A Tip of the Hat to Hemingway on His Birthday


Today, July 21, is the birthday of Ernest Hemingway. A man once rightfully thought a great writer but now well out of favor because of the ideological observation that he did not treat women correctly, either in his fiction or his life.

Joan Didion, in a recent reprint of a masterful 1998 essay (thanks to great friend John Wilson for passing it on), points out that he changed the way fiction was written—for the better—and offers a lucid account of how he did so in a brilliant analysis of the opening paragraph of A Farewell to Arms.

Garrison Keillor in The Writer’s Almanac points out that Hemingway began The Sun Also Rises during his first visit to Pamplona for the running of the bulls on the day of his twenty-sixth birthday. He later said of that day, “Everybody my age had written a novel and I was still having a difficult time writing a paragraph.”

It was exactly because he was having trouble writing even a paragraph that satisfied him that he became a great writer. He had standards and a vision for his writing that kept him from being too easily satisfied. Oh that more writers had such standards (including me).

And, as is not unusual, even his best writing did not universally please, not even his mother. Her response to The Sun Also Rises: “It is a doubtful honor to produce one of the filthiest books of the year. . . . Every page fills me with a sick loathing.”

I’m not complaining on Hemingway’s behalf. No one forces a writer to write. One puts it out there voluntarily and must accept its reception—or no reception at all. But I’m glad for Didion’s reminder of how amazing he could be.

Happy 120th birthday, Papa. Rest in peace.

Matthew TaylorComment