Careful with that thing, Ernest

Andy Warhol famously said “in the future, etc.” but fame today is not some much attenuated in time, but in intensity, Nowadays the world is full of people who are a little bit famous.

Not so 80 or 90 years ago. If you could somehow break through the fame barrier you were a lot famous. You fame was lasting and everybody knew who you were; Picasso, Garbo, Hemingway.

Ah, Hemingway.

Being a famous writer in the first third of the 20th century was a great gig. You were a celebrity, with paparazzi following you around and people asking your opinions on things you knew nothing about, but better than that magazines and newspapers would pay you thousands of dollars for articles, so you could make a very good living. In the time of “free content” we writers can only look back in envy.

Today, given our medical focus/obsession we will look at Hemingway as a case study of the effects of traumatic brain injury. Hemingway showed a remarkable propensity for self-destructive activities and of course in the end committed suicide at age 61. Really, once you know anything about the man the only surprise is that it took him that long.

Of all things Hemingway that Hemingway hated he seems to have cherished a special hatred for his head. He appears to have pursued opportunities to injure it with a perverse intensity. Unfortunately, you can’t take a lot of hard hits to the squash without consequences. And the damage can be cumulative. This something we are becoming more aware of, for example, see the NFL and the ongoing discussions about head injuries in football and other sports.

We now know that brain injuries cause problems beyond the initial loss of consciousness, pain or structural injury. Long term there can be memory loss of course, but also a host of subtler effects. Initiative is decreased, and the individual, although they may seem the same, can no longer start or finish projects involving mental energy. The personality can be coarsened, as if that person has become a parody of themselves, and the individual becomes more rigid and can’t adapt or learn new things. Impulse control often worsens, and they may become subject to excess excitement, disinhibition or rage. Their decision making becomes worse as well.

By 1950 Lillian Ross was depicting Hemingway in the New Yorker as a confused and disoriented man led around by his wife, and Howard Berk later recalled visiting for lunch in Cuba around the same time and watching Hemingway and his wife spitting four letter words at each other regardless of the guests.

Hemingway didn’t help matters either by living the exact opposite of a healthy lifestyle (he was almost or more famous in his day for his macho posturing and hard drinking as for his writing) and he accumulated a lot of other health problems and injuries during his life.

Did Hemingway’s injuries impact his work? Look at the chart below and judge for yourself.

Major injuries/illnesses                                                    Major works published during lifetime

1918 shrapnel, machine gun bullet                                 1923  3 Stories and 10 poems

wounds to legs                                                                1925  In Our Time (story collection)

                                                                                        1926  The Sun Also Rises

                                                                                         1926   The Torrents of Spring

                                                                         1927  Men Without Women (story collection)


1927 anthrax

1928 head injury accidentally

pulled a skylight onto his head                                          1929  A Farewell to Arms

1930 compound fracture arm

driving drunk surgery for reconstruction required                      1932   Death in the Afternoon

1933 severe dysentery with intestinal prolapse                           1933   Winner Take Nothing

                                                                                                       (story collection)

                                                                                                     1935 The Green Hills of Africa

                                                                                                     1940  For Whom the Bell Tolls

1944 car accident head injury

1944 pneumonia

1947 car accident head injury

H. reported in 1950 having 7 concussions in 2 years,

fractured ribs and a mirror support being

“pushed into [my] skull opposite the pituitary gland”

late 40s suffering from hypertension,

diabetes, headaches depression                           1950 Over the River and Through the Trees

                                                                            1952 The Old Man and the Sea (written in 1940s)


1954 2 plane crashes in Africa over the course of a few days

he reported butting open a plane door

with his head ,overall injuries

include head injury concussion with

leaking cerebral spinal fluid, damaged to

spleen, liver, and kidneys,

fractured vertebrae, nerve damage,

minor burns, and dislocated right shoulder

1954 burned in bush fire

1954 atherosclerosis liver disease chronic pain

late 50s depression dementia                       1956  found a trunk of material from 1928

                                                                                            and started working on revisions

,                                               c1960 unable to finish bull fight story assignment for LIFE

1962 committed suicide          


in addition chronic heavy drinking

other infections, eye injuries,                                                

cuts and bruises from a runaway horse,

his hobby of boxing…

Now internet speculation is just that, speculation. We don’t want this blog post to come across like some recent-ish blog posts that, for example want to run with the idea that because Hemingway’s father had hemochromatosis, (which he probably did,) that everyone in Hemingway’s family to the nth degree had hemochromatosis and that explains all their lives and deaths. Life is always more complicated than an activist blogger wants it to be. Perhaps that was Hemingway’s true genius, to live a life that was so complex and larger-than-reality that we can approach it like the blind men and the elephant, each only grasping a part of the whole.

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