One of the odd things you learn in Hemingway, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s three-part, six-hour documentary (which airs this month on PBS) is how many times the author suffered head injuries—from battleground explosions and boating accidents to falling skylights. But the author’s pain ran deeper than this. Hemingway is a litany of ruined relationships, bouts of mental illness, and the demands of an insatiable ego. There is also, though, adventure, travel and the joy of watching genius come to life. Here, we look at six places that shaped Hemingway’s life and career—and, by extension, American literature.
Born July 21, 1899, to a middle-class family in the “well-mannered” Chicago suburb of Oak Park, Ernest Hemingway loved to play the role of soldier or hunter as a boy—interests that would end up shaping his life. The family spent weekends at Walloon Lake, Michigan, where his father taught him to fish—another lifelong passion, depicted famously in Big Two-Hearted River. In 1920, he moved into the city (then known as “the literary capital of the United States”) and indulged himself in three pursuits that would also define his life: boozing, womanizing and schmoozing. Unimpressed with her son’s “lazy, loafing” lifestyle, his domineering mother effectively disowned him.
At the age of 18, with his uncle’s help, Hemingway got a job as a cub reporter at The Kansas City Star, where he covered violent crime and social unrest, sparking a fascination with chaos and drama that would persist throughout his career. He also became familiar with the Star style sheet, which told reporters to use short, vigorous sentences, and to avoid the use of adjectives (edicts that would become the bedrock of Hemingway’s writing). Though he only lived in Missouri for a year or so, the big, brash city made an impact on the budding author, and he would reference it in many stories over the years.
In the early 1920s, Hemingway moved to the Latin Quarter in Paris, a city that he grew to love more than any other. He was a familiar face at the Shakespeare and Company bookshop, along with boho cafés such as La Closerie des Lilas, where he mingled with Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Hemingway eulogized the city in his early novel The Sun Also Rises and, much later, in the memoir A Moveable Feast. The latter was written from afar, when Hemingway’s powers had all but deserted him, and this was the last the world would see of his insatiable lust for life.
In the 1920s and ’30s, intrigued by the machismo of matadors and besotted with Spanish culture, Hemingway hopped from bullring to bar across the country. His experiences led to Death in the Afternoon, his guts-and-glory look at bullfighting, and For Whom the Bell Tolls, his masterful novel about the Spanish Civil War. In 1937, as war raged around him, the author held court at the Hotel Florida, the Museo Chicote cocktail bar and Restaurante Botín. But the good times didn’t last. When fascist leader Franco stormed the Spanish capital in 1939, Hemingway shrugged off his manly persona and wept.
By the time Hemingway moved to Key West in the late 1920s, he had achieved mythical status—as much for his colorful and chaotic lifestyle as his writing. He kept peacocks in his garden, fished for sailfish in the Gulf Stream, spent countless hours drinking in the dive bar Sloppy Joe’s, got into fistfights and wrote some of his finest short stories. His time in Key West also coincided with the Great Depression, when local authorities attempted to revive the town by turning it into a tourist destination. Hemingway got so tired of visitors peering through his windows that he built a wall around his house.
Hemingway lived in Cuba between 1939 and 1960—first in Havana’s Hotel Sevilla and later at Finca Vigía, his beloved home outside the city. He spent his days fishing and drinking at Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio cocktail bars. He also wrote The Old Man and the Sea, the novel that would earn him a Nobel Prize. By the end of his time in Cuba, Hemingway was sick, half mad and approaching death, a decline that was accelerated when he lost Finca Vigía to the Cuban Revolution. A year later, at his home in Ketchum, Idaho, dressed in a bathrobe and slippers, Hemingway fatally shot himself. He was 61.