Ernest Hemingway’s suicide in 1961—fifty years ago on July 2—“remains one of the iconic American deaths,” writes Robert Roper for Obit Magazine. “He has come close to being remembered as much for his death as for his work, a terrible fate for a writer.”
Not only was Hemingway a rock star author in his time, but he also transformed himself into an icon of some his day’s biggest socio-cultural changes. Which is, of course, why American readers are perpetually interested in Hemingway’s suicide. Barrel-chested, he personally stood for liberty and against Fascism before it was fashionable. Paranoid depression crippled him at the beginning of a new era of neuroscience and psychological therapy. And Hemingway’s problematic, overblown masculinity drew near-universal ire from a burgeoning, radicalizing feminist movement.
Summarizing a few of Hemingway’s biographers, Roper notes that suicide was often close to the author’s thoughts:
The times just after finishing a book were some of the worst for him. Even in his robust roaring ‘20s, world-famous as an author already, he talked often about having night terrors, about feeling “contemptible,” about being afraid he was losing control—“you lie all night half funny in the head and pray and pray and pray you won’t go crazy.” In a love letter to the woman who would become his second wife, he wrote, “I think all the time I want to die.” A love letter! The inner Hemingway was agonized, was ever on the cross.
Further, the British journal The Independent argues that Hemingway’s bravura was a misread cry for help, that “when you inspect the image of Hemingway-as-hero, you uncover an extraordinary sub-stratum of self-harming. You discover that, for just over half of his life, Hemingway seemed hell-bent on destroying himself.”
But in a recent op-ed column for the New York Times, his friend and biographer A.E. Hochner posits a new theory: He was harassed to despair by the FBI. Hemingway often speculated that his phones were bugged, that he was under surveillance, that he was in danger. Only after a Freedom of Information Act released Hemingway’s FBI dossier did Hochner discover the truth:
Decades later, in response to a Freedom of Information petition, the F.B.I. released its Hemingway file. It revealed that beginning in the 1940s J. Edgar Hoover had placed Ernest under surveillance because he was suspicious of Ernest’s activities in Cuba. Over the following years, agents filed reports on him and tapped his phones. The surveillance continued all through his confinement at St. Mary’s Hospital.
Not only did the American way of life come to destroy Hemingway, but Hemingway’s suicide came to traumatize generations of male American writers. “In a dialogue published in the June 1986 edition of Esquire,” remembers the Los Angeles Times’ Reed Johnson, “the writers Ken Kesey and Robert Stone cited Hemingway’s suicide as a critical blow to the American male psyche, which led some men to embrace an alternative ideal of masculinity. ‘He tricked us into following his mode, and then he conked out and shot himself,’ Kesey says of Hemingway.”
Ernest Hemingway’s career, personality, and legacy are controversial—and will ever remain so. Closing the profile in Obit Magazine, Roper asks us all to take a step back from our political agendas and literary preferences. He concludes, “That so large and memorable a personage was so entirely without hope so much of the time awakens compassion.”