The first wounded American from the Italian front arrived yesterday by the steamship Giuseppe Verdi of the Transatlantica Line with probably more scars than any other man in or out of uniform, who defied the shrapnel of the Central Powers.
His wounds might have been much less if he had not been constructed by nature on generous proportions, being more than six feet tall and of ample beam.
He is Ernest M. Hemingway, before the war a reporter for the Kansas City Star, and hailing from Oak Park, Ill. The surgical chart of his battered person shows 227 marks indicating where bits of a peculiar kind of Austrian shrapnel, about as thick as a .22 caliber bullet and an inch long, like small cuts from a length of wire, smote him. Some of these bits have been extracted after a dozen or more operations and young Hemingway hopes finally to get them all out, but he still retains a hundred or more.
— The New York Sun, January 22, 1919
— Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) January 8, 2017
What you have to understand about Ernest Hemingway is that the work is the point. The drinking and the shooting and the girls, the big-game hunter persona, the Cult of Hemingway that insists being a loud braggy mess is a creative process, all that gets in the way. Strip it out. Take the myth apart. Stop confusing the person with the fan club. Stop confusing the writer with the person.
Go back to the work.
While the bombardment was knocking the trench to pieces at Fossalta, he lay very flat and sweated and prayed oh jesus christ get me out of here. Dear jesus please get me out. Christ please please please christ. If you’ll only keep me from getting killed I’ll do anything you say. I believe in you and I’ll tell every one in the world that you are the only one that matters. Please please dear jesus. The shelling moved further up the line. We went to work on the trench and in the morning the sun came up and the day was hot and muggy and cheerful and quiet. The next night back at Mestre he did not tell the girl he went upstairs with at the Villa Rossa about Jesus. And he never told anybody.
Ernest Hemingway would be the first person to punch all these losers who think they’re Ernest Hemingway because they got in a fistfight or treat women badly. He got up every single morning and he worked. He wrote every day. He wrote for hours. When his back hurt too badly for him to sit down at a desk, he put his typewriter on top of the dresser so he could write standing up. Most of the poser neckbeards who compare themselves to Hemingway shit themselves when their local bar runs out of craft moonshine.
There’s a part of A Moveable Feast where Hemingway is working in a Paris café. A fanboy comes in, sits down, starts talking to Hemingway about how hard it is being a writer, about how he has this terrible writer’s block and he believes in himself as a writer but he can’t actually, you know, write anything.
And after about 15 minutes of listening to this guy whinge about the great book we all know he’s not going to write, Hemingway finally tells him to go to hell. “You shouldn’t write if you can’t write. What do you have to cry about it for? Go home. Get a job. Hang yourself. Only don’t talk about it. You could never write.”
He hated bullshit. He hated his own bullshit the most.
I get so enraged about this because this is something I know a little bit about. I was taught to hate Hemingway the way most of us are, by having The Old Man and the Sea forced on me in high school. And I learned to love Hemingway by finding a cheap copy of The Sun Also Rises in a used-book store in college and reading about rootlessness and recklessness at a time when such things seemed very real. I devoured everything he wrote. The brilliant early journalism, the short stories, the brutal bad novels of his later years when, hobbled by the electric shock treatment intended to treat his depression, he could no longer trust his memory.
He went to war as a teenager. He volunteered for it. The U.S. wasn’t even in World War I when Hemingway left his home and friends and family and everything he’d ever known and offered to drive canteen trucks and deliver mail and chocolate to the front.
He already wanted to be a writer. He wrote terrible poetry and very good journalism for his high school paper and later for the Kansas City Star. He wanted to travel. There are these photographs of him, before the war, when he looks like any other kid his age, desperate to get out into the world and take a big bite out of it.
There are these photographs of him after the war. After the world bit back. After 227 pieces of shrapnel tore through his body. He carried that metal until he died. He spent the rest of his life in physical pain.
You’d never know it from the story he created about himself, the swashbuckling, the show-off adventuring, would you? You’d never know it if you only know his story and not his stories.
So for a man like Donald Trump to act like Ernest Hemingway would have done anything but punch him in the face, would have done anything but told him to fuck off and shut up and never write anything again, for a man like Donald Trump to compare himself to Ernest Hemingway or say that anyone would have done so, let’s just say it’s profoundly unlikely.
One of Hemingway’s poems, however, does seem uniquely suited to our present political situation:
The age demanded that we singAnd cut away our tongue.The age demanded that we flowAnd hammered in the bung.The age demanded that we danceAnd jammed us into iron pants.And in the end the age was handedThe sort of shit that it demanded.