Today is Ernest Hemingway’s birthday. He was born in Oak Park, Illinois July 21, 1899, but his travels took him from the heartland of America to half way around the world several times.
He served as a medic in Italy during World War I, and while recuperating from a wound, met his first wife, Hadley Richardson, his nurse. Later, while covering the Spanish Civil War, he fell in love with the Spanish culture. His experiences became the foundation of A Farewell to Arms, Death in the Afternoon, For Whom the Bell Tolls as well as countless other stories.
Hemingway has been called a lot of things in his life. Journalist, author, fisherman, big game hunter, and lady’s man. Crackpot is also one of them. Some people say he was nuts because of his eccentricities and wild choices. For example, how many people do you know would keep dumping one perfectly good woman for another? Okay, I get it. A couple thousand. But how many people do you know who get high on covering war up front and personal?
I’ve always admired Ernest Hemingway, probably for the same reasons Hemingway loved Mark Twain. His writing was impeccable. By that I mean you would be hard-pressed to delete one word from The Old Man and the Sea without affecting the impact of the story. That was his signature style.
The story is about an old man who triumphs after battling a marlin, only to lose it to sharks before anyone can see what a splendid fish he has caught. But the story is also about you and me and the struggles we face. Like the old man losing his great fish to the sharks, we sometimes lose to forces beyond our control.
But Hemingway shows us there is dignity in loss. The old man does not whine. Nor does he pity himself. He accepts his fate, knowing defeat is part of life, and life is good.
Probably what few people don’t realize about The Old Man and the Sea is that the story is a metaphor for Hemingway’s life. He published it in 1952, 12 years after publishing For Whom the Bells Toll. At this point in his writing career, critics were calling him washed up and an impotent writer.
What kind of a man can reach deep into his soul and dredge up a marlin of incredible power and beauty, and along with it, ravenous sharks who will mercilessly devour his prized possession? Hemingway worked on The Old Man and the Sea after moving out of his home in Key West and settling in Cuba. When he finally polished the last paragraph, he must have sensed he had written something that was timeless.
His life ended in tragedy when he took his life July 2, 1961 after an agonizing bout with depression that included inhumane shock treatments at the Mayo Clinic. Ernest Hemingway’s life should not be judged by the way it ended, but rather by the legacy he left us.
He was a character of epic proportions, much like Odysseus and Hercules who, despite their flaws, proved powerful and almost magical in the way they challenged life.
What about you? What is the marlin in your life that you are willing to sacrifice everything for? Get acquainted with that power deep in your soul, because one day you may have to dredge it up to fight the sharks that inevitably come everyone’s way.
Happy Birthday, Ernest. And I hope you hook a big one wherever you are!