Ernest Miller Hemingway was born at eight o’clock in the morning on July 21, 1899 in Oak Park, Illinois. In the nearly sixty two years of his life that followed he forged a literary reputation unsurpassed in the twentieth century and created a mythological hero in himself that captivated (and at times confounded) not only serious literary critics but the average man as well… in a word, he was a star.
Born in the family home at 439 North Oak Park Avenue, a house built by his widowed grandfather Ernest Hall, Hemingway was the second of Dr. Clarence and Grace Hall Hemingway’s six children; he had four sisters and one brother. He was named after his maternal grandfather Ernest Hall and his great uncle Miller Hall. Oak Park was a mainly Protestant, upper middle-class suburb of Chicago that Hemingway would later refer to as a town of “wide lawns and narrow minds. ” Only ten miles from the big city, Oak Park was really much farther away philosophically.
It was basically a conservative town that tried to isolate itself from Chicago’s liberal seediness. Hemingway was raised with the conservative Midwestern values of strong religion, hard work, physical fitness and self determination; if one adhered to these parameters, he was taught, he would be ensured of success in whatever field he chose. As a boy he was taught by his father to hunt and fish along the shores and in the forests surrounding Lake Michigan.
The Hemingways had a summer house called Windemere on Walloon Lake in northern Michigan, and the family would spend the summer months there trying to stay cool. Hemingway would either fish the different streams that ran into the lake, or would take the row boat out to do some fishing there. He would also go squirrel hunting in the woods near the summer house, discovering early in life the serenity to be found while alone in the forest or wading a stream.
It was something he could always go back to throughout his life, wherever he was. Nature would be the touchstone of Hemingway’s life and work, and though he often found himself living in major cities like Chicago, Toronto and Paris early in his career, once he became successful he chose somewhat isolated places to live like Key West, or San Francisco de Paula, Cuba, or Ketchum, Idaho. All were convenient locales for hunting and fishing. When he wasn’t hunting or fishing his mother taught him the finer points of music.
Grace was an accomplished singer who once had aspirations of a career on stage, but eventually settled down with her husband and occupied her time by giving voice and music lessons to local children, including her own. Hemingway never had a knack for music and suffered through choir practices and cello lessons, however the musical knowledge he acquired from his mother helped him share in his first wife Hadley’s interest in the piano. Hemingway received his formal schooling in the Oak Park public school system.
In high school he was mediocre at sports, playing football, swimming, water basketball and serving as the track team manager. He enjoyed working on the high school newspaper called the Trapeze, where he wrote his first articles, usually humorous pieces in the style of Ring Lardner, a popular satirist of the time. Hemingway graduated in the spring of 1917 and instead of going to college the following fall like his parents expected, he took a job as a cub reporter for the Kansas City Star; the job was arranged for by his Uncle Tyler who was a close friend of the chief editorial writer of the paper.
At the time of Hemingway’s graduation from High School, World War I was raging in Europe and despite Woodrow Wilson’s attempts to keep America out of the war, the United States joined the Allies in the fight against Germany and Austria in April, 1917. When Hemingway turned eighteen he tried to enlist in the army, but was deferred because of poor vision; he had a bad left eye that he probably inherited from his mother, who also had poor vision. When he heard the Red Cross was taking volunteers as ambulance drivers he quickly signed up.
He was accepted in December of 1917, left his job at the paper in April of 1918, and sailed for Europe in May. In the short time that Hemingway worked for the Kansas City Star he learned some stylistic lessons that would later influence his fiction. The newspaper advocated short sentences, short paragraphs, active verbs, authenticity, compression, clarity and immediacy. Hemingway later said: “Those were the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing. I’ve never forgotten them. ”
Hemingway first went to Paris upon reaching Europe, then traveled to Milan in early June after receiving his orders. The day he arrived, a munitions factory exploded and he had to carry mutilated bodies and body parts to a makeshift morgue; it was an immediate and powerful initiation into the horrors of war. Two days later he was sent to an ambulance unit in the town of Schio, where he worked driving ambulances. On July 8, 1918, only a few weeks after arriving, Hemingway was seriously wounded by fragments from an Austrian mortar shell which had landed just a few feet away.
At the time, Hemingway was distributing chocolate and cigarettes to Italian soldiers in the trenches near the front lines. The explosion knocked Hemingway unconscious, killed an Italian soldier and blew the legs off another. What happened next has been debated for some time. In a letter to Hemingway’s father, Ted Brumback, one of Ernest’s fellow ambulance drivers, wrote that despite over 200 pieces of shrapnel being lodged in Hemingway’s legs he still managed to carry another wounded soldier back to the first aid station; along the way he was hit in the legs by several machine gun bullets.
Whether he carried the wounded soldier or not, doesn’t diminish Hemingway’s sacrifice. He was awarded the Italian Silver Medal for Valor with the official Italian citation reading: “Gravely wounded by numerous pieces of shrapnel from an enemy shell, with an admirable spirit of brotherhood, before taking care of himself, he rendered generous assistance to the Italian soldiers more seriously wounded by the same explosion and did not allow himself to be carried elsewhere until after they had been evacuated.
Hemingway described his injuries to a friend of his: “There was one of those big noises you sometimes hear at the front. I died then. I felt my soul or something coming right out of my body, like you’d pull a silk handkerchief out of a pocket by one corner. It flew all around and then came back and went in again and I wasn’t dead any more. ” Hemingway’s wounding along the Piave River in Italy and his subsequent recovery at a hospital in Milan, including the relationship with his nurse Agnes von Kurowsky, all inspired his great novel A Farewell To Arms.