Hemingway at War and In Love- 1917-1924

Hemingway’s life was soon to change with the assassination of an Archduke across the Atlantic. In 1917, the fervor of war called to America’s youth and Hemingway was no exception. The United States Army rejected Hemingway for defective vision. He volunteered for the Red Cross Ambulance Division in Italy.

Hemingway the soldier

Ernest’s first induction to the foreign world was during World War I when he went to Italy. There was a war on. So Ernest didn’t have a chance to absorb all the cultural aspects of what was going on around him. He did make some friendships that were very important later on his life.

In Italy, he experienced his first taste of freedom, drinking and carousing with his fellow drivers. Hemingway soon grew anxious for action. He wrote a friend, “I’m fed up. There is nothing here but scenery and too damn much of that. I’m going to get out of this ambulance section and see if I can’t find out where the war is.”

He was about to get his chance. On the night of July 8th, 1918, the Italians were being bombarded by the Austrians from across the Piave River.

Hemingway was delivering cigarettes and chocolate rations to Italian soldiers when a deadly mortar explosion hit near where he was standing. One man was killed, and Hemingway’s knee and leg were riddled with shrapnel.  He said his life floated out of him like a silk handkerchief being pulled out of a breast pocket.

“I tried to breathe but my breath would not come and I felt myself rush bodily out of myself and out and out and out and all the time bodily in the wind. I went out swiftly, all of myself, and I knew I was dead and that it had all been a mistake to think you just died. Then I floated, and instead of going on I felt myself slide back. I breathed and I was back,” From A Farewell To Arms.

According to legend, Hemingway carried a wounded soldier to safety before he collapsed and lost consciousness. He had only been on the front for six days.

Hemingway’s Wounds and Writing

Hemingway had come close to death and almost had his leg amputated. This experience had a profound impact on his work. His father committed suicide when Hemingway was 29 years-old. Some critics believe that Hemingway’s writing is an attempt to make sense out of the trauma of the wounding. Hemingway was obsessed with death. Death was a theme in much of his work.

Hemingway heroes always struggle with death. A Hemingway hero is often a restless man. Hemingway heroes stay awake at night and sleep during the day. Sleep is an elimination of consciousness. Darkness is the night. The night is like death. A Hemingway hero avoids the dark of night so he doesn’t dream or have to face death in the darkness. Hemingway heroes will leave a light on. Avoiding sleep is avoiding the final sleep of death. This is called the concept of the “nada” or nothingness.

The Hemingway hero alone in the darkness the hero will have to face his demons. The hero wants to escape this by visiting a clean, well-lighted place. Alone, with his nothingness the hero will found that he lived a life unfulfilled. That nothingness is a total denial, a failure to make choices about the trauma that the hero has seen and endured.

Life is emptied of meaning and purpose. The hero’s life, his relationship with God, his relationships with friends and family all don’t matter. All the hero has are monotony, routine and the insomnia of sleepless nights.

Some critics believe that Hemingway’s severe wounding in World War I so traumatized the novelist that his fiction was to a great degree unwitting self-psychoanalysis. Much of Hemingway’s fiction is biography. His writing is both an external and internal passage.

Hemingway falls in love

While recuperating at the Red Cross Hospital in Milan, love found Hemingway. Hemingway was captivated by Agnes Von Kurosky, the volunteer American nurse who inspired his most famous love story.

Hemingway wounded

“She had wonderfully beautiful hair and I would lie sometimes and watch her twisting it up in the light that came in the open door and it shone even in the night as water shines sometimes just before it is really daylight,” from A Farewell To Arms.

The intensity of war heightened his feelings for Agnes, who took a liking to the handsome hero. Hemingway told a friend that it was worth getting wounded so he could meet her. They explored the splendors of Milan together.

Ernest and Agnes

During the months of his recuperation, nineteen-year-old Hemingway became increasing enamored with Agnes. Twenty-seven-year-old Agnes was less sure of her love. Agnes’ letters only hinted at a life together.

Hemingway on crutches

Hemingway took this as a sure sign that she wanted to marry him. He hoped their relationship would continue even though his time in Italy was coming to an end.

On New Year’s Eve, he was discharged from the Red Cross and returned to America. Hemingway returned to Oak Park, a war hero in 1919. He had ample opportunity to work on his storytelling. With little regard for the truth, he told hometown papers that he was actually a soldier in the Italian Army and that he had been personally decorated for bravery by the King of Italy.

Hemingway became a local celebrity. But after experiencing life, love, and death in Italy, he felt stifled in small town Oak Park. His state of mind grew worse in a letter from Agnes.

“I am writing this late at night after a long think by myself and I am afraid this is going to hurt you. I was trying to convince myself that it was a real love affair, because we always seem to disagree and our arguments always wore me out that I finally gave in to you to keep you from doing something desperate. But I am now and always be too old, and that’s the truth, and I can’t get away from the fact that you are just a boy- a kid,” said Agnes in a letter to Ernest.

Grace was troubled by her son’s lack of direction. She kicked Ernest out of the house in an effort in what she considered to be the right path.

Hemingway with cane in Oak Park

“Unless you, my son Ernest, cease your lazy loafing and trading on your handsome face to fool gullible little girls, and neglecting your duties to God and your Savior, Jesus Christ; unless, you come into your manhood there is nothing before but bankruptcy- you have overdrawn,” wrote Grace.

Belittled by his love and his family, a depressed Hemingway still had to face his future. Hemingway wrote to a friend, “My family, God bless them, are wolfing at me to go to college. Frankly, I don’t know where the hell to go.”

Ernest decided to go to Chicago, and with his background as a newspaperman, he wrote articles for the Toronto Star and worked odd jobs.

At a party, he met Hadley Richardson, who was visiting Chicago from St. Louis. Hadley had lived a sheltered life under a protective mother. At 29, many predicted that she would be a spinster.

She gained confidence from the more worldly Hemingway. And unlike Agnes loved him despite their eight-year age difference. Five visits and nine months later they were married in 1921.

Ernest and Hadley

Hemingway was encouraged by author Sherwood Anderson to move to Paris. Anderson gave Hemingway letters of introduction to his literary friends on the Left Bank. Lured by the idea of Paris, Hemingway worked a job as a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star. In 1922, with Hadley’s trust fund, the couple left for a new life in Europe. Ernest was 23 years old.