Ernest Hemingway, born 115 years ago this month, had ways of making the world smaller and larger

07/18/2014 3:08 PM

07/18/2014 4:39 PM

Rosella Mamoli Zorzi is a literary scholar at the University of Venice. I’ve read a couple of useful little books she co-wrote about Ernest Hemingway and Ezra Pound in Venice, and recently I listened to her talk about other writers who have captured the many dimensions of this magical city — from the British art critic John Ruskin to the American William Dean Howells to contemporary Italians such as Paolo Barbaro.

Imagine my surprise a few days later when Rosella came up to me at a reception — we were attending an international Hemingway conference — and declared that one of the best times in her life was not in this water-bound paradise but the year she spent (in 1962) on a Fulbright scholarship at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.

Yes, it’s a small world.

In his travels and in his books, Hemingway had a way of making the world both smaller and larger. Smaller in the way that he took readers to far-flung places around the globe with senses attuned to vivid details of place and people. And larger in the way that he opened the vast landscape of human experience and gave provocative meaning to the big realities, such as love and war and death.

Those devoted to studying his work make their world smaller by gathering somewhere along the Hemingway trail every other year to present scholarly papers, see the places that he saw, and — true confession — drink the drinks that he drank.

The month of July brings the anniversary of three defining Hemingway moments: He was born on July 21, 1899, in Oak Park, Illinois; he took his own life on July 2, 1961, in Ketchum, Idaho. And on July 8, 1918, while he was serving in the Red Cross ambulance service attached to the Italian army, he was wounded by the explosion of an Austro-Hungarian trench mortar shell. The blast sliced 227 pieces of metal fragments into his body, gave him what felt like a near-death experience and ultimately shaped one persistent subtext of Hemingway’s literary career.

While in Italy last month, I got the chance to travel with my fellow conference attendees to Fossalta di Piave, the town on the Venetian plain where Hemingway took charge of a Red Cross canteen. On a ridge above the Piave River, locals had placed a monument to Hemingway in the late 1970s and the Hemingway scholars discussed just where along the river the wounding took place. Someone mentioned it was down the embankment and near a bend. I’m willing to go along with that and certainly grateful for the opportunity to reflect on the writer and his legacy in such an important place. The river was blue, Hemingway once wrote, but several of my colleagues wondered why today the river flows with a green tint.

Conveniently, The American Scholar this week offered up a feature highlighting the 10 best literary sentences (actually 11), and from Hemingway’s World War I novel, “A Farewell to Arms,” the editors extracted this pivotal interior moment: “Anger was washed away in the river along with any obligation.” The novel’s protagonist, Frederic Henry, had made his escape from the Italian army and possible execution by jumping into a river and swimming away.

It’s important to clarify that the river of “A Farewell to Arms” was not the river I was looking at and that Frederic Henry’s experience derived almost entirely from Hemingway’s imagination. That’s the way of art.

“Art” is not often a word associated with Hemingway’s late novel “Across the River and Into the Trees,” which was inspired in part by the war experience and by his travels to Venice in the late 1940s. The book is a bit of a mess, but on close inspection — the kind of deep reading my friends in the Hemingway world conduct as a calling — it reveals a vision, truisms and, as one scholar noted, a passion for Venice that is unmistakeable.

Steve Paul is co-editor of “War + Ink: New Perspectives on Ernest Hemingway’s Early Life and Writings,” published this year by Kent State University Press. To reach him, call 816-234-4762 or send email to paul@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter at sbpaul.

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