Reading Hemingway for the First Time: Part 1


A favorite of high school English classes, Hemingway is a figure many people encounter early on in their literary lives, and some fall in love right away. For others, the encounter is more turbulent – in some cases, very polarizing. “What’s the big deal?” one reader (now a Papa fan) wondered upon reading Hemingway for the first time.

In celebration of The Letters of Ernest Hemingway, Volume 1, we asked Hemingway enthusiasts and scholars what their first experience with Hemingway was, and how he came to make a place in their hearts and minds. Their fascinating answers will be posted here over the next two weeks:

“I first discovered Hemingway when I was thirteen. Waiting for my friends to finish their classes at school, I would go the school library and look through the rows of books. There was a series of Hemingways in plastic covers, with yellow round stickers. I forget entirely what the colour coding entailed. I didn’t start reading them, but was intrigued by the language and the blurbs on the back of the novels and story collections. It sounded adventurous, exciting and suitably different from my own experience.

My family moved to Scotland when I was fourteen. In order to learn English as fast as I could, I read as much as I could. I read all of Hemingway in a matter of months. I was captivated by Fiesta and A Farewell to Arms. I remember thinking how very close I felt to Jake Barnes and Frederic Henry. I read these novels without a critical thought in my head: they simply seemed to me to be life itself. It took me longer to appreciate the short stories, although some of these are the best I’ve read by any author. I admired For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea, but have never managed to love them as I do the early works. Funnily enough, I feel guilty about this, as if I’m letting Hemingway down: surely the mark of a powerful writer. Re-reading Hemingway is one of my life’s biggest pleasures; he still now gives me more than so many others. Reading Hemingway made me want to be a writer. To write as purely and excitingly as Hemingway at his best is one of my longest lasting ideals.”

-Andre van Loon, writer

“During my 20s, my first taste of Hemingway (The Sun Also Rises) left a bad taste in my mouth.  “What’s the big deal?” I wondered. Decades later, someone loaned me A Moveable Feast. Zap!  I fell under his spell, then began eight years of research and umteen drafts to create Hemingway, a 90 minute, one act play set in Ketchum, July 2, 1961. The work is now in the hands of a New York City producer. As he has done with countless others, Ernest grabbed me by the nose and won’t let go!”

-Bettie Snyder, Sharon, CT

“The first story I read by Hemingway was “The Capital of the World,” assigned to me in freshman English 2 in 1967. I liked it but whatever. Then in a short story class we read “Indian Camp” and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” Ok, those were pretty good too. So then I tried The Sun Also Rises on my own. I couldn’t get through it. I knew that something was going on there and that I had no clue what it was. Then I tried In Our Time. It made me hungry. I wanted to eat all of the food he described and actually tried cooking some of it. I still knew that something was going on that I was missing and went back to The First Forty-Nine Stories. Finally I came to the most powerful single sentence I had ever read; the last line of “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” blew me totally away: “Many must have it.” Prior to that I thought I was the only one! This Hemingway guy understood! He had it too, just like his characters. That was the point. That’s what I had been missing–both in his books and in my life. I was just starting to recover from an upbringing among evangelical protestant end-of-the-world crazies so, yeah, the whole nada deal was an issue. His books became, and still are, my clean well-lighted place.”

-David Anderson

“My very earliest reading of Hemingway was while I was still in elementary school. My sister, a high school freshman, had been assigned to read The Old Man and the Sea, then write an essay based on the book. Because she led a hectic social life, from time to time I would do her home work for her, so I penned an essay for her. This time, however, her English teacher realized that the paper was the work of a much younger student. She called home. Our punishment for this academic transgression was having to watch the Spencer Tracy film after school one afternoon the next week. (Some punishment!!) And my sister still had to write her own essay.

Eons later when my high school students would complain about my unreasonable expectation that they read the entire novel in two to three class periods, I would tell them this true story. A few later admitted that it was the first book they had ever read cover to cover for an English class.”

-Janice Byrne

For more Hemingway happenings, check out the Cambridge Book Club.

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