How Hemingway Surrendered to the Human Condition
But here’s where the similarities in modern reporting and Hemingway’s coverage diverge: Armed with live shots and immediate publication, reporters of Hurricane Ian work to be unbiased for CNN, FOX, or USA Today—the socio-political reputation of the publisher tailoring the timber of the message.
In 1935, Hemingway wasn’t in a mood to be unbiased or tailored. He submitted his essay quickly to the leftist journal New Masses, which changed his original title, “Panic,” to the longer version but left the content mostly unaltered. There’s much debate in Hemingway Studies about why Hemingway published the essay as he was so famously neutral in his public life. His letters don’t reveal a definitive motive. He was a private citizen capturing photographs and information as a volunteer. He made little attempt in this 1935 essay to shield bias. Those circumstances created a raw, honest voice that is what we all expect today.
He had written about his personal journeys in the past, including 1932’s Death in the Afternoon, a study in courage, culture, and bullfighting chronicling his journey through Spain’s relentless bullfighting season. But there, he was a witness. For the 1935 Key West hurricane, he was a resident, living the experience with no arena seat from which to witness the events. Similarly, Hemingway also exposed a personal side with his Esquire magazine letters written from 1933-1936, letters in which he referred to himself as “Your Correspondent,” and often shared his opinions on commonplace topics including the state of writing and big game fishing. But, again, none of these situations impacted his home or those living around him in the way that the fatal hurricane of 1935 impacted his home island of Key West.
We want and expect to experience the reporters’ reactions as the tragedy unfolds.
For this writing for New Masses, Hemingway was not a stringer for a magazine. He was not under contract for any publication, and he was not composing this piece as part of a larger work or novel. Instead, he weathered the storm, walked outside the survey the damage, and found devastating loss of life among American veterans he felt had been failed by their nation.
He leveraged all of his talents as a writer, journalist, and public figure to tell America what was really happening in the wake of the storm.
Today, journalists who are under contract and are living in the hurricane zone follow the residue of what he created in this personal presentation of his traumatic stress reaction to the natural occurrence of the storm.
Are we as graphic as Hemingway? No. Few can match his sparse, subtle and haunting prose. Can you even imagine comments on Twitter to the passage below:
“When we reached the Lower Matacumbe there were bodies floating in the ferry slip. The brush was all brown as though autumn had come to these islands where there is no autumn but only a more dangerous summer, but that was because the leaves had all been blown away. There were two feet of sand over the highest part of the island where the sea had carried it and all the heavy bridgebuilding machines were on their sides. The island looked like the abandoned bed of a river where the sea had swept it. The railroad embankment was gone and the men who cowered behind it and finally, when the water came, clung to the rails, were all gone with it. You could find them face down and face up in the mangroves. The biggest bunch of the dead were in the tangled, always green but now brown, mangroves behind the tank cars and the water towers. They hung on there, in shelter, until the wind and the rising water carried them away. They didn’t all let go at once but only when they could hold on no longer.”
At the essence of this passage is what we seek today—the human experience amid the trauma of the hurricane. Ernest Hemingway, an iconic American voice of the 1930s and beyond, navigated the route for those who follow this brave work. May they find fair winds and following seas.
E. Stone Meredith, Ph.D., teaches college-level literature, writing, and philosophy classes online and works primarily with military students and their affiliates. Her work with Hemingway focuses on connections to Florida and his journalism of the 1930s. She is the founder of Clever Chicas, a non-profit project celebrating ordinary women doing extraordinary things.