Ernest Hemingway is one of those ancient relics of English class that you always hear about growing up, but never actually read in a meaningful context. Sure, there are snippets and excerpts in the textbooks, but they're necessarily sterilized for consumption by public school students. You're fed just enough as a kid to know he is a Big Deal, there are cats named after him!
My only real, tangible contact with Hemingway while growing up was watching The Old Man and the Sea on the couch at my grandma's house during some holiday function. My dad was there watching it with me and he said that it was one of his favorite movies. Being somewhere between eight and twelve years old, I completely didn't understand the story. Spencer Tracy on a tiny boat with a big, dead fish that sharks are eating. Okay, whatever. I sat through it, though, because my dad isn't the kind of person to whom you can say "I don't like this thing you just said you loved.” Not that he gets angry, it's the opposite, his disappointment in you is crushing. I learned this early.
My second major encounter with Hemingway was in college. We were handed a Xerox of a Xerox of a Xeroxed copy of The Snows of Kilimanjaro to read. For those unfamiliar, it's a short story about a white guy in Africa dying of gangrene he got while on safari there. This is an offensively obtuse summarization, but the point is that I was still in the wrong mindset for this whole Hemingway thing until I got to this passage:
He had destroyed his talent himself. Why should he blame this woman because she kept him well? He had destroyed his talent by not using it, by betrayals of himself and what he believed in, by drinking so much that he blunted the edge of his perceptions, by laziness, by sloth, and by snobbery, by pride and by prejudice, by hook and by crook. What was this? A catalogue of old books? What was his talent anyway? It was a talent all right but instead of using it, he had traded on it. It was never what he had done, but always what he could do. And he had chosen to make his living with something else instead of a pen or a pencil.
My blood ran cold. Seriously. I read it again. And again. And again. I've all but memorized it in the years since that day in class. It was like Hemingway looked me in the eye and called me out on all the bullshit that I told myself about myself regarding what I wanted to do with my life and where I wanted to go with it. This was a new, fresh sort of horror that I hadn't had any concept of until that very moment.
He had destroyed his talent by not using it.
When was the last time that I had actually written something that wasn't a means to an end? I could think of things for school, to get a grade, to get out of school – nothing of personally satisfying substance. Was it years? It had to have been years. Was I, right in that moment, squandering my talent by not using it?
It was never what he had done, but always what he could do.
It was a transformative experience, a crystallized moment that I'll remember for as long as I'll live. Perhaps that was the moment that I realized that I was now a Grown Up. Even if I didn't necessarily feel like an adult, I had obtained a stark awareness of everything that wasn't there before I read those words on that nth generation photocopy.
...by laziness, by sloth, and by snobbery, by pride and by prejudice, by hook and by crook.
No, Hemingway isn't an author that you can appreciate while you're a child. You need to become an adult in order to properly appreciate that particular brand of nihilistic hedonism. It's just not a thing that a teenager has the perspective to even comprehend. Try and explain it, go ahead, witness the eyes glazing over, the absolute disinterest that transforms into outright disdain when the speaker doesn't get the hint that nobody can possibly care about this. I know, because I was that kid.
And he had chosen to make his living with something else instead of a pen or a pencil.
The specter of this dead man looms over me daily. Judging me. I've known since I was little that I want to make my living being a writer. I'm not there yet, but I've made inroads, certainly. Papa Hemingway doesn't care though. He knew the truth since before I was born. Since before my dad was born. Funnily enough, I think his disappointment would be just as crushing as my own father’s.