My renewed interest in writing finally got me appreciating “literature,” especially the writing of Ernest Hemingway. Remarkably, none of my junior high or high school English teachers ever assigned a novel, or even so much as a short story, by him. Nor was any book by Hemingway on our shelves at home. I came upon him on my own.
As a more committed writer now, I regularly looked at the weekly bestseller list in our Time magazines, curious about the titles and authors of books that were holding American readers spellbound. For weeks in 1966, I noticed a book on the list entitled Papa Hemingway by somebody named A.E. Hotchner. I didn’t give it much thought until sometime later when the carousel at our local bookstore displayed the paperback edition of Papa. The front cover included a photo, a partial frontal facial, of a man I thought could have worked as a department store Santa. There was joy and warmth in his face, but also, owing to the thick, trim, salt-and-pepper beard, a gravity and wisdom. The cover included, in bold letters, the provocative declaration: “THIS IS THE CONTROVERSIAL BESTSELLER THEY TRIED TO STOP!” Of course, this, too, sparked my interest. Was this bearded man a writer (like myself)?
At my high school library, I was thumbing through a book I had recently discovered, a collection of biographical sketches of world authors. And there I saw that rugged, handsome man again. I learned that Hemingway wrote about such things as hiking and fishing in rural Michigan; driving an ambulance amid the horror of World War I; bullfighting in Spain; boxing; and deep-sea fishing―things that I knew had the potential to interest me. I learned that Hemingway was honored: he had won something called the Pulitzer Prize and another thing called the Nobel Prize in Literature. I learned that he wrote in a revolutionary style. And, most intriguing of all, I learned that, despite his huge success, he killed himself not long before I discovered him. (Back then, teenagers, of course, were fascinated by suicide; today, tragically, it has too often gone beyond frivolous “fascination.”) So I bought the Hotchner book. It engrossed me. It was the first book of its size that I had enjoyed reading from cover to cover.
Then, from the same library, I checked out a book by Hemingway himself: the novel A Farewell to Arms. I marveled at the ease of reading and understanding Hemingway’s simple sentences written in standard English. No Huckleberry Finn this! I was completely absorbed by the narration of the novel’s protagonist, the American Frederick Henry: his descriptions of the war-torn Italian countryside, his comical friendship with the Italian Rinaldi, and, most of all, his evolving love affair with the Englishwoman Catherine Barkley, which ended in sublime tragedy (which teenagers also love). This was the kind of prose I found enjoyable. This was the kind of story I liked. These were the kind of characters that interested me. After Farewell, I read Hemingway’s The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories. Then I read his To Have and Have Not, imagining, during the cold of a New Jersey winter, the delicious warmth of the novel’s Caribbean setting. I couldn’t get enough of Hemingway, and I eventually read my first full-length, scholarly biography: Carlos Baker’s groundbreaking book about the author.
After Hemingway, I opened myself up to other writers: Sherwood Anderson, Bernard Malamud, Dylan Thomas, Saul Bellow, and Erskine Caldwell. Alan Sillitoe’s writing spirited me to the grit of Nottingham, England, and introduced me to the handsome, young, hard-drinking, sexy, rebellious character named Arthur Seaton. I particularly liked John Cheever, not only for his witty, sparkling prose, but also his primary setting: my home turf, the suburbs! Although I lived there, he made me almost want to live there.
After reading Hemingway, I, like thousands of writers before me, attempted to write like him, resisting the urge to go florid and wildly metaphorical, keeping my adjectives and adverbs to a minimum, striving to honor Papa’s dictum that prose should be “structure, not interior decoration.” I submitted stories to various publications of greater and lesser renown, including The New Yorker, to which my parents subscribed. Surely Mom and Dad knew their 18-year-old son’s submission to this, the country’s most prestigious weekly forum for the short story, was doomed to failure, but they didn’t discourage me. I guess that’s how much they understood, how much they loved me. The New Yorker even thanked me for my submission.