It was July 8, 1918, when a young Ernest Hemingway experienced his most significant life-changing moment. While on his late-night rounds for a military canteen, delivering cigarettes and chocolates to Italian soldiers near the Piave River, a trench mortar shell exploded, killing one infantryman and slicing 227 metal fragments and shards into Hemingway’s body.
Hemingway, had joined the Red Cross ambulance service while winding up his short apprenticeship at The Kansas City Star. He had not yet turned 19 when he arrived in Italy the previous month, and his wounding provided a vivid near-death event. His recovery, in a hospital in Milan, provided Hemingway a love affair that didn’t last, but, like his injury at the front, helped to forge the passion and the imagination that led to numerous works, including several short stories; his first great novel, “The Sun Also Rises”; his landmark war (or anti-war) novel, “A Farewell to Arms”; and a problematic later book, “Across the River and Into the Trees.”
On a recent trip to Venice, I got a chance to reflect on those pieces of literary history while standing near the spot where Hemingway was wounded, outside the town of Fossalta di Piave. Locals some years back erected a marker, on a ridge above the river, to honor Hemingway’s contribution and sacrifice during their war against the Germans and Austro-Hungarian forces that had come down from the mountains.
Speaking of “The Sun Also Rises,” a new edition of that novel, first published in 1926, is coming out this month. The book — about love, disillusion, bullfighting and drink — will include a new first chapter, the section of the manuscript that Hemingway’s friend F. Scott Fitzgerald suggested he cut before publication. Those pages and related fragments have only been available to scholars, who research Hemingway’s papers and unpublished manuscripts in the archives of the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston. The new edition was edited by Hemingway’s grandson, Seán Hemingway, who’s a curator of antiquities at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Seán Hemingway has become the family’s resident scholar, having previously produced new editions of “A Moveable Feast” and “A Farewell to Arms,” each of which contained previously unpublished manuscript material.
World War I was Hemingway’s first war. He wrestled with its consequences and its implications for decades. Now, in the centennial year of the beginning of World War I, once again we are also wrestling with its consequences in numerous ways — throughout Europe and the Middle East. The writer Gertrude Stein, one of Hemingway’s mentors in his early years in Paris in the 1920s, emblazoned the disaffected and drifting post-war youth — some of the characters he writes about in “The Sun Also Rises — the “Lost Generation.” It’s not hard to see how that label may yet apply.