In graduate school, a friend and I, both Hemingway aficionados, would try to stump each other by quoting lines from the famous writer’s fiction. I had a bit of an advantage because I was a few years older than my rival and had already taught Hemingway to high school students. And so, familiar with even obscure works like “A Man of the World,” which adolescents enjoyed, I never lost one of our good-natured contests. Yet despite my devotion to the Nobel Laureate, I never thought two decades later I'd be praying for his soul.
Despite my devotion to Hemingway, I never thought two decades later I'd be praying for his soul.
My devotion influenced my first published story, “The Man Who Thought He Was Hemingway,” and the summer after graduate school another friend and I made a pilgrimage to northern Michigan, retracing the steps young Ernest would have taken when vacationing with his family. We went to Walloon Lake in Petoskey, to Horton Bay where he loved to fish, and then on to the Upper Peninsula, to Seney and the nearby Fox, a.k.a. “Big Two-Hearted” River. After visiting Hemingway shrines during the day we would spend our evenings in the local taverns, and then around 2:30 a.m., back in the tent while my poor friend tried to sleep, I would turn on a flashlight and read Hemingway stories aloud as if they were Compline.
I was not Catholic then and had never heard of Compline; I did not know the Scripture verses prayed at night were selected by the church to encourage peace in the soul. Yet in my own fumbling way I sought this peace through what I was reading. And to some extent, I succeeded. For it is impossible to encounter the best of Hemingway’s stories, “Indian Camp” or “Now I Lay Me,” “The Undefeated” or “In Another Country,” without being soothed by their transcendence. Fiction is not divinely inspired, but Ralph Ellison thought so much of “In Another Country” he could recite its opening paragraph verbatim.
I would turn on a flashlight and read Hemingway stories aloud as if they were Compline.
A few years after that pilgrimage I converted to Catholicism, and as I tried to move closer to God I found myself moving away from Hemingway. For a long time, before, during and after graduate school, I did not have any faith—in spite of having been blessed with a solid Lutheran upbringing. In retrospect I partially blamed the man who, in The Sun Also Rises, taught me “a bottle of wine was good company.” I knew my atheism had been a response to my mother’s rheumatoid arthritis, which struck her at 55 and turned her into an old woman overnight. I had watched her exhaustingly take care of her own mother, afflicted with the same disease, and the irony of my mother’s suffering, commencing just a year after my grandmother's death, could not be reconciled with a loving God.
Still, hadn’t Hemingway also played a role? In addition to the lousy example he set as a hard-drinking womanizer, hadn’t he, in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” penned the nihilistic and blasphemous lines of the old waiter? They are as sharp and clear as anything he ever wrote:
It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada. Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nadaus ournada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee.
As a writer, I understood a character’s words and actions cannot be ascribed to their author. The old waiter is a fictional invention. He is not Hemingway any more than the Misfit in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is Flannery O’Connor—even if the Misfit’s lament, “I can’t make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment,” might well have been echoed by O’Connor or my mother and grandmother. More importantly, the old waiter’s insomnia could be viewed as resulting from his nihilism, and a reader could interpret the tale as a condemnation of that philosophy. Nonetheless, those lines from “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” haunted me. I felt guilty for having taught that story to impressionable students.
I do not pray for Hemingway because he was Catholic, but rather because through his writing he has been a friend of mine.
So I avoided Hemingway like the other fishermen avoid Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea. Now, however, roughly a decade later, I realize I did so out of ignorance. I had bought into the myth of Hemingway propagated by our culture and, indeed, many of his biographers, rather than the truth revealed in his life and work. Far from being a nihilist, he had an interest in Catholicism even before his 1927 marriage to Pauline, and though he practiced the faith imperfectly, to say the least—four wives, several affairs—it always remained important to him and permeates much of his fiction. Santiago, after all, means St. James, and in 1954 Hemingway formally presented his Nobel Prize Medal to Our Lady of Charity, the Patroness of Cuba.
Yet I do not pray for Hemingway because he was Catholic, but rather because through his writing he has been a friend of mine, and in 1961, two years before I was born, he put the twin barrels of a shotgun against his forehead and committed suicide. He had received electro-shock treatments to combat depression, and these, combined with the serious concussions he had previously suffered, left him unable to think clearly, much less pursue the craft for which he won the Nobel. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that psychological factors like this can mitigate one’s culpability. Furthermore, it says: “We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives” (No. 2283).
Hemingway formally presented his Nobel Prize Medal to Our Lady of Charity, the Patroness of Cuba.
In short, there is hope for Ernest Hemingway, for all suicides, and this hope is rooted in God’s timelessness as well as his mercy. Our prayers are effective because everything stands before God in an ever-present now. God has always known that I would offer prayers in 2017 for that terrible moment in 1961. He can, therefore, assign the grace of those prayers to Hemingway in that moment, in the final millisecond of life after the trigger was pulled. My petitions before God, even 56 years after Hemingway’s death, can foster a disposition of the writer’s soul that will lead to salvation.
Dorothy Day understood this and prayed frequently for suicides, and we should do the same. These are souls on the margins, spiritual outcasts in need of our compassion. We should have Masses said for them, pray the Rosary and Divine Mercy Chaplet for them and offer up our trials so they may attain the beatific vision. And whether we are tied to them by kinship, friendship, admiration for their brilliant writing, or just the metaphysical bond of our shared humanity, we must trust in the boundless love of God whom we know “desires all men to be saved” (1 Tim 2:4).