Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway once gave some advice to his fellow writer F. Scott Fitzgerald. If something in life hurts you, he said, you should use it in your writing. In A Farewell to Arms Hemingway followed his own advice. The painful experiences of his own life that, consciously and unconsciously, he placed in this novel help make it a major artistic achievement.

The first of these experiences was a physical "hurt" that occurred on July 8, 1918. On this date, two weeks shy of his nineteenth birthday, Hemingway lay in an Italian army aid station, his legs riddled by shrapnel and machine-gun bullets.

The story of how he got there goes like this. By 1917 the United States had entered World War I, which had begun three years earlier. Although Hemingway was old enough to be in the service, his bad eyesight made him ineligible. (Characteristically, he later bragged that his vision had been hurt in boxing matches with dirty fighters. Actually, the damage was congenital.) But bad eyes or no, Hemingway had an urge to go to war. He wrote his sister, "...I\'ll make it to Europe some way in spite of this optic."

Make it he did by joining the Red Cross as an ambulance driver. He was sent to the mountains of northern Italy where the Italians, allied with England, France, and the U.S., were fighting the Austrians, allied with Germany.

Ambulance driving was too tame for him, and when a chance came to get closer to the action, he grabbed it. The Red Cross, concerned about the welfare of front-line troops, set up emergency canteens close to the battle lines. Hemingway eagerly volunteered to man a forward post. His job was to dispense chocolate and cigarettes. Or, as he wrote, "Each aft and morning I load up a haversack and take my tin lid and gas mask and beat it up to the trenches. I sure have a good time."

It was on one of these "good time" trips that he was struck in the legs by an Austrian shrapnel burst. Near him lay a screaming man, gravely wounded. Despite his own injuries, Hemingway hoisted the man and took off for the command post to the rear. He had gone partway when he took two machine-gun rounds, one in the knee, the other in the foot. He fell, but he got up again and staggered to the post, still carrying the Italian soldier. He was treated and evacuated to a hospital.

Hemingway obviously draws on this experience to create Frederic Henry\'s fictional wounding in Farewell. His suffering enabled him to describe Frederic\'s with telling physical detail. But his literary use of the wounding goes deeper than the merely physical. For while Hemingway superficially recovered from his wounds, psychically he seems never to have gotten over them. His view of the world was permanently darkened by his youthful brush with death. Twenty-four years later in World War II he spoke about it himself. "I was an awful dope when I went to the last war," he said. "I can remember just thinking that we were the home team and the Austrians were the visiting team." He learned that the game had neither referees nor rules, and concluded that the only admirable way to play was to take whatever came along with tight-lipped stoicism.

And there you have the essence of the Hemingway hero. Although his name changes from novel to novel, he remains basically the same person. He is often wounded: Henry in Farewell, Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises, and Nick Adams in the stories of In Our Time. He invariably lives in a violent world: Henry in World War I, Barnes in the ritual violence of the bull-ring, and Robert Jordan (For Whom the Bell Tolls) in the Spanish Civil War. Most important, the hero, in public anyway, bears his miseries well. In private, at night, it\'s often another story.

The second pain that Hemingway used in his writing was an emotional hurt, a faded love affair. This, too, related directly to Farewell.

When he was recovering from his wounds in a Milan hospital, he was one of but four patients tended by eighteen nurses. One of these was a pretty American, Hannah Agnes