ALL GROWN UP

The Year That Ernest Hemingway Got His Act Together

The future Nobel Prize winner turned 18 in 1917, became a newspaper reporter, and went off to war, where he almost got killed. Somewhere in all that, a novelist was born.

Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

One hundred years ago, on July 21, 1917, Ernest Hemingway turned 18 years old.

The recent high school graduate from Oak Park, Ill., marked the day while spending another summer at and around his family’s getaway home on Walloon Lake, outside Petoskey in northern Michigan.

Over the course of three months, he harvested apples and pulled disappointingly dry potatoes from the family acreage. He fished for trout, reveled with friends, and spent much mental energy trying to decide what to do with the rest of his life.

As I write in my forthcoming book, Hemingway at Eighteen (Chicago Review Press, October 2017), the gangly and restless young man ultimately decided to take a job in journalism, to become a newspaperman, when that profession was filled with characters of high ideals and often boisterous demeanors. Hemingway leaned to the shy side, but as a “cub” reporter at The Kansas City Star, he managed to cram a shipload of experience into a six-and-a-half month sliver of time.

Kansas City and its dominant newspaper, which hired the young man as a stream of staffers headed to war, offered Hemingway a near equivalent of the college education that otherwise eluded him. And it gave him the opportunity to exercise the writing talent and the interest in literature that he’d shown in high school. He was surrounded by older men with literary aspirations and was delivered a daily dose of insight into the writing craft from his editors and within the culturally aware pages of The Star.

Still at 18, Hemingway left Kansas City, confident in his abilities and uncertain of his fate as he joined the Red Cross ambulance service and headed to the war zone in Italy. There, two weeks shy of his 19th birthday, his body took in 227 pieces of shrapnel and machine gun bullets to the knee and foot in an Austrian attack along the trenches lining the Piave River. It was a near-death experience, he would later write, though Italian soldiers around him were not so lucky to survive.

These two peak experiences—the jolt of journalism and the brutal reality of war—shape what my book calls “the pivotal year that launched an American legend.” Seeds of Hemingway’s later work—the writing that became long-lasting, much revered, and representative of one of the most essential American voices of the 20th century—can be found throughout this transformational year.

Hemingway was shedding his boyhood. He found what it meant to be independent, adventurous, and markedly self-indulgent as he created his path to the fully formed, three-dimensional human being that we know, with all his emotional flaws, all his braggart’s spirit, all his king-of-the-world writing achievements.

One of Hemingway’s closest Kansas City friends of the period saw in Hemingway an extraordinary talent even then. “You see things,” he told the 18-year-old in a letter shortly after both of them left Kansas City. “You know things … And above all you can tell it.”

That was an astounding appraisal for that moment in time. Hemingway had written his share of routine news items, but he had also crafted some impressive narrative features—one set in a hospital emergency room, others at military recruiting offices, and a short piece involving a lonely streetwalker under a lamppost in the snow as soldiers and art students danced at a party upstairs.

Many millions of readers eventually came to regard Hemingway the way his friend did in 1918. He laid his modernist claim to American literature in his 20s, and by 30, with a collection of indelible short stories and two important and popular novels under his belt—The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms—his future and fame were assured. Even as he stumbled from time to time in subsequent books, even as he became a caricature of American manhood, he had built up enough reserve in those early years to remain in the public eye and on nearly everyone’s bookshelves.

Since his suicide in 1961, caused in no small part by the forced exile from his beloved Cuban home, Hemingway has gone through a series of posthumous reassessments. He withstood a bout of irrelevancy. The remaking of Hemingway’s image and legacy goes on to this day as my fellow scholars find endless new ways of reading and interpreting him and as his heirs methodically repackage his books with archival material that if nothing else will assure new copyrights and uninterrupted family income streams.  It seems telling that my short book is one of perhaps a dozen new volumes by and about Hemingway that are appearing in 2017 alone. The Hemingway market is alive.

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We still read Hemingway today for many reasons. Or at least some of us do. On the morning I was finishing this piece, I happened to read a long travel essay by a young writer who recently experienced her initiation in the dangerously crowded streets of Pamplona, Spain, during the annual running of the bulls. She was attracted there not by Hemingway but by a personal urge to learn something about herself. She hadn’t even read Hemingway apparently, nor did she seem to want to. I’m OK with that. She might find him at some point in her life. After all, this was a young writer—her name was Ella Alexander—all of 19. Like Hemingway at about the same age, I think she might have a future.

Steve Paul’s book, Hemingway at Eighteen: The Pivotal Year That Launched an American Legend, will be published in October by Chicago Review Press.