Ernest Hemingway

July 21

Ernest Hemingway (1899)

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 raised 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 US 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. It was in this novel that Hemingway has one of his characters say, "All thinking men are atheists." This book was attacked by critic Robert Herrick in an article entitled "What Is Dirt?" and also banned in Boston. Indeed, his 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.

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. This probably would not have upset him.

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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance writer.
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