Happy birthday, Papa. The great American novelist and short story writer Ernest Miller Hemingway was born on July 21 in Oak Park, Illinois. A war veteran and foreign correspondent for international papers and magazines, Hemingway’s life and work are defined by travel, adventure, masculinity, weakness, nobility, and love. As an author, he created a canon of untouchable masterpieces via a prose style that was stripped, bare, and utterly novel at the time.
We love Hemingway, and therefore pulled out all our books by the Champ, poured a Death in the Afternoon (rinse a Champagne flute with absinthe and add Champagne), and ranked his 10 best books so that anyone who hasn’t read them can get started.
The third and final short story collection released by Hem, all I can say before opening the first page is abandon all hope ye who enter here. This book is dark. Topics hinted at in earlier work such as impotence, dishonor, and death rise to the forefront, and it becomes evident that Hemingway has lost his old luster for life. That being said, there’s a beauty and strength in these stories about empty men. However, if you feel like you’re reading dozens of pages about aimless men looking for booze, you’re kind of right. There’s a big lack of emotional depth needed to make these stories palpable. But if you know anything about the end of Hemingway’s life, this collection doesn’t stray from the timeline of lost hope.
The novel that inspired the iconic Humphrey Bogart film by the same title, To Have and Have Not charts the journey of Harry Morgan, a generally good-hearted fishing boat captain who is forced by economic hardship to run illegal contraband between Cuba and Florida. The novel began as two short stories first published in Cosmopolitan and Esquire, with a novella tacked on. The resulting narrative is told from multiple points of view and its shortcomings somewhat overpower its strengths. With an excess of dialogue and unsuccessful attempt to use popular literary techniques as opposed to relying on Hemingway’s own style, this book doesn’t even come close to making it in the top five. It’s still better than many other books by many other authors, but on the Hemingway scale, it’s sub-par.
The nonfiction account of Hemingway’s month spent on safari with his wife, Green Hills of Africa is a collection of short pieces that center largely on his hunting efforts. Once again, Hemingway homers with a stunning sense of place and the writing feels as easy and adventurous as prose. In trying to compare this collection to his great novels, I wouldn’t say there’s anything wrong with this book only it’s a jingle compared to a symphony. Many shake their head at its lazy themes, which could be summed up as men who like to hunt and drink. But the Hemingway language we love is still there; the reflection and subtlety is vibrant.
It’s hard to imagine the Champ without his salt-and-pepper beard and a whiskey, wine, or daiquiri in hand, but these stories show us a young Ernest, who as a boy would accompany his father on pro bono medical services. We also get a glimpse of who his mother was. The Nick Adams Stories was published after Hemingway’s death by suicide in 1961 and. They span some of his earliest work like “Indian Camp” and “Big Two-Hearted River,” the latter of which introduced the world to his Iceberg Theory: where the underlying meaning in a piece is hinted to rather than blurted out. Twenty-four stories make up the collection, eight of which were never before published until this volume.
Hemingway’s second short story collection, a good handful of the pieces in Men Without Women are considered some of the best short fiction ever written — not just by Hemingway but in the entire canon of American short stories. You might remember reading “Hills Like White Elephants” in high school and not getting the point, but reread it, along with “The Killers” and “In Another Country,” and very swiftly feel the wind being knocked out of you. In totality, the volume offers 14 stories, most of which were published in acclaimed literary magazines. There’s a reason Hemingway is called “the master of American fiction,” and that reason can be found in these pages.
Robert Jordan is an American in a guerrilla unit during the Spanish Civil War. He’s assigned to blow up a bridge. (Are we sensing any overarching Hemingway themes?) For Whom the Bell Tolls sits in the echelon of Hemingway’s best works, but is unique in its heightened graphic nature describing the brutality of the civil war (of which Hemingway saw first-hand as a foreign reporter). Jordan becomes torn between his guerrilla affiliation and his love for Maria, a woman whose life has been torn apart at the hands of Fascist forces. The story’s high-adrenaline action is balanced out by its somewhat-morbid themes, which include death, suicide, and bigotry. Few other than Hemingway can walk this fine line with cool, calm, and damn perfect language.
Let’s go ahead and agree Hemingway was the manliest of all men, ever. Evidence includes the fact that he could write a novel about bullfighting, impotence, and love in one fell swoop. The Sun Also Rises is the story of expatriate war veteran Jake Barnes and his love affair with the charismatic divorcée Lady Brett Ashley. But it’s also a story reflecting Hemingway’s love affairs with places. France, Cuba, Spain — he fell hopelessly in lust with all of these countries and their cultures. The Sun Also Rises (also published under the title Fiesta in the United Kingdom) moves from Paris to Pamplona and includes midnight Champagne binges, fist fights with matadors, and super simple dialogue with as much voltage as a Porsche Cayman coupe with the gas pedal floored.
I don’t know why so many people hate on Hemingway’s novella, The Old Man and The Sea, the last piece of fiction he published and one that is often considered his greatest. I freaking love this book (plus it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, so I’m automatically right). It’s short, to the point, and does what Hemingway does best: make us feel like our bones are melting by talking about simple people doing simple tasks. In this case? An old Cuban fisherman trying to catch a marlin. Most of all, the novella is about perseverance, hope, and struggle. I remember being 16 years old, reading it and thinking, “God damn, finally someone gets how I feel!” The same sensation applies today. In Hemingway fashion, the story moves slowly but with deliberate footing and doesn’t have a “happily ever after” ending. If you’re looking for a story with sunshine and rainbows, GTFO.
Perhaps the most readable book by the gruff American novelist, A Movable Feast sheds the lens of fiction and enters memoir territory. What a life it was. Hemingway recounts his years as a struggling writer in Paris in the 1920s, wandering through bars, cafes, hotels, and apartments. He gets drunk with F. Scott Fitzgerald, asks for editing advice from Gertrude Stein, and crosses paths with James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and Sylvia Beach (not to name drop or anything). Published after Hemingway’s death, this book is the equivalent to opening Hemingway’s diary before he became a legend, or in today’s terms, watching an Instagram story of your old buddy Ernest drink absinthe in Paris and watching fisherman cast their lines into the Seine. Highly suggested if you’re a Hemingway fan, doubly suggested if you’re a writer or artist.
Not only considered the best American novel to come out of World War I, A Farewell to Arms is the epitome of all things perfect about the Hemingway style. Stark and unadorned prose paints the life of protagonist Frederic Henry, a paramedic serving in the Italian Army, as he attempts to exit the war and fall in love with nurse Catherine. Juxtaposing themes of fear and courage, masculinity and femininity soak into the reader with as much speed as a shot of arsenic. You can’t help but be pulled into this world of bedridden alcoholic soldiers and forbidden love among two so imperfect people. I won’t ruin it, but this book has one of the most knock-you-in-the-gut endings in all of literature. But the beauty of Hemingway is that he manages to knock us out with a light tap on the shoulder. God damn, we miss reading books like this.