It’s almost hard to believe that at just 25 years old, Ernest Hemingway was already writing one of the novels he’s best known for: The Sun Also Rises.
Some have even called it his “breakthrough” work, while others say there’s no amount of analysis that could convey its quality.
But then you crack the spine yourself, and you find a book full of complex characters trying to find meaning in their lives; a story of friends wading through drama and heartbreak, all the while drinking a leather bag of wine or two (or four) while they take in bullfights and fishing trips.
And then it all makes sense: These tales scream of life as a twenty-something.
Well, maybe not the bullfights.
We’ve learned through the Year25 series that 25 can be a pinnacle year, one that marks a period of great influence (positive or negative) by different places or people; one of big decisions, some angst, maybe even serious romance or adventures that can put a person on a path that shapes the rest of his or her life.
As it turns out, Hemingway’s 25th year was full of all those things - and he put them right into his writing.
Of course, we can’t ask the famed author what was going through his head at 25, or if he had any eureka moments or transitional conversations during that year.
But he did leave us with many works that give a sense of his life at that time. A Moveable Feast, for example, is almost a memoir of his life in Paris in the 1920s. Not to mention there are scholars all over the world that have devoted their lives to discovering his.
By 25, Hemingway had already been through a lot. He worked as a news reporter for the Kansas City Star for under a year. By 18, he was driving ambulances through Italy during World War I where he was seriously wounded by a mortar shell.
Hemingway eventually married another woman, Hadley Richardson, his first wife, and together they had a young son Jack.
By July 21, 1924, also known as Hemingway’s 25th birthday, Jack was just over a year old. At the time, the family lived in Paris, France, and visited Spain in the summer to watch the bullfights. It was during this time when Hemingway mixed in with other famous Modernist writers and authors like Gertrude Stein — people who would become a huge influence on his writing style.
“[Stein] is the one who told him he should really spend time looking at Cézanne especially,” said John W. Berry, Chairman of the Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park.
“He talked all of his life about the impact that Cézanne’s paintings had on his early writing — where you kind of put the background in very low focus and then you focus on just a few things in the foreground and really treat them with great detail.”
Stein became sort of an editor figure for Hemingway. As he wrote away the days and drank away the nights, Stein was there to tell him which pages to cut out and where to look for inspiration. Hemingway also published a collection of short stories just after his 25th year, called In Our Time, which experts say was polished by Stein’s editorial advice.
But it was The Sun Also Rises that really launched his career, according to Liesl Olson, director of the Scholl Center for American History and Culture at the Newberry Library in Chicago. The stories of carousing with friends, the incredibly detailed scenes of bullfighting — those were all inspired by experiences of his 25th year.
Not every review was full of high praise when The Sun Also Rises was first published in 1926. He was panned by literary editor Fanny Butcher of the Chicago Tribune, a paper he read faithfully no matter where he lived.
“What she wrote really mattered in Chicago,” Olson said. “She basically thought the novel was full of too much drinking, too much sex. It was sensational. It was about a group of twenty-somethings who didn’t know what they were doing with their lives.”
He also received a bad review from a critic close to his heart: His mother, Grace Hall Hemingway. She wouldn’t even attend her book club meeting when the group was discussing The Sun Also Rises. According to Olson, Hemingway’s mother sent a letter to him in Paris, saying, among other harsh things, “you’re prostituting a really great ability to the lowest ends.”
Yet despite all that, the work he wrote at 25 became major bestseller, and it’s never been out of print.
“For all the twenty-somethings out there right now trying to do something big,” Olson says. “This is a really instructive moment.”
Lauren Chooljian is WBEZ’s Morning Producer and Reporter. Follow @laurenchooljian.