Friday, July 22, 2016

Hemingway Transformed, 98 Years Later

Among other projects, I am currently working on a book featuring Hemingway’s faith journey. I recently had the privilege of speaking at the Hemingway Society conference in Oak Park, Illinois where he was born and grew up.  Below are the text of my pre-delivery remarks.  — Mary Claire Kendall


Remarks by Mary Claire Kendall 
at the Hemingway Society Biennial Conference
At Home in Hemingways World
“Ars Longa, Vita Brevis . . . Aeternitas?—
Hemingway’s Religious Quest”
Monday, July 18, 2016, 2:45-4 PM
Dominican University, Riverside, IL

Good afternoon. My name is Mary Claire Kendall.

I am the author of Oasis: Conversion Stories of Hollywood Legends, featuring an all-star twelve, including Hemingway’s good friend Gary Cooper.

It’s wonderful to be part of this distinguished panel about Hemingway’s Religious Quest” on this, the first day of The Hemingway Society’s biennual conference in Hemingway’s hometown of Oak Park.

Five summers ago, no sooner had I finished writing an article about Cooper and his faith journey, than Hemingway was splashing into the news. It was the 50th anniversary of his death. Knowing how close Hemingway and Cooper were and that they died just weeks apart—Coop on May 13—I began to dig deeper into Hemingway’s life.

That August, I began to read The Sun Also Rises, a paperback copy of which I happened to buy for a dollar years earlier at the now-defunct Vassar Book Fair in Washington, DC.  I was coming off a very stressful year after my own Hollywood hazing and each night, feeling totally wired, something amazing happened. Within fifteen minutes or so of reading this literary masterpiece, I was fast asleep. His writing was just so beautiful and calming. There was so much depth beneath the tip of that iceberg!

On the afternoon of Friday, September 9, as my quest to understand this legendary writer intensified, I felt, somewhat mystically, as if Hemingway was saying to me, “It’s about time.”

A few days later, on Tuesday, September 12, coincidentally the Feast of the Name of Mary, I reached out to Charles Scribner as I tried to glean more important pieces in the puzzle of his life and he told me, “Hemingway called himself a Catholic [having been baptized by a Catholic priest in Italy during WWI]…”  

By November 2011, my friend Fr. C. John McCloskey, known as “the convert maker,” having brought a who’s who to the Catholic Church, introduced me to his friend Redd Griffin of Oak Park, who had studied Hemingway’s spirituality for 25 years. His knowledge was encyclopedic. Our conversation that first Sunday before Thanksgiving 2011 went on for four hours as I furiously scribbled away.

I was hooked and soon, instead of an article, I was working on a book proposal.  To my shock, Redd would live just 12 more months—suddenly dying, almost a year to the day after our first phone seminar.

He had guided me well that year as I climbed Mount Hemingway. That summer I interviewed Hemingway’s son Patrick for a Forbes article published on Hemingway’s birthday, titled “Hemingway on Hemingway and Hollywood.”

And, that November, just before Redd died, I fortuitously reached out to H.R. Stoneback seeking guidance as I continued to write my proposal. On July 8, 2013, I wrapped back around to what Charlie Scribner had told me, and wrote another Forbes piece, this one titled “Hemingway Transformed, 95 Years Later.” 

Then, “Oasis” intervened as well as life tragedy, namely the sudden death of my beloved mother Claire.  But, in the summer of 2015, out of the blue, I heard from “Stoney” on August 11, the Feast of St. Claire, and eve of my mother’s birthday, no less, asking if I had found a publisher and would I like to speak at this conference?  A good omen, I thought.

So, without further adieu, I give you, “Hemingway Transformed, 98 Years Later.” 


Hemingway Transformed,
98 Years Later
By Mary Claire Kendall

In the summer of 1918, as World War I was entering its final bloody stages, Ernest Hemingway, like most American youth, answered the call to serve in this “war to end all wars.” Then, as now, the same sectarian and religious rivalries convulsed the world.

Ernest Hemingway in Milan, 1918
Within weeks, Hemingway was seriously wounded and nearly died. The experience would transform him into not only a great writer but a man of great faith. The former we know all too well—embodied in such epic works as A Farewell to Arms, made into an Oscar-winning film starring Gary Cooper. The latter we know little of.

That the underlying theme of his writing—and his life—is “sanctity,” according to Hemingway scholar H.R. Stoneback, has everything to do with what happened in the heat of battle in Fossalta, Italy along the Piave River, and its immediate aftermath, 98 years ago this month.


Given defective eyesight, the Army rejected Hemingway.  So, he joined the American Red Cross Ambulance Corps and, on May 23, 1918, just 18, set sail for Europe from New York with his fellow enlistees.

After crossing the Atlantic, it was “Paris and red tape,” he wrote his friend, second lieutenant Henry Villard, followed by “temporary duty in Milano”—including the “shock” his first day while retrieving the dead from a munitions factory explosion that, as he wrote in Death in the Afternoon (1932),  “a good number of these (dead)… were women.”

Afterwards he “strolled through the Galleria and into the vast dim cathedral,” he wrote Villard, and arrived in Schio, home of the Ambulance Corps, on June 10, 1918. 

But Hemingway found Schio insufferably boring and soon managed to finagle an assignment running one of the “rolling canteens” the American Red Cross established, among a network of canteens, that got him as close to the front lines as possible.  He arrived at his new assignment on June 24, 1918, joined by his close friend Bill Horne.

As the second lieutenant in his section, Hemingway was allowed to eat in the mess hall with the Italian officers. It was there that he met Don Giuseppe Bianchi, a young priest from the Abruzzi region near Florence.  Just like the priest in A Farewell to Arms, Don Bianchi, wrote Carlos Baker in Hemingway: A Life Story, “wore a cross in dark red velvet above the left-hand pocket of his tunic” and, also like the priest in the novel vis-à-vis Lt. Frederic Henry, played by Cooper, “quickly befriended Ernest who treated him with sympathy and respect.”

At the end of June, Ernest’s rolling canteen was far from operational, leaving him to deliver chocolates and cigarettes on foot. 

He made quite an impression. As his friend Ted Brumback (“Brummy”) wrote Ernest’s family, as quoted in The Letters of Ernest Hemingway, 1907-1922, edited by Sandra Spanier and Robert Trogdon, “The Italians in the trenches got to know his smiling face and were always asking for their ‘giovane Americano.’”  While Hemingway was enjoying himself capitally, Horne, Baker wrote, found “(t)he combination of inaction, mosquitoes, and gnawing silkworms” oppressive, prompting him to return to Schio on July 1st.

A week later, Horne heard the news that, as Baker wrote, “(a)round midnight on July 8thin a forward listening post on the west bank of the river near Fossalta, Ernest had been severely wounded.”

The midnight mortar, Brummy wrote, “hit within a few feet of Ernest while he was giving out chocolate. The concussion of the explosion knocked him unconscious and buried him with earth.”  The Italian closer to the shell, Brummy continued, was killed and “another, standing a few feet away, had both legs blown off.” Ernest was heroic in saving a badly wounded third Italian:  “(T)his one Ernest, after he had regained consciousness, picked up on his back and carried to the first aid dug-out. He says he does not remember how he got there nor that he had carried a man until the next day when an Italian officer told him about it” and said they had voted to give him the valor medal.

Years later, Hemingway wrote in his usual cryptic style in a letter to Thomas Welsh, father of his fourth wife, Mary, as Stoneback reported in “Hemingway’s Catholicism and the Biographies,” that “In first war… really scared after wounded and very devout at the end.”  

In typical Hemingway fashion, he kept this secret about his fervent faith to himself when writing to his family on August 18, 1918, from the American Red Cross Hospital in Milan.  But, make no mistake, in spite of what his various biographers have previously written, Hemingway was a changed man. As Stoneback writes:

… (Hemingway biographer Jeffrey) Meyers (wrote that)… “A Florentine priest, Don Giuseppe Bianchi, passed by the wounded men, murmuring holy words and anointing them. There was no need for the priest to give Hemingway extreme unction; he was not in mortal danger and was recovering from his wounds.  Bianchi’s perfunctory ceremony was not (as Hemingway later conveniently claimed) a formal baptism into the Catholic Church.” (Hemingway: A Biography, by Jeffrey Meyers, p. 32; emphasis added). Aside from the patronizing tone of this passage… Meyers seems confused about the sacraments. If the priest did “anoint” Hemingway, what else could the sacrament have been but extreme unction? It is also, most likely, under battlefield circumstances, that obtained, that the priest would first speak the brief Trinitarian words of “conditional Baptism” and then administered the viaticum, the Holy Communion given to those in danger of death…

Hemingway—a bloody mess, with over 200 pieces of shrapnel, along with bullets, lodged in his legs, knees and feet—was holding on for dear life in that schoolhouse, where he received morphine and antitetanus and a Catholic “anointing.” That anointing, he later boasted, in his January 2, 1926 response to a letter from Ernest Walsh—an expatriate American poet and co-editor of the small but influential Paris magazine This Quarter, where Hemingway’s fiction was first published—made him a “super-catholic.” In this same letter, which Michael Reynolds included in Hemingway: The Paris Years, he wrote:

If I am anything I am a Catholic.  Had extreme unction administered to me as such in July 1918 and recovered… It is most certainly the most comfortable religion for anyone soldiering. Am not what is called a “good” Catholic… But cannot imagine taking any other religious seriously.

He was next transported to a field hospital for five days after which the Army transported him to the train for the trip to Milan and the American Red Cross Hospital, where he met and fell in love with Agnes Von Kurowsky, providing the romantic basis for A Farewell to Arms. Agnes, Stoneback wrote, remembered Hemingway asking her to go to Mass with him in Milan at the Cathedral he had visited on day one.

“To understand Hemingway’s writing,” his sister Madeleine (“Sunny”) always said, as told to me by Redd Griffin, “you need to understand his spirituality.” And, to understand Hemingway’s spirituality, you need to understand his Catholicism, catalyzed by that wounding so many Julys ago, on that battlefield in Italy, where soldiers were trying to settle, once again, with weapons, intractable sectarian and religious differences. 

UPDATE: Mary Claire Kendall spoke at the Hemingway Biennial Conference in Paris on July 25, 2018. A shortened version of the paper she gave was published in St. Austin Review in early 2019. She is currently working on a book about Hemingway's faith journey.

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