“Successful writer kills himself with favorite hunting gun.”
This could have been a newspaper headline in early July 1961. Ernest Hemingway, like his father, brother, and sister, deliberately ended his own life. I didn’t know that until I read his 1935 book Green Hills of Africa. I thought I’d love it—a story about a two-month hunting safari. I’ve hunted on the same terrain Hemingway encountered as he learned the sport as a boy on vacations in Northern Michigan. But I felt about the book as many critics did: what was billed as not being a travelogue ended up being a travelogue. Too many hunting details, too little plot.
But this isn’t a book review nearly 90 years too late. It’s more like a life review. What was the plot of Hemingway’s life, and what can we learn from him?
Big Dreams at a High Cost
Those closest to Hemingway say he did what he wanted—he chased his dreams. He pursued what he loved with gusto. His first love was writing. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (1953) and the Nobel Prize in Literature (1954), and he was a singular influence in the transition from romantic, wordy Victorian literature to gritty, succinct modern writing. He also loved to fish and hunt. Hemingway held deep-sea fishing records. On his first African safari, he killed 103 trophy animals, including three lions, two cheetahs, a rhino, and a leopard. And he “loved” women—he married four and cavorted with others, whether he was married or single. He was the quintessential manly man.
But was he successful?
In a documentary, his gray-haired third son chokes up telling the camera he just wanted his father to love him. True love is sacrificial. It requires abandoning some dreams to deeply share in the joy and sadness of others. But Hemingway loved Hemingway.
In this way, his story isn’t unique. He had many reasons to boast, and bragging was a leading characteristic—but he seems to have failed the biggest tests. Hemingway rejected the Christianity he learned from his mother (who was apparently a poor model of the faith). His second wife required him to become devoted to the church, which he did only insincerely. Friends acknowledge that wild abuse of alcohol contributed to Hemingway’s deterioration and demise.
True love is sacrificial. It requires abandoning some dreams to deeply share in the joy and sadness of others.
Despite his strength and success, without self-control Hemingway was like a city without walls (Prov. 25:28). He knew something was missing, often admitting to his sons how hard it was to be a good man—which, of course, it is. But the strength to succeed doesn’t come from within. The grit that served Hemingway well in other ways can’t make one righteous. He followed some good rules. The first newspaper company he worked for taught him to use simple words and write short sentences. But he ignored other, more important rules for life: Deny yourself. Take up your cross. Follow Jesus (Luke 9:23).
Hemingway’s assessment of Islam in the 1930s is how some view Christianity today: “It was something that gave caste, something to believe in, something . . . god-giving to suffer a little for each year, something that made you superior to other people.”
But that’s not what following Jesus means. It means losing your natural life in the life of Jesus—and finding in him a life no amount of chasing can secure. It’s possible to chase the world, seem to gain it, but lose your soul (Luke 9:24–25).
Follow the dreams of this world and you’ll lose everything. “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matt. 6:33).
The Gospel Coalition