HEMINGWAY AT EIGHTEEN: THE PIVOTAL YEAR THAT LAUNCHED AN AMERICAN LEGEND
By Steve Paul
Chicago Review Press $26.99, 256 Pages
There have been books written about the late, great American writer Ernest Hemingway and his time as a cub reporter on the staff of the Kansas City Star, and there have been books written about Mr. Hemingway’s time in the Red Cross ambulance service in World War I, but Steve Paul has written an interesting book that combines the writer’s two dramatic experiences, both of which occurred during Mr. Hemingway’s 18th year.
“Hemingway is quite likely the American author of the twentieth century who has been the most argued about, dissected, and puzzled over to this day. His life grew to mythic proportions. His work, or much of it, remains canonical, inspiring, mysterious, and powerfully, surprisingly relevant to humans with a heart in a world shaped by war and anxiety. Popular culture retains him as a complicated force of nature. Books by and about him continue to make waves and news,” Mr. Paul writes in his introduction to “Hemingway at Eighteen: The Pivotal Year That Launched an American Legend.”
Mr. Paul admits that the book’s emphasis on a single year of a great writer’s eventful and productive life is a “presumptuous slice of biography.”
“But what a year it was,” Mr. Paul writes. “This was the year that Hemingway’s life of self-invention began.”
In that year Mr. Hemingway’s path toward becoming a world-famous writer began in the busy newsroom of a great American newspaper and would lead him to a near-death experience in a wartime trench in Italy.
Ernest Hemingway graduated High School in June 1917 and the 18 year-old passed on attending college and instead took a job as a reporter for the Kansas City Star, thanks to an uncle who knew the newspaper’s chief editorial writer. For six and a half months the future novelist enjoyed covering fires, crime, political corruption and other news for the daily newspaper. He enjoyed his front row seat to the comedy and drama of urban life.
He also learned the basic tenets of journalism that would serve him well in the future. He learned to write fast and accurately, and he called the Star’s style of using short sentences and eliminating superfluous words the best rules he’d ever learned about the business of writing.
“For Hemingway, Kansas City was a transitional place, a stopping point between suburban youth and that traumatic, life-defining war,” Mr. Paul writes. “The newspaper work brought him close to violence almost every day: knifings and street crime, grit and desperation, the kinds of urban eruptions that gave Kansas City a Wild West reputation, even two decades into the twentieth century.”
Mr. Paul, a writer and editor who worked at the Kansas City Star for more than 40 years, does a fine job of describing the bustling life of the newspaper and the day-today lives of the newspapermen, evoking an era dramatized famously in “The Front Page.”
“The clacking of typing mills and the smoke of countless cigars filled the vast open newsroom of the Kansas City Star day and night. With a morning paper, an afternoon edition, and a regional weekly delivered to a farm audience across the country, the Star’s staff members toiled in the room from before 8:00 AM to well after midnight,” Mr. Paul writes.
“Ernest Hemingway, a young newcomer to the business, walked into this second-floor beehive in mid-October 1917 to begin his apprenticeship in journalism. He had some high school newspaper writing under his belt, but this was the big time — the Star was one of the best-known and most well-regarded newspapers in the country.”
Although Mr. Hemingway’s early pieces covered the rough-and-tumble life in Kansas, the newspaper also carried the news of the war in Europe and the future author of the WWI novel, “A Farewell To Arms,” wanted to see the war for himself.
Rejected by the U.S. Army for his poor eyesight, Mr. Hemingway instead joined the Red Cross ambulance service and served in Italy. There he witnessed the heroics and horrors of war and his experiences would later find a way into his novels. Two weeks before his 19th birthday, Mr. Hemingway was seriously wounded by a mortar shell in a trench at the front. Hundreds of metal shards from the explosion tore into his legs. An Italian soldier standing next to him was killed instantly.
While recuperating in an Italian hospital, he met and fell in love with a nurse, a romance he would go on to immortalize in “A Farewell To Arms.”
“Hemingway at Eighteen” will be enjoyed by Hemingway aficionados, like myself, as well as those interested in the early life of a great writer and the history of American literature and journalism.
• Paul Davis is a writer who covers crime, espionage and terrorism.