During the First World War, Ernest Hemingway volunteered to serve in Italy as an ambulance driver with the American Red Cross. In June 1918, while running a mobile canteen dispensing chocolate and cigarettes for soldiers, he was wounded by Austrian mortar fire. "Then there was a flash, as when a blast-furnace door is swung open, and a roar that started white and went red," he recalled in a letter home.
Despite his injuries, Hemingway carried a wounded Italian soldier to safety and was injured again by machine-gun fire. For his bravery, he received the Silver Medal of Valor from the Italian government—one of the first Americans so honored.
Hemingway in Italy, 1918.
Commenting on this experience years later in Men at War, Hemingway wrote: "When you go to war as a boy you have a great illusion of immortality. Other people get killed; not you. . . . Then when you are badly wounded the first time you lose that illusion and you know it can happen to you. After being severely wounded two weeks before my nineteenth birthday I had a bad time until I figured out that nothing could happen to me that had not happened to all men before me. Whatever I had to do men had always done. If they had done it then I could do it too and the best thing was not to worry about it."
Recuperating for six months in a Milan hospital, Hemingway fell in love with Agnes von Kurowsky, an American Red Cross nurse. At war's end, he returned to his home in Oak Park, Illinois, a different man. His experience of travel, combat, and love had broadened his outlook. Yet while his war experience had changed him dramatically, the town he returned to remained very much the same.
Two short stories (written years later) offer insights into his homecoming and his understanding of the dilemmas of the returned war veteran. In "Soldier's Home" Howard Krebs returns home from Europe later than many of his peers. Having missed the victory parades, he is unable to reconnect with those he left behind—especially his mother, who cannot understand how her son has been changed by the war.
"Hemingway's great war work deals with aftermath," stated author Tobias Wolff at the Hemingway centennial celebration. "It deals with what happens to the soul in war and how people deal with that afterward. The problem that Hemingway set for himself in stories like 'Soldier's Home' is the difficulty of telling the truth about what one has been through. He knew about his own difficulty in doing that."
After living for months with his parents, during which time he learned from Agnes that she had fallen in love with another man, he decamped with two friends to his family's Michigan summer cottage, where he had learned to hunt and fish as a young boy. The trip would be the genesis of Big Two-Hearted River—a story that follows one of Hemingway's best known fictional characters, Nick Adams, recently returned from war, on a fishing trip in northern Michigan.
Hemingway in Oak Park IL, 1919.
In the story, Hemingway never actually mentions the war and the injuries Nick has sustained in it—they simply loom below the surface. In this and other stories in his first major collection, In Our Time, Hemingway does more than advance a narrative; he also debuts a new style of writing fiction.
"The way we write about war or even think about war was affected fundamentally by Hemingway," stated Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., another speaker at the Hemingway centennial. In the early 1920s, in reaction to their experience of world war, Hemingway and other modernists lost faith in the central institutions of Western civilization. One of those institutions was literature itself. Nineteenth-century novelists were prone to a florid and elaborate style of writing. Hemingway, using a distinctly American vernacular, created a new style of fiction "in which meaning is established through dialogue, through action, and silences—a fiction in which nothing crucial—or at least very little—is stated explicitly."
"Hemingway was at the crest of a wave of modernists," noted fellow centennial panelist and book critic Gail Caldwell, "that were rebelling against the excesses and hypocrisy of Victorian prose. The First World War is the watershed event that changes world literature as well as how Hemingway responded to it."
(Courtesy of the National Archives)