Over the years, I have read almost everything Ernest Hemingway has written. I was impressed with some of his works, but less enchanted with others. I read about his personal life, his times of war, his alcohol consumption and his promiscuity. I visited his house in Key West and was a little shocked at the guide’s frankness. It was clear that she had no use for him despite her job.
Then last summer my wife and I were in Traverse City, Michigan for a weekend. While seeing local sites, I came across a brochure for a bookstore that blatantly stated that it was a bookstore Hemingway would endorse. It was one of twelve stores located in a former mental hospital. That in itself was interesting and so we visited The Landmark Books.
There I learned that Hemingway, although born and raised in Oak Park, Illinois, spent years in a cabin not far from Traverse City, a place called Walloon Lake. The bookstore assistant enlightened me on a short story book Hemingway had never published. It was a series of stories that clearly concerned him as he grew up and lived his life as a journalist and later as a war correspondent. The character in these stories was called Nick Adams. After his death, Hemingway’s publisher gathered all of these mostly unfinished stories and published them in a book called “The Nick Adams Stories”. I had to buy it.
After reading all of the stories, some very short, it was clear that many of them were stories from Hemingway’s life where he struggled with what he saw. In this area of Michigan there were native tribes. Young Hemingway learned to hunt and fish with many of these Native Americans. But the first story in the collection takes place when Nick’s father, who was a doctor, just like Hemingway’s, brings his son with him when he is called to one of the native’s huts. The Native American wife was unable to deliver her child. Hemingway’s father, in front of his son, performed a Caesarean section on the woman with his hunting knife! The character, Nick, is only 8 years old.
More stories cover Nick as an ambulance driver in WWI. The explosion of a bomb in his fox hole kills the Italian soldier next to him, but his body protects Nick and saves Nick’s life. Hemmingway had this happen to him and he spent six months in a hospital recovering.
In Hemingway’s real life, after a failed marriage, he moved to the left bank of Paris with a second wife. He wanted to become a creative writer and not just a journalist. There he joined forces with other writers such as Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald. They became popularly known as the “Lost Generation” and all of them became famous. Still having a journalistic relationship with the Toronto Daily Star, he also traveled extensively as a foreign correspondent as Europe moved away from WWI.
Again, recounted in his Nick Stories, Hemingway makes his way into oblivion and goes through more marriages. In desperation, he traveled to Spain to cover the Spanish-American War and, as it turned into World War II, he became a similar correspondent there. His character, Nick, took a step back for a while as Hemingway was now writing blockbuster full-length novels. Meanwhile, Hemingway’s father committed suicide with a gun, and Hemingway married for the fourth time.
After the war Hemingway became a big game hunter with trips to Africa. Nick appears again. As the popularity of his earlier novels waned, “The Old Man and the Sea” appeared out of nowhere. In 1953, he received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. But the years since this return to success have led to an increase in health problems. Years of heavy drinking, hard living, stress, bouts of depression, and later paranoia led to its general decline. After living in Cuba for several years, he then moved with his fourth wife to a small town in Idaho. There he had a host of problems and even underwent a series of electroshock treatments to relieve his anxiety and depression. But on July 2, 1961, at the age of 61, Hemingway died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, just like his father.
As I finished the Nick Adams stories and read more about this great writer, clearly a broken man, something occurred to me. Although I am not a doctor, if a person suffered from these post-war post-traumatic symptoms today, they would most likely be quickly diagnosed with PTSD. But we did not know this term at the time, nor did we really understand such a condition that examples of extreme stress put on a person.
During World War I we heard the term “shell shock” and during World War II we added a term called “combat fatigue”, but we chose to ignore these conditions because these men and women women were soldiers, courageous and faithful. There was no room for “mental problems” and post-war problems. Promotion could be stifled if such mental suffering were to be admitted. So they were hidden.
Today we know that the trauma of war, a situation like 9/11, a pandemic and other serious events experienced by humans can have lifelong effects on the observer or participant. While many despise Hemingway for his drinking, debauchery, and carelessness for many others, I tend to forgive him a bit more after reading his Nick Adams stories. He was Nick Adams and Adams went through hell on every level in these stories.