The Life, Death, and Works of Ernest Hemingway

Profile of the Prolific American Writer of the 20th Century

Hemingway on safari
Earl Theisen Collection/Archive Photos/Getty Images

American writer Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) was one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century. Nicknamed "Papa," Hemingway was best known for his novels, including The Old Man and the Sea, A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises, but also wrote poems, essays, and worked as a journalist for newspapers and magazines. His work as a war correspondent informed several of his works, and also introduced him to two of his four wives.

Hemingway called his unadorned writing style the Iceberg Theory, meaning the facts of the story float above the water, but its supporting structure, or true meaning, are not immediately visible. A writer could describe one series of events, Hemingway theorized, while the true "action" of the story is never stated explicitly. Hemingway received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954.

Ernest Hemingway was born on July 21, 1899, in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. His mother, Grace Hall, was an opera singer. His father, Clarence Edmonds Hemingway, was a doctor.

Ernest Hemingway's Death: Suicide or Accident?

Ernest Hemingway died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on July 2, 1961 at his home in Ketchum, Idaho. His wife at the time said the shooting was an accident which occurred while Hemingway was cleaning his gun, but he had been an avid hunter all his life, and had experience handling firearms.

Hemingway had undergone treatment for severe depression not long before his death, including electroshock therapy. He was in failing health overall, suffering from liver disease and high blood pressure. He also had battled alcoholism for many years. Hemingway's father Clarence had killed himself in 1928.

Hemingway's Relationships

Ernest Hemingway's affair with Agnes von Kurowsky, a nurse who tended to him in Milan after he was injured in World War I, was the inspiration for his novel A Farewell to Arms. Hemingway was married a total of four times (but never to Kurowsky, who ultimately rejected him). His first marriage, to Hadley Richardson, ended in divorce after he began an affair with the woman who would become his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer. He met the woman who would become his third wife, Martha Gellhorn, while the two were war correspondents in the Spanish Civil War. He met wife number four, Mary Welsh, another war correspondent, while covering World War II.

Hemingway had three sons, Jack, Patrick and Gregory, and his grandchildren include actresses Margaux and Mariel Hemingway, and writer Lorian Hemingway.

The Lost Generation

Ernest Hemingway lived in Paris beginning in 1921 and became associated with the group of expatriate American artists and writers known as the Lost Generation. His associates at that time included Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, Ezra Pound, Pablo Picasso and James Joyce. Hemingway fictionalized his experiences there in The Sun Also Rises and later wrote about his time in Paris in his memoir A Moveable Feast.

Ernest Hemingway's Works

Hemingway was a prolific writer, whose influence is still felt in Western literature to the present day. Much of his fiction was based on his experiences as an adventurer, world traveler and war correspondent.

Here are some of Hemingway's best-known works:

The Sun Also Rises(1926)

"You're an expatriate. You've lost touch with the soil. You get precious. Fake European standards have ruined you. You drink yourself to death. You become obsessed by sex. You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see. You hang around cafés."

Considered by many to be Hemingway's finest work, this novel is a roman a clef, chronicling the postwar disillusionment of his circle of contemporaries, known as the Lost Generation. It tells the story of a group of American and British expatriates who travel from Paris to Pamplona to watch the annual Running of the Bulls and bullfights.

A Farewell to Arms, (1929)

"I know the night is not the same as the day: that all things are different, that the things of the night cannot be explained in the day, because they do not then exist, and the night can be a dreadful time for lonely people once their loneliness has started."

This novel might be a close second to The Sun Also Rises as Hemingway's finest work. Based loosely on Hemingway's experiences in Italy during World War I, A Farewell to Arms tells the story of Lt. Frederic Henry, an American soldier who falls in love with nurse Catherine Barkley. She's based on Agnes von Kurowksy, a nurse who cared for Hemingway in Milan. Henry and Barkley fall in love as she tends to injuries he sustained in battle.

For Whom the Bell Tolls, (1940)

"You learned the dry-mouthed, fear-purged purging ecstasy of battle and you fought that summer and that fall for all the poor in the world against all tyranny, for all the things you believed in and for the new world you had been educated into."

Hemingway depicts the brutality of war in his story of Robert Jordan, a young American working with a guerrilla unit during the Spanish Civil War. Jordan meets and falls in love with Maria, a Spanish woman who has been devastated by the war.

The novel takes its title from John Donne's metaphysical poem "No Man is an Island," in which he argued that one death diminishes all of humanity, as we are all intertwined and interdependent. When the funeral bell tolls, Donne said, it was a tragedy for all: "Ask not for whom the bell tolls/ It tolls for thee."

It's noteworthy that all of the action and dialogue in For Whom the Bell Tolls takes place in Spanish but is transcribed by the author in English. Using this technique, Hemingway preserves the distinct voice, dialect, idioms, and flavor of the original Spanish language.

The Snows of Kilimanjaro, 1936

"And then it just occurred to him that he was going to die. It came with a rush, not as a rush of water nor of wind; but of a sudden evil-smelling emptiness, and the odd thing was that the hyena slipped lightly along the edge of it."

This short story is about a writer named Harry stranded with his wife Helen on safari in Africa, as Harry contemplates his imminent death from a gangrene infection. Told through a series of flashbacks, Harry realizes he does not love Helen and that he has wasted much of his life. He dreams of the rescue plane that does not arrive in time. In the dream, a leopard believed to inhabit the House of God at the top of Kilimanjaro, appears to Harry.

The Old Man and the Sea (first published in Life magazine, 1952)

"A man can be destroyed but not defeated."

This short novel uses the story of Santiago, an unlucky Cuban fisherman who battles a marlin and a shark at sea as an allegory for the struggle of man against nature. The Old Man and the Sea won Hemingway the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1953. It was the final work published by Hemingway during his lifetime.

This article is just one part of our study guide on Ernest Hemingway and his works. Please see the links below for other helpful resources.

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Lombardi, Esther. "The Life, Death, and Works of Ernest Hemingway." ThoughtCo, Dec. 20, 2015, Lombardi, Esther. (2015, December 20). The Life, Death, and Works of Ernest Hemingway. Retrieved from Lombardi, Esther. "The Life, Death, and Works of Ernest Hemingway." ThoughtCo. (accessed December 15, 2017).