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July 21: Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway (1899)

Ernest Hemingway

It was on this date, July 21, 1899, that the American novelist Ernest Hemingway was born in Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago, Illinois, one of six children. His father was a fervent member of the First Congregational church and his mother sang in the church choir. Despite being reared in a strict Congregationalist household, Paul Johnson, in his 1988 book Intellectuals (p. 144), says Hemingway “did not only not believe in God, but regarded organized religion as a menace to human happiness.” Further, he “seems to have been devoid of the religious spirit,” and “ceased to practise religion at the earliest possible moment.”

At age 17 Hemingway got his first job as a journalist. Soon he joined an Italian unit fighting prior to the U.S. entry into World War One and served at the front in a volunteer ambulance unit. He was wounded and subsequently decorated by the Italian Government. Returning briefly to the United States, Hemingway was assigned by Canadian and American newspapers to cover European stories and, in the 1920s, joined a group of expatriate Americans in Paris.

He gave up journalism for literature and published his first important work, The Sun Also Rises, in 1926. The book was banned in Boston in 1930. Hemingway followed that with A Farewell to Arms (1929), which traded on his ambulance-driving days during the Great War. In it, Hemingway wrote (as the first-person narrator), “I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice.... I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity.”

A Farewell to Arms was attacked by critic Robert Herrick in an article entitled "What Is Dirt?" and also banned in Boston. Indeed, Hemingway’s works to date were burned in the 1933 Nazi bonfires. His 1937 novel To Have and Have Not was barred from sale by the Prosecutor of Wayne County, Michigan, after complaints from Catholic organizations in 1938. Undeterred, Hemingway used his experiences as a reporter covering the Spanish Civil War for his most ambitious novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940).

In order to marry his second wife, Pauline, a devout Catholic, Hemingway had to convert to Catholicism. The sincerity of his conversion is seriously suspect. He never explicitly attacks religion in his novels and short stories, but his own apostasy is evident in most if not all of his works. In a short story entitled "Soldier's Home" (First Forty-Nine Stories, 1938) Hemingway draws a character who comes back from war a changed man—most particularly an irreligious man. He cannot even pray with his mother, having lost in the Argonne Forest the beliefs that had once supported him. Here, perhaps, Hemingway is pointing out that, far from there being “no atheists in foxholes,” it is the foxhole that makes the atheist.

Meeting her in 1936 in a Key West bar, from 1940-1945, Hemingway was married to American novelist, travel writer, and journalist Martha Ellis Gellhorn (1908-1998), one of the greatest war correspondents of the 20th century (London Daily Telegraph). Also an atheist. Gellhorn and Hemingway covered the Spanish Civil War together. Their famous relationship, and Hemingway’s third marriage, is factionalized in the 2012 HBO film Hemingway & Gellhorn.

In later life Hemingway was concerned with the decline of his once-robust body. One of his most outstanding short novels of this period was The Old Man and the Sea (1952), a classic man-against-nature story—filmed in 1958 with Oscar-winner Spencer Tracy as the Hemingway character—but with no sympathetic divinity on either side of the contest.

Having lost much of his memory during electro-shock treatments, and suffering from a long list of ailments—alcoholism, diabetes, hepatitis, high blood pressure, impotence and skin disease—at age 61, Hemingway shot himself through the head on Sunday morning, 2 July 1961. Because he had had three divorces, Hemingway did not qualify for the traditional Roman Catholic funeral service. For a man who wrote “All thinking men are atheists,” this probably would not have upset him.

Originally published July 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

Ronald Bruce Meyer

Our Fearless Leader.

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October 3: Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal (1925) It was on this date, October 3, 1925, that American writer Gore (Eugene Luther) Vidal Jr was born in West Point, New York, where his father was an instructor at the military academy. He grew up near Washington, DC, in the house of his blind grandfather, the populist Democrat, Senator Thomas Pryor […]

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