It was fifty years ago today that author/journalist Ernest Hemingway committed suicide in his home in Ketchum, Idaho with the aid of one of his shotguns. Depression, alcoholism and a number of head injuries broke him into a state of disrepair.
Hemingway was infamous for his zest for life (or, rather, danger and excess). He was an avid athlete in high school and maintained a lifelong passion for boxing. He was also an avid sportsman who enjoyed fishing (re: Big Two-Hearted River, The Old Man and The Sea), hunting and the outdoors.
He volunteered for the Red Cross near the Italian front in the first World War where he suffered injuries from shrapnel, witnessed the bombing of Smyrna during the Greco-Turkish war, worked as a war correspondent in Spain during that country’s civil war where he wrote The Fifth Column in Madrid during the Siege of Madrid and was at the D-Day Landing and liberation of Paris in World War II. A bout of pneumonia kept him away from the front lines at the Battle of the Bulge. A few of these experiences formed the basis of his most famous novels A Farewell to Arms and For Whom The Bell Tolls.
Hemingway was also as prolific in his drinking as he was in his writing. His drinking grew heavier after he received the horrific news of his father’s suicide in the fall of 1928. Clarence Edmonds Hemingway shot himself in the head with an old Civil War pistol (like father, like son).
He survived, sometimes just barely, a number of spectacular accidents which resulted in physically traumatic injuries in his later years including:
- numerous concussions and broken bones in a handful of car crashes.
- a head wound from a plane crash in Africa.
- a concussion and burns after a second plane carrying them to a hospital following the first plane crash exploded and burst into flames. The concussion was the result of Hemingway using his head as a battering ram against the cockpit door. The full extent of his injuries from both crashes included cracked discs, kidney rupture, liver rupture, a dislocated shoulder and a broken skull.
- multiple burns on his body caused by a bushfire.
Hemingway numbed the pain with buckets (as opposed to glasses) of alcohol despite his doctor’s orders to the contrary. He grew increasingly depressed and exhibited signs of paranoia. He retreated to Mayo Clinic in December 1960 where he was treated for depression and underwent electroshock therapy (now known as electroconvulsive therapy). His time there worsened his condition and left him in ruins. He killed himself two days after returning home from his second lengthy visit to Mayo.
From Today In Literature:
Brother Leicester chooses the heroic interpretation: “Like a samurai who felt dishonored by the word or deed of another, Ernest felt his own body had betrayed him.” Having hunted with his big brother, and heard him talk about giving animals “the gift of death,” Leicester believes that Hemingway chose to give it to himself.
The greatest story Hemingway wrote was the life he lived. It is fitting that he wrote his own ending as well.