Ernest Hemingway’s birthday just passed, on July 21st. Whether you’ve read his works for your own joy or grudgingly as an assignment, or whether you have never turned a page of his, Hemingway is easily one of the most important writers in American history, if not throughout the world. I once read that the ghost of Hemingway hangs over every man that writes. Now, there are certainly female admirers of Hemingway, and men who don't care for his writing. This statement is clearly an exaggeration. But there's no denying that Hemingway holds significance when considering the concept of "manliness". For those men who have read and loved Hemingway, and especially those who have become enamored with his myth, there have been wilder claims. Hemingway is in many ways a legendary archetype of masculinity, both in his deeds and in the writing he put forth. He was a symbol of courage and unashamed manliness in the most classical sense. Everything he did, drinking, fighting, loving, he did with zeal and nerves of steel, so the legend would tell you. Read any sort of biography of Hemingway and you’ll be regaled with stories of immense courage, occasional stupidity, and plenty of alcohol. And then there is the writing. Hemingway is known for his powerfully simple language and stoic, declarative style. Hemingway style epitomized the idea of saying a lot with only a little, and so incredible is his writing that it is essentially impossible to emulate. The simplicity that defines Hemingway’s writing comes from a complex genius that few people possess.
So Hemingway was the typical man’s man and one hell of a writer, but of course there’s more to the story, because Hemingway was a man, not a legend. He was real. For a kid from Oak Park, Illinois, I am reminded of that often. Hemingway was born and grew up here, and the town has no intention of letting you forget. There’s the big sign in front of Hemingway’s birth home, there’s the Hemingway District in town, there’s the Hemingway Museum, the Hemingway Bistro, and even the Hemingway Room in the local high school. The legend of Hemingway is deeply entrenched in Oak Park because, after all, this town can claim to be the home of America’s most famous writer. But you’re reminded of the man that Hemingway was if you live here too. Hemingway was attached to Oak Park; it was his home, but as his relationship with his family deteriorated, so did his relationship with his hometown. When people think of Hemingway, they think of Paris, of Spain, of Cuba, not this suburb bordering the West Side of Chicago. You think about his legendary feats and persona, and not the man, not Ernest.
Hemingway was a complicated person, as most people are. His hard drinking could simply be called alcoholism, his many lovers the actions of a womanizer and serial cheater. Hemingway was certainly running from demons. And yet, whether it was in the thrill of a bullfight, the bottom of a glass, or the arms of a woman, he could not escape them. The legend of Hemingway continues to collapse as one learns about his troubled mental state. He received electroshock therapy and attempted suicide many times. In the end, he succeeded. On July 2, 1961, Ernest Hemingway shot himself. It was the way his father went, and the way many of his family members would go. The legend was shattered. Papa turned out to be more troubled than most men, more fragile. This towering figure of masculinity died in a dark, sad way. No glory could save him.
All of this is to say that the ghost of Hemingway isn’t only about the writing; it’s about being a man in general. In an age where ideas about sex and gender are being perpetually reevaluated, Hemingway is both an anachronism and an ideal. The masculine aura of his legend is both an antiquated idea of what it means to be a man and one of the most basic. My favorite picture of Hemingway encapsulates this duality perfectly. I’m not sure where it was taken or when, but it was clearly late in Hemingway’s life; he sports a mustache of grey, with little hair on the top of his head. His face is lined with wrinkles. In this picture, he is shirtless, clutching a shotgun in his hands, and staring at the camera. This may be the shotgun he turned upon himself, I don’t know. In this picture there is Hemingway, the legend, this man who wrote of warriors and lovers with such beauty and restraint, who fought bulls and speared fish and inspired generations to live a life of adventure. And there is Ernest, the man. You can see it in that picture, the demons quickly approaching him. The more you know about the man that was, and the legend that wasn’t, the sadder the picture seems. You see the destruction all the old ideas of manhood wrought on a single person. Hemingway’s genius as a writer long outlived him, and the lessons we can learn from his life are still to be realized. Whether you want to look at Hemingway and see a man who took life by the throat or one who had life chase him down until it finally caught him, you would only be wrong if you didn’t choose both.