One of the oldest axioms in writing is to “write what you know.” Ernest Hemingway knew adventure, war, travel, and love (even if that love was temporary). When reading a work by Hemingway one might think of how incredible his characters must have felt fighting fascists in Spain, fighting a shark with a harpoon, or saving lives in WWI Italy, only to realize all these people are real, and they’re one person: Ernest Hemingway.
In the entire history of wordsmithy, no one ever reached the level of real-world adventurer quite like Ernest Hemingway. Here are ten ways he was the quintessential American warrior poet, punctuated by his own life lessons.
1. “Never sit at a table when you can stand at a bar.”
Hemingway ignored his father’s wishes and enlisted in the Army during World War I but did not pass the Army’s initial physical examination due to poor eyesight. Instead, Hemingway drove ambulances for the Red Cross.
In the course of his duties, he was hit by fragments from an Austrian mortar. He never stopped working to move wounded soldiers to safety, earning the Italian Medal of Military Valor.
2. “Develop a built-in bullsh-t detector”
After high school, Hemingway moved to Kansas City where he became a reporter, covering a local beat which included fires, work strikes, and crime. Here he formed his distinct prose of “short declarative sentences.” After WWI, he continued working in journalism in Toronto and Chicago, covering unrest in Europe’s Interwar years. He interviewed Benito Mussolini during this time, describing him as “the biggest bluff in Europe.”
3. “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.”
Hemingway stayed in Europe for the Spanish Civil War, even teaming up with famed war photographer Robert Capa. He was in Madrid writing his only play, the Fifth Column, as it was being bombed by Fascist forces. He was at Ebro when the Republican army made its last stand.
4. “When you stop doing things for fun you might as well be dead.”
When World War II broke out, Hemingway was living in Cuba. In his free time he ran his own intelligence network to spy on Nazi sympathizers there. The ring had 26 informants, six working full-time and 20 of them as undercover men, all recruited by Hemingway.
He also equipped his fishing boat with direction-finding equipment, a machine gun and grenades to hunt for Nazi U-boats in the Atlantic, reporting his sightings to Navy officials.
5. “Every man’s life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another.”
By 1944, Hemingway was back in Europe covering WWII. He was onboard a landing craft on D-Day, within sight of Omaha Beach, but was not allowed to go ashore. He attached himself to the 22nd Infantry on its way to Paris but was brought up on charges because he became the leader of a French Resistance militia in Rambouillet, aiding in the Liberation of Paris (forbidden for a combat correspondent under the Geneva Convention). He beat the rap.
According to World War II historian Paul Fussell, “Hemingway got into considerable trouble playing infantry captain to a group of Resistance people that he gathered because a correspondent is not supposed to lead troops, even if he does it well.”
6. “To hell with them. Nothing hurts if you don’t let it.”
He came down with pneumonia, but covered the Battle of the Bulge while still sick. In France, Hemingway encountered a basement full of S.S. troops, whom he told to “share these among yourselves” before throwing grenades inside.
He also covered the Battle of Hürtgenwald Forest as U.S. troops broke the Siegfried Line. He returned to Cuba after the war, where he received the Bronze Star for his work in Europe.
7. “I drink to make people more interesting.”
While sightseeing in Africa, he and his wife survived a plane crash after hitting some power lines, causing severe head injuries. The next day, he boarded another plane which exploded during take-off, giving him another concussion. He walked to the hospital and did not die, even though his obituary had already been published.
8. “Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.”
When author Max Eastman published a review of one of Hemingway’s essays which questioned his masculinity, Hemingway hit Eastman in the face with his own book, then called him out in The New York Times, challenging him to a fight. Eastman declined.
Hemingway’s favorite drinking buddy was James Joyce, not known for his strength or stature. Whenever Joyce was about to get into a barfight, he’d yell “Deal with him, Hemingway!”
9. “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit at a typewriter and bleed.”
Hemingway used to write standing up. Even though Hemingway’s fondness for drinking is well documented, he never drank while he wrote.
“Jesus Christ,” Hemingway once said. “Have you ever heard of anyone who drank while he worked? You’re thinking of Faulkner. He does sometimes – and I can tell right in the middle of a page when he’s had his first one. Besides, who in hell would mix more than one martini at a time?”
10. “Death is like an old whore in a bar. I’ll buy her a drink but I won’t go upstairs with her.”
Hemingway struggled with bipolar disorder all his life. The Mayo Clinic in Minnesota gave him electroshock therapy, but it didn’t help and Hemingway blamed it for his memory loss. After surviving gunshot wounds to practically every part of his body, an Austrian mortar wound, countless concussions, three car crashes, two plane crashes, two fires, and an anthrax infection, Hemingway eventually took his own life, deciding to do so with a shotgun.
During his funeral, an altar boy fainted at the head of the casket, knocking over a large cross of flowers, to which his brother Leicester said, “It seemed to me Ernest would have approved of it all.”