How the great American novelist became the literary equivalent of the Nike swoosh.

Ernest Hemingway would be aghast to see what has become of Ernest Hemingway. Against the gray obscurity that awaits most writers in death, his image, 50 years later, has become the literary equivalent of the Nike swoosh or golden arches. Who doesn’t have a mental picture of the gray beard and safari shirt? Who couldn’t vamp a Hemingway-like sentence in a pinch? In Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen’s recent Oscar favorite, Papa turned up unsmilingly in a range of Jazz Age hideaways to make pronouncements about fighting men who are “brave and true” and who write with honesty and die with grace. Other recent work has burnished this image still further. Paul Hendrickson’s book Hemingway’s Boat narrates the novelist’s middle and late years through his interaction with the cruiser he loved. The Cambridge University Press not long ago released a fresh edition of his letters, offering new insight into his decades of adventuring. The most striking new portrait of the master may be yet to come: a made-for-TV adaptation of the love affair between the writer and his third wife, Martha Gellhorn, with Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman starring. The Hemingway of Hemingway & Gellhorn, trailers suggest, is an Indiana Jones-style buckaroo raging through war zones, chasing lovely dames, and wisecracking in the spirit of Jack Paar. “How’d you learn to have fun in hell?” Kidman’s character asks him. Quoth the great American novelist: “Family vacations!”

The Hemingway of these portraits (the least absurd of them, anyway) is the Hemingway that comes through in his best-known stories: a virile, intense man of hard-living habits and a few brilliantly selected words. This character may not be one many people would want at their dinner table, or even—especially!—leading an expedition toward the peak of Kilimanjaro. But his persona is irresistible on the page. The work for which Hemingway is best-known still whistles through this country’s creative corridors like a cool breeze, tempering the literary climate and stirring the aspirations of several iconic stylists who followed. Norman Mailer drafted his first novel, The Naked and the Dead, in the thrall of Hemingway’s sentences and bravura. A middle-school Joan Didion taught herself to type by copying out paragraphs of Hemingway and never shook the sounds, the arcs, the rhythms of those phrases from her ear. J.D. Salinger hunted his hero down in Europe. John Updike wrote late in life, a bit surprisingly, that his “main debt” for his craft and diction was to Papa. Whether this was true or whether Updike just wanted to cast his own work as an heir to Hemingway’s is basically beside the point; the short, tight manuscripts the master left behind are a mountain by which many young writers set their bearings.

That’s no coincidence. Although people often assume the strongest, most enduring authors are those whose work is taught in universities, it’s actually the high-school canon that’s the best marker of cultural esteem and literary immortality. Hemingway is perhaps the one English-language writer other than Shakespeare every high-school student in this country reads. He’s also among the most widely misunderstood.

A mistake that people tend to make in reading, praising, teaching Hemingway is to assume that he was foremost a stylist. Although he was intensely concerned with his voice on the page—and although that voice became more distinctive as he aged—the Hemingway of the incantatory paragraphs and deadpan understatements (“The town was very nice and our house was very fine”) is Hemingway at his weakest. It is because we’ve come to fetishize this voice that we accept and even admire gnomic truisms like “a writer should write what he has to say”—an observation from Hemingway’s Nobel banquet speech and one of his most quoted lines—as if such raw-nut declarations came with tender insights curled inside. Most don’t. Nor was Papa, as some people (chiefly Papa) have liked to suggest, a pioneer in the craft of elision, of leaving crucial things unsaid: That tradition runs clear back at least to Henry James, a writer of a very different ilk. Instead, Hemingway’s genius rests in what he did say, in the way he used language to capture and contain a thread of experience as it wavered through time. His writing, at its best, was a way of coming to terms with disorder, with a narrative line that refused to hold.

Hemingway is due for reappraisal partly because his gamey, war-seeking, booze-quaffing corpus seems today quixotically out of sync with our twee and environmentally aware era; the Hemingway we think we know is a Zeus-hued action figurine from another time and place. Actually, though, this cultural moment is entirely resonant with Hemingway’s genius, which rose not from his bravura but from his most fragile, uncomfortable strains.

Hemingway did not begin as a prodigy. His first short stories, sent to magazines after his return from World War I, were uniformly and deservedly rejected, so he freelanced newspaper articles from Chicago, where he’d settled and fallen in love with his first wife, Hadley. He was 21. Gioia Diliberto’s Paris Without End (published in 1992 and recently reissued) focuses on these early years and offers a portrait of the young Hemingway few will recognize. Rather than the grave, macho adventurer we’ve come to know, this young hack puttered around his rooms, drinking warm milk and eating bananas when he couldn’t sleep. He wrote droll little man-about-town newspaper features on, for instance, his trepidation getting “a free shave” at a barber training school. (Meanwhile, his betrothed composed letters saying things such as “[I] watched the foliage whisked into wild shapes by the wind and smelled the drenched cool grass and let the thunder claps terrify me and the lightning cut me blind.”) People frequently speak of an apprenticeship period for artists, but it’s hard to make the case that the Hemingway of Chicago had even reached such a stage. He was a log who hadn’t yet been touched by fire.

This changed abruptly. In December 1921, Hemingway and his wife got on a transatlantic liner for what was then the distant, open, cheap city of Paris. Starting from that point, the order in Hemingway’s life and work unraveled slowly at first, and then faster. He spent his first year trying to find time to write fiction while working as a newspaper correspondent—and then lost these efforts when a valise containing the manuscripts disappeared onboard a train. He had a child, and, after a brief and unhappy stint in Toronto, quit his newspaper job to return to Paris and focus on fiction. As he struggled financially, his stories started to be published, first in magazines and then in a collection. His private life got all tangled up. Hemingway became smitten with one woman and, soon after, started sleeping with one of his wife’s good friends. He got drunk almost every night.

Ernest Hemingway's 1923 passport photo
Ernest Hemingway’s 1923 passport photo

Photograph courtesy National Archives and Records Administration Electronic Records Archives Program.

Those who knew Hemingway well, especially in these early years, reported that his braggadocio was something of a cover: Far from being the swaggering, insouciant rake of lore, he was emotionally fragile, stirred into panics by women’s rejections, prone to insomnia, workaholic and perfectionist (in Paris, he’d spend all day writing and sometimes come home with a single sentence), and given to weird and compulsive record-keeping projects, like tallying exact word counts or tracking his wife’s menstrual rhythms. He was what we would now call a neurotic, and the struggle to make sense of a life suddenly coming apart gave his work the urgency and contours earlier efforts had lacked. Hemingway was at that point in the habit of composing “sketches” that doubled as diary entries, and in the course of writing up an odd and flirtatious trip to Pamplona with friends and enemies, he realized he had more than a few pages of material to work with. The result was The Sun Also Rises (1926), Hemingway’s first real novel and, he later said, the most successful book of his career.

It’s also a strikingly linear novel. Few time cuts or flashbacks appear, and its narration has the effect of plodding forward, never looking more than a few feet ahead. Yet the book seems viscerally vivid and alive, as in its description of bull-running:

There were so many people running ahead of the bulls that the mass thickened and slowed up going through the gate into the ring, and as the bulls passed, galloping together, heavy, muddy-sided, horns swinging, one shot ahead, caught a man in the running crowd in the back and lifted him in the air. … You could tell by the degree of intensity in the shout how bad a thing it was that was happening.

Every sentence here is shaped by a sequence of perception: We see the people running, then become aware of a slowing, then see the bulls pass, then see one strike a man, then see him go in the air. And on. It’s only in the final, beautifully colloquial sentence that a causal interpretation and a moral judgment—in short, a narrative frame—finally appears.

What Hemingway captured, in other words, was the familiar, personal, very un-Jamesian experience of processing the world directly in time. His work of this period connects with our animal habits of consciousness. And the struggle it brings to the foreground is the struggle to make sense of—to find a line of narrative through—this disordered experience. Hemingway’s insight was to understand that this struggle was not just a literary one. It’s a fundamental part of how people themselves perceive and try to make sense of the world.

That insight shaped most of his finest writing, from the slow-focusing dialogue of his stories (like “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” a story about a writer’s fears that he’s failed to capture his crucial experiences on paper) to the stunning opening of A Farewell to Arms (1929), in which the narrator describes the movement of troops through their effect on the late-summer landscape he knows well. Yet slowly, under the mantle of fame and, perhaps, his own need to experiment, Hemingway’s writing moved away from this pellucid reporting and began to don the raiment of high style. It was not always for the best. Compare the vigor and clarity of The Sun Also Rises with this, from his last published novel (or novella), The Old Man and the Sea, describing the old man’s internal life:

He no longer dreamed of storms, nor of women, nor of great occurrences, nor of great fish, nor fights, nor contests of strength, nor of his wife. He only dreamed of places now and of the lions on the beach. They played like young cats in the dusk and he loved them as he loved the boy. He never dreamed about the boy. He simply woke, looked out the open door at the moon and unrolled his trousers and put them on. He urinated outside the shack and then went up the road to wake the boy. He was shivering with the morning cold. But he knew he would shiver himself warm and that soon he would be rowing.

Almost everything here is backward and vague. What are “great occurrences”? Why do we see “places” and lions before we’re introduced to the beach, the setting? The final piece of information in the dream description is that it’s dusk—though that’s the first evocative detail we need in order to envisage the scene. And the old man has woken up, dressed, gone outside, and urinated before we have any sense what time of day it is. This sort of writing is more common than one might like in Hemingway’s later work. In Islands in the Stream (written around the same time and published posthumously), we get sentences such as “Out of all the things you could not have there were some that you could have and one of those was to know when you were happy and to enjoy all of it while it was there and it was good.” This is, in fact, not so good—in part because it takes a simple, not particularly fresh idea (embrace happiness when it comes; it won’t last long) and filters it through a distortion lens of style. Rather than using the progress of experience to shape the words on the page, Hemingway was using his voice to shape the sentences.

If anybody knew this, it was Hemingway, who increasingly despaired of his work as these late years passed. Today, it’s a shame that the “great occurrences” Hemingway, the biblically stylized voice, is the one that’s found his way into the popular imagination. It’s the other, earlier, more uncertain writing—the prose that openly struggles to track and parse a mess of a life—that gets into your blood. “There was just something magnetic to me in the arrangement of those sentences,” Didion once explained. Updike bowed before the “tension and complexity” of his simple prose. Hemingway looms large not so much for what he wrote, or in what tone, but how he captured his imagination in words—his skill in setting the American vernacular in a way that brings a lost, varied, and messy store of personal experience to life.