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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES - BIOGRAPHY
Before World War I, which was fought from 1914 to 1918, America was hopeful and optimistic. There was a spirit of reform in the land-man could be perfected, many believed-and after a century of world peace a great war was beyond all memory or imagination. Then the world war dropped like a sudden storm out of a clear sky, and by the time it was over the whole world had changed. Europe, the battlefield, was devastated. More than that, though, the social order was irredeemably shattered. Nations had plunged into modern, mechanized warfare, and the carnage was immense. The unimaginable horror of that experience has haunted us ever since.
Those who came of age then were faced with finding a way to live in an unrecognizable world. One of the first books to explore the values and life-styles of this so-called Lost Generation of American youth was The Sun Also Rises. Although it takes place in 1924, nearly seven years after World War I ended, all the characters are still burdened by their war experience.
Many young Americans went to Europe, especially Paris, in the years right after the armistice. The attractions were several. Many of these Americans had served and so were the first members of their immediate families ever to see Europe. They found it exotic compared to life at home, so after the war they returned. They also felt at home in a culture of displaced people, many of whom had settled in Paris. Things not allowed back home-smoking, drinking, casual sex, and other exuberant traits of youth-were the norm in certain parts of the city. They liked to stay up all night talking and drinking in cafes, and then watch dawn break over the River Seine. Their nights were a whirl of talk about writers, art (Picasso, Matisse, and other founders of modern art were in Paris then), and style. Also-no small matter-there was a terrifically favorable exchange rate: a few dollars from home could go a long way in postwar Paris.
The Sun Also Rises is set among these expatriates who purposefully left their native land. Hemingway didn't have to look far to find models for the characters in his novel, for he himself was an expatriate, and The Sun Also Rises is closely based on an actual trip Hemingway and his friends took from Paris to Spain a month before he began the book. What makes the book a work of art is that it is not simply a record of something that happened, it's a fully imagined rendering of his own experience. The Sun Also Rises was a sensation when it was published; numerous young people recognized themselves in the book, even if they had never been to Paris or seen a bullfight.
Hemingway wrote about heroes because he saw himself as a hero, too. His public saw him as one also, and newspapers followed his later exploits as they did the lives of movie stars.
Hemingway was born in 1899 in Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago. In high school he was an all-American boy, a good student and a successful athlete. Hemingway never went to college, however, and all his life he held a public disdain for academic life, preferring a life of action. When he graduated from high school he became a cub reporter on the Kansas City Star. World War I started, and he went to Italy as a volunteer Red Cross ambulance driver. He was at the front for only a week when he was hit by fragments of a mortar shell and then cut down by machine-gun fire as he helped carry a more severely wounded man to safety. He spent three months in a hospital in Milan, undergoing a dozen operations. Many observers believe it was during this hospital stay that he acquired his hard-nosed vision of life. He must have gone over the moments of his near-death again and again, believing that if he could understand his sensations at every moment, he could understand what happened to him and move beyond it. Serious wounds received in other wars and on expeditions in Africa left him emotionally scarred for life, but he was always able to transform these experiences into art.
Jake Barnes, the hero of The Sun Also Rises, also has a war wound; for him, it's a badge that certifies he knows the truth about life. Like Hemingway, perhaps, Jake never recovers emotionally from his wound. He needs (as Hemingway did) a light to sleep by in order to get through the night.
After the war Hemingway returned to Michigan, grew disenchanted with America, married Hadley, the first of four wives, and returned to Paris. He worked as a reporter for a Toronto paper, and due to the high cost of telegraphing copy, worked at getting as much information into as few words as possible. He also wrote short stories set mostly in Michigan, and precisely worded prose pieces about his war experiences in the Crimea, which were published in his first book, In Our Time.
Hemingway soon became the most famous American expatriate in Paris. What made him different from most of the cafe loungers who wanted to be writers was that he had more talent and he worked harder-struggling day after day to perfect his style.
The Sun Also Rises was written in less than a year, and after massive cutting (including the first few chapters excised by Hemingway's friend, F. Scott Fitzgerald), was published in 1926. Only 27, Hemingway was instantly recognized as a new and important literary voice. Three years later his second novel, A Farewell to Arms, made him even more famous.
For the rest of his life Hemingway's books and his life were intertwined. Later novels ran from well-received (For Whom the Bell Tolls) to very poorly received (Across the River and Into the Trees), but none strayed far from the study of a hero adrift in the modern world and the personal code that gives him guidance. Dashing from one exotic place to another; covering the Spanish Civil War as a reporter; hobnobbing with World War II soldiers; playing Daddy to the famous actress Marlene Dietrich-this was Hemingway, an irresistible figure for the popular press. He always took his writing seriously, but as time went on it became clear, both to his critics and to himself, that his best work was behind him. To many who knew him he became in his later years a parody of his heroic self. In 1961, beset with severe aches from all his injuries, and deeply depressed, he shot himself in Ketchum, Idaho, and died immediately.
Hemingway's legacy to us, besides some fine books, is his style and his sense of the hero. When he began writing, his lean, emphatic style was a great change from the florid, sentimental prose of almost all his contemporaries. In Paris he was a friend of the poet Ezra Pound, who was working to achieve sharp, true images, and of Gertrude Stein, who believed in using only the simplest words in interesting rhythms and repetitions. Hemingway learned their lessons well. He described his own style as putting "down what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way I can tell it." At his purest, he forsook metaphor and even adjectives as unnecessary adornments; he wrote mainly with simple nouns and verbs, simple words that made clean, swift motions. Hemingway also believed in concealing more than he showed. Good writing should be like an iceberg, he said; a writer should only show one-eighth of what he knows. In The Sun Also Rises you'll find much that is hidden. Relationships between characters are revealed by a nod of the head, or even by the absence of an expected nod. The book has to be read carefully, with your imagination supplying the "seven-eighths of information" that Hemingway left out.
In recent years much scorn has been heaped on the Hemingway hero. We think we know the type: a macho male always bragging about how big and strong he is. Everything he does is a test of manliness; if he doesn't take chances, even foolish ones, he's a coward or effeminate; if he hurts, he doesn't cry but holds everything in. To us there's something funny and old-fashioned in such a caricature of a man. But like most popular images this picture of a Hemingway hero is only a partial portrait. The truth is more complex.
Certainly Hemingway hated anything effeminate in a man, but there's much evidence to suggest that his macho image was a mask that covered his insecurities about his own manhood. As be became more famous he modeled his own image on the tragic heroes of his books, but he was never quite convincing. Many observers now believe he acted as he did-loud, braggartly, domineering-because inside him his talent was drying up. They see Hemingway as a tragic figure, a victim of his own self-hype.
In The Sun Also Rises the question of who is a hero is central. You will find that Jake Barnes, the narrator, has the outline of a hero, but that he is basically weak, impotent, and a party to the corruption of the true hero, Pedro Romero. When Hemingway creates fabled heroes like Jake Barnes, he shows them in an unsparing light: riddled with anxieties, ultimately unsure of themselves and their manhood, and unable to hold to their code of manly behavior. Hemingway's heroes are not made of cardboard but of flesh and blood; they don't soar away at the end, like Superman, but crash in failure.
Hemingway, too, finally crashed in failure. Many believe that ultimately two contemporaries, William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald, were of greater literary stature. But in his day Hemingway was the most influential. Even now when you see a man wearing a shirt unbuttoned to his waist to show off a hairy chest, you're seeing a version of the Hemingway hero. When people talk about "The Right Stuff" or "What It Takes to Be a Man," they're usually discussing behavior in Hemingway's terms. The great advantage of reading The Sun Also Rises closely is that Hemingway shows us the truth behind the caricature; he lets us see his own ambiguities, honest failings, and sincerely tragic vision of life.