“It will make some very fine stories some day”
Written by: Frances B.
Hemingway and Bullfighting
Hemingway immortalized Pamplona's Fiesta of San Fermín in The Sun Also Rises (1926), but he never would have gone to Spain had it not been for a fortuitous tip from his mentor Gertrude Stein. In Volume 2, we witness the beginning of his lifelong passion for the bullfight.
In the summer of 1923, Hemingway and his wife Hadley were planning to visit Norway. After a rather grueling period of travel as a correspondent for the Toronto Star, he was particularly looking forward to unwinding in its rugged backcountry and enjoying its excellent trout fishing. But thanks to a tip from his mentor Gertrude Stein, instead he traveled to Spain and witnessed his first bullfight—a discovery that would transform him and his writing.
It didn’t take long for Hemingway to fall in love with bullfighting. In late June he embarked on a whirlwind tour of Spain with stops in Madrid, Seville, Ronda, Granada, and Aranjuez, traveling with a few toreadors he met while staying at the same pension. For him, the sport not only epitomized strength, honor, and courage—i.e. masculinity as it should be, in his view—but also human mortality. In a July 17-18, 1923 letter to his close friend Bill Horne, Jr., he wrote: “It’s a great tragedy—and the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen and takes more guts and skill and guts again than anything possibly could. It’s like having a ringside seat at the war with nothing going to happen to you.”
“It’s a great tragedy—and the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen and takes more guts and skill and guts again than anything possibly could. It’s like having a ringside seat at the war with nothing going to happen to you.”
Hemingway went very quickly from considering himself an aficionado to an expert. “If there’s anything you want to know about bull fighting ask me,” he reported to Stein (the one who advised him to go to Spain in the first place). Before he immortalized the Running of the Bulls during Pamplona’s Fiesta of San Fermín in The Sun Also Rises, he described it in detail to his friends and family: “A mile and a half run—all the side streets barred off with big wooden gates and all this gang going like hell with the bulls trying to get them.”
Hemingway of course couldn’t stay on the sidelines for long; in fact, he even made newspaper headlines for getting into a few scrapes. Attending the 1924 Fiesta with a gang of friends that included John Dos Passos and Donald Ogden Stewart (a popular young humorist who would later serve as a model for Jake Barnes’ witty friend Bill Gorton in The Sun Also Rises), Hemingway was actually caught by a bull’s horns during one of the morning amateur fights; Ogden was even tossed in the air. But in his letters, Hemingway was rather blasé: “Cogida of Hemingway, he wrote nonchalantly to Sylvia Beach. To his sister Grace Hall Hemingway he added, “I enclose a picture of me being knocked over by the bull the first day, taken by one of the press photographers We all had a fine time.”
For Hemingway, though, besides the sheer thrill of bullfighting, it was also a genuine source of inspiration that would fuel his writing for the rest of his career. After the 1925 Fiesta, he traveled to Valencia, where he began work on a complete draft in the first of a series of dated notebooks, using the working title “Fiesta: A Novel.” “Have done 48,000 words on a novel. A swell novel,” he wrote to Ernest Walsh on August 17, 1925. “It will be suppressed the day they publish it but its going to be a damn good one. It’s about Paris and Spain.” That novel would become The Sun Also Rises.
Editor’s Note: For more on Hemingway’s letters, visit The Letters of Ernest Hemingway, Volume 2 (1923-1925).