One hundred and fifty-three years ago today, the Battle of Gettysburg raged in the fields surrounding a town not far from where I grew up. Fifty-five years ago today, Ernest Hemingway, the man whose work has influenced me more as a writer than anyone else, took his own life. I have always said that I learned more about writing from reading Hemingway's A Moveable Feast than from all the writing classes I ever took.
It's hard to say if the two anniversaries have anything to do with each other except that both events have lingered in my soul through most of my life. Gettysburg because it was close to home and is a place I've visited on a few occasions. For me there has always been a sense of such tragedy about that place. Over the years it has become a great tourist destination where people attend re-enactments, tour museums and battlefields, and recount in lurid detail what went on there. Often while stuffing themselves with ice cream and sausages and corn dogs on a stick. As I'm getting older and crabbier I find it harder to excuse that kind of behavior. Lincoln said, “...from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of their devotion.” I have a hard time reconciling that with the way some people behave on that hallowed ground.
Then there is Hemingway, who wrote about war unflinchingly without sentimentality. I was a kid when he took his own life, and I remember the shock people expressed at the time. I knew who he was because there had recently been a story about him in Look or Life Magazine. My mother always bought both of those magazines and they were packed with pictures. I loved looking at them and there had been an article not much earlier about Hemingway moving back to the U.S. from his beloved Cuba after Castro came to power. It's interesting that right now I'm reading Oscar Hijuelos's Beautiful Maria of My Soul and just last night read the chapter in which Maria flees to Miami because of Castro.
In high school I read For Whom the Bells Toll and then The Sun Also Rises. I think the work of Hemingway's that had the greatest effect on me back then was a short story called Hills Like White Elephants. I knew when I read it that there was something more going on than appeared on the surface, but it took me several more readings to “get” it. A couple girlfriends and I discussed the story and were as appropriately shocked as Catholic high school girls of that era would be. The story haunted me for years—partly, because I kept trying to figure out if the guy was lying to her, and, partly, because I couldn't believe people wrote stories about things like that.
A few years later I discovered A Moveable Feast and fell madly, hopelessly, unendingly in love. I loved everything about it from Hemingway's droll, tongue-in-cheek way of writing about his friends, to his open appreciation for the tiniest details of his life in Paris—the tiny glasses that Alice B. Toklas served her liqueurs in, the way girls cut their hair, the way street vendors dressed. I have no idea how many times I've read that book—both the original and restored versions.
Last year, when I was writing The Bucktail Cap in the Trunk, I rewatched the Ken Burns series on the Civil War and also watched a few other movies and read numerous articles on Gettysburg. I have a hard time with people who appear to romanticize war. I appreciate the people who are willing to do what they see as their duty and to fight. I know they are heroic, but there is always part of me—maybe the old hippie—that persists in the thought, what if they gave a war and nobody came? From the earliest civilizations people have fought wars and, ultimately, a lot of people die and a very few people profit. It makes no sense to me.
Hemingway wanted to be a soldier, but he suffered from weak eyesight and was turned down. He drove an ambulance in the First World War, and he fought with partisans in Spain's Civil War. Later in life he seemed to grow increasingly insecure in his masculinity. He hunted big game, boxed, attended bull fights. He married four women. But he still wrote wonderfully. The young Hemingway, the guy who wrote droll articles about Parisians, and delicious, gossipy yet poignant descriptions of his friends, is the Hemingway I love.
As for the tens of thousands of lives lost at Gettysburg, we'll never know what they might have done. They gave everything they had in those fields. So, today on this anniversary, all I can say is we need fewer lives snuffed out for causes, and more who look at the world with loving eyes and put that into words. That's about as good as I can do.
Thanks for reading.