The author of classic works like The Old Man and the Sea, For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway is looked upon as a literary titan. But in many circles, his writing isn’t what he’s best remembered for. Hemingway’s drinking and macho reputation are revered long after his death — but what effect did his reckless lifestyle and penchant for heavy drinking have on his life?
In this piece, we’ll explore the life of Ernest Hemingway and the forces that shaped his life and career and uncover some of the hidden risks in glorifying problem drinking as something to be emulated.
The Life and Times of Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway is considered one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. In his career as a novelist, journalist and short story writer, he wrote multiple novels that have become required reading in the years since their publication. In 1954, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Over the course of his life, he was married four times, lived in countries all around the globe and listed such notable historical figures as fellow writer F. Scott Fitzgerald and actor Gary Cooper among his closest friends.
Hemingway was an avid outdoorsmen, a lover of adventure and a heavy drinker. The latter aspect of his life has become controversial. Many people still glorify his relationship with alcohol, but as the years pass, it seems it may have taken more of a toll on his life than he let on.
Although he was known for his humor, he had a bad temper, a tendency to abuse even those close to him and a morbid wit. It’s sometimes suggested that, like Robin Williams, Hemingway was engaged in a lifelong battle with chronic pain, addiction and mental illness. This culminated in his suicide in 1961 at his home in Idaho.
Was Ernest Hemingway an Alcoholic?
For Hemingway, drinking was second nature. But because he wasn’t sloppy about it, he wasn’t called a drunk or any of the other pejorative terms used for the alcoholics of the time. In fact, he didn’t really talk about his drinking habits at all.
With this in mind, it’s not far-fetched to think he was an alcoholic. In an article in the UK’s Independent, British journalist John Walsh recounts a story about Hemingway’s drinking:
“Ernest went to a doctor in 1937, complaining of stomach pains; liver damage was diagnosed and he was told to give up alcohol. He refused. Seven years later, in 1944, when Martha Gellhorn visited him in hospital, she found empty liquor bottles under his bed. In 1957, his doctor friend AJ Monnier wrote urgently, ‘My dear Ernie, you must stop drinking alcohol. This is definitely of the utmost importance.’ But even then, he couldn’t stop.”
The legend of Ernest Hemingway that revolves primary around his alcohol use is one that blurs the lines between fact and fiction. In one tale, it’s said he drank 17 daiquiris in one sitting, and another legend had the author carrying a pitcher of martinis with him to work. While this was debunked by Hemingway himself, there was never a secret about his beverage of choice.
Hemingway’s Drinking, Lifestyle and Declining Health
Ernest Hemingway had a zest for life, which led him to travel the world hunting large game, sport fishing in treacherous waters and living his life to the fullest.
Later in life, though, it seems Hemingway’s alcohol consumption could’ve become a coping mechanism. His adventurous lifestyle left him with frequent health complications, from a battle with dysentery on a trip to Africa to a car accident that left him hospitalized for two weeks. He was also involved in a pair of high-profile plane crashes later in life.
Shortly before his suicide, Hemingway was thought to be battling chronic pain as a result of his many injuries as well as the beginnings of serious liver failure.
The Potential of a Hereditary Mood Disorder
After his death, Hemingway was posthumously analyzed to an extensive degree for many years. In 2006, a study published in Psychiatry identified his behavior as consistent with patterns of bipolar disorder as well as narcissistic and borderline personality disorders.
Although the time has passed to operate on anything more than speculation, his family history also suggests mental health issues ran in Hemingway’s genetics. His own father reportedly had issues controlling his temper and eventually committed suicide, prompting Hemingway to write, “I’ll probably go the same way.”
Probable Brain Trauma
Another explanation for Hemingway’s declining mental health later in life was a history of brain trauma. Stemming from a serious concussion he suffered as a young man in Italy during World War I, Hemingway may have suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the same condition that’s caused several notable suicides among ex-NFL players in recent years.
Would Treatment Have Helped?
It’s not difficult to wonder how different Ernest Hemingway’s life would’ve been if he lived today. It’s impossible to say for certain, but one thing is sure: Rising awareness of mental health issues in the modern era would’ve relieved some of the pressure that was likely on him to maintain a macho image in the face of pain.
Certainly, men still face unique barriers to accessing mental health treatment, but even so, issues with masculinity and the pressure to be tough are less prevalent today than they were when Hemingway was alive. It’s possible that in the present, the social norms that may have caused him to hide his feelings and drink through the pain have lessened to the point where Ernest Hemingway could’ve gotten quality treatment for his addiction and mental health issues.
Bringing Awareness to Suicide and Addiction
Would treatment have lengthened the life of one of America’s greatest writers? No one will ever be able to say for sure, but one thing is undeniable: Hemingway’s alcoholism wasn’t an isolated case, and neither was his suicide, which remains a leading cause of death globally. It’s important that anyone struggling with addiction or a mental health issue get the help they need before things get out of control.
If you or a loved one are dealing with a mental or behavioral health condition, contact us at FHE Health to learn about your options.