Ernie and Me: Falling in—and falling out—with Hemingway

Matt Gallagher in The Paris Review:

Ernest_hemingway_aboard_the_pilar_1935_-_nara_-_192674As a young man of a certain kind, I read a lot of Hemingway growing up. My sixteen-year-old self, full of angst and emo aches, found a kindred spirit in Jake Barnes, even if Jake’s brooding was much deeper, darker, and more significant than my own. The northern Michigan of the Nick Adams stories bore a passing resemblance to the Tahoe Basin, where I grew up, and my earliest attempts at creative work were pale imitations of “The End of Something” and “The Three-Day Blow.” The Old Man and the Sea bored me to video games the first time I tried it, but that didn’t stop me from extolling Santiago’s badassness at the dinner table. This was pre-9/11 America, in a suburban, white-collar community far removed from battle or turmoil. My parents were both children of World War II veterans, and both had protested the Vietnam War; as a result, my brother and I had been raised with a healthy respect for the military, mixed with a healthy skepticism toward the application of military force. While my Hemingway obsession did confuse my mom a bit, she later told me she figured at least it wasn’t drugs, or French philosophy.

…It’s embarrassing to admit now, but For Whom the Bell Tolls had a lot to do with my joining the Army ROTC program in college. I wrote my history thesis on the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the American volunteers who fought Franco and fascism in Spain over our government’s objections. The dark, awful romance of it all was like a siren song—the fact that they’d been dismissed as “premature antifascists,” like it was a bad thing, became a common rant of mine during beer-pong games. We were in the Bush era now: my worldview was being shaped by politicians who’d spent their youths doing everything they could to avoid military service, but who couldn’t be more eager to send me and my peers into combat. For freedom, they said. But it felt like something else to me. At the beer-pong table, I began to replace my talk of premature antifascists with a rant about chicken hawks. One weekend in early 2003, my roommate traveled to DC to protest the looming invasion of Iraq. I went to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, for a ROTC field-training exercise held in a swamp. Hemingway’s books stayed with me during all of this, though I referred to him as Papa now, because I’d learned the power of reverence. I held deep misgivings about the Iraq invasion. Preemptive war (even ironically reactionary preemptive war) seemed counter to our republic’s spirit, somehow, or at least to its idealized spirit. The Abraham Lincoln Brigade had reacted to a coup, to defend an idea. Whatever Iraq was going to be, it was never going to be that.

Was Iraq inevitable? Of course not.

More here.