some days are better than none
Ernest and Me
It is the second of July, 2010, and I’m going through today’s crop of e-mails. I click on The Writer’s Almanac and there it is, a notice that Ernest died forty-nine years ago. Every year on this day I am reminded of him—the man, the legend, the artist. Although Hemingway and I go way back, our relationship was uneven and went through several stages.
I read a lot as a kid, mainly things like The Hobbit, adventure-travel (especially Halliburton and Rider Haggard), and archaeology. I didn’t read what I now consider serious literature until 1952, when I was a freshman in college. We had to read, then talk about, a couple of Ernest’s short stories—“Big Two Hearted River” or “Indian Camp,” if memory serves—as well as excerpts from Hardy and Thackeray. Ernest’s stories seemed okay, although I didn’t really know what they were about, what he was trying to say. I had no idea why Nick Adams went through all that ritual in “Big Two-Hearted” just to catch a fish or light a fire. The spare, bam-bam writing style was refreshing, though, especially after those nineteenth-century novels we had to read. Thackeray’s cutesy asides and Hardy’s convoluted narrative style had been too boring for words.
Before college, I’m not sure I had even heard of Ernest. After being introduced, I began seeing references to him in magazines and in the newspaper. The more I heard, the more infatuated I became. I was especially vulnerable to this kind of abject hero worship given that my father left my mother and me when I was three and I never had any other male role model. I was looking, and Ernest filled the bill. He represented everything I dreamed of being and did everything I dreamed of doing: war-hero correspondent; the very avatar of masculine courage; big game hunter; bullfight aficionado; in Paris one minute, Spain the next, then off to Venice. He was a man’s man who could out-drink and out-fight all comers, who romanced and bedded strings of desirable (and always compliant) women. Of course, he was a famous writer, too, but that fact was shaded by his personal qualities and exploits. I was a teenage college student exploding with testosterone and romantic dreams. It was Ernest the man who made my heart pound. It was 1953, my second year in college, and I was studying in my room with the radio on. A news announcement broke in to say that Ernest and his wife, Mary, had been in a plane crash in Africa. The announcer reported that they were in a chartered plane while on safari. The plane’s failed hydraulic system had forced an emergency landing. Just as I was thinking, Wow, that Ernest, here he goes again, the announcer added that the plane took off once more, but crashed near the Nile River. Ernest had hurt his shoulder and Mary had broken some ribs. I can’t believe this, I thought. They lived through it! Then the announcer said in a matter-of-fact voice that Ernest and Mary had immediately taken off on a third flight, which crashed on takeoff, cracking Ernest’s skull, rupturing two discs in his spine, and causing internal bleeding. I was stunned, but certain a few plane crashes couldn’t stop Ernest for long. Sure enough, a few days later the newspaper had a picture of Ernest walking out of an African hospital dressed in a safari outfit, head swathed in bandages, flashing his famous million-watt smile and waving to his fans. Thrumming with delight, I thought, Those crashes would have killed a normal person, but Ernest is not a normal person. About halfway through college, a professor assigned A Farewell to Arms to read and report on. As usual, I started reading it the night before the class. The more I read, the more captivated I became. It was the first time (and one of the few times since) I really “could not put a book down.” I started at nine o’clock and finished it about three in the morning. I was just so full of emotion: the dark drama of war, the beauty of Frederic and Catherine’s love, their harrowing flight, their quiet life in Switzerland, and the crushing tragedy of her death. The story made me cry, which had never happened before. I was hooked. Ernest became my literary lodestar, as well as my role model. From then on, I read everything by Ernest I could get my hands on. I even read a couple of biographies, as well as several books about bullfighting, devouring every detail. I relished the iconic black-and-white portrait by Karsh: There he was with his huge battered pumpkin of a head, glorious white beard, and bulky white hand-knit turtleneck sweater, with a collar that came up to his ears. Yes! After college, I got married to a woman who loved literature as much as I did. We ended up living a nomadic life in the Navy. I have no doubt that Ernest’s life, as I imagined it, influenced the relatively exotic lifestyle I chose to live. He stayed in my thoughts, even though I was often unable to get copies of his work. My last Navy posting was at an ammunition depot in Northern California, a semirural area right on the Sacramento River. I had enjoyed Ernest’s Across the River and into the Trees and dreamed of personally replicating a scene where Colonel Cantwell (Ernest himself, of course) shoots ducks from a blind in the Venetian marshes. My wife was supportive of my romantic fantasy. She held her tongue rather than deflate me by stating the obvious fact that I was not a hunter and was just acting like a deluded, immature male. One weekend I borrowed a shotgun, packed a thermos of coffee, and (to complete the fantasy) took a flask of grappa. I found an abandoned duck blind on the river and spent a freezing winter morning sitting in it with the shotgun, sipping the coffee and grappa to keep warm. The blind was a ramshackle frame of bleached two-by-fours covered with straw matting. It sat at the edge of the dark gray-green river, nearly surrounded by tall river grass. The day was heavily overcast with no glimmer of sun. A steady wind made small waves that lapped the river shore. It rained midmorning. The only sounds were the sussing of the waves and the occasional engine or propeller of a passing boat. A few mud hens paddled around, but no ducks. After a few hours of chilled inaction, my mind rambling through thoughts about everything but Ernest, I decided to pack it in. Despite the absurdity of my role-playing, exemplified by my relief that I didn’t have to shoot a duck, which I couldn’t have retrieved anyway, I savored the fantasy that I had finally shared an experience with Ernest. I’m not sure what I had expected, my dream scenario. I guess I was seeking to bridge the gap between experiencing what he did on the page, via words, and experiencing it outdoors, where both the inside and the outside of me would be engaged. After almost five years in the Navy, I was making plans to go to graduate school to study literature. Money would be tight, but I figured I could get part-time work, and maybe a fellowship. In preparation, I took a literature course at a community college and read more work by and about Ernest. I still remember the day in the library when I picked up a copy of The Sun Also Rises lying on a table and leafed through it. A passage jumped out at me in one of my first literary epiphanies: They had hitched the mules to the dead bull and then the whips cracked, the men ran, and the mules straining forward, their legs pushing, broke into a gallop, and the bull, one horn up, his head on its side, swept a swath smoothly across the sand and out the red gate. When I closed my eyes, I could see that scene, could hear the whips, crack, crack; hear the straining and the galloping; feel the still-virile power of the huge black bull, oozing blood, limp on the yellow sand. I also learned, via the biographies and critical pieces I read, that Ernest was controversial. He had a lot of detractors among literary critics. The criticism was mixed, though, so I dismissed these naysayers. But some of their allegations stuck in my mind. According to his critics, Ernest took people’s help, then treated them badly and dismissed them when he no longer needed them. In particular, I was disturbed by the way he treated his first wife, Hadley, and the disloyal way he treated those who had helped him most. Looking back, I think his disloyalty bothered me because I, too, had been dismissed and shunted aside—by my father. In May 1961, I left the Navy and started graduate school, not in literature, but in something called “international relations.” I still liked literature, but I wanted to travel even more, wanted adventure, still wanted to be like Ernest the man. Then on Sunday, July 2, 1961, about three in the afternoon, my wife and I were driving to the market when an announcer broke into the music program to say that Ernest had died that morning in Ketchum, Idaho. I just looked at my wife, too stunned to say anything. She knew how I felt and said nothing. “What happened?” I asked no one in particular. I don’t recall whether the announcer mentioned that Ernest had committed suicide, or whether I read it in the LA Times the next morning. My first reaction was sorrow, feelings of loss, as though some great natural tragedy had befallen the US and me personally. When the shock passed, frustration, annoyance, then anger followed. My anger was driven by Ernest’s betrayal of himself, of me, of everything he had stood for his whole life. He believed, and had repeated frequently in speeches and in his writing, that the world was a cruel place, that it would beat you down, crush you, and that you had to have the courage to fight against all odds in order to be who you wanted to be, do what you wanted to do. His favorite motto was il faut (d’abord) durer (first of all, endure). And now, only sixty-one, at the top of his game, the most famous living writer in the world—he couldn’t take it. He blew the top of his head off with a shotgun. Where did that leave me? Despite myself, I couldn’t stop reading Ernest’s books. When Moveable Feast came out in 1964, I was living in India but was able to get my hands on a copy. I had never been to France, but Ernest’s ability to bring those earlier magical years in Paris to life entranced me. Through his words, I could picture, experience the romance of it. I felt I knew the marvelous cast of characters personally. Now, living overseas myself again, I was continuing my dream of a life of adventure, and that added to the Feast’s resonance. I could not fail to notice, though, how mean and generally uncharitable Ernest had been with friends and those who had helped him in his early years. It was just as his critics had described. I read one anecdote where, in a boxing match with his friend Morley Callaghan, Ernest’s lip was cut. Ernest spit blood into Callaghan’s face and said, “That’s what bullfighters do when they are injured to show contempt.” I thought to myself, What’s a real man like Ernest doing with that kind of adolescent behavior? That negative image of him was reinforced as I read more about his morbid vindictiveness, his willingness to dismiss critics and hurt friends. I also noted his hypocrisy. Ernest said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech that a writer “does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.” That sounded right to me, but I wondered, If you do had to do it alone, how come you spent so much time fighting critics and protecting your ego and your image? As some critics had been saying all along, I began to wonder how much of Ernest’s macho talk and bellicose swaggering were driven by feelings of insecurity and anxiety, even fear, which he was trying to cover up. As I made my way through my thirties, I gradually realized that these were classical ways to defend yourself against fear. I encountered a shrewd observation by Gabriel Marquez that some people “erect a barrier of wrath” to hide their fear. I wondered what fears, what feelings of inadequacy, haunted Ernest. Where did those feelings come from, and why wasn’t he able to exorcise them? I’m not sure when it started, maybe even before he died, but some claimed that Ernest’s famous spare writing style had descended into self-parody. I had loyally rejected this strain of criticism, since it was Ernest’s unique writing style I loved, the way he was able to pack so much feeling into so few words, and to do it with almost no adjectives or lyrical descriptions. But one day, in 1967, I took A Farewell to Arms, my all-time favorite, from my bookshelf. Glancing through it, I ran across the following passage in the voice of Frederic Henry: I had wanted to go to Abruzzi. I had gone to no place where the roads were frozen and hard as iron, where it was clear cold and dry and the snow was dry and powdery and hare tracks in the snow and peasants took off their hats and called you Lord and there was good hunting. I had gone to no such place but to the smoke of cafes and nights when the room whirled and you needed to look at the wall to make it stop, nights in bed, drunk, when you knew that that was all there was. I noticed his interminable sentences, his use of one adjective after another, the repetition of and-and-and nine times in two sentences. I caught more than a whiff of self-pity in his tone. I thought to myself, I’m no student of literature, but that’s just terrible writing. The revelation gave me no pleasure. After that, I rarely returned to Ernest’s works. However, when Islands in the Stream came out in October 1970, it made the headlines and I was eager to read it. I was able to get a copy the day before a short business trip to Chapel Hill, NC. I was in bad shape emotionally, as my marriage of thirteen years was coming apart in an acrimonious way. My spirits were made worse since my lovely, small daughter was caught up in the ugliness. I was looking forward to a few days alone: just me, Islands, and a flask of Scotch. I started reading the book on the flight from Ithaca. I was transfixed by the time I got to the Raleigh-Durham Airport. I checked into the College Inn on campus, had a quick dinner in the dining room, and went up to my simple room. It was late fall but still warm in Chapel Hill so I kept the window open to let in the soft Carolina breeze. I continued reading about the character Thomas Hudson, whose loneliness and botched life I identified with. As I read, I drank glass after glass of Scotch. It became a reprise of my first reading of Farewell to Arms, but this time I was even more in the story since I felt a much stronger kinship with Hudson than I’d felt with Frederic Henry. I read and drank and read some more. When I thought to glance at the clock it was two in the morning. I had a meeting at nine. I said out loud to no one, “The hell with it. I’m going to finish it.” I don’t know what time I finally finished, but between the lack of sleep and the hangover, I was in a rakish mood the next day. Later, I read the at-best mixed reviews, but didn’t care what they said. What counted for me was how the story made me feel, at a time I needed to feel differently, feel better than I did. It was the old Ernest again, the old me again, if only for a few hours. Years passed. I worked and lived and traveled in exotic spots all over the world. I shared at least a tamer version of Ernest’s adventurous life, though I had forgotten that he influenced me to move in that direction. My work was in international health, nothing whatever to do with literature. My reading turned toward memoir, biography, history, and other nonfiction. Gradually, I focused almost exclusively on nonfiction, with the exception of classics like Anna Karenina and The Red and the Black. I rarely thought about Ernest. I had always enjoyed writing, even though my topics were confined for years to international health issues. During 2005, when I lived in Palestine, I was emotionally engaged by the Israeli-Palestinian political situation and began to write about it, with no thought of publication, just to get my emotions off my chest, and to inform my friends around the world what was really going on. I got a good deal of favorable feedback and decided to enter a low-residency nonfiction program to learn more about the craft of writing. During the first two semesters of the program, I was required to critique a number of books for craft, examining what techniques the writer used to tell his story, create immediacy, and reveal meaning. Although I wanted to critique works by recent creative nonfiction writers, I was still living overseas and lacked access to the works I wanted. At one point I was in Bangkok, faced with a deadline, and the only book I found was a tattered copy of Farewell to Arms. I picked it up and read the famous opening paragraph: In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving, and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year. I was struck by the setting, painted in a few masterful strokes. I had read this book at least five times, but was now able to feel a depth in it which I had not before, thanks to my improved understanding of the writer’s craft. Rereading Farewell to Arms in my new, more thoughtful and analytical way revealed the work’s beauty, its genius on a number of levels. I saw how Ernest constructed the wondrous landscape, the characters, the scenes, and—for me, something really new—how he delivered his themes through the use of symbols and leitmotifs. I was especially excited to discover how Ernest used craft to communicate his enduring personal philosophy. This philosophy, which I share, is that the world is malevolent and implacable: “If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. . . . It kills the very good and the very gentle and the brave impartially.” He reinforced themes of death, defeat, failure, and emptiness by linking them to setting and landscape. The mood of desolation was conveyed by fallen leaves. Curious whether my epiphany was only a lingering obsession, I followed Farewell to Arms with Ernest’s “A Clean Well Lighted Place,” praised by James Joyce as “one of the best stories ever written.” I was elated to find that, to an even greater degree than in Farewell to Arms, Ernest’s lapidary prose was able to look deeply into the human condition, to reveal what loneliness feels like and the incomprehension that causes and reinforces it. With my own eyes, I saw the deep artistry and understanding of humanity in Ernest’s writing. It was a release, dispelling all the questions and doubts I had harbored about his greatness as a writer. Today, on the anniversary of his suicide, the short commemorative piece in the Writers Almanac informs me that Ernest never really recovered from the injuries he suffered in those plane crashes, that he declined into chronic alcoholism. The blurb goes on to say that after Moveable Feast, he began to suffer from insomnia, depression, eye trouble, hair loss, a skin condition, and what appeared to be paranoia. When he finally sought help at the Mayo Clinic, they treated him with electroshock therapy. Apparently, the treatment did nothing for his depression, but did have a severe negative impact on his memory. Shortly thereafter, he killed himself. Although this is hardly news, it forces me to rethink the manner of his death—more accurately, to think about it—rather than merely react emotionally the way I did at first. Now, at an advanced age, I am finally able to put Ernest’s emotional state in perspective. It was bad enough that he was sick and in pain, fighting depression, overweight, losing his ability to beat anyone in the place, drink anyone under the table, enjoy anything like an active sex life. What put him over the edge was his conviction that the shock therapy had damaged his memory (“erased it,” Ernest said), ensuring that he would never write well again. A brave and proud and sensitive man like Ernest could endure the physical and even the psychological losses, but those losses plus losing his ability to write removed any incentive to live on. I finally understand, finally empathize. I feel better for him and the people who cared about him. And although the hero worship has long since passed, I feel better for myself, too. A lot of Ernest’s problems resulted from the fact that, more than almost any writer in history, his art and personality were nearly inseparable. That, plus the uneven quality of his work, ended up being a major problem for him and everybody else, confusing critics, friends, and readers like me, exacerbating reactions positive and negative.
Now, late in the day, I understand what a great gift Ernest has given me: the ability, finally, to grasp the beauty and power of his art. I have also come to believe that he knew what he had to do at the end, and had the courage to do it.
Richard Moore is retired after over forty years in foreign aid work, mainly overseas. He received an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2009, and has a PhD in management. He has published three CNF pieces so far this year: “Crossing Erez” in Guernica Magazine, and “”A Death in the Hot Season” in the Wilderness House Literary Review. Another essay, “Is That Art?” appeared in the August issue of Fine Arts Connoisseur Magazine.
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