Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) plunged into World War I, the Greco-Turkish War, the Spanish Civil War, and World War II with the confidence of a skilled matador twirling his cape over a furious 1200-pound bull. He was a journalist in all but The Great War, in which he was an ambulance driver who sustained serious injuries at the front. Survival was thrilling (so were the drinks afterwards), and then he got to write about its gory, mud-flecked glory. Well, mostly the mud and the gore. Glory wasn’t really Hemingway’s thing.
As early as after his first book, In Our Time, in 1925, he wrote his parents (who disapprovingly returned the book to him), “You see I’m trying in all my stories to get the feeling of actual life…if it is all beautiful you can’t believe in it. Things aren’t that way.” While there is indeed beauty in his stories, there is also suffering, sordid evil, disbelief, even an agony of spirit that descends into the depths of existential negation, the “nada” of his protagonists who go on simply because they won’t give up.
This has led critics and biographers to see Hemingway’s fiction defined by human suffering in a world of dead or absent gods. But do suffering and abandonment as themes in fiction exclude a religious perspective? The question is a tricky one because to find an answer, we have to look past the settled convictions of generations of Hemingway studies. We also have to read his fiction in the mysterious twilight of Good Friday which sets before us the spectacle of God dying, abandoned on the Cross, the criminal outcast of the world he created.
Hemingway met the challenges of his own time with an innovative style of fiction rooted in an almost sacramental sense of reality aligned with a stringent irony alert to the least hypocrisies or evasions. The hyperbolic rhetoric of the First World War provoked in him a honing of his language, a purification of its diction of facile abstraction, in service of a code of behavior dedicated to enduring mortality with grace and courage. “Prose is architecture, not interior decoration,” he wrote in 1932, “and the Baroque is over”. This brought him early success as a writer, but it was not without its cost.
Hemingway’s mind was ravaged by concussions brought on by his thirst for life and by decades of strenuous work “getting the words right”. In addition to his war time experiences, that thirst brought Hemingway intimate contact with two plane crashes on safari in Africa and four marriages. Getting the words right included nearly a dozen novels, several works of non-fiction, almost two hundred short stories, and roughly six thousand letters. Not counting his early journalism, which he began right out of high school.
Friends and family knew Hemingway as a gifted, difficult alpha-male who could be sensitive and kind one moment, and cruel the next. His public insults directed at F. Scott Fitzgerald, or his fist fight with poet Wallace Stevens in Key West head up a long line of damaged, frayed, and then—sometimes—renewed relationships. His letters show us a man who could feel regret for his mistakes, sometimes deeply. A cartoon in The New Yorker once displayed a burly man’s arm and fist, clutching a rose. The caption? “The soul of Ernest Hemingway.”
But did Hemingway care for his soul? Did he possess a religious faith, a sensibility open to God? It won’t help us, I think, if we focus only on the external facts. As we’ve partially noted, the tally is grim: the marriages and affairs, the drinking, the meanness, and, not least of all, the numerous characters in his novels and stories who act as if God were just another abstraction, something like the words “honor” and “sacrifice” that Frederick Henry in Farewell To Arms (1929) dismisses as unreliable, less real than the names of places, towns and roads.
This is a mistake for at least two reasons. Hemingway was part of a movement in literature called Modernism that arose shortly before the First World War and asserted in theory and practice the autonomy of the work of art, eschewing the expressionism of Romanticism for a more complicated and perhaps more self-aware relationship between the artist and his or her art. Hemingway was always reticent when asked to interpret his work because he wanted to protect its mystery and autonomy. While his fingerprints are, so to speak, on every page, every page doesn’t necessarily reflect his settled thoughts on anything.
Secondly, his major biographers have done this very thing: conflate the views expressed in the stories with Hemingway’s own views, and then selectively edit his letters, or memoirs, or the accounts of others. I wouldn’t have noticed this if it were not for reading John Beaumont’s The Mississippi Flows into the Tiber: A Guide to Notable American Converts to the Catholic Church (2014). Actually, it was a little later when I watched Beaumont giving a lecture on his book in New York that something he said as an aside caught my attention. If you’re interested in Hemingway’s Catholicism, he said, read H. R. Stoneback.
I ordered the collection of essays which contained Stoneback’s essay, “In the Nominal Country of the Bogus: Hemingway’s Catholicism and the Biographers” and after reading it, was convinced that Stoneback is correct: Hemingway was a Catholic, a very bad Catholic, as he often said, but a Catholic all the same. The case for this is complicated, but I’ll try to condense it down to a few essential points that show the bias of the biographers, and Hemingway’s words and actions that reveal more than a superficial faith.
- Hemingway was raised a Congregationalist, the religion of his parents. When he was 18, he volunteered for service with the American Red Cross, was stationed in Italy, and weeks before his 19th birthday, was severely wounded by an Austrian trench mortar along the Piave Delta. An Italian priest anointed him in the hospital shortly thereafter. Biographers Carlos Baker and Jeffrey Myers have dismissed this experience with the priest as “bogus” and, at best, “nominal”. Stoneback shows how their treatment of a crucial episode in Hemingway’s life was “flippant”, “confused”, and “condescending”. They fail to understand, for example, that the Church would consider Hemingway’s Trinitarian baptism valid. As a wounded man on the front, his reception into the Church would have been relatively simple.
- Hemingway himself declared, in 1926: “If I am anything I am a Catholic. Had extreme unction administered to me as such in July 1918 and recovered. So I guess I’m a Super-Catholic. It is certainly the most comfortable religion for anyone soldiering. Am not what is called a “good Catholic”…But cannot imagine taking any other religion seriously.”
- Hemingway’s second marriage was to Pauline Pfeiffer, a Catholic living in Paris. Stoneback says that although “none of Hemingway’s biographers seems to be aware of it” the “Archbishopric of Paris on April 25, 1927” conducted a canonical inquest as to whether Hemingway and Pauline could be married in the Church. According to the records, Hemingway was granted a “toutes dispenses” (because he came into the Church in a wartime situation) and as a Catholic in good standing was allowed to marry Pauline. His previous marriage to Hadley Richardson was dissolved, either by disparity of cult, or by the “Pauline Privilege” which allowed such to Hemingway as a new convert, a rare dispensation. In either case, there’s no doubt that the Church considered him a Catholic. As did Hemingway himself.
- There is the witness of events, and of those who knew Hemingway well, and recounted his attempts to live a Catholic life, however imperfectly. Here is a sampling of Stoneback’s long list:
- Poet Allen Tate (a Catholic) told Stoneback in the 1960’s that he had gone to Mass with Hemingway in the 1920s in Paris, that “Hemingway was very Catholic”, and that his attitude towards sport was “rooted in a religious sensibility”.
- Hemingway’s fishing logbooks have listings of the times he goes ashore and attends Mass, even when the fishing was excellent.
- His letters to Adriana Ivancich (a young woman whom he had a romantic infatuation with, and who acted as a muse for his creativity) have a completely Catholic texture, with references “to prayers, priests, having Masses said, quotations from St. Teresa of Avila, allusions to Dante, pilgrimages, the Middle Ages, saints and martyrs, the cathedrals of Chartres and San Marco”.
- When he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954, he gave the medal to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Much as Santiago in The Old Man and The Sea makes a promise to the Virgin if he hooks a big fish, Hemingway gave the medal to the Virgin De Cobre (Our Lady of Charity in Cuba). The medal is still at the shrine, but not publicly displayed after being stolen, and then returned, in 1986.
The Literary Witness
There is, of course, the witness of his literary work. From his early stories of Nick Adams (1925) healing his war wounds in nature’s baptismal font of the trout streams of Northern Michigan to the elderly Santiago undergoing the ravages of the sharks rending his victorious catch to shreds in The Old Man and the Sea (1953), Hemingway obsessively fixed on the man in the ring, the fighter or matador or soldier or fisherman who against all odds will never surrender.
“The Christ of his imagination provided Hemingway with a compelling and endlessly potent exemplum of man in extremis,” writes Kathleen Verduin, “holding up against pain and submitting unwhimperingly to the inevitable. It is in his explorations of the hero’s pain, fully experienced in mind, blood, and bone, that Hemingway draws specifically on the scenes of the Crucifixion…” Like Baker and Myers, Verduin asserts that Hemingway had no “confident identification with the Christian religion”, but at least she grasps one of the major keys to his fiction, the mystery of endurance in the midst of suffering, with its archetype of the Passion of Christ behind it all.
Hemingway’s Good Friday
This underlying exemplum comes to the surface in a short drama Hemingway wrote while living in Madrid in 1926. “Today is Friday” is only few hundred words long, but for all that has a peculiar power in its oddly envisioned, anachronistic plot. Set with brief stage directions, three Roman soldiers are at a bar tended by a “Hebrew wine-seller” named George. The soldiers are referred to as soldiers #1, #2, and #3. We quickly learn that earlier in the day they crucified Christ as part of their duties. Soldier #3 is sick, and takes a small glass of medicinal wine from the bar. He says repeatedly, “I feel like hell.” The banter among the other two soldiers and the wine-seller is 20th-century slang, especially soldier #1 who repeats the phrase, speaking of Christ’s death, “I tell you, he was pretty good in there today.” Worlds away from his parents’ polite Protestantism, Hemingway’s using the language of the boxing ring to describe Christ’s sufferings.
As an amateur boxer, Hemingway knew something of the travails of staying in a match. Here he presents Christ as a fighter, a description consistent with his many protagonists in their physical and moral agonies. The dialogue is suffused with theological implication: soldier #2 remarking on the ordinary wine he’s being served (as opposed to sacramental wine), “This stuff don’t get you anywhere.” The repeated phrase of Soldier #1, “You been out here too long”, suggesting that the Romans need to come inside the dispensation of the Church which is the only remedy for “I feel like hell”. Recognizing he’s sick, soldier #3 is already on his way to the Divine Physician.
Even the title’s present tense is theologically apt: Christ’s sufferings were those of a Divine Person, hence they achieve a timelessness that flows into every historical present. And, as Hemingway knew, the Mass is a re-presentation of this same bloody sacrifice in sacramental form.
Hemingway’s final days were marked by physical ailments and depression, the latter likely inherited from his father, and worsened by decades of drinking to excess, of hard living. Those who saw him shortly before his death on July 2, 1961 in Ketchum, Idaho, could barely recognize their friend.
In his 1932 non-fiction work on bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon (a title with Christological significance), Hemingway described his method of writing in what has become known as “the Iceberg theory”. He said this was based on how 7/8ths of an iceberg is underwater, thereby giving the visible portion a majestic power. So with a writer who is writing well—he can leave out much, and what remains gains in heft by the invisible presence of what looms over the page, what is found everywhere and nowhere.
Hemingway was a shy extrovert in the sense that he didn’t like talking about himself, or about the inner workings of his art. I suspect there were depths which he himself had only begun to fathom, of which there was none deeper than the faith he was granted not far from an Italian battlefield. For the Faith illuminates in a glass darkly, and its paths are as many as there are souls in the world.
When I think of Hemingway, I like to picture him attending Mass—in Paris, in Austria, in Milan, or Florence, or Key West, or Havana. According to Mary Welsh, his fourth wife, he knew he couldn’t receive Communion because of his marriages, but he attended anyway, usually sitting in the back. (A testimony to his belief in the sacrifice of the Mass, I would say.) Those who joined him in church said he had trouble kneeling, due, surely, to the hundreds of shell fragments that ripped through his legs on the Italian front in 1918. By the time he took his own life, Dr. Andrew Farah is convinced he was suffering from “concussive dementia” and not in his right mind. We’ll never know this side of eternity the precise accounting of responsibility for any such terrible act.
As H. R. Stoneback suggests in his essay, in the end, we should light a candle for the soul of Ernest Hemingway. He crafted words that sink deep into the mysteries of life. May those mysteries now heal him in ways beyond all earthly hope.
H.R. Stoneback’s Essay is contained in the volume Hemingway: Essays of Reassessment
The Mississippi Flows into the Tiber by John Beauman