“And I Wasn’t Dead Anymore”: one story behind ‘A Farewell to Arms’
[Note: Drawn from my biography-in-progress about an American newspaperman in Paris between the World Wars. Currently seeking representation.]
Ernest Hemingway once told my great-grandfather, Guy Hickok, that he would never write about the First World War. Fortunately, he changed his mind by the following spring.
At the time, the two of them were newspapermen in Paris; Hemingway writing for the Toronto Star and Guy for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. They met in 1922, not long after Hemingway arrived, and soon became close friends. Hemingway’s short story “Che Ti Dice la Patria?” is a true account of a road trip they took together through Fascist Italy and it was Guy, along with Lincoln Steffens, who searched the Gare de Lyon station when Hadley Richardson famously lost Hemingway’s trunk of stories there. Later trips would take Ernest and Guy to motorcycle races and the bullfights in Pamplona. They corresponded throughout Guy’s life, although, unfortunately, he hardly lived past the 1940s.
One of the things Guy did for his friend was to publicize his nascent myth in the Eagle. He first profiled Hemingway in May, 1925, two years before the publication of The Sun Also Rises, writing: “Hem’ lives with his wife and a fat baby in a funny little house in the tree-shaded courtyard of a sawmill in the Latin Quarter of Paris. At crucial moments during a war between Greece and Turkey, and at sundry international conferences he works at journalism. The rest of the time he writes, raises temporary beards, lives with bullfighters in Spain, skis the Tyrol, or slouches about Paris in baggy tweeds and a lumberjack’s turtleneck sweater.” Author Morley Callaghan, a onetime fellow scribe at the Star, joked that Hemingway, “couldn’t walk down the street and stub his toe without having a newspaperman who happened to be walking with him magnify the little accident into a near fatality.” Hemingway, though, loved to embellish the stories he told about his experiences. In his articles, Guy often stresses his friend’s caginess about publicity; yet, the articles helped to establish Hemingway as a major writer and gained Hickok bylines.
Hemingway’s World War experiences come up in two profiles, written before and after the success of The Sun Also Rises. Hemingway left Illinois for the war in May, 1918, responding to a Red Cross drive after finding an eye defect would keep him from military service. Guy explains that “Hem’ came over in one of the early ambulance groups of young men who couldn’t wait thousands of miles away from the big excitement. He was sent to the Italian front for ambulance duty.” Both profiles discuss “the nasty Piave rout when the Austrians got ready to take Venice and Italian morale went still lower.” Possibly due to dwindling numbers and morale, and somewhat at odds with the facts, Guy brags that his friend “became an honest-to-Jerry Italian officer in charge of Italian soldiers.” Guy himself served as a reserve and missed action, although perhaps his age, a decade older than Hemingway, was what kept him in New York.
The April 1927 article tells a striking near-death story that Hemingway actually related in a letter to Guy as well as in conversation while the two men were traveling through Italy that year. “We were in a hole with sand bags around,” Hemingway told Guy. “There was one of those big noises that sometimes occur on fronts. ‘I died then.’ And he laughs a big tough laugh. ‘I felt my soul or something coming right out of my body like you’d pull a silk handkerchief out of a pocket by one corner. It flew all around and then came back in and I wasn’t dead anymore.'”
Looking around, Hemingway realized that there was only one man left alive in his group and tried to carry him up the bank of a river to safety. From the earlier profile, “An Austrian searchlight on the opposite bank spotted them… Hemingway lurched up a sunken road away from the river with a wounded Italian soldier on his back. The searchlight followed hi, He couldn’t climb out of the ditch. There was nothing behind which he could hide. And the shells followed the light with disconcerting accuracy.”
Although apparently sprayed by machine gun fire, Hemingway made it over the hill. “Then he saw that most of one leg was torn to pieces, so much of it gone that he wondered how he had come so far… The man he was carrying on his back was dead by then, so he laid him down. He lay down himself and the leg stiffened and he didn’t move it for months. Afterwards a flood washed out the pontoon bridges on which the Austrians were planning to cross the Piave and Venice was saved.”
Anyone who has read A Farewell to Arms will recognize this in fictional form as the shelling scene that marks a turning point in the narrative at the end of the ninth chapter. The American Lieutenant Frederick Henry has just risked death to bring food to his men in a dugout and they are gulping it down when suddenly:
there was a flash, as when a blast-furnace door is swung open, and a roar that started white and went red and on and on in a rushing wind. I tried to breathe but my breath would not come and I felt myself rush bodily out of myself and out and out and out and all the time bodily in the wind. I went out swiftly, all of myself, and I knew I was dead and that it had all been a mistake to think you just died. Then I floated, and instead of going on I felt myself slide back. I breathed and I was back.
The emotional power of that scene and of the book as a whole can hardly be understated, even while sitting in an inverse relationship with the understated prose. Ford Madox Ford famously compared Hemingway’s words to “pebbles fetched fresh from a brook” and there seems to be not a word that is superfluous or poorly chosen in the entire text. Hemingway’s trick is that the koan-concision of his writing is easily shattered by little mortar blasts of affecting prose that cut right through the clean passages and then go silent. The famous “world breaks everyone” passage occurs at a point in the book that is unexpected, counter-intuitive, and perfect. It was originally written for the end, one of the approximately 47 endings that Hemingway drafted.
Some drafts work better than others. But it is hard not to notice how many ways the larger story could have failed. In particular, the doomed central relationship, between Frederick and Catherine Barkley, an English nurse, could easily have tipped over into sweet sentimentality or melodramatic pathos. It was based, to some degree, on Hemingway’s relationship with the nurse Agnes von Kurowski, who he met after being wounded. She ultimately fell in love with another and broke his heart after he returned home. The relationship in the novel is depicted as a pure and tender love that is ruined by tragic events and past a certain age it is hard to read about a pure and tender love without experiencing something like food poisoning. However, I think it works for two reasons: the first is that two young people who have just fallen in love for the first time in the circumstance of a major war that keeps separating them really would behave and feel the way they do; and secondly the authorial voice is so measured, in spite of being in the first-person guise of Frederick, that the reader experiences their fate as merciless.
And without being didactic, the novel shows the characters tossed to and fro by the bedlam of the war. In this year, the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, it should, and certainly will, be remembered just how unanticipated the war was. In particular, it was unprecedented in terms of length of combat, with “campaigns” over months replacing classic battles that lasted days; in the complete breakdown in the “civilized” norms governing warfare, such that ambulance drivers were now subject to being fired upon; in the number of casualties, with the average daily death toll in the first world war exceeding that of the second for almost every country; in the anonymity of death, so often stressed in soldiers’ accounts; and in the much more destructive means of killing. In nearly every sense, the violence of warfare was greatly intensified.
Hemingway had direct experience of this violence. Historians Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker note the unprecedented “gravity and types of wounds” that soldiers sustained after being hit by the sort of shell that tore through him. “Direct hits from large-caliber shells can literally pulverize the body, leaving no identifiable remains. Very large pieces of shrapnel can actually slice a man in half.” In their study, 14-18: Understanding the Great War, Becker and Audoin-Rouzeau speak of the “brutalization” of politics after the war. Yet, we can see how the experience of war, which both brutalized the soldier and brought him back to his humanity in the crudest, most physical sense, gave rise to a whole new cultural language. What else is literary modernism, after all, but the simultaneous brutalizing and humanizing of Western literature?
In his articles, Guy mentions nothing about the nurse or his friend’s heartbreak, writing in 1925: “After the war he went home to Michigan. He married Hadley Richardson and the two of them went off into the woods to spend a happy honeymoon in a hunter’s empty cabin by a lake,” before telling that story. The 1927 article ends with a striking flourish:
He says he will never write of the war.
He may learn. He is young- not yet 30. By the time he has published a whole row of books he may know how to tell a curious public how he likes his coffee in the morning and what is his favorite flower. He may learn to hand out autographed photographs of the little white shell scars all over his hairy tanned body, or signed X-Ray pictures of his tin knee… And Hemingway may yet one day turn up lecturing to women’s clubs on the ‘Lost Generation’ theme of ‘The Sun Also Rises,’ though by that point the sea serpent of fable will be dancing to jazz on the vaudeville circuit and a trained dinosaur will be laying eggs for omelets in a Broadway night club.
The gag seems a bit disingenuous, given that Hemingway had already written about the war in poems and short stories.
He tried to start the story that would become A Farewell to Arms in late 1924-early 1925, but quickly abandoned it and he might well have been resolved in summer, 1927, to move on to other topics. The 1920s were a remarkably productive time for the writer as well and in 1927 he was working on the stories that would soon be collected as Men Without Women. Indeed, the Italian trip, through a Fascist country, was recorded by Guy in the Eagle and Ernest (originally as “Italy-1927) in The Nation, and would be included in the collection as “Che Ti Dice La Patria?” later that year. It is possible that Hemingway, once he had the time to pursue the war story, sincerely changed his mind about doing so following the trip.
Or, perhaps, during the trip. Guy says the two discussed Hemingway’s “death” while in San Morino, where they had come to visit the doctor who picked the “180-odd pieces of shell out of his body,” the sort of “little attentions (that) make for lasting acquaintances.” The doctor had moved to a distant town, but “the local druggist had been one of the hospital officers” and the group was soon joined by “a small, thin priest” approaching and calling “Tenente!” or Lieutenant! As Carlos Baker explains, this was “Don Guiseppi Bianchi, the priest who anointed him while he lay wounded in the Piave valley in 1918.” The priest showed the two around the town, telling everyone they encountered who Hemingway was and taking them to the town museum to see a large chunk of shell. Pointing to the shell, the priest asks Hemingway,
That was the day Austrians shelled the hospital. You remember?”
Hemingway: “Do I? That was the day everybody who could got under the beds. My leg was in a big cast and I couldn’t get under the bed. I guess I remember.” Guy recalls that the two, “‘remembered’ things through most of the afternoon. And between remembering the priest showed us a lot of things, the stone tower from which on clear days one can see clear across the Adriatic to Jugoslavia, the other tower used as the San Marino prison, though there is seldom a prisoner in it; the four little field guards jammed in a shed under the old fortress wall, used to fire holiday salutes.
Then it got late and we had to go.”
Both Guy and Ernest wrote humorously about the Italian trip, but for both there was an undercurrent of sadness about the country’s current predicament. According to Hemingway scholar Rena Sanderson, “For Hemingway, Italy had been ruined by Fascism and had become a painful reminder of the mutability of love. He would not return to it for another twenty years.”
The following March, 1928, however, Hemingway began writing a short story that very quickly “grew and grew” into A Farewell to Arms, first serialized in Scribner’s Magazine in the May to October issues of 1929 and published in novel form in September of that year. How inspiration works is ultimately a mystery. Yet it is worth noting that Hickok saw enough value in Hemingway’s wartime experiences, however embellished, to get them published in May 1925 and April 1927 and Hemingway was soon thereafter to fictionalize them in one of the key works of English language fiction in the twentieth century.