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In 1923 Ernest Hemingway gave his sister a copy of his first published book. Removing the dark green paperbound volume from his pocket, he said, “Don’t show this to the family!”
Three Stories and Ten Poems had been printed in Paris. The respected Dr. Hemingway of suburban Oak Park outside Chicago was spared the agony of ever seeing this book by his son, but he was sent six copies of Ernest’s second book, In Our Time. Horror-struck by these stories, he neatly wrapped all six and turned grimly toward the post office. Ernest’s mother urged that they keep just one copy of their son’s first book. Declaring that he would tolerate no such filth in his Christian home, Dr. Hemingway did what he had to do. When his father returned these books to the publisher, Ernest stopped writing to his family.
Later Dr. Hemingway came to appreciate such of his son’s works as The Sun Also Rises, published in 1926. The mother’s doubled-minded attitude toward her son was shared by many other people, but there were those who saw that he had an element which is always essential for greatness in any realm of life: he dared to be himself; he was no copy, Ernest Hemingway was Ernest Hemingway. Whoever wished him to be somebody else would be disappointed. He lived his life distinctively in deeds, and he expressed his life distinctively in words. Even those who may not like the man may appreciate the immense contribution which his earnest life made to life, though that contribution was etched in black.
Ernest Hemingway took life and literature straight. Always writing of the winner who loses and of the final failure of success, Ernest intensely wished to be a champion and seldom felt that he was. He wrote of death. He wrote brightly of those who met death with daring. He wrote darkly of those who met death without daring. He wrote of death because Death was the Enemy. Hemingway knew that nothing else was really worthless. He did not sidestep tragedy. He was fascinated by death. Each story, like his life, was a baptism in blood. The first story in his first full book is about an “Indian Camp” in northern Michigan. Hemingway’s hero, Nick Adams, is the son of a doctor. In this particular story, Nick is the young boy who holds the basin while his father delivers a baby by Caesarian section, using only a jacknife, using no anesthetic. The invalid father of the baby has been in the bunk above the mother. For two days he has listened to her screaming. The doctor looks up after the delivery and discovers that the father has almost removed his own head with a razor.
All Hemingway stories were like that. Nick experienced shock, strife, struggle. Nick’s father, Dr. Adams, committed suicide. In these stories, Nick Adams conducts himself nobly in the losing battle which is life. Nick is the man of courage Hemingway wished he were. Hemingway was a winning loser: a man of violence against animals, against other humans, against himself. Ernest Hemingway is Santiago, hero of The Old Man and the Sea. Having fished for 84 days and caught nothing, he dares to enter the Gulf Stream and catches a giant marlin. Pulled day and night, day and night, the old Cuban fisherman clings to his catch. He kills it with his harpoon and lashes it to his skiff. Then come the sharks. He can kill only so many. The skeleton remains to be towed home. This is the victory. Santiago is the winner who loses in the arena of life as war unto death.
Hemingway, a Nobel Laureate in Literature, was the winner who lost. He went down fighting, losing to himself. His brother spoke truly in saying, “He died as he lived—violently.” On July 2, 1961 Ernest fondled his silver inlaid shotgun for the last time. He died alone. Thus he lived his vision of life as slaughter, life as ultimately meaningless struggle, life as existence without God. The open secret is: he shows us what life is when “God is dead.”
In Boston on January 29, 1963, America’s unofficial poet laureate, Robert Frost, died. As was true of another citizen of the world, Ernest Hemingway, uncommonly historic high words of deep appreciation came from the Kremlin and the White House. The Premier’s words bespoke the poet’s love of the common people and his contribution to our world civilization. The President focused on Frost’s universally local qualities: his love of nature, his plain speech, his canny wisdom, his insight into the soul. “He had promises to keep, and miles to go, and now he sleeps.”
The poet of freedom knew tragic joy for 88 years. His days were not devoid of tears, though some have thought he was unduly optimistic. His father died when he was ten. His first son, Eliot, died at four. His daughter, Marjorie, married and then died from a childbirth infection. He lived for 25 years after Mrs. Frost died. Five years after her death their other son, Caroli—“who had the seeds of genius in him”—destroyed himself. Another daughter was an invalid. Robert Frost was not unacquainted with sorrow, but he never tried to be a conqueror of nature, nations, or God. He was a person of power. Instead of cursing God, he joked with him. By laughing at himself, he taught us how to trust. Somehow he had a way of ministering by awakening wisdom in us.
Some say his work is rural and leads folk not to seek to solve complex problems, but only to escape from social responsibility. Perhaps that word is something less than altogether fair. It is true that Robert Frost was neither radical nor conservative. I’ve heard him smile and say,
I never cared be radical when young
For fear it would make me conservative when old.
Still, he may for all that have been true to life’s classic balance wheel. He was a realist who spoke of a star:
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To cany praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.
The star to which he pointed was larger than the eye could ever see. Nevertheless, he himself has been a steady and steadying star which not a few of us have seen at night since we were young. We never learned how not to honor him.
Robert Frost’s poetry hides and reveals the classic motto of universal sanity and health: Never too much! His life shows forth a joyful secret: Love Life without reserve; and be not ashamed to be a swinger of birches.
Yes, he sold all he possessed to buy one treasure, and his purchase has enriched the world. He put his money on the Power which is somewhere-nowhere-everywhere and endless .
He was not afraid to live. He was not afraid to die. He had a “lover’s quarrel with the world.”