Agnes von Kurowsky to Ernest Hemingway
Serving as an ambulance driver in Italy during World War I, an
eighteen-year old Ernest Hemingway was taken to a Milan hospital
after an explosion badly injured his leg. In that hospital he met
one of the great loves of his life - Agnes Hannah von Kurowsky, a
twenty-six year old American nurse who cared for Hemingway as he
recuperated. Hemingway was infatuated with von Kurowsky from the
start, and for a time she seemed to have feelings for him as well,
though von Kurowsky later said she merely "liked" him and that their
relationship was nothing more than a "flirtation." Hemingway wanted
them to get married, but von Kurowsky - because of the age difference,
her belief that Hemingway was immature and aimless, and her interest
in other men - rejected the idea. In January 1919 Hemingway left
the hospital but continued to write her. Von Kurowsky decided she
finally had to convince him it was over, and on March 7, 1919, she
wrote Hemingway the following letter.
Ernie, dear boy,
I am writing this late at night after a
long think by myself, & I am afraid it is going to hurt you, but, I'm
sure it won't harm you permanently.
For quite awhile before you left, I was
trying to convince myself it was a real love-affair, because, we always
seemed to disagree, & then arguments always wore me out so that I finally
gave in to keep you from doing something desperate.
Now, after a couple of months away from
you, I know that I am still very fond of you, but, it is more as a
mother than as a sweetheart. It's alright to say I'm a Kid, but, I'm
not, & I'm getting less & less so every day.
So, Kid (still Kid to me, & always will
be) can you forgive me some day for unwittingly deceiving you? You
know I'm not really bad, & don't mean to do wrong, & now I realize
it was my fault in the beginning that you cared for me, & regret it
from the bottom of my heart. But, I am now & always will be too old, & that's
the truth, & I can't get away from the fact that you're just a boy
- a kid.
I somehow feel that some day I'll have
reason to be proud of you, but, dear boy, I can't wait for that day, & it
was wrong to hurry a career.
I tried hard to make you understand a bit
of what I was thinking on that trip from Padua to Milan, but, you acted
like a spoiled child, & I couldn't keep on hurting you. Now, I only
have the courage because I'm far away.
Then - & believe me when I say this is
sudden for me, too - I expect to be married soon. And I hope & pray
that after you thought things out, you'll be able to forgive me & start
a wonderful career & show what a man you really are.
Ever admiringly & fondly,
Hemingway's response to this letter is not
know because one of von Kurowsky's boyfriends burned all of his letters.
But in a June 1919 letter to his friend Howell Jenkins, Hemingway wrote: "I
loved her once and then she gypped me. And I don't blame her. But I
set out to cauterize out her memory and I burnt it out with a course
of booze and other women and now it's gone." But not gone entirely
- Agnes von Kurowsky became the basis for Catherine Bakley, the beautiful
young American nurse who treats and falls in love with an American
soldier in an Italian hospital in Hemingway's 1929 classic A Farewell
to Arms." Who can say whether Kurowsky was instrumental in driving
Hemingway to disillusionment and drink or if in a moment of remarkable
lucidity she saw that he would have made naturally have made a poor
husband? It is of course impossible to know; but I have thought much
on this question and suspect it was probably equal parts both factors.
At any rate, Hemingway continued on to become a globally recognized
world-traveler and adventurer as well as arguably the best writer of
his generation; his prose cast a shadow over all the rest of 20th century
American writers, whether in agreement with it or in opposition to
it. Yet his great success as an author seemed to highlight the many
failures in his personal life: Hemingway suffered through a number
of disastrous marriages and divorces and proved unable to sustain lasting
friendships. Suffering from alcohol-related illnesses and living alone
late in life, Hemingway sought treatment for depression and paranoia.
On July 2, 1961, he shot himself in the head with a shotgun. Although
I am not sure as to the complete accuracy of the final paragraph of
Paul Johnson's chapter on Hemingway from his book Intellectuals (how
could anyone possibly know so intimately what was going on in Hemingway's
mind at the time?), the last sentence is food for thought for all those
attracted to the life of the mind:
"Why did Hemingway long for death? It is by no means
unusual among writers. His contemporary Evelyn Waugh, a writer in
English of comparable stature during this period, likewise longer
for death. But Waugh was not an intellectual: he did not think he
could refashion the rule of life out of his own head but submitted
to the traditional discipline of his church, dying of natural causes
five years later. Hemingway created his own code, based on honour,
truth, loyalty. He failed it on all three counts, and it failed him.
More seriously, perhaps, he felt he was failing his art. Hemingway
had many grievous fault but there was one thing he did not lack:
artistic integrity. It shines like a beacon through his whole life.
He set himself the task of creating a new way of writing English,
and fiction, and he succeeded. It was one of the salient events in
the history of our language and is now an inescapable part of it.
He devoted to this task immense resources of creative skill, energy
and patience. That in itself was difficult. But far more difficult,
as he discovered, was to maintain the high creative standards he
had set for himself. This became apparent to him in the mid-1930s,
and added to his habitual depression. From then on his few successful
stories were aberrations in a long downward slide. If Hemingway had
been less of an artist, it might not have mattered to him as a man;
he would simply have written and published inferior novels, as many
writers do. But he knew when he wrote below his best, and the knowledge
was intolerable to him. He sought the help of alcohol, even in working
hours. He was first observed with a drink, a 'Rum St James', in front
of him while writing in the 1920s. This custom, rare at first, became
intermittent, then invariable. By the 1940s, he was said to wake
at 4.30am, 'usually starts drinking right away and writes standing
up, with a pencil in one hand and a drink in another'. The effect
on his work was exactly as might be expected, disastrous. An experienced
editor can always tell when a piece of writing has been produced
with the aid of alcohol, however gifted the author may be. Hemingway
began to produce large quantities of unpublishable material, or material
he felt did not reach the minimum standard he set himself. Some was
published nonetheless, and was seen to be inferior, even a parody
of his earlier work. There were one or two exceptions, notably The
Old Man and the Sea, though there was an element of self-parody
in that too. But the general level was low, and falling, and Hemingway's
awareness of his inability to recapture his genius, let alone develop
it, accelerated the spinning circle of depression and drink. He was
a man killed by his art, and his life holds a lesson all intellectuals
need to learn: that art is not enough."
Ernest "Papa" Hemingway
"He was a man killed by his art, and his life holds a lesson
all intellectuals need to learn: that art is not enough."
"AN ELEGY FOR ERNEST HEMINGWAY"
Now for the first time on the night of your death
by Thomas Merton
your name is mentioned in convents, ne cadas in obscurum.
Now with a true bell your story becomes final. Now
men in monasteries, men of requiems, familiar with
the dead, include you in their offices.
You stand anonymous among thousands, waiting in
the dark at great stations on the edge of countries
known to prayer alone, where fires are not merciless,
we hope, and not without end.
You pass briefly through our midst. Your books and
writing have not been consulted. Our prayers are
pro defunto N.
Yet some look up, as though among a crowd of prisoners
or displaced persons, they recognized a friend
once known in a far country. For these the sun also
rose after a forgotton war upon an idiom you made
great. They have not forgotten you. In their silence
you are still famous, no ritual shade.
How slowly this bell tolls in a monastery tower for a
whole age, and for the quick death of an unready
dynasty, and for that brave illusion: the adventurous
For with one shot the whole hunt is ended!
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