1953 Pulitzer Prize Review: The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish” (opening line).

The Old Man and the Sea is a rich and deep novella about an old fisherman named Santiago and his Herculean efforts to overcome a dry-spell of fishing. Much like the book’s protagonist, Ernest Hemingway was also going through a dry-spell of his own at the time. The Old Man and the Sea was written at a time when Hemingway was believed to be a writer in decline. His last critically praised work was published over a decade prior (For Whom The Bell Tolls in 1940 – read my reflections on For Whom The Bell Tolls and its Pulitzer controversy here). Hemingway had published Across The River And Into The Trees in 1950, his first post-World War II book, and it was mostly panned by critics. By the time The Old Man and the Sea was released, it too was met with skepticism from certain critics. In a word, The Old Man and the Sea was not unlike a great fish captured by an old fisherman only to be torn apart by sharks and dragged into the harbor.

Hemingway dedicated The Old Man and the Sea “To Charlie Scribner And To Max Perkins,” his old friends. Charlie Scribner was the President of the famous New York publishing house Charlie Scribner & Sons, and Max Perkins was Hemingway’s editor (Mr. Perkins was also the editor of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, and other famous writers). Both Scribner and Perkins had passed away before the publication of The Old Man and the Sea. Hemingway’s new editor at Scribner was Wallace Meyer. After the lukewarm reception of Across The River and Into The Trees, Hemingway wrote to Mr. Meyer with the hope of reviving his reputation with a new book. When finished, Hemingway said it was “The best I can write ever for all of my life.” After some initial mixed reviews, The Old Man and the Sea elevated Hemingway’s literary reputation to new unparalleled heights. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1953 and in 1954 Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for Literature. In his acceptance speech, which was delivered by John M. Cabot, U.S. Ambassador to Sweden, Hemingway offered a terse assessment of the life of a writer – a solitary experience which compels one to stretch out beyond known horizons. He dedicated his Nobel Prize to the Cuban people, but instead of giving his medal to the Batista government (the military dictatorship in Cuba) Hemingway donated it to the Catholic Church to be placed on display at the El Cobre Basilica, a small town outside Santiago de Cuba.

Hemingway first mentioned the idea for The Old Man and the Sea as early as 1936 in an interview with Esquire Magazine. The inspiration for the story was likely based, in part, on Hemingway’s own fishing boat captain, Gregorio Fuentes, a blue-eyed Cuban fisherman who led a storied life on the ocean. A portion of The Old Man and the Sea was initially published in Life Magazine and even these small snippets became wildly popular. After it was officially published, Hemingway won a string of accolades. The Old Man and the Sea was made into a 1958 movie starring Spencer Tracy (click here to read my review of the film). In later years, a miniseries was aired in the 1990s and a stop-action animation version was also released. It won an Oscar in 1999. I recently watched the animated film and was struck by its beautiful, impressionistic re-telling of the story.


The short novella reads like a fable. Unlike Captain Ahab’s fiendish and maddeningly obsessive quest in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Hemingway’s old man, Santiago, is a sympathetic character. He is hopeful but down on his luck. He is a staunch fan of baseball, and regularly compares himself to the ‘Great Dimaggio,’ or Joe Dimaggio, the famous center fielder for the New York Yankees (1936-1951). Santiago remains undeterred and steadfast in his support of the Yankees even if they lose a game. His commitments are unwavering. He believes in the power and mythos of the ‘Great Dimaggio.’

The other fishermen of Cuba generally do not respect Santiago so he befriends a young boy named Manolin, but Manolin’s parents prevent him from fishing with Santiago because of Santiago’s bad luck. Santiago has gone eighty-four days without catching a fish, branding him unlucky (or a salao, the worst form of unluckiness). Santiago is “thin” and “gaunt” with speckled brown skin and deep blue eyes:

“Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated” (10).

Santiago is a reader of newspapers (there are many references to newspapers and baseball games throughout the story). In the story, we are offered little glimpses into Santiago’s upbringing. As a young man, Santiago spent time along the “long golden beaches” of Africa. He now dreams of lions who hunted along those beaches –a memory of his early years growing up along the Canary Islands.

Santiago awakens early in the morning on the eighty-fifth day without a fish and he takes his little skiff out to sea –he loves the sea. He follows a circling bird outward until a huge fish catches his line. Santiago wrestles with the fish (a marlin) for two days and nights as it drags him eastward out to sea. He watches it through the water and cannot believe how big it is (we later learn the fish is 18-feet long). However, unlike Ahab, Santiago has no antipathy toward his catch. In fact, he respects the marlin and refers to him as a brother. Exhausted, he finally catches the marlin by piercing it with a harpoon. As he tows the marlin back to harbor, he also battles and kills several sharks who strike at the best meat of the fish. One wounded shark takes Santiago’s, while the other sharks are struck by Santiago’s knife and oar. When he finally arrives back in the harbor, Santiago’s marlin has been mostly eaten except for his head and tail.

Santiago, sore and fatigued, trudges back to his shack and collapses. The boy, Manolin, awakens Santiago in the morning with coffee and a newspaper. The boy cries at the sight of Santiago’s injured hands. He describes how the townsfolk searched for Santiago when he did not return after two days. Once rested, Santiago decides to donate the head of the marlin to Pedrico, another fisherman, and he offers the skeleton to Manolin so that he may fashion a spear. Nearby, a group of tourists at a cafe gaze upon the great marlin still attached to Santiago’s skiff and they mistake it for a shark. At the end, Santiago falls sleep again and he dreams of the lions on the beaches of Africa.

Below is a collection of some memorable passages I found while reading The Old Man and the Sea:

“The clouds over the land now rose like mountains and the coast was only a long green line with the gray blue hills behind it” (35).

“It was considered a virtue not to talk unnecessarily at sea and the old man had always considered it so and respected it. But now he said his thoughts aloud many times since there was no one that they could annoy” (39).

“He looked across the sea and knew how alone he was now. But he could see the prisms in the deep dark water and the line stretching ahead and the strange undulation of the calm. The clouds were building up now for the trade wind and he looked ahead and saw a flight of wild ducks etching themselves against the sky over the water, then blurring, then etching again and he knew no man was ever alone on the sea” (60-61).


William Faulkner, at the time Hemingway’s greatest literary rival, praised The Old Man and the Sea in the following single paragraph review published in Shenandoah Magazine (a major literary magazine of Washington and Lee University):

“His best. Time may show it to be the best single piece of any of us, I mean his and my contemporaries. This time, he discovered God, a Creator. Until now, his men and women had made themselves, shaped themselves out of their own clay; their victories and defeats were at the hands of each other, just to prove to themselves or one another how tough they could be. But this time, he wrote about pity: about something somewhere that made them all: the old man who had to catch the fish and then lose it, the fish that had to be caught and then lost, the sharks which had to rob the old man of his fish; made them all and loved them all and pitied them all. It’s all right. Praise God that whatever made and loves and pities Hemingway and me kept him from touching it any further.”


Lastly, below is a copy of the text of Hemingway’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1954 (delivered by the U.S. Ambassador to Sweden on account of Hemingway’s poor health):

“Having no facility for speech-making and no command of oratory nor any domination of rhetoric, I wish to thank the administrators of the generosity of Alfred Nobel for this Prize.

No writer who knows the great writers who did not receive the Prize can accept it other than with humility. There is no need to list these writers. Everyone here may make his own list according to his knowledge and his conscience.

It would be impossible for me to ask the Ambassador of my country to read a speech in which a writer said all of the things which are in his heart. Things may not be immediately discernible in what a man writes, and in this sometimes he is fortunate; but eventually they are quite clear and by these and the degree of alchemy that he possesses he will endure or be forgotten.

Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.

For a true writer each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed.

How simple the writing of literature would be if it were only necessary to write in another way what has been well written. It is because we have had such great writers in the past that a writer is driven far out past where he can go, out to where no one can help him.

I have spoken too long for a writer. A writer should write what he has to say and not speak it. Again I thank you.”

To read my notes on reading The Paris Review’s famous interview with Hemingway (1958) click here.


The 1953 Pulitzer Prize Decision
The Fiction Jury in 1953 consisted of Roy W. Cowden, an English and Creative Writing Professor from the University of Michigan; and Eric P. Kelly, a Dartmouth English professor and author of children’s books –most notably The Trumpeter of Krakow (1929), winner of the Newbury Medal.


Hemingway, Ernest. The Old Man and the Sea. New York, Scribner’s and Simon & Schuster, 2003.

Click here to return to my survey of the Pulitzer Prize Winners.

Love and War In For Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

For Whom The Bell Tolls is the novel that was supposed to win Ernest Hemingway his first Pulitzer Prize in 1941. However, like Sinclair Lewis before him, Hemingway was denied the prize by the President of Columbia University. As the story goes, the 1941 Novel Jury recommended several books for the Pulitzer Prize including, but not primarily, For Whom The Bell Tolls. Upon receiving the Jury’s recommendations the Pulitzer Advisory Board favored the critic’s choice For Whom The Bell Tolls. However, before the Board could complete a vote on the matter they were blocked by one man: the President of Columbia University, Nicholas Murray Butler. He was ex-officio Chairman of the Pulitzer Advisory Board and he objected to the ‘lascivious’ content in the novel (Sound familiar? Nicholas Murray Butler also blocked the Pulitzer Prize from being bestowed upon Sinclair Lewis in 1921 for his novel Main Street. Instead, the 1921 prize was awarded to Edith Wharton for The Age of Innocence).

Why did no member of the Pulitzer Advisory Board stand up to Nicholas Murray Butler? How was he able to railroad the whole process? His story is worth mentioning as he was a fascinating American figure. Nicholas Murray Butler was viewed as something of an autocratic ruler at Columbia University, often wantonly dismissing staff and faculty, prohibiting entry for Jewish students, in a word – he ruled Columbia with an iron first, and yet he was also a respected American statesman. He was the former running mate of William Howard Taft in the Presidential election of 1912. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931 along with Jane Addams, for his efforts as President of the Carnegie Endowment For International for Peace. He helped to negotiate peace in Europe using his elite relationships with leaders like Kaiser Wilhelm II. Nicholas Butler Murray was also a popular cultural figure. Each year The New York Times printed his annual Christmas Greeting to the nation. He is recognized today as the longest serving President of Columbia University (43 years), a tenure which first began with his role as Interim President in 1901 before he was officially elected President of Columbia, serving from 1902-1945. So when Nicholas Murray Butler stood in the doorway of the Pulitzer proceedings refusing to move or relent on the Hemingway question while shouting “I hope you will reconsider before you ask the university to be associated with an award for a work of this nature!” -no one dared to stand against him. The full details of the confrontation were later brought to light in 1962 by Arthur Krock, a New York Times journalist and Pulitzer Board member at the time. As a consequence of the fight, no novel was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1941.

That year, the Novel Jury welcomed a newcomer: Dorothy Canfield Fisher, to replace Robert M. Lovett from the previous year. Dorothy Canfield Fisher is perhaps best known for bringing the Montessori School system to the United States, but she also achieved other important cultural milestones. She was praised by Eleanor Roosevelt as one of the most influential women in America. Alongside Fisher, two veteran Novel Jurists also reprised their roles on the Jury in 1941: Jefferson B. Fletcher (Literature Professor at Columbia University), and Joseph W. Krutch (Literature Professor at Columbia University and naturalist writer). For the Pulitzer Prize the trio also considered several other novels aside from For Whom The Bell Tolls including The Trees by Joseph Conrad, The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, Native Son by Richard Wright, and Oliver Wiswell by Kenneth Roberts. The Jury apparently reluctantly favored The Trees by Joseph Conrad before the Pulitzer Board unilaterally selected For Whom The Bell Tolls until Nicholas Murray Butler blocked its nomination.

Of course, despite being robbed the first time, Hemingway later won the coveted Pulitzer Prize in 1959 for The Old Man And The Sea (feel free to read my reflections on The Old Man and the Sea here).


For Whom The Bell Tolls is as tense a novel as it is tender. It is the story of love and war -a soldier’s duty contrasted with a lover’s embrace. The book takes us covertly behind enemy lines during the destructive Spanish Civil War of the 1930s (a war which lasted from 1936-1939). The book spans approximately four days, and within that narrow timeframe a lifetime occurs: we gain a profound and complex glimpse into the nature of heroism and cowardice among ordinary people. Amidst the chaos of war and the looming specter of death, For Whom The Bell Tolls also pulls back the curtain on a budding romance between an American soldier and an innocent Spanish girl.

For context, during the Spanish Civil War, battle lines were drawn between a coalition of conservatives, nationalists, and Catholics, led by the military dictator Francisco Franco; and on the other side, a loose-knit federation of republicans, liberals, communists, and anarchists. Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy supported Franco, while Soviet Russia and Mexico supported the communists, but the United States, England, and France maintained a public stance of neutrality. After years of violence in every major Spanish city, the Spanish Civil War was eventually brought to an end in 1939 with the fascists taking over the country under Francisco Franco. During the war writers like George Orwell pleaded with the West to support the republicans against the fascists (see Homage To Catalonia). The war was later dubbed a “dress rehearsal” for World War II by Claude Bowers, U.S. Ambassador to Spain.

In the novel, Hemingway introduces us to Robert Jordan, a Montana-native and Spanish language professor. Robert Jordan has unfortunately found himself in the midst of the Spanish Civil War while on leave in Spain during the outbreak of the war. He is a volunteer in the International Brigades (a international coalition of fighters organized by communists). During this time Robert Jordan has become an experienced soldier and dynamiter. He is tasked with destroying a key strategic bridge inn order to block supplies and munitions from reaching the fascists through the Sierra de Guadarrama. The order comes from Golz, a Soviet officer.

En route to complete his mission, Robert Jordan encounters an old man named Anselmo who takes Robert Jordan high up into the mountains outside Segovia in central Spain (north of Madrid) where a band of guerrilla warriors is hiding out in a cave from the fascists below. While there, Robert Jordan meets Pablo, a jaded rebel who once led the revolt against fascism but now spends his time ignobly drinking wine and sarcastically deriding the war. He also meets Pablo’s wife, Pilar, a strong-willed woman who serves as the de facto leader of the group in Pablo’s abdication (“Pilar” was a nickname for Hemingway’s third wife, Pauline, and also the name of his fishing boat); a gypsy named Rafael; and several other soldiers like Agustín, El Sordo, Fernando, Andrés, Eladio, Primitivo, and Joaquín. The group exists there by a “miracle” according to El Sordo. The fascists are unaware of their presence. The group quickly grows accustomed to Robert Jordan and they call him “Inglés” or simply “Roberto” (the whole novel is rife with Spanish idioms, including edited obscenities). However, the people in the cave are strange and unfamiliar. All throughout his days in the cave the reader asks: can Robert Jordan really trust these guerrilla fighters? How can we be certain they are not going to sabotage the mission?

The most important character Robert Jordan meets in the cave is María, a young Spanish girl whose town was ravaged by the fascists. She taken alive by the fascists -her hair was hacked off and she was raped, but she was then rescued and cared for by Pilar. Robert Jordan and María quickly strike up a romance, and Pilar essentially gives María to Robert Jordan as his lover with the promise of marriage. Robert Jordan calls María his little “rabbit” and they spend most evenings together in Robert Jordan’s sleeping bag just outside the cave.

While introducing us to the tenderness of Robert Jordan’s new love, the first half of the novel also delivers an extraordinarily tense series of moments. The impending mission to destroy the bridge plagues the reader’s mind. Will the weather be good? Will the fascists retaliate? Will they find the cave before the bridge can be blown? Will Golz call off the mission? Who will die? Who will live? Filled with hope and worry, Robert Jordan hides out with the rebels in the mountains while trying to keep a low profile, careful about what information he reveals. At the same time, skepticism grows regarding Pablo’s loyalties, and Robert Jordan places his faith in Pilar.

Suddenly, Robert Jordan is surprised one morning when an unsuspecting fascist patrolman stumbles onto his outdoor sleeping bag. Robert Jordan quickly leaps up and kills the patrolman. Then a skirmish breaks out across the mountain killing El Sordo’s entire band of fighters. Robert Jordan and the remaining fighters wait a day, and then assault the bridge (undeterred by a momentary lapse of judgment from Pablo when he steals some of Robert Jordan’s explosive equipment in the night, casting it into a ravine. Pablo eventually rejoins the fight in an effort to redeem himself). As the group approaches the bridge, they quietly kill the fascist sentries. Robert Jordan and the old man Anselmo then successfully wire, detonate, and destroy the bridge, but the explosion kills Anselmo along with several others in the process. The remaining guerrillas flee back up into the mountains having completed their mission.

“Dying was nothing and he had no picture of it nor fear of it in his mind. But living was a field of grain blowing in the wind on the side of a hill. Living was a hawk in the sky. Living was an earthen jar of water in the dust of the threshing with the grain flailed out and the chaff blowing. Living was a horse between your legs and a carbine under one leg and a hill valley and a stream with trees along it and the far side of the valley and the hills beyond” (312-313 on the last moments of Sordo’s life during his last stand against advancing fascists before he is killed in a plane raid).

For Whom The Bell Tolls tells the true account of war far greater than mere fact or history: it presents the experience of a soldier in all its complexity. Robert Jordan is a multi-faceted man: he is anxious, confident, distrusting, steadfast, competent, sorrowful, determined, and yet friendly. He is both a lover and a fighter who experiences the great depths of love amidst the heart-pounding threat of war.

“You felt, in spite of all bureaucracy and inefficiency and party strife, something that was like the feeling you expected to have and did not have when you made your first communion. It was a feeling of consecration to a duty toward all of the oppressed of the world which would be as difficult and embarrassing to speak about as religious experience and yet it was authentic as the feeling you had when you heard Bach, or stood in the Chartres Cathedral or the Cathedral at Leon and saw the light coming through the great windows; or when you saw Mantegna and Greco and Brueghel in the Prado. It gave you a part in something that you could believe in wholly and completely and in which you felt an absolute brotherhood with the others who were engaged in it. It was something you had never known before but that you had experienced now and you gave such importance to it and the reasons for it that your own death seemed of complete unimportance; only a thing to be avoided because it would interfere with the performance of duty. But the best thing was that there was something you could do about this feeling and this necessity too. You could fight” (235, on the experience of war).

The question of death, namely what is a good and noble death, also looms large over the novel. Robert Jordan’s father had committed suicide, an act which he considers cowardly. He occasionally reflects on his troubled father throughout the novel. Robert Jordan recalls the story of a compatriot who requested he be shot instead of falling into the hands of the fascists. Instead, Robert Jordan values a man who ends his life fighting without surrender. And Robert Jordan is also contrasted with other characters in the novel, particularly Pablo, who has become cowardly and all-too-comfortable in his hidden cave while drunk in a bowl of wine. Sadly, Pablo’s fear of death has overcome his desire for virtue or honor, and even his own wife does not respect him. In contrast, El Sordo dies bravely in battle. In the end, we are led to believe Robert Jordan dies a good death, as well. Perhaps the most striking moment that discusses a noble versus ignoble death occurs when Pilar recounts the brutal killings of fascists in her town square. Some people go to their death bravely and without fear, while others are weak and cower before the crowd of people.

“‘If you have not seen the day of revolution in a small town where all know all in the town and always have known all, you have seen nothing…'” (106, Pilar sharing a horrific story of anti-fascists, including Pablo, who assassinate sympathetic townsfolk with the fascist cause, one by one. Some die nobly and willingly, while others die in disgrace and dishonor. It is a jarring but instructive scene).

In the end, Robert Jordan ends his life as an honorable man. After blowing up the bridge, and while running back into the mountains, Robert Jordan’s leg is horribly broken in an explosion. He is dragged up to safety by the others but he simply cannot carry on. Knowing his fate, he calmly develops a plan. He says goodbye to his lover, María, and tells Pablo, Pilar, and the others to press on without him. Hemingway dramatically leaves us with this scene in the end: a mortally wounded Robert Jordan waiting beside a tree, feeling his heartbeat against the pine needles on the forest floor, while a fascist cavalry unit turns the corner and Robert Jordan prepares to open fire.

“I have fought for what I believed in for a year now. If we win here we will win everywhere. The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it. And you had a lot of luck, he told himself, to have had such a good life” (467).


Ernest Hemingway was a lifelong lover of Spain, particularly the encierro in Pamplona. He was a supporter of the Loyalist cause in the Spanish Civil War (the anti-fascists) -he served as Chair of the Ambulance Committee for the Medical Bureau of the American Friends of Spanish Democracy. He also publicly supported the Spanish Republic in 1937 when he produced an hour-long pseudo-documentary movie The Spanish Earth together with Jörg Ivens and John Dos Passos (read my review of the film here). Hemingway wrote the script and narrated the film (Orson Welles was originally slated too narrate the film). A beautiful technicolor film version of For Whom The Bell Tolls was released in 1943 (read my review of the film here). Hemingway was also a war correspondent reporting on the Spanish Civil War for the North American Newspaper Association (NANA) between 1937-1938. He left Spain for the last time in 1938 and wrote a series of short stories about the Spanish Civil War before setting himself up at the Hotel Sevilla Biltmore in Havana where he began writing For Whom The Bell Tolls. His writing regimen began at 8:30am and continued until 2pm or 3pm, the same practice he had established when writing A Farewell to Arms.

After traveling in Cuba and Montana, he searched for a title for the novel, first turning to the Bible and Shakespeare, before discovering John Donne’s poem “For Whom The Bell Tolls” in the Oxford Book of English Verse:

“No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man
is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a
Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse,
as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor
of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death
diminishes me me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And
therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.”

The allusion to John Donne’s poem, which was originally published in 1624 from his presumed deathbed, points us to themes of isolation, death, and the need to belong. The Spanish Civil War offers Robert Jordan the chance to find fraternity and purpose in fighting the threat of fascism. If there is no greater love than for a man to lay down his life for his friends, then Robert Jordan finds his deepest love on the battlefield of central Spain. His life is an important piece of an intricate puzzle in a worldwide chain of being. The war in Spain is not an island, but rather a part of a broader global conflict set to explode with World War II. In For Whom The Bell Tolls, the idea of war comes to light as a harsh teacher, a bearer of unforgiving truth, a life-affirming cause of brotherhood and meaning in a meaningless world. Love and death have the power to unveil the hidden character of modern man, by testing his prudence, courage, temperance, and justice. War reveals to us the grandeur and also the limits of mankind.


About Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) led a fascinating and storied life. He was born in Oak Park, Illinois, a small town outside Chicago. He cut his teeth writing as a journalist for the Kansas City Star in 1917. There, he built his signature writing and editing style: concise, direct, and honest sentences that tell the truth above all else.

Hemingway posing for the original dust jacket of For Whom The Bell Tolls

During the outbreak of World War I, Hemingway became a volunteer ambulance driver for the Red Cross on the Italian front but was wounded and sent home. He married his first wife Hadley Richardson and moved to Paris where he joined a circle of post-war artists and critics: Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Ford Madox Ford, and others. In Paris, Hemingway began writing his first collections of poetry and short stories. In 1926, he published his first modernist classic, The Sun Also Rises, a reflection of his years as an expat in France and Spain.

In the late 1920s, Hemingway returned to the United States and published his World War I novel, A Farewell To Arms. He had an affair and divorced his first wife to marry Pauline “Fife” Pfeiffer. He then moved to Key West and Cuba. While traveling widely throughout the world, he wrote books about bullfighting (Death In The Afternoon) and an account of big game hunting in Africa (The Green Hills of Africa). Hemingway had another affair and he left his wife for another woman -he remarried a third time, this time to Martha Gellhorn (he dedicated For Whom The Bell Tolls to Martha Gellhorn).

In the 1930s, Hemingway became an international reporter on the Spanish Civil War, which eventually spawned For Whom The Bell Tolls, and with the growing turmoil in Europe, he hand-delivered the novel manuscript to his publisher Max Perkins at Scribner’s in New York in July 1940 (the book would later be praised by two adversaries and American statesmen: John McCain and Barack Obama). Hemingway then hunted U-Boats in the Caribbean and reported on the European front in World War II. He remarried for the fourth and final time to Mary Welsh who remained with him until his death. In 1952 he wrote The Old Man And The Sea. Shortly thereafter, he won the Pulitzer in 1953 and the Nobel Prize in 1954. At the end of his life, Hemingway’s mental health had deteriorated, particularly after he received electroshock treatment. He killed himself by a self-inflicted shotgun blast in Ketchum, Idaho in 1961 -the same way his father had also died (and the way Robert Jordan’s father died in For Whom The Bell Tolls).

For my full notes on Ernest Hemingway’s life, click here.

To read my reflections upon reading The Paris Review’s famous interview with Hemingway (1958) click here.


Hemingway, Ernest. For Whom The Bell Tolls. New York, Scribner, 2003.

Click here to return to my survey of the Pulitzer Prize Winners.

Heroism and Tragedy in The Sun Also Rises

“Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton.”

In Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, we encounter a series of vignettes that, together, tell the story of a group of expatriate Americans as they roam around postwar Europe. In a certain light, it is a tale of two cities: Paris and Pamplona, two cities of celebration divided only by an Arcadian excursion to the Pyrenees (in England The Sun Also Rises was published as Fiesta, an early working title).

The_Sun_Also_Rises_(1st_ed._cover)

The novel is told in the past-tense as a recollection. Our hero, Jake Barnes, is a former World War I soldier with a terrible injury leaving him (presumably) impotent. The novel is a fading memory from Barnes about his infatuation for Lady Brett Ashley. She is his unrelenting love interest who engages in numerous love affairs with different men in the group including Barnes’s boorish associate, Robert Cohn. Cohn is based on the person of Harold Loeb, a Princeton boxer and wrestler who descended from two upper-crust New York families. Lady Brett Ashley is based on Lady Duff Twysden, a British expat who came to Paris to weather the storm of a nasty divorce (and thus lose her title). Both of whom were friends with Hemingway during his years in France and Spain.

The Sun Also Rises explores questions of courage, virtue, and heroism by using the imagery of boxing, fishing, and, above all, bullfighting. Each sport tests a man’s courage and resilience. The vitalizing competitions are also juxtaposed with impotence, war, and infidelity. With boxing, fishing, and bullfighting there are natural rules of behavior, or codes of virtue, in contrast to the machinery of modern warfare which has eliminated all semblance of natural decorum. As in Don Quixote, the old chivalrous mores of courage and virtue struggle to find their footing in a rapidly changing world that has been traumatized by modern warfare. There are no more knight errants -and maybe they never truly existed except in chivalrous romances. Yet, heroically and perhaps tragically, Jake Barnes trudges onward, limited by his inability to be intimate with a woman and driven by his respect and admiration for the delicate, graceful art of Spanish matadors. Barnes longs for the old chivalric code of Western Civilization, yet the malaise of the world around him bears no respect for the old values. Unlike the Homeric war heroes, Odysseus or Achilles, the modern war hero is wounded and impotent, yet he is also dedicated and brave. He knows that he is living in a New World, but he cannot keep from clinging to the Old World. European culture had been decimated by the Great War, yet natural law still remains and the ‘earth abideth forever.’ Barnes and Lady Brett are both ambiguous -Barnes in his sexuality and Brett in her almost masculine appearance- while Romero the matador is unequivocally unambiguous: he wants a feminine woman.


The San Fermín festival is a week-long celebration in Pamplona, Spain honoring Saint Fermín, a 3rd century Roman who converted to Christianity, becoming the first Bishop of Pamplona. He was martyred by being dragged to death. The most famous part of the festival is the encierro, or the “running of the bulls” which takes place through the city center each morning, but other traditions include bullfighting and the ‘giant heads’ parade. The festival takes place in early July each year.

Hemingway popularized this festival. He first wrote about it when he attended the festival in 1929, and he visited many more times until 1959.


The bullfighting only begins in the second part of the novel (the novel is divided into three books) when Barnes recounts the groups’ experiences at the San Fermín festival in Pamplona, Spain. Again and again, he praises the ‘grace under pressure’ exhibited by the bullfighters as they face their own death, only narrowly surviving. Barnes sees this activity as a kind of ancient manly virtue that has somehow survived into the modern age, despite the vulgar and repulsive advent of new technologies that prevent men from displaying courage. One is reminded of the scene in Homer’s Iliad in which Hector and Achilles, mortal enemies, exchange armor with one another before doing battle as a demonstration of honor. The Timocratic roots of high society are ever-present in Jake Barnes’s mind as he observes the careful, calculating dance of the bullfighter. Devoid of modern conveniences, the bullfighter stares down the wild, chaos of nature -the untamed, pre-civil creature may strike at any time if the bullfighter is not careful.

Likewise, as a metaphor, each of the men in the American expatriate group represent bullfighters, each needing to display his qualities of honor and virtue. Robert Cohn, the man for whom the opening sentence and chapter are dedicated (“Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton”) behaves the most cowardly. He is the least in control of his temperament, like a bull needing to be tamed, and Jake Barnes regularly makes note of it. Together, all of the expats pursue Lady Ashley, however Jake Barnes does not actively pursue her. Instead he waits for her to come to him, preferring to dangle his red garment and wait for her charge. However, she only comes to Barnes when she is broken. While Barnes may be able to win her heart, he can never win her body. His victory is incomplete.

Jake Barnes is a modern tragic hero with an ancient disposition for classical virtue. He is plagued by the apparent meaningless of modern life -a life not governed by old narratives of faith and human greatness in battle. The Sun Also Rises is like a Sisyphean cycle -it opens as Barnes, Lady Brett, and others are roaming around Paris in the evening, seemingly without greater purpose, and the novel closes in a similar fashion – Barnes picks up Lady Brett from her escapade of a failed affair with the matador. Barnes and Lady Brett ride off in a taxi together as the sun is setting. Barnes is with the woman he loves, but can never have her.

La_vara_rota_1892,_Arturo_Michelena
“La vara rota” by Arturo Michelena (1892)

Appropriately, the title of the novel alludes to the King James translation of the book of Ecclesiastes -popularly thought to be King Solomon’s Heraclitean despair after the loss of his son. Ecclesiastes, perhaps the most Epicurean book of the Old Testament, explores the tragic and apparent nihilism that haunts the philosophers, as they contemplate the nature of life. It is the same fatalistic sentiment echoed by certain Shakespearean characters. By alluding to Ecclesiastes in the title of the book, Hemingway chooses to highlight the rising sun, not the setting sun. Perhaps the novel is not a work of despair, but rather a work of redemption -a kind of Nietzschean redemption of joy through suffering.

“‘Oh, Jake,’ Brett said, ‘we could have had such a damned good time together.’ Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Isn’t it pretty to think so?’”


Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. Scribner; Hemingway Library ed. edition, February 16, 2016.

A Farewell To Arms (1932) Review

A Farewell to Arms (1932) Director: Frank Borzage

“The Greatest Love Story of the War”

★★★☆☆

Frank Borzage’s interpretation of Hemingway’s famous novel stars Gary Cooper -who also starred in the 1943 version of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls– and Helen Hayes. The film won Academy Awards for Best Cinematography and Sound. A Farewell to Arms is a classic, however it fails to capture much of Hemingway’s novel, and so it falls a bit short in my eyes. Whereas Hemingway’s novel was a sorrowful tragedy, the film focuses exclusively on the undying love between Henry and Catherine.

A retelling of the plot will not do justice to the magnificent novel, however a terse summary here will suffice. Lieutenant Frederic Henry is an American ambulance driver in Italy during the First World War where he meets Catherine Barkley, a nurse. They fall in love and are married while Henry lies wounded and recovering on a hospital bed. Shortly thereafter, their love is discovered and Henry goes derelict from his unit on the Italian front in order to return to Catherine only to find that she has disappeared to Switzerland. She was sent away from her job as a nurse when it was discovered she was pregnant. Henry arrives at her hospital just in time to find her dying while in labor and the child also tragically dies. She dies with Henry by her side.