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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES - ERNEST HEMINGWAY BIOGRAPHY
Autumn, 1952. The Old Man and the Sea is first published in an issue of Life magazine. Within 48 hours, 5,318,650 copies are sold. The American book edition sells 50,000 copies in advance, the British edition 20,000. Critics go wild. The public practically worships this rugged bearded author who combines the images of "grandfather" and "sea captain."
1953. Ernest Hemingway receives the Pulitzer Prize for The Old Man and the Sea. 1954. Hemingway receives the Nobel Prize for literature, the greatest formal international award a writer can receive. The award specifically mentions The Old Man and the Sea.
July 2, 1961. Sunday morning. Hemingway awakens early at his home in secluded Ketchum, Idaho. He loads a double-barreled shotgun, places the butt against the floor and the barrels against his forehead, and pulls the trigger.
There's a sizable list of famous people who have ended their own lives. Occasionally someone who commits suicide will leave a brief note, but often we're left guessing at the reasons.
Ernest Hemingway didn't leave a suicide note, yet he did leave behind many statements about life-by means of the characters he created in his stories. His "old man" is certainly one of them, perhaps the main one. You may or may not see a connection between Hemingway's old man and Hemingway's decision to end it all on July 2, 1961. But the possibility is certainly there. Hemingway's nearly sixty-two years make an interesting story by themselves. But they're even more interesting in the light of this "little" story of an old Cuban fisherman and his three-day battle with a huge fish. The old man, Santiago, experiences battle, rejection, failure, loss, glory, and triumph. In his life, Hemingway did too.
Does this mean the old man of the story is Hemingway? Was he saying, "Here is a shortened, symbolic representation of my life"? Although some critics would agree, Hemingway himself did not encourage this view. You can enjoy speculating on this issue. But there's an old saying, "Every piece of writing is at least a little bit autobiographical." In this case its probably true. Keep those ideas in mind: battle, rejection, failure, loss, glory, and triumph. Look for them in major events or periods of Hemingway's life. And then look for them in The Old Man and the Sea.
For someone who lived his adult life in bold, often brawny fashion across three continents in full public view, his early years were rather serene ones in a quiet town. Hemingway was born on July 21,1899, in Oak Park, Illinois. As a boy he became a very good fisherman and hunter at the family's summer cottage in Michigan. These adventures were his fondest boyhood memories.
His mother was very inclined toward the arts, especially music. Young Ernest received voice and cello lessons, which he was supposed to practice in the actual "music room" of their large home. When she was out, he would push the musical paraphernalia to the side of the room and use it as a boxing arena with his friends.
A relatively minor rebellion. But it suggests the individualism which Hemingway's later life was to demonstrate on a larger scale. The individualism blossomed when he graduated from high school and showed no interest in college, even though he had been a good student. In fact, he stubbornly refused college.
This individualism is another idea to keep in mind when you relate Hemingway's life to The Old Man and the Sea. The old man Santiago isn't exactly a groupie either. In fact, early in the story, the boy Manolin tells Santiago, "But there is only you." Most people would agree there was only one Hemingway and perhaps add that there will never be another remotely like him. Hemingway was interested not in college but in war. World War I had been raging for three years when Hemingway carried his high school diploma back down the aisle, and he was determined to participate before the action stopped.
But he met rejection. First, his father refused to let him enlist. Later, when his father gave permission, the armed forces rejected him because of poor sight in one eye.
Still he did get some experience of violence, if not of actual war. He got a job as a cub reporter with the Kansas City Star covering the police and hospital stories.
Finally he managed to get his taste of war. More than a taste. Enlisting with the Italian Red Cross as an ambulance driver, he made his way to the front lines. During a furious Austrian shelling of the Italian troops, he carried a wounded soldier to safety. And while he carried the soldier in his arms, he was struck by two hundred pieces of shrapnel from a mortar shell and received multiple wounds from machine gun bullets.
Though it was an extraordinary act, why did he put himself in such danger? One explanation would be that he simply acted from instinct, hardly thinking. Another is that he deliberately did it because it was "what a man must do."
This is another good incident to keep in mind when you analyze the old man out on the sea, facing his great challenge. Does Santiago act as he does simply from instinct, because he doesn't know any better? Or does he consciously embrace the challenge and its pain-aware that he might not survive?
There was a moment of glory for Hemingway's act of military heroism: a decoration from the Italian government and some glowing stories in his hometown papers. And a moment of rejection: the American nurse he fell in love with while recovering turned down his proposal of marriage.
The glory of his hero's welcome back in the States didn't last either. He was now determined to be a writer, but his articles and stories were rejected by one magazine after another.
His "doing nothing" brought the disapproval of his parents, who felt their son was loafing instead of working. Hemingway's "birthday present" at age twenty-one was a Get-Out-Of-The-House-Until-You-Grow-Up-And-Get-A-Real-Job letter which his mother personally handed to him.
He did get out and find a real job, married a girl named Hadley Richardson, and moved to Paris as correspondent for the Toronto Star. His newspaper work succeeded. His other literary attempts, the ones that really mattered to him, didn't. He kept submitting manuscripts. They kept getting rejected.
He had hopes for the manuscripts, though. Every writer has hopes for unsold manuscripts which he or she intends to revise, resubmit, and finally sell. But in December of 1923, a suitcase containing almost everything he had written, originals and carbons, was stolen and never recovered. All the material from which he hoped to build literary and financial success-wiped out.