I first discovered the emotional power of good writing during my senior year at Bowdoin College. I was in the library reading the last pages of “A Farewell to Arms” by Earnest Hemingway. The novel depicts a love affair between Lt. Frederick Henry, an ambulance driver during World War I, and Catherine Barkley, the nurse who had taken care of him. Their baby died during childbirth, having choked on its umbilical cord. Then Catherine died as a result of multiple hemorrhages. Frederick couldn’t stand to stay in the room after she died. “He left the hospital and walked back to his hotel in the rain.”

The Catherine Barkley character was based on Hemingway’s relationship with Agnes Hannah von Kurowsky Sanfield, the American nurse who had treated him in a hospital in Milan after he had been wounded in the war.

Teachers often advise young people to “write what you know.” I would add, and the story of Catherine and Frederick confirms, it is also important to write what you feel. Hemingway clearly tapped into his powerful memories of Agnes to write “A Farewell to Arms.”

Most would-be writers would also benefit from the lessons conveyed by Hemingway’s writing style. Be succinct. Keep it simple. Be specific. Be sparing with adjectives and adverbs. Less is more. I’m reminded of the wag who said, “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter.”

Since reading “A Farewell to Arms” I’ve read several other Hemingway works, such as “The Sun Also Rises,” “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “Islands in the Stream,” “The Old Man and the Sea,” “The Complete Short Stories of Earnest Hemingway” and “A Movable Feast” (published posthumously).

I recently read “The Paris Wife” by Paula McClain, which provided a superb warts-and-all depiction of Hemingway. It focused on Hemingway’s relationship with Hadley Richardson, his first wife. The key takeaways: He had voracious appetites for women and booze. Four wives and, by all accounts, numerous affairs. He drank to excess, to put it mildly, his entire life. He often broke off friendships at the slightest perceived wrong. He was jealous or dismissive of most other writers, although he enjoyed a fascinating writerly bond with Gertrude Sten. He thrived on taking risks himself or watching people such as bullfighters put themselves in great danger. All these flaws aside, he was extremely disciplined when it came to his own writing.


Here are some neat Hemingway quotes: “Courage is grace under pressure.” “Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk.” “When people talk, listen completely.” “In order to write about life, you have to live it.” “There is no friend as loyal as a book.”

Hemingway was a tortured man who lived large but also feared large. He has been described by some as depressive, someone who suffered from paranoid delusion and paranoid disorder. He shot himself in 1961, shortly after saying to Mary, his fourth wife, “Goodnight, my kitten.”

Hemingway might be described by some, and not totally unfairly, as “a pickled genius” or “a misogynistic bully” or a “raving egomaniac.” He might be dismissed in today’s academic circles as “one of those dead old white guys” who’s no longer worth reading.

While I’ll never understand how someone who drank so much could write so well, I’ll always appreciate the impact he’s had on my writing and reading. And I’ll wager that decades from now he’ll be considered more relevant than many of today’s writers.

David Treadwell, a Brunswick writer, welcomes commentary and suggestions for future “Just a Little Old” columns. [email protected]

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