Fifty years ago this week Ernest Hemingway shot himself dead in his Idaho home. One of the Hemingway’s most astute critics and biographers is Scott Donaldson. Below is an excerpt from “Hemingway and Suicide” from his book Fitzgerald and Hemingway: Works and Days
Death was Hemingway’s great subject, and his great obsession. He wrote about it in his earliest stories and in his last ones. Of his seven completed novels, five end with the death of a male protagonist, and a sixth with the death of the heroine. Only in The Sun Also Rises, with its dying fall of an ending, do the characters survive to live and drink and fornicate another day. Yet that novel’s moral center is located not in the cafes of Paris and Pamplona but in the bullring where Pedro Romero confronts animals bred to kill and be killed with what Hemingway famously called “grace under pressure.” This confrontation—the drama, the ritual, the inevitable death—was also the subject of Death in the Afternoon, his 1929 book on bullfighting in Spain that remains, according to aficionados, the single best work in English on the subject. When the torero failed to kill properly, the bull was dispatched with the short knife, or puntilla. Women loved to see the puntilla do its work, Hemingway wrote. It was “exactly like turning off an electric light bulb” (“Soul”).
There was a trace of the macabre in that remark, and more than a trace in “A Natural History of the Dead”—where he reported in matter-of-fact detail the color change among unburied Caucasian corpses from white to yellow to yellow-green to black, as well as their tendency to swell up in the heat, in his diatribe against the Italian war against Ethiopia, where, he warned, the East African carrion birds would strike a wounded man as quickly as a dead one and tear his flesh from his bones as if he were a zebra or any other prey—and in the grisly “An Alpine IdyIl,” in which an Austrian peasant hangs a lantern from the jaw of his wife’s frozen corpse all one winter. An artist had to look at death squarely and without flinching, Hemingway believed.
But it was not only the demands of craft that drove him to concentrate his gaze on death, a creature he variously personified as “a beautiful harlot” and “the oldest whore in Havana” (qtd. in Baker, A Life Story, 432)—women worth knowing but expensive to go upstairs with. He had something to prove and was forever testing himself against danger. He climbed into the bullring during the amateurs, faced murderous animals in Africa, attended every war of his time. He put himself at risk and suffered the consequences. Hemingway was frequently and grievously hurt in an astounding series of blows to the head and arms and legs.
In 1928 he yanked on what he thought was a commode chain and brought a Paris skylight crashing down on his head, causing a concussion and nine stitches above the right eye. In the spring of 1930 it took six stitches to sew up his right index finger, cut to the bone when he was working on a punching bag. In the summer of that year still more stitches were required to close a facial wound suffered when he was thrown from his horse; that fall he also broke his right arm in an auto accident. In 1935 he shot himself in both legs while trying to kill a shark. A London auto accident in 1944 hospitalized him with a severe concussion and forty-seven stitches. In 1950 he fell on the deck of his boat, the Pilar, and struck his head on a metal clamp, producing a three-stitch cut. In 1954 he barely survived two African plane crashes in two days. Among his injuries were a bad concussion; a ruptured liver, spleen, and kidney; temporary loss of vision in the left eye; loss of hearing in the left ear; a crushed vertebra; a sprained right arm and shoulder; a sprained left leg; paralysis of the sphincter; and first-degree burns on his face, arms, and head. A month later his legs, abdomen, chest, lips, left hand, and right forearm were burned as he tried to fight a brushfire. A less hardy man might not have lived to kill himself.
The above summary, of course, leaves out the worst wound of all, at Fossalta di Piave on the Austrian front, July 8, 1918. Not quite nineteen and a year out of high school, Hemingway joined the American Red Cross in Italy and was shipped to the Austrian front to drive ambulances. He was passing out chocolate and cigarettes to the Italian troops when a mortar canister landed in his forward trench, immediately killing several others and lodging more than two hundred mortar fragments in his feet and legs. As he dragged another wounded man to the command post, a heavy-machinegun bullet ripped through his right knee. Part of him “died then,” he wrote, and as he lay among the wounded and dying, he contemplated suicide. For years after that wounding he could not sleep at all at night without a light. Yet his physical wounds seem to have stimulated his courtship of danger. He made himself brave, so much so that during World War II he struck General Buck Lanham, a veteran combat soldier, as the calmest man under fire he had ever seen. Hemingway achieved his victory by an act of will and by constantly confronting his trauma. The popular theory that he “was destroyed by a wound (mental, physical, moral, psychiatric),” he wrote Carlos Baker in 1953, was “shit.” When he went back to Fossalta after World War I, he defecated on the spot where he’d been hit.
“ ‘Fraid a nothing,” Hemingway proclaimed at age three, but that was childish braggadocio. His fiction provides another story, particularly the autobiographical tales about Nick Adams, like Hemingway himself a boy born, bred, and hurt in the Middle West and badly wounded in the war. Particularly significant is the discarded beginning of “Indian Camp,” the first Nick Adams story in Hemingway’s first full-scale book, In Our Time. Nick at nine or ten years old has been taken camping by his father, a doctor, and by his Uncle George. The two men go fishing at night, leaving Nick alone in the tent. If there’s an emergency, he’s to fire three shots with the rifle to summon them back. Lying in the dark, Nick begins to think about a hymn he’d heard in church, “Some day the silver cord will break.” While they were singing the hymn he realized for the first time that he himself would have to die, and now—alone in the stillness of the night—he suddenly becomes very afraid of dying and fires the three shots. When his father. and uncle return as promised, Nick makes up a yarn about a fox or a wolf fooling around the tent. Uncle George is. upset about this obvious fib, which has interrupted his fishing, but Dr. Adams shows more understanding. “I know he’s an awful coward,” he says, “but we’re all yellow at that age” (Nick Adams Stories, 14).
Hemingway chose to cut this opening, probably because it makes explicit what is otherwise conveyed implicitly in the course of this and other stories about Nick Adams: that unlike later protagonists he is a boy and then a youth things happen to, and that he does his cautious best to avoid trouble. (That in writing about Nick the author was thinking of his own boyhood seems clear: in the manuscripts Nick is sometimes called Ernest or Wemedge, one of Ernest’s nicknames.) Deleting this opening satisfied Hemingway’s famous dictum about the dignity of fiction, like icebergs, depending on keeping seven-eighths of its base beneath the surface, but it also deprived the ending of some of its force.
As the story proceeds, Dr. Adams is called in the wee hours of the morning, to leave his tent and go to the Indian camp at the end of the lake. There he performs a caesarean delivery without anesthetic on an Indian woman who has been in labor for two days. She screams in pain but, Dr. Adams explains to Nick, he does not hear the screams because they are not important. Nick hears them, though, and refuses to look as his father goes about his work. Also listening is the woman’s husband in the upper bunk. The other Indian men have left the camp to get away from the sound of the screaming, but the husband has cut his foot with an axe and cannot leave the bunk. When the operation, a success, is finally over, Dr. Adams basks in the glory of his accomplishment, but his postoperative exhilaration is brief. “Ought to have a look at the proud father,” he says expansively. “They’re usually the worst sufferers in these little affairs.” When he pulls the blanket back, he sees—and so does Nick—that the woman’s husband has cut his throat from ear to ear.
In the rowboat afterwards, Nick asks his father the kinds of questions about dying, and suicide, that have been troubling him.
“Why did he kill himself, Daddy?”
“I don’t know, Nick. He couldn’t stand things, I guess.”
“Do many men kill themselves, Daddy?”
“Not very many, Nick.”
“Do many women?”
“Don’t they ever?”
“Oh, yes. They do sometimes.” . . .
“Is dying hard, Daddy?”
“No, I think it’s pretty easy, Nick. It all depends.”
(Complete Short Stories, 69–70)
Five years after this story was written, Ernest Hemingway’s father, a doctor with special training in delivering babies, took his own life….
Hard as Hemingway tried to disavow the manner of his father’s death, he could hardly slough off his genetic inheritance. It has now been established that Dr. Hemingway was subject to bouts of depression, though at the time of his death every effort was made to cover them up. Melancholia ran in the family. Ernest’s only brother and one of his four sisters also committed suicide. As Archibald MacLeish said of Ernest in the mid-1920s, “I’ve never seen a man go through the floor of despair as he did” (qtd. in Hynan, “Portrait”). The severity and the frequency of these periods of depression increased with age, and by the late 1950s were joined by traces of paranoia. During his final years Hemingway was convinced that the authorities—the FBI, the IRS, the Immigration and Naturalization Service—were out to get him and that close friends were trying to kill him by arranging automobile or airplane accidents.
He was never the same physically after the two disastrous plane crashes in Africa. “I should have stayed in that second kite at Butiaba,” he said. He had high blood pressure, and his liver was badly damaged by years of drinking to excess. Like his father before him, he showed signs of incipient diabetes. His once powerful frame grew frail. Michael Bessie, who saw him in April 1961, thought he looked like “a wounded animal who should be allowed to go off and die as he chose.” Later a series of remedial procedures at the Mayo Clinic, including electroshock therapy, failed to restore his vigor or brighten his outlook—though he was artful enough to secure his release by persuading the doctors that he was no longer suicidal. From the clinic he scrawled a last note to General Lanham. “Buck, stop sweating me out. Sweat only flying weather and the common cold.”
Worst of all, he could no longer write. “Mornings when work does not come are long mornings,” Oates has him think. Work was the final justification, the ultimate reason to live, and up to the end he sat at his desk waiting patiently through the morning, up to one p.m., the words would not come. The man who mastered a new American prose style was already dead.