Among the major American writers of the twentieth century, few have been as influential or imitated as Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961)—and few have had as many detractors. Renowned for his novels and short stories, Hemingway became such a public figure during his life—and constructed such an extensive mythology around himself—that it is sometimes difficult to separate the legend from the reality.
Born in Oak Park, Illinois, in 1899, Hemingway had writerly aspirations early on; by eighteen, he was employed as a reporter for the Kansas City Star. Within months, he landed a position as a Red Cross ambulance driver on the Italian front in World War I, where he was wounded. After the war, he spent several years in Paris in the company of Gertrude Stein and other expatriate American writers of the so-called Lost Generation, who were disillusioned by the war’s brutality. In Paris Hemingway refined his trademark style—a repetitive, stripped-down, self-consciously masculine prose that is deceptive in its seeming simplicity.
After writing a number of short stories based on his boyhood summers in upper Michigan and his later travels through Europe, Hemingway penned his first major novel, The Sun Also Rises (1926). This book, about a disaffected young American whiling away time in Spain and France, brought Hemingway instant acclaim. He followed with A Farewell to Arms (1929), a tragic World War I romance between an American ambulance driver and an English nurse, and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), a tale of guerrillas in the Spanish Civil War that was inspired by Hemingway’s own work as a journalist during the conflict. The protagonist of the latter novel epitomizes what many have termed the “Hemingway code hero”—a stoic, disillusioned male who exhibits grace and nobility in the face of violence and adversity.
As his fame increased, Hemingway earned—and cultivated—a reputation for writing only about war, bullfighting, hunting, big-game fishing, and other overtly masculine topics. Though some critics dismissed Hemingway’s work as macho posturing, the undeniably masterful storytelling of his novella The Old Man and the Sea (1952) earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. Even with this crowning achievement, Hemingway spent his last years mired in depression and declining health, ultimately taking his own life with a shotgun in 1961. His influence on the style of the modern novel, however, remains monumental.
- The annual Imitation Hemingway Contest draws hundreds of entries that pay mock homage to the author’s unmistakable style. Past honorees include pieces entitled The Old Man and the Flea and For Whom the Cash Flows.