Ernest Hemingway, Divine and Human

On July 21, 1899, the writer Ernest Hemingway was born.

He was a writer who, alongside his brilliant literature, had an immense reputation for physical beauty, manly strength and adventure. It would be like an extension of his beautiful texts, as if virility entered the terrain of literature. This misconception deserves a serious repair when we see him in his everyday humanity. It is worth reading what his grandson John Hemingway has published on his blog.

“Many people still think of Ernest Hemingway in exaggerated terms. Fifty years after his death, he is the Lord Byron of the 20th century, a hyper-macho, rum-drinking, war-mongering, pistol-packing literary giant who married four times, had countless lovers and defined what it was and in many cases still is to be an American male. It is a comfortable and well-worn portrait and, in part, how I imagined him myself growing up as boy in Miami during the 60s and 70s. The larger-than-life image and exploits of the man were certainly more exciting than what you had with many other writers. He was outrageously real, (“too macho to be true” as my dad used to say) in an over-the-top, Quentin Tarantino kind of way. Of course, years later when I wrote Strange Tribe I discovered that Ernest was not at all the person who I thought he was and that perhaps he had more in common with my father, his transsexual youngest son, than with the fishermen, soldiers and bullfighters he was friends with. But even with this knowledge and the publication of my book old ideas die hard. Myths are immortal, I’m inclined to believe, and the exaggerated role that Ernest played in post World War II American culture had a great deal to do with how “Papa” was packaged by the nation’s pulp magazines…

What was ironic, for me at least, reading the book was to see how Ernest went from being a representative of the Lost Generation and its anti-militarist, anti-conformist themes to someone whose image was used by corporate America to help returning WWII war veterans conform to their roles as suburban husbands and fathers in a conservative, aggressively capitalist nation. Indeed, the alpha-male portrayals of Hemingway filled a cultural need, says Earle, to reaffirm the country’s masculinity in an era of “deep-rooted crisis of gender”. Woman had changed during the war, taking on the jobs that their men used to do, and would never again be as submissive as they’d once been. Ernest’s past as a wounded veteran and his glamorous lifestyle in Cuba fishing and womanizing could thus be used as a role model and a means of social control”.

When you look for feet of clay in an idol, you always find them. I could tell in my forthcoming, unpublished novel: “The black man, Hemingway’s black servant who carries the Lord Hunter’s burdens on the savannah. The black man who listens to Hemingway’s English dialogues, who takes the greatest risks in the hunt for the lion, but who in this literature has no voice or speech”.

But far above his feet of clay, Hemingway’s eternity lies in his literature. In the best interview from The Paris Review Interviews, which brings together the most famous writers of the 20th century, we get these lessons, which have become the secrets of the trade revealed to all writers:

“Hemingway – You always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again.

Interviewer –  Is emotional stability necessary to write well? You told me once that you could only write well when you were in love. Could you expound on that a bit more?

Hemingway – What a question. But full marks for trying. You can write any time people will leave you alone and not interrupt you. Or rather you can if you will be ruthless enough about it. But the best writing is certainly when you are in love. If it is all the same to you I would rather not expound on that.

Interviewer –  How about financial security? Can that be a detriment to good writing?

Hemingway – If it came early enough and you loved life as much as you loved your work it would take much character to resist the temptations.

Interviewer – What would you consider the best intellectual training for the would-be writer?

Hemingway – Let’s say that he should go out and hang himself because he finds that writing well is impossibly difficult. Then he should be cut down without mercy and forced by his own self to write as well as he can for the rest of his life. At least he will have the story of the hanging to commence with….  Trying to write something of permanent value is a full-time job even though only a few hours a day are spent on the actual writing. A writer can be compared to a well. There are as many kinds of wells as there are writers.

Interviewer – How complete in your own mind is the conception of a short story? Does the theme, or the plot, or a character change as you go along?

Hemingway – Sometimes you know the story. Sometimes you make it up as you go along and have no idea how it will come out. Everything changes as it moves. That is what makes the movement which makes the story. Sometimes the movement is so slow it does not seem to be moving. But there is always change and always movement……  The Green Hills of Africa is not a novel but was written in an attempt to write an absolutely true book to see whether the shape of a country and the pattern of a month’s action could, if truly presented, compete with a work of the imagination. After I had written it I wrote two short stories, The Snows of Kilimanjaro and The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. These were stories which I invented from the knowledge and experience acquired on the same long hunting trip one month of which I had tried to write a truthful account of in The Green Hills.

Interviewer – Could you say something about the process of turning a real-life character into a fictional one?

Hemingway – If I explained how that is sometimes done, it would be a handbook for libel lawyers.

Interviewer – Do you make a distinction — as E. M. Forster does — between ‘flat’ and ‘round’ characters?

Hemingway – If you describe someone, it is flat, as a photograph is, and from my standpoint a failure. If you make him up from what you know, there should be all the dimensions.

Interviewer – when you’re not writing, you remain constantly the observer, looking for something which can be of use.

Hemingway – Surely. If a writer stops observing he is finished. But he does not have to observe consciously nor think how it will be useful. Perhaps that would be true at the beginning. 18 But later everything he sees goes into the great reserve of things he knows or has seen. If it is any use to know it, I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn’t show. If a writer omits something because he does not know it then there is a hole in the story. The Old Man and the Sea could have been over a thousand pages long and had every character in the village in it and all the processes of how they made their living, were born, educated, bore children, et cetera. That is done excellently and well by other writers. In writing you are limited by what has already been done satisfactorily. So I have tried to learn to do something else. First I have tried to eliminate everything unnecessary to conveying experience to the reader so that after he or she has read something it will become a part of his or her experience and seem actually to have happened. This is very hard to do and I’ve worked at it very hard. Anyway, to skip how it is done, I had unbelievable luck this time and could convey the experience completely and have it be one that no one had ever conveyed. The luck was that I had a good man and a good boy and lately writers have forgotten there still are such things. Then the ocean is worth writing about just as man is. So I was lucky there. I’ve seen the marlin mate and know about that. So I leave that out. I’ve seen a school (or pod) of more than fifty sperm whales in that same stretch of water and once harpooned one nearly sixty feet in length and lost him. So I left that out. All the stories I know from the fishing village I leave out. But the knowledge is what makes the underwater part of the iceberg.

Interviewer – You yourself have said, I believe, that great writing comes out of a sense of injustice. Do you consider it important that a novelist be dominated in this way — by some such compelling sense?

Hemingway – A writer without a sense of justice and of injustice would be better off editing the Year Book of a school for exceptional children than writing novels. The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it”.

Hemingway’s phrase in that interview that “, I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg”, and applying his theory to the masterpiece The Old Man and the Sea the phrase “I left out all the stories I know of the fishing village. But knowledge is what forms the submerged part of the iceberg” has generated the greatest simplifications and misunderstandings. It became literary self-help. Bad literature without Hemingway’s intention. All that remains is to measure the temperature of a text’s ice. If you go to Google now, you will see 1,020,000 results for the search Hemingway iceberg (data as of 20.07.2023). In the first of them, Wikipedia informs that “The iceberg theory or omission theory is a narrative technique devised by the American writer Ernest Hemingway. As a young journalist, Hemingway had to focus his reporting on immediate events, with little room for context or interpretation. When he became a short story writer, he maintained his minimalist style, focusing on surface elements without deeply discussing underlying layers” (!!!!!!!). Of course, this is not what the writer referred to when talking about his writing method.

Now, imagine what would become of a writer who threw away, “threw overboard” his greatest knowledge about life, people and the world.  Imagine, then, the kind of literature produced in this way: flawed, cold and false. In fact, the writer narrates his best knowledge, his absolute experience of life, his pain and sorrow, and that is impossible to drop submerged, among shadows of purgatory. No. What he meant, in a synthetic way, is that one cannot tell everything, all the facts about people in a short story or a novel. Or in a set of novels, a feat that not even the genius of Balzac managed with his immensity about French history and society, because after all, life is short. If so, what then? Everyone knows that when telling a story you have to choose what to tell. A selection of events, imagined or taken. I cannot talk about Mary by telling what she ate on July 20, what she drank, what she defecated, what she sighed, what she loved and suffered that day and all together. It would be tedious and impossible. So what do you do? When telling a certain day of the character, or many days, one chooses what is significant of his story, what is in the future of the writing that one wants to narrate. And in that emphasis, one “eliminates” what is not interesting to tell, but the author knows what he is eliminating, he knows who Mary is, he knows her color, her height, her neighborhood, her time. He knows, but he chooses what he wants. And what he knows gives substance and matter to Mary’s spirit. That is the hot iceberg, of very high temperature. The author assembles the facts about Mary that interest him. Thus placed, Mary is not on the surface, she is whole in her pain when she died without giving birth to her son. This is Mary!

At this point, it is well worth highlighting Hemingway’s excellence in a couple of short stories, for me the best of his work.

“The Snows of Kilimanjaro”. It could be said: – what a tale! In it, a writer, his leg gangrenous, waits for a rescue plane in the jungle. Meanwhile, Hemingway reflects:

“He had destroyed his talent himself. Why should he blame this woman because she kept him well? He had destroyed his talent by not using it, by betrayals of himself and what he believed in, by drinking so much that he blunted the edge of his perceptions, by laziness, by sloth, and by snobbery, by pride and by prejudice, by hook and by crook. What was this? A catalogue of old books? What was his talent anyway? It was a talent all right but instead of using it, he had traded on it. It was never what he had done, but always what he could do. And he had chosen to make his living with something else instead of a pen or a pencil”.

“The Killers”. We must say once again: – what a tale! There are short dialogues in it, which cut through like razor, in a crescendo of tensión:

“ ‘What are you looking at?’ Max looked at George.


‘The hell you were. You were looking at me.’

‘Maybe the boy meant it for a joke, Max’, Al said.

George laughed.

‘You don’t have to laugh,’ Max said to him. ‘You don’t have to laugh at all, see?’

‘All right,’ said George.

‘So he thinks it’s all right.’ Max turned to Al. ‘He thinks it’s all right. That’s a good one.’

‘Oh, he’s a thinker,’ Al said. They went on eating’.”

And what of “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”? It would be a tale of hunting, of a safari in Africa, on the surface. But Hemingway tells a story that is built on the ethical dilemma of cowardice (Francis Macomber, armed, runs in panic from a wounded lion), and the treachery of murder. And more I shouldn’t add, because re-reading it kept me suspended between anger and amazement at the scoundrelry at the end. It’s a masterful tale, so to speak. (This is the favorite tale of grandson John Hemingway, whom I quote at the beginning of these lines).

And so we come to The Old Man and the Sea, the masterpiece that won him the Nobel Prize for Literature. In the note with which he accompanied the sending of the originals to the publisher, he wrote: “I know this is the best I can write in my whole life”. In the ridiculous and useless attempt to summarize the book in a few lines, I commit the crime: “’Fight the sharks,’ said the old man. ‘I will fight them until I die’.”

At the end of the book, the writer speaks: “Up the road, in his shack, the old man was sleeping again. He was still sleeping on his face and the boy was sitting by him watching him. The old man was dreaming about the lions”.

But what definitely remains of The Old Man and the Sea is: “ The man is not made for defeat,’ he said. ‘A man can be destroyed but not defeated’ .”

This great value of humanity, of fighting against the natural weakness of us all, of himself, therefore, gives Hemingway a divine dimension. But it is a divine in that sense of the Greeks, of the myth Prometheus who wished the maximum for humanity, by seeking what human nature could achieve. It doesn’t matter that Hemingway, in a very violent crisis of depression, of memory loss, which for a writer is fatal, it doesn’t matter that he stuck a double-barrel shotgun in his mouth and shot himself. His literature speaks louder: although destroyed in body, Hemingway was not defeated.

Urariano Mota is the author of Never-Ending Youth.