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.
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)
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
1935 The Green Hills of Africa
1940 For Whom the Bell Tolls
1944 car accident head injury
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.