death in the Afternoon, his definitive book on the subject. The following year, he and Pauline went on a ten-day safari to Kenya, where Hemingway developed an obsession with big game hunting. He returned several times to Africa. The landscape of African hills and safari camps appeared often in his fiction (including "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" and "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber," two of Hemingway's classic short stories) and nonfiction (The Green Hills of Africa). In 1936 he traveled to Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War as a correspondent for the North American Newspaper Alliance. The country had long gripped Hemingway's imagination—he was an outspoken supporter of the Republic, which Generalissimo Francisco Franco and his Fascists were attempting to overthrow—and his experiences there during the war served as the inspiration for his 1940 novel For Whom the Bell Tolls.

    By the late 1930s, another intelligent, attractive female writer friend was spending a lot of time around the Hemingway household. She was Martha Gellhorn, an accomplished war correspondent, who joined Hemingway covering the war in Spain. They married in 1940, as soon as his divorce from Pauline was final, and set up house at an estate in Cuba called Finca Vigia. There, Hemingway drank, fished, boxed, grew his famous beard and generally spent more time cultivating his image of a burly macho man than writing any fiction. When the United States joined World War II in 1941, he trawled the waters in his fishing boat Pilar looking for German submarines (and was later awarded the Bronze Star for his efforts). The couple traveled together to China for Martha's work (Ernest filed a few stories too), and she recorded Hemingway's famous powers of conversation, observation and alcohol consumption. "He was able to sit with a bunch of men for most of a day or most of a night, or most of both day and night though perhaps with different men, wherever he happened to have started sitting, all of them fortified by a continuous supply of drink, the while he roared with laughter at reminiscences and anecdotes," she wrote. "Aside from being his form of amusement, he learned about a place and people through the eyes and experiences of those who lived there."

    In 1944 Hemingway traveled to Europe (where Martha was already working as a war correspondent) to cover the war in France and Germany for Collier's magazine. Their marriage was faltering. Almost immediately he met a journalist named Mary Welsh and—well, you know the rest. Ernest and Mary were married on 14 March 1946 in Cuba.

  • 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."

    • Family

      Father: Clarence Hemingway (1871-1928)
      Mother: Grace Hall Hemingway (1872-1951)
      Sister: Marcelline Hemingway (1898-1963)
      Sister: Ursula Hemingway (1902-1966)
      Sister: Carol Hemingway (1911-2002)
      Brother: Leicester Hemingway (1915-1982)

      Wife 1: Elizabeth Hadley Richardson (1891-1979), married 1921, divorced 1927
      Son: John Hadley Nicanor "Jack" Hemingway (1923-2000)
      Granddaughter: Joan Hemingway (b. 1950)
      Granddaughter: Margaux Hemingway (1954-1996)
      Granddaughter: Mariel Hemingway (b. 1961)

      Wife 2: Pauline Pfeiffer (1895-1951), married 1927, divorced 1940
      Son: Patrick Hemingway (b. 1928)
      Granddaughter: Mina Hemingway
      Son: Gregory Hemingway (1931-2001)
      Grandson: Patrick Hemingway
      Grandson: Edward Hemingway
      Grandson: Sean Hemingway
      Grandson: Brendan Hemingway
      Granddaughter: Vanessa Hemingway
      Granddaughter: Maria Hemingway
      Grandson: John Hemingway (b. 1960)
      Granddaughter: Lorian Hemingway (b. 1951)

      Wife 3: Martha Gellhorn (1908-1998), married 1940, divorced 1945

      Wife 4: Mary Welsh (1908-1986) married 1946

    • Education

      Oak Park and River Forest High School, 1913-1917

    • Work Experience

      Reporter, Kansas City Star (1917-1918)
      Ambulance driver, Red Cross Volunteer Corps (1918)
      Editor, Cooperative Society of America newsletter (c. 1918)
      Reporter, Toronto Star (1920-1924)
      War correspondent, North American Newspaper Alliance (c. 1936)
      Military Irregular, United States Armed Forces (World War II)
      War correspondent, Collier's magazine (1944)

    • Stories

      Three Stories & Ten Poems (1923)
      In Our Time (1924 Paris, 1925 U.S.)
      Men Without Women (1927)
      Winner Take Nothing (1933)
      The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories (1938)
      The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories (1961)
      The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber and Other Stories (1963)
      Hemingway's African Stories: the Stories, Their Sources, Their Critics, ed. John M. Howell (1969)
      The Nick Adams Stories (1972)
      The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway (1987)

    • Novels

      The Torrents of Spring (1926)
      The Sun Also Rises (1926)
      A Farewell to Arms (1929)
      To Have and Have Not (1937)
      For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940)
      Across the River and Into the Trees (1950)
      The Old Man and the Sea (1952)
      Islands in the Stream (1970)
      The Garden of Eden (1986)
      True at First Light: A Fictional Memoir, ed. Patrick Hemingway (1999)

    • Nonfiction

      Death in the Afternoon (1932)
      Green Hills of Africa (1935)
      The Spanish Earth (1938)
      A Moveable Feast (1964)
      The Dangerous Summer (1988)

    • Poems

      The Collected Poems of Ernest Hemingway (1970)
      Eighty-Eight Poems, ed. Nicholas Gerogiannis (1979)

    • Awards

      Silver Medal of Military Valor, Italian Armed Forces (c. WWI)
      Bronze Star, United States Armed Forces (1947)
      Pulitzer Prize, The Old Man and the Sea (1953)
      American Academy of Arts and Letters Award of Merit (1954)
      Nobel Prize for Literature (1954)
      Top Reporter of the Last Hundred Years, Kansas City Star (1999)