An American Storyteller

  • Veteran out of the wars before his was twenty:
    Famous at twenty-five: thirty a master--
    Whittled a style for his time from a walnut stick
    In a carpenter's loft in a street of that April city.

    Thus Poet Archibald MacLeish recalls one of the great American writers in his days of early glory, back in the 1920s, when it always seemed to be April in Paris. Last week Emest Hemingway was a long way from Paris and a long way from April. He was 55, but he looked older. He cruised in a black and green fishing boat off the Coast of Cuba, near where the Gulf Stream draws a dark line on the seascape. The grey-white hair escaping from beneath a visored cap was unkempt, and the Caribbean glare induced a sea-squint in his brawn, curious eyes set behind steel-rimmed spectacles. Most of his ruddy face was retired behind a clipped, white, patriarchal beard that gave him a bristled, Neptunian look. His leg muscles could have been halves of a split 16-lb. shot, welded there by years of tramping in Michigan, skiing in Switzerland, bullfighting in Spain, walking battlefronts and hiking uncounted miles of African safari. On his lap he held a board, and he bent over it with a pencil in one hand. He was still whittling away at his walnut prose.

    Five thousand miles away in Stockholm,a white-starched, tail-coated assembly of the Nobel Foundation was about to bestow literature's most distinguished accolade on the products of his pencil. This week, "for his powerful, style-forming mastery of the art of modern narration," the Nobel Prize for literature will be awarded to Ernest Miller Hemingway, originally of Oak Park, Ill. and later of most of the world's grand and adventurous places.

    Few would deny that Ernest Hemingway deserves the trumpets of fame. As an artist he broke the bounds of American writing, enriched U.S. literature with the century's hardest-hitting prose, and showed new ways to new generations of writers. He was imitated not only by other writers but by uncounted young men who, in fact or fancy, sought to live as dashingly as he. From Paris bistros to Chicago saloons, he is known as a character--not the sallow, writing type with an indoor soul, but a literary he-man. When his plane crashed on safari in Africa last winter and for nearly a day he was believed dead, even people who do not like his books felt a strange, personal sense of loss, and even people who never read novels were delighted when he walked out of the jungle carrying a bunch of bananas and a bottle of gin, and was quoted, possibly even correctly, as saying: "My luck, she is running very good."

    Battered But Unbowed
    The hero of the great Hemingway legend was still not sufficiently recovered from his accident to travel to Stockholm for his latest, biggest honor (hitherto awarded only to five other American-born writers: Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O'Neill, Pearl Buck, T. S. Eliot and William Faulkner). Furthermore, the first announcement of the Nobel award and the bustle of publicity that followed had thrown Hemingway off his writing pace. He took to his boat in hopes of getting back to work on his new novel about Africa. "I was going real good, better than for a Iong time, when this came along," he said. "When you're a writer and you've got it you've got to keep going because when you've lost it you've lost it and God knows when you'll get it back."

    Hemingway's African injuries were a ruptured kidney, bad burns, cracked skull, two compressed vertebrae and one vertebra cracked clear through. These were added to scars that cover perhaps half his body surface, including half a dozen head wounds, 237 shrapnel scars in one leg, a shot-off kneecap, wounds in both feet, both arms, both hands and groin, all acquired in the two World Wars. By last week he was much improved, but his back was still bothering him. When he sat, he lined his chair with big flat picture books and a backboard. "I have to take so many pills," he said, "they have to fight among themselves if I take them too close together." His daily quota of alcohol, though still substantial enough to keep him in good standing among the alltime public enemies of the W.C.T.U., had fallen far below the old records. Gone were the uninhibited, wine-purpled, 100-proof, side-of-the-mouth bottle-swigging days of the swashbuckling young Ernest Hemingway who was "the bronze god of the whole literary experience in America," the lionhunting, trophy-bagging, bullfight-loving Lord Byron of America. "I am a little beat up," Ernest Hemingway now admits, "but I assure you it is only temporary."

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