“Fifty years ago, in the early hours of Sunday 2 July, 1961, Ernest Hemingway, America’s most celebrated writer and a titan of 20th-century letters, awoke in his house in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho, rose from his bed, taking care not to wake his wife Mary, unlocked the door of the storage room where he kept his firearms, and selected a double-barrelled shotgun with which he liked to shoot pigeons. He took it to the front of the house and, in the foyer, put the twin barrels against his forehead, reached down, pushed his thumb against the trigger and blew his brains out.”
So begins the article Being Ernest: John Walsh unravels the mystery behind Hemingway’s suicide. It’s a very well-written article, and if you’re interested, I highly recommend it. It’s worth reading.
A suicide is something that sticks with me for a long time when I hear about one, as is probably the case with many of us, but Ernest Hemingway’s suicide is one in particular that I think about rather often. If you haven’t read any of Hemingway’s writing, let me just say that there is a reason why people are still talking about him, even after all these years. My first encounter with his writing was through reading The Old Man and The Sea, a book that now sits on the shelf of my personal library at home. His writing struck me as being very vivid and descriptive in just the right way. His characters are not pawns trapped in a plot—they are storied people, people with histories full of both triumphs and failures. The main character in The Old Man and The Sea is introduced as being branded by the locals as the most unlucky fisherman around. Right from the start there is a character with a past who has something to prove, and all that is revealed on the very first page of the book.
Hemingway was a brilliant storyteller, and he left behind a great collection of stories. But the marvelous endings he gave in his stories cannot rewrite the ending of his own story as we know it. So what are we to do with it? Hold that thought.
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Charles Scribner, Jr. of Charles Scribner’s Sons book publishing company, said this about reading.
“Reading is a means of thinking with another person’s mind. It forces you to stretch your own.”
There are many reasons why that statement is true, but one of them is this: When a reader picks up a book and starts reading, he or she is not able to speak to the characters in the story. They cannot console or encourage the characters they love, and they cannot chasten or confront the characters they despise. They can only listen.
In my last post, Reading With Compassion, I talked about how reading can be used as a tool for teaching children—or anyone, really—about compassion. Reading trains us in compassion, and it gives us the opportunity to practice it. Compassion cannot come from one who does not listen to the cares and concerns of another, and where is this action more prevalent than in the act of reading?
About a year ago, I was talking with my Grandfather. He was around 97 at the time, so naturally he had lost a good bit of his hearing by then. I was used to it, but even still, I found myself having to rephrase things I was saying to make them clearer and more concise. Some things I even had to let go of completely. While we were talking, a thought struck me. What if the loss of hearing in those who are old is God’s way of telling the young to be silent and listen? When I tried this, I found myself content to be with my Grandfather even in silence.
Is the same not true for reading? When a reader opens a book, it is their time to be silent and listen to the thoughts of others, or as Atticus Finch would say, to climb into their skin and walk around in it.
This is what brings me back to Hemingway.
Part of me has been tempted to write off everything Hemingway has ever said or written, simply because of the way his life ended. As a writer, it is hard for me to be motivated by another writer whose own life ended in such distress. But to do all that would be a mistake.
Hemingway’s own sad ending does not change the beautiful ending of The Old Man and The Sea. His own struggle to conquer his demons does not change the success that the character Robert Jordan had in conquering his own doubts in Hemingway’s beautiful novel For Whom The Bell Tolls. And even more important than that is this: To ignore Hemingway’s writing, troubled as he was, would be to close my ears and my heart to one of the greatest callings of a reader—listening.
A listener cannot speak when he or she is listening. They can think, and they can surge with joy or anger, but they cannot speak. They must not speak, for to do so would be to refrain from listening. In listening, we aid those who speak. And as Hemingway so eloquently put it into words in For Whom The Bell Tolls through the mouth of the great character Pilar,
“For what are we born if not to aid one another?”