The man who sought isolation in Ketchum, Idaho, prematurely old at sixty, was once the smiling, ruddy-cheeked youth who went to Kansas City as a newspaper reporter, having outgrown at eighteen the constricting morality of Oak Park, Illinois. Working for the Kansas City Star, he mastered the reporter's vigorous, brief-sentenced style. He practiced being on the scene when news was made and disciplined himself to limit his accounts to what could be observed. These lessons were key to his development as a writer, because applying the journalist's craft to fiction would be one of his great contributions to literature.
Why stay in Kansas City, though, when the world was at war? In May 1918, Hemingway enlisted as a volunteer ambulance driver for the American Red Cross. He went to Italy unprepared for the dreadful realities of battle, and encounters with body fragments and suffering, bleeding soldiers scarred his psyche. The many wounds he received from an exploding enemy shell healed more easily. Yet he slapped on his irresistible smile and pushed ahead.
Before long he was living in Paris as a young husband and father and starting to write seriously. He found in the city's cafes the quiet and privacy that he needed for composition. When he was not writing, he might be seen heading for Sylvia Beach's famous bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, with his little son toddling at his side. Jack Hemingway, whose doting parents called him Bumby, always insisted that Ernest was a wonderful father. From Paris the Hemingways explored Austria, Italy, and Spain, and Ernest went as far as Turkey.
Hemingway was still young and living in Paris when he first achieved success. He gained the admiration of many readers, but never of two who mattered: his parents. After his mother, Grace Hemingway, called The Sun Also Rises "one of the filthiest books of the year," Ernest said, "You cannot know how it makes me feel." But I think we can.
His story ultimately is a sad one. When I reflect on his decline into alcoholism and paranoia, I can't help but bring to mind the buoyant youth who was full of talent and eager to make his mark on the world.