Happy birthday, Ernest Hemingway


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Today is the 110th anniversary of Ernest Hemingway’s birth. One famed celebration takes place this weekend at Sloppy Joe’s Bar in Key West, Fla: the Papa Look-Alike Contest. A glance at the past winners shows a different man than the Ernest Hemingway above, photographed with his wife Pauline Pfeiffer in 1934.

By the age of 35, Hemingway had published ‘Three Stories and Ten Poems’ (1923, in a small Parisian run), ‘In Our Time’ (1925), ‘The Torrents of Spring’ (1926), ‘The Sun Also Rises’ (1926), ‘Men Without Women’ (1927), ‘A Farewell to Arms’ (1929), ‘Death in the Afternoon’ (1932) and ‘Winner Take Nothing’ (1933). My way of celebrating him is returning to his work.


I have my mother’s college copy of ‘The Sun Also Rises.’ She didn’t mark up her books much -- she’d later become a librarian -- but at the start of Chapter XIV, she’s written, ‘Imp. chapter.’ As Jake goes to bed in Pamplona, he hears the comings and goings of the men and women around him; he tries to read.

I do not know what time I got to bed. I remember undressing, putting on a bathrobe, and standing out on the balcony. I knew I was quite drunk, and when I came in I put on the light over the head of the bed and started to read. I was reading a book by Turgenieff. Probably I read the same two pages over several times. It was one of the stories in ‘A Sportsman’s Sketches.’ I had read it before, but it seemed quite new. The country became very clear and the feeling of pressure in my head seemed to loosen. I was very drunk and I did not want to shut my eyes because the room would go round and round. If I kept on reading that feeling would pass....

I turned on the light again and read. I read the Turgenieff. I knew that now, reading it in the oversensitized state of my mind after too much brandy, I would remember it somewhere, and afterward it would seem as though it had really happened to me. I would always have it. That was another good thing you paid for and then had. Some time along toward daylight I went to sleep.

There is something lovely in the idea that drunkenness makes a reader porous, open to writing that can be drawn in and somehow become your own. And while Heminway’s style has been much derided, his short declarative sentences do kind of saturate my brain. Like my brain is a sponge. Even without brandy.

At this age, Hemingway was already writing in Key West and going to Sloppy Joe’s. Could a young mustachioed, fedora-wearing lookalike win in their contest today? Probably not. But isn’t it pretty to think so?

-- Carolyn Kellogg