in: Character, Knowledge of Men, Podcast

• Last updated: March 30, 2022

Podcast #786: The Writing Life of Ernest Hemingway

How did one of history’s greatest writers — Ernest Hemingway — get going with his craft, develop his indelible style, and infuse his narratives with memorable life and compelling tension?

Today we delve into the answers to those questions with Hemingway scholar Mark Cirino, who is a professor of English, the editor and author of half a dozen books on Hemingway — including Ernest Hemingway: Thought in Action — and the host of the One True Podcast which covers all things related to Papa. Mark and I our begin our conversation with how Hemingway cut his teeth with writing as a journalist, how the “iceberg theory” underlay his approach to writing as a novelist, and how his years in Paris — and the books, people, and art he encountered there — influenced his work and the trajectory of his career. We then discuss how his travel and recreational pastimes allowed him to write with a vivid firsthand understanding of certain places and pursuits, what his writing routine was like, and how the characters in his novels explore the tension between thought and action. We end our conversation with Mark’s recommendation for where to start reading Hemingway if you’ve never read him or haven’t read him in a long time, and what Mark thinks was Hemingway’s “one true sentence.”

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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. How did one of history’s greatest writers, Ernest Hemingway, get going with this craft, develop his indelible style, and infuse his narratives with memorable life and compelling tension? Today we delve into the answers to those questions with Hemingway scholar Mark Cirino, who is a professor of English, the editor and author of half a dozen books on Hemingway, including Ernest Hemingway: Thought in Action, and the host of the One True Podcast which covers all things related to Papa. Mark and I begin our conversation with how Hemingway cut his teeth with writing as a journalist, how the iceberg theory underlay his approach to writing as a novelist, and how his years in Paris and the books, people, and art he encountered there influenced his work and the trajectory of his career. We then discussed how his travel and recreational pastimes have allowed him to write with a vivid firsthand understanding of certain places and pursuits, what his writing routine was like, and how the characters in his novels explore the tension between Thought in Action.

We end our conversation with Mark’s recommendation for where to start reading Hemingway if you’ve never read him or haven’t read him in a long time, and what Mark thinks was Hemingway’s “one true sentence.” After the show is over, check out our show notes at Mark joins us now via

Mark Cirino, welcome to the show.

Mark Cirino: Thanks, Brett.

Brett McKay: You’re an English professor. And you’ve made Ernest Hemingway the focus of your career. You have a podcast called One True Podcast, we discuss Ernest Hemingway. You’re the editor of several journals about Hemingway. You’ve written a book, Hemingway: Thought in Action. You also got a new book coming out, “one true sentence” all about Hemingway. So you’re the Hemingway guy. How did that happen? How did you make Hemingway a career for yourself?

Mark Cirino: Yeah, Brett, it really snowballed. I think probably my origin point with Hemingway. I grew up in a house full of readers, my father was a journalist, my mother was a writer. So my mother was always reading books, my dad was already was always reading newspapers. So I just gradually read through the bookshelves, their bookshelves were always full. And then when I was about 20 or 21, I got to Hemingway, and he just really grabbed me the language, the clarity of his language, subject matter. So yes, I read all his novels. I read his short stories, and I just was hooked. I was hooked. So yeah, Hemingway is a huge part of my teaching and my research, without a doubt.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I think Hemingway like if you grew up, like my parents had copies of him, they had these old hard bound books of all of Hemingway’s stuff, Fitzgerald’s stuff. And yeah, I was kind of like you, and when I got into high school, I somehow, I was bored, and we didn’t have fortnite back then. So I was like, “Oh, okay, I’ll read For Whom the Bell Tolls.” And it was great.

Mark Cirino: Yeah. And so I think I probably started with The Sun Also Rises, just because it was probably shorter than from the Bell Tolls. And looking back, I can’t imagine I understood what I was reading, because some of the stuff in Hemingway is not apparent on the surface. I don’t know if, Brett, if you felt the same way I did, but there’s something about the atmosphere, the way the characters spoke, that just I loved being in that world, even though I wasn’t 100% sure what was going on.

Brett McKay: No, I felt the same way too. Sometimes you have to read it a couple times for it to sink in.

Mark Cirino: No doubt. No doubt.

Brett McKay: Yeah. So what I like to do with this episode is talk about Hemingway’s life in general, but also his work and his influence, ’cause Hemingway, he’s one of those virile writers, right? He did manly things, “Bull fights, hunted, went to war. And then he wrote about those things.” Let’s talk about how did Hemingway find his way into writing, could you see when he was a kid growing up in Illinois, outside of Chicago, that he was going to be a writer?

Mark Cirino: He really could actually. His mother was into the arts, was a music teacher. In addition to being a doctor, his father was a naturalist, a hunter and extremely knowledgeable about all things nature. Hemingway also had his ancestors were in the Civil War. And so all of the elements that would come to define Hemingway were there really early on, it is really funny to look at Hemingway’s High School prophecy, and he said, “I want to travel and write.” And I don’t know if any of your listeners when you are a senior in high school could nail your future so perfectly, “I want to travel and write.” Well, what better definition of Hemingway than those two activities, because those are the two things that would come to be his trademark.

Brett McKay: No, yeah, and one thing too, preparing for this podcast, I read a Carlos Baker’s seminal biography. And one thing, it talked about Hemingway when he was a kid, like he loved to tell stories, and like when he would tell people like what happened, like something, an experience that he had, he would embellish it. And he was kind of cutting his teeth and kind of creating, he was creating himself into a storyteller.

Mark Cirino: Yeah, that never changed. In fact, much to his own detriment, even when Hemingway did impressive things like go to World War I as a Red Cross volunteer, as an ambulance driver in World War I on the Italian front. When he came back, he would embellish it. And if you look at his letters, they’re filled with a lot of fiction. And so sometimes the fiction and the nonfiction blur. And so you’re saying like, “Hemingway’s Greatest Fictional character that he ever created was himself.” That kind of blustering Papa Hemingway figure, that to some people might be unattractive, because there’s something inauthentic about it. I know that you said he did virile things and manly things, and depending on how you define those things, what does it mean to be manly? What does it mean to be virile? I know those are chief concerns of your podcast. Is it also virile or manly to then inflate those things or to boast about them, or is it better to be understated? And so these are things that at various stages of Hemingway’s life, our intention, and you’re reading the baker biography, which makes his life story, it’s so extremely interesting. And then also can be a little bit sad that whatever he did, however impressed if it was, somehow was never enough.

Brett McKay: Yeah, yeah, I got that sense that he was always trying to grasp for something more. And it’s interesting too with being a braggadocio. If you look at different times in the history of masculinity, there’s been periods where being a bragger was seen as a virtue and it was celebrated, in other times it was criticized. And so maybe that’s why people often have conflicted feelings about Hemingway. Let’s talk about how did he… He did some writing when he was in high school, he wrote some short stories that got his teachers like, “This is really good.” He ends up eventually working as a journalist at the Kansas City Star, how did that experience influenced his writing style that we’d see throughout the rest of his career?

Mark Cirino: Right. So I think it was huge. It was an enormous impact, the writing that he did for the Kansas City Star, and then also the Toronto Star as a correspondent. So first of all, stylistically, being a journalist taught him how to do more with less, in other words, get to the point, be clear, be declarative, these are traits that would come to define Hemingway writing style, even though I may not encompass it totally. It is certainly part of his early style, is that Hemingway was direct and clear. This is one of the things that can be so refreshing to read a Hemingway novel or a Hemingway short story as opposed to Henry James, right? It’s that journalistic clarity, the objective fact. That will then convey the emotion to the reader without actually saying it. So that was certainly a big part of it. I would also say that in Kansas City, he was covering characters. So in other words, he would cover crime stories, he would be out on the streets, he would maybe see a side of life that he hadn’t seen in Oak Park before, so he was accumulating characters and experiences, I think those were extraordinarily important.

And then as we get a little bit later, when he is a foreign correspondent, when he’s in Europe writing for the Toronto Star, he’s then reporting on wars like in Smyrna in 1922, and the peace conference in Los Angeles. He’s traveling around the world. He’s meeting Mussolini and the Nunzio and all of these characters. So on the one hand, as you were suggesting, it certainly made a huge difference with respect to style, but also the experience which later emerged in his writing.

Brett McKay: Right, and I think if anyone has read a Hemingway novel, they’ll notice that sort of just short declarative sentences. He doesn’t waste anything with lots of commas and semi-colons, it’s just Bob, Bob, Bob, and if you think he’d get monotonous but it doesn’t, it seems really fresh and punchy. And it also can convey a lot of emotion, and I think that’s just part of something he was able to hone throughout his career.

Mark Cirino: Yeah, at his best, Brett, he certainly does what you’re describing, his early short stories, Big Two-hearted River, for instance, Soldiers Home, he’ll write exactly as you’re describing it. And somehow the reader will get more, however, you can’t say that style maintained consistently throughout his career, it’s really prominent in the ’20s.

Brett McKay: One technique that he developed, as you say, when Hemingway writes something, you read it and you’re like, “There’s more going on here.” And that was intentional by Hemingway, he had this thing he called the Iceberg Theory. What is The Iceberg Theory that Hemingway developed?

Mark Cirino: Oh yeah, well, the Iceberg Theory is really crucial to understanding Hemingway, as you said. It’s probably the most important aesthetic statement he ever made about his own work, and so in 1932 in his bull fighting treatise called Death in the afternoon, it’s mostly about bull fighting, but occasionally he does also talk about art. And in that book, he says, if a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows, and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. Now, think about that, actually, we can go beyond Hemingway and even beyond literature and just think about that as an artistic statement where, when is it better for an artist to withhold information, to withhold facts, to withhold any kind of expression in the hope that the reader or the audience will supply the rest? So in other words, if you use understatement, what you’re essentially doing is forming a collaboration with the reader. Say, I’ll give the reader a half, and then I think the reader will come the rest of the way.

Let me just give you one example that I think might clarify what he’s talking about, a lot of Hemingway characters are soldiers or veterans. Well, Brett, I know you have a lot of soldiers and veterans on your program, how do they usually talk about the war? Are they usually effusive and forthcoming? And you’re, “Tell me about the war.” “Oh good, I’m glad you asked.” And then they go on for 45 minutes. The ones that I’ve ever met are usually Laconic and they answer in objective, ironic, terse statements, because it’s not pleasant to think about it. It’s like the emotion of the story is too valuable. So in fact, it adds to the value by understating. Does that make sense?

Brett McKay: No, that makes sense. No, that makes sense. And in Thought in Action, your book you wrote about Hemingway. You gave a few examples of that, I think there were short stories that Hemingway wrote, where you had soldiers, they were obviously veterans going off into the wilderness to kind of get away from it all, but in the short story, Hemingway we never says that they were veterans. It was implied. He never made it explicit though.

Mark Cirino: Yeah, that’s exactly right. So I think the best example of that that you’re bringing up is a short story called Big Two-Hearted River, which is an early short story that was published in 1925 in our time, in that collection of short stories. And as Hemingway would later describe that story, he said, it was a story about the war with no mention of the war. So the boy, Nick Adams, goes on a camping trip to recuperate from the trauma of World War I. And so what ends up happening is we learn about the camping and the fishing and making dinner in excruciating, and when I say “excruciating”, it’s wonderful, it’s just that he is painstaking detail. He tells us everything about the camp, but what he doesn’t tell us is why he’s there. So in other words, Nick Adams, the character, is trying to banish the war from his mind in the same way that Hemingway has banished the word “war” from the story itself, or at least from the text of the story. A second example of that that perhaps your listeners would be familiar with, is Hills Like White Elephants from 1927, which is a story about a man and a woman in Spain arguing about whether she should get an abortion, and again, the word “abortion” is not brought up. So the reader really has to bring his or her own interpretive powers, creativity, own experience, into the act of reading.

Brett McKay: And like you said, that replicates life. A lot of times, people do things and there’s a reason for it, but they don’t talk about it.

Mark Cirino: It’s as simple as if someone says, “How is your day?”, and you say, “Oh well, I’m glad you asked.” So the alarm clock went off in the morning and, don’t you hate when the alarm… They give you every single thing, or you say, “How is your day? How was work?” “Don’t talk to me about work. Work’s work.” Or if they say something, “Alright, well, that’s not really giving me much, but you know what, I can infer? I can infer that the meeting didn’t go well. It was a rough day, you got yelled at, there was tension going on.” So I have to participate. If somebody tells me every detail from the alarm clock, to how the coffee tasted, to the commute, I have no role in the anecdote or in the communication. And so I think you can see that it’s very risky to write in this way because you’re depending on the energy of the reader. And I would even liken this to movies. If you look at the way actors used to act in the films from the 1930s, all of their expressions and gestures are operatic, over the top. And now, if someone has just gotten some terrible news, sometimes an actor won’t even react, just move his eyes or something, it’ll be on a close-up. And you have to say as an audience member like, “How would I feel if I were in that position? If I got that news?” And there’s something a lot more intimate, something a lot more inclusive about this technique.

Brett McKay: Okay, so the Iceberg Theory, that can help a lot of people who have read Hemingway, they’re like, “I don’t know what’s going on here.” Understand that he’s left a lot of stuff unsaid and that’s part of the process and you gotta kinda fill in the blanks.

Mark Cirino: Well, yeah, and Brett, let me just say it’s called the “Iceberg Theory”, obviously, because one-eighth of an iceberg is visible and the bottom seven-eighth is submerged. And so, when I was a kid, I was like, “Well, why did the Titanic… Why didn’t they just steer around the iceberg?” Well, it’s like, “Okay, I didn’t realize it was a mountain underneath the water.” And so think about if in all of human communication, the vast majority of what is communicated, what is expressed is not the words, it’s gesture, it’s unspoken emotion, it’s suggestion, it’s things that are implicit. And so perhaps this is literature that Hemingway is aiming for that replicates that realism of human expression.

Brett McKay: Okay, so when Hemingway is a young man, he goes off to Italy, joins the Red Cross as an ambulance driver, gets his leg blown up and he comes back, but then he goes back to Europe. And I’m always dumbfounded by this, this part of Hemingway’s career, because he moves to Paris in his early 20s and he joins these cool authors, these are the leading modernist intellectual writers, and he just shows up, they’re like, “Okay, this journalist from Oak Park, Illinois, you can hang out with us.” Every time I read that, I’m like, “How did that happen?” It’d be like someone, just some kid going up to Cormac McCarthy, “Hey Cormac, can I just hang out with you?” [laughter] He’s like, “Yeah.” I don’t think it would happen. So why did Hemingway decide to move to Paris and how did he get in with Gertrude Stein and he hang out with James Joyce, how did that happen?

Mark Cirino: Yeah, I find that astounding as well. So the story is that, originally, he and his first wife, Hadley, had intended to move to Italy, and Sherwood Anderson, author, of Winesburg, Ohio, a writer who is one generation older than he is, actually suggested Paris, and also said that he would write letters of introduction to him to various established writers who were around Paris. And he did, he just switched and he went to Paris, and if he had gone to Rome instead of Paris, I’m not even overstating this, I think 20th century literature would have been totally different. It really changed. And I think as you’re saying, I look at his life and even more astounding than his writing ability, his vision for his own art, what is really astounding is the gusto with which he networked, how he hit the ground, and he was so determined to be a success. And you’re absolutely right, he’s hanging around with Fitzgerald, Joyce, Gertrude Stein. I think it was very important that he went to the bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, the English language bookstore owned by Sylvia Beach, which was like a hotbed for expatriates and the sort of literati around Paris. But yeah, Hemingway, as much of a gift for writing as he had, he really had a gift for self-promotion.

Brett McKay: Well, going back to that idea, the greatest story Hemingway ever told was Hemingway. That was the greatest story. He was creating that.

Mark Cirino: Yeah. That’s right, yeah. He saw where he wanted to go and was absolutely monomaniacal. F. Scott Fitzgerald who had just published The Great Gatsby, became his great advocate, and Fitzgerald convinced Scribner, the leading literary house to publish The Sun Also Rises, Sight Unseen. And as you’re saying in your question, Brett, imagine any other guy in his mid-20s showing up to Paris and having that kind of heavyweight support, it’s just so improbable. It wouldn’t have happened in Italy, but it certainly did happen in Paris, he found himself right where he needed to be.

Brett McKay: Well, besides the networking and the contacts he developed there, did his time in Paris, did that influenced his writing at all? Did Gertrude Stein say, “You need to do this with your writing, kid, to get better?”

Mark Cirino: Yes, without a doubt. In at least two ways. The first way was, he was exposed to art, and I mean visual art. So Hemingway, he was never ignorant of art because of his mother was cultured and he lived right outside Chicago. But when Hemingway talks about influence in that time, you should read… I’m sure you have, A Moveable Feast, his memoirs, he talks as much about the painters as he does about writers. So he was influenced by visual art too, and of course, Paris would have been the ideal place for that. Also, secondly, Hemingway didn’t have a college education. He did well in high school, but his college was going to Italy in World War I and bouncing around as a journalist. So what he really did was he read omnivorously. He read the people that his mentors told him to read, and those were really Russian writers, French writers. So, things that he really would not have been exposed to hanging around in Oak Park, but he became much more cosmopolitan. And those were the types of books that really influenced his great work of the 1920s.

Brett McKay: Well, What are some of those, like Russians, or is it like Dostoevsky? Who was he reading?

Mark Cirino: Yes, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Tolstoy. When Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises is reading a book in Pamplona before he goes to sleep, he’s reading Turgenev’s sportsman sketches. So you can think of it, he’s like shouts out to Turgenev in the middle of The Sun Also Rises, basically tipping his cap, Thanks for the inspiration. Yes, he read, but he also read Flaubert, Stendhal. It was like a college education, it was just on his own. It’s really interesting, the Shakespeare and Company has their lending cards available. And so you can really see literally what he and his wife checked out in the ’20s, and it’s amazing that they’re mostly European writers as opposed to keeping up on the American literary scene.

Brett McKay: And I think you also mentioned in Thought in Action, he also read Freud. He started reading all that stuff too, and you could see that influence in his works.

Mark Cirino: He did, and if I’m thinking about what Freud might have meant to Hemingway, my suspicion is, Did Hemingway actually read The Interpretation of Dreams? I doubt it, but I think being in Paris, being an intellectual, being alert to hanging around smart people in the 1920s, I think he would have been aware about modern psychology, William James and Freud and Erikson and so forth, even if he didn’t kick back and read Freud on a rainy Sunday. We might also add, Brett, that Freud said that the human brain was like an iceberg. So, seven-eighths of what’s going on in our mind, we’re not even aware of. It’s the subconscious, as opposed to the one-eighth that we’re actually conscious of. So anyway, more beneath the surface than above the surface.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. So there’s something about Hemingway, he was extremely competitive, and he’s also very critical of other writers. Like in Paris, he called everyone phonies, and how they’re phonies, he said, that’s a poser. But were there any writers that he could openly admit to admiring?

Mark Cirino: Do you know those people who they can’t give you a compliment without a qualification or an exception?

Brett McKay: Yes. The backhanded compliment you get, yeah.

Mark Cirino: Yeah. It’s like, “Oh, if you did this, you’d be good,” or, “Hey, when you do this, you’re good,” or, “This one time you were good.” And so it’s actually a really fun game. If you can just go through a Hemingway and try to find unqualified compliments especially to other writers, and they’re so rare. It’s actually an aspect of Hemingway’s personality, I find it incredibly unattractive, just how ungenerous he is to other writers. Now, you asked if there were writers to whom he was completely complementary, only a couple come to mind. I think James Joyce, although I can think of things that he criticized about Joyce, but he really did revere Joyce and Shakespeare. However, he said about Joyce, and I know we’re speaking in the 100th anniversary of Ulysses, he would say, “Oh, and Joyce, Bloom is great, but Stephen Dedalus is not that great.” So one of the character was great, the other character was not that great. Molly was great, Stephen was not that great. And you’re like, “Are you kidding me, to be critical of Ulysses, the greatest English language novel of the 20th century?”

Even writers like Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev who we were talking about, Fitzgerald, Stein, Sherwood Anderson who actually gave him his big break in Paris, Hemingway was critical of everybody. He could compliment them occasionally, but he was very sparing with that. A great example of this also, just to conclude here, would be Mark Twain. So everybody remembers that he said, “All modern American literature begins with Huckleberry Finn.” You think like, “Wow, can you have a better compliment than that?” Well, keep reading the quote, because the quote continues. It goes, “However, if you read it, you have to stop when the boys meet back up with Jim.” So, in other words, the last quarter of the book is faking. So even his great compliment, what some people say it’s like the most colossal compliment in literary criticism, it’s only a half compliment. And I find that really sad. Even when Hemingway reached the status that nobody could ever… Pulitzer or Nobel, he was still pretty catty.

Brett McKay: Oh, yeah. What do you think drove that? It’s kind of petty. What do you think drove that? What was behind that? Do you have any idea? Again, you’re just psychoanalyzing here.

Mark Cirino: Of course, insecure. I would state that when for the same reason, if you and I were hanging out with somebody who was acting like that, I would say it’s insecurity.

Brett McKay: So, we talked about earlier that Hemingway, he led a very active life. He hunted, he fished, he travelled, he was an aficionado of bullfighting. How did all that stuff impact his writing?

Mark Cirino: Well, you can’t even separate it. It was a symbiotic relationship where he did all of those activities to feed into the writing, and in writing he sort of explored the magic behind all of those activities. So, with Hemingway, you can’t really imagine one without the other. We started this conversation by talking about Hemingway’s childhood when he was really exposed to fishing and hunting. He went to war as an extremely young man. He was 18-years-old when he was blown up in Italy. So all of these pursuits were really part of him, they were just baked into who he was. And so that when he was writing about them, they were very natural. Like for instance, bullfighting is a great example. I’ve never seen a bullfight, never attended a bullfight. I, to be honest, don’t really have much interest in doing it. However, what Hemingway wanted to do, he didn’t just wanna write, so let’s set a novel at the bullfights. He wanted to find that kind of magic or glory or something that was that only somebody who truly understood the bullfights could impart. So that when you read The Sun Also Rises, even if you’re not a particular fan of bullfights, you need to know that he loved the bullfights and that he understood the bullfights and his characters did. And so to me, that’s good enough. You know what I’m saying? It’s like he had a real insiders appreciation for all of these activities. Even drinking, I might add.

Brett McKay: Well, he reminds me a lot of Theodore Roosevelt. He’s the same way, he was very active. But Roosevelt also turned his stuff that he did into writing. He went hunting in Africa, and he turned that into a book.

Mark Cirino: Yeah, the great Hemingway biographer, Michael Reynolds, He points out that like any other American boy born in 1899 or thereabouts, Theodore Roosevelt would have been the icon that you would have looked up to. And so when Hemingway goes to Africa in the ’30s, and then again in the ’50s, that’s all sort of under the spell of what Theodore Roosevelt, how he projected manhood.

Brett McKay: So there’s this image, again, that Hemingway has, and I think he perpetuated it, he kind of spurred it on, is this idea that he’s this party animal, living big, drinking, etcetera. Did that carry over to his work or was he pretty regimented with his work?

Mark Cirino: So I hesitate to make a blanket statement because I think during his life, his work habits changed. You’re absolute right. And when you say party animal, well, the European title for his first novel was Fiesta. For The Sun Also Rises was actually called Fiesta. So he’s often seen as somebody who celebrates the Festival of San Fermin, and so forth. I think the best way to think about Hemingway is that he was disciplined for most of his life in that he would wake up really early, and he would write. So he’d wake up early and maybe he would do some correspondence and then he would put in a morning’s work, and that could be two, three, four hours. And then around lunch time, the drinking would begin. And so he would be drinking, maybe he would go fishing or he’d go hunting, he’d see people. And so there was a discipline to the way that he approached alcohol for much of his life. It wasn’t like he would be writing while he was drunk, but that’s how much of his life was structured.

Brett McKay: Yeah, he took his writing really seriously. In fact, he called it the awful responsibility of writing. And I really like this quote from the Carlos Baker biography. He said that for Hemingway, “Nothing could match a writer’s satisfaction in making a new piece of the world and knowing that it would stand forever. Writing was what he had come to earth to do. It was his true faith, his church, his politics, his command.” So yeah, even if he had stayed up late the previous night or he’s hung-over, the guy still got up at 5:30 or 6:00 in the morning and got down to work. And like you said, he kept his drinking until after work, but it was hard to maintain that lifestyle, and it did catch up with him and his health. And he also had some serious injuries throughout his life that probably affected him. Yeah. I was reading the biography and I was like, ‘Man, this poor guy.” He fell on his head five times, was in a plane crash.

Mark Cirino: Car accidents.

Brett McKay: Car accidents. He got blown up in Italy. So yeah, a lot of physical trauma that he experienced throughout his life.

Mark Cirino: Yeah. And there’s a book out called Hemingway’s Brain, by Andy Farah, who makes the argument that essentially Hemingway might have had CTE, like the concussion malady that football players and boxers have? He got his head knocked around frequently. He was also a boxer and he would crack his head open on his boat, the Pilar. So yeah, he was certainly accident-prone.

Brett McKay: Yeah. And his CTE might also have contributed to some of his bad behavior as well as his suicide. So when Hemingway went about his work, he wrote, I know Jack London, another Bureau writer. As soon as he wrote he was done with it, he didn’t wanna look at it again, was Hemingway like that or did he like to read over and edit his own work?

Mark Cirino: Yeah. So that’s another excellent question that also depends on the era of Hemingway that we’re talking about. It’s a famous story that in A Farewell to Arms, he would literally read the entire book up until the point where he was writing and then continue that day’s work. So imagine that, [chuckle] like you’re literally re-reading that book over and over and over again to get into the world of the book, and then you continue on whatever new writing you have that day. Now, I don’t say he always did that. I’ve been very lucky that I’ve studied Hemingway’s manuscripts a lot. So there’s a lot of Hemingway archives are in Boston at the John F. Kennedy Library, which is like Nirvana for a Hemingway scholar, you get to see essentially how the sausage was made. And you get a really good sense of Hemingway as a craftsman, where Hemingway would labor over syntax and word choice, and you can really see how he kind of whittled his sentence down until it was at its most powerful. However, later in life, a novel that I have spent a lot of time with is called Across the River and into the Trees, which was published in 1950 and he was a much less careful editor in that book. He seemed like he was almost in love with his own voice and his character’s voice, and he would just let them ramble on. And he didn’t pair that down the way he might have 25 years earlier.

Brett McKay: Yeah. And that one actually took a critical drubbing. Well, I think there’s one point in his career when I think he was more meticulous, he really took both the craftsman approach and then he also… Did he believed in the artistic, the muses, sometimes you just get hit with something and it just comes out of you, but he’s able to synthesize the two sort of approaches.

Mark Cirino: Yeah. I think that’s a good point. There’s a famous statement that he made about Fitzgerald in his memoir, A Moveable Feast, where he says “Fitzgerald had a talent that was as natural as the pattern that dust makes on a butterflies wing, but then once Fitzgerald became conscious of it, he spoiled it, and then he couldn’t fly anymore.” And so in other words, Fitzgerald was this sort of preternaturally, talented, precocious guy who didn’t have the discipline to foster his own talent, to kinda take care of it. Whereas Hemingway sort of worked for every word. He was like a bricklayer that he would just lay down the words, and so like Hemingway was blue collar sort of a craftsman while Fitzgerald was like an artist. And I think that that dichotomy is a little bit too easy, if you look at the manuscript of The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald labored, he worked, he had to do the work. Just like nothing comes out of you that sounds like The Great Gatsby, just because you got lucky. But I think what is important about that is, that that shows what Hemingway valued. And Hemingway loved the self-image that he was “Maybe not as talented as Fitzgerald,” but through hard work and discipline and professionalism, he became more successful than Fitzgerald.

Brett McKay: So one of the criticisms that’s levied at Hemingway is that his characters are these kinda one-dimensional action-oriented he-men, right? But you make this really compelling case in your book, Ernest Hemingway: Thought in Action, which I really enjoyed this.

Mark Cirino: Thank you.

Brett McKay: That if you read Hemingway closely, you will actually discover that Hemingway’s characters are actually very, extremely thoughtful and introspective.

Mark Cirino: Yeah.

Brett McKay: How did Hemingway’s books explore the tension and dynamic between introspection and action?

Mark Cirino: Yeah, Brett, I think that really is the crux of it. And that’s what I explore in that book Thought in Action. So really, there is a cartoon image of Hemingway and maybe to some extent, Hemingway is to blame for a lot of this. But if you look at his characters, his characters are intellectual, they’re either journalists, or Frederic Henry in A Farewell to Arms, wants to be an architect, or they’re writers or they’re painters. They’re not really tradesmen or like blue-collar workers, they’re really not. So, I think what Hemingway approach was is to say, “Okay, men of action doing things that are active is not that interesting, intellectual people who are busy in thought, that’s not that interesting. What’s interesting is when somebody who is thoughtful is forced to act.” And so, How do intellectual, sensitive, vulnerable, introspective people behave at war, or when they’re hunting or when there’s a crisis, how does the mind work under that kind of stress? So what do you do when thought is either not appropriate or it’s not useful, or actually it’s even injurious, it can detract from your behavior?

One of my favorite statements about this is when Hemingway is talking about, he says, “The greatest gift for any soldier is the ability to suspend imagination, however, imagination is the most important trait for a writer”, so go ahead, now, go try and figure out that contradiction. So how do you function if you have and if your brain is telling you, “Don’t think about this, don’t think about that, don’t think about this”, but that’s the way your brain is structured, and I think that is where a lot of tension comes in Hemingway novels.

Brett McKay: And I think all of us have experienced that where thought gets in the way, we’re in a crisis, or we’re in this problem like actually thinking about the thing too much is gonna prevent you from succeeding.

Mark Cirino: Yes, except that… And another thing Hemingway said, he said, “The reason very few good soldiers ever become good writers is because if during the battle you are thinking about the battle, or let’s say reacting to the battle or doing what you were told or functioning as a professional soldier. Well, then you probably weren’t able then to create the scene fictionally, and so he says of Shakespeare, he said Shakespeare writes like he was a soldier, he’s like Shakespeare’s able… Even though Shakespeare never went to the military, was not in the military. He writes like he did, and to Hemingway, you can’t offer higher praise than that. If I can just add one thing, Brett, Hemingway around World War II edited a collection and an anthology called Men at War, where he essentially assembles his favorite war writing that has ever been published, so in other words, it could be things from the Bible, it could be Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage, Stendhal, Tolstoy, etcetera, etcetera. And so, it’s a really interesting window into Hemingway’s reading and how he viewed this dichotomy of Thought in Action.

Brett McKay: Did he ever solve the tension, did he figure it out, do you think, between Thought in Action?

Mark Cirino: At his best, I think he did. At his best, he did. And so, in other words, to show how precious thought is, what he would do would be like, I must not… If you read… I think probably the best example of this, or at least the most striking example is just for Whom the Bell Tolls, underline every time he says, “I must not think about this, I must not think about that”. He’s coaching himself on what is going to be useful thinking and what is not useful, what is going to distract him, and so that’s called meta-cognition, which is when you have thoughts about your thoughts, you’re saying what would be useful to think about in this circumstance and what will end up getting me killed and getting my friends killed.

Brett McKay: So what’s your favorite Hemingway novel and why is that? And then also this is the follow-up question, let’s say someone’s listening to this and they haven’t read Hemingway since college or whatever, what would you recommend to start up with and why?

Mark Cirino: Yeah, so my terrible answer for my favorite Hemingway novel, it’s always the novel I’m about to teach, so I teach lots of Hemingway novels on rotation, so I don’t get bored of them, and it’s like the next one I’m gonna teach is The Sun Also Rises, so that’s what I’m most excited to teach. What I would recommend to people who are, let’s say, just getting into Hemingway is, I would start with the short stories. So Hemingway published 49 short stories. The first 49 and of which 10 or 12 are fantastic. I would read The Killers, Hills like White Elephants, Indian Camp, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, any number of those great short stories, and then if you like them, The Old Man and the Sea is only about 90 pages, and you can read that in a day or two, and then if you like that, you can go on to the longer novels, like A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Sun Also Rises. What’s your favourite, Brett?

Brett McKay: For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Mark Cirino: Yeah, right.

Brett McKay: Yeah, that’s a good one. I’ve read it a couple times.

Mark Cirino: Well, that’s a big one, you have to admit. That would be a big one to bite off first.

Brett McKay: But it’s like, I don’t know, I didn’t feel laborious to read it.

Mark Cirino: Mm-hmm.

Brett McKay: It was an enjoyable read. So you are the host of One True podcast, and the show takes its name from a famous quote of Hemingway’s where he said this, he said, “All you have to do is write one true sentence, write the truest sentence that you know”. So you often ask your guests that you have on your show, what they think was Hemingway’s one true sentence, so and I’m gonna turn the tables on you. What do you think was his one true sentence and why?

Mark Cirino: So, one true sentence really started because when I teach Hemingway, I often start with one sentence as kind of an entrance into this broader topic that is Hemingway, so I can give you several one true sentences, but here, I think is the one that I would choose. By way of context, in 1922, so when Hemingway was a young man, still unpublished as a fiction writer, he was covering a conference in Switzerland as a journalist, and his wife brought him all of his writing, his unpublished work in a suitcase. In a Paris train station, that suitcase was stolen, which means that Hemingway lost a year or two of his writing, now, this is of course in the days before flash drives and sending it to yourself on email and so forth. So Hemingway, and you can picture Hemingway’s first wife had to go tell Hemingway that all of his material had been lost, so apparently Hemingway, as he tells it in A Movable Feast, he rushes back to Paris because he can’t believe that all of his stuff is gone, and then here’s the sentence. It was true all right and I remember what I did in the night after I let myself in the flat and found it was true.

So he says “It was true all right and I remember what I did in the night after I let myself in the flat and found it was true.” And the reason to me that is a magnificent one true sentence is because it is probably the best encapsulation of the Iceberg Theory that I’ve ever seen in one sentence. Because what he tells you in that sentence is that yes, it is true, and that he remembers what he did. But of course, he doesn’t tell you what you really wanna know, which is what did you do? Did he tear up his apartment? Did he resolve to break up with his wife? Did he go out and get drunk? Did he do something violent? Did he do something he was ashamed of? What are the range of things that he might have done as a reaction to losing all of his writing? And I love that in this sentence, all he is telling us that 30 years later, 35 years later, he remembers what he did. So that’s a pretty good iceberg sentence, isn’t it?

Brett McKay: That is a good one. You have a book coming out where you have people talking about their favorite one true sentence.

Mark Cirino: Yes. So we have a book coming out July of 2022. It’s called One True Sentence: Writers & Readers on Hemingway’s Art. It’s coming out from Godine. And yes, exactly, it’s a collection of these types of interviews with our guests where we asked them, the first question of every interview is, “What is your one true sentence and why?” And then we take it from there. And so we have Elizabeth Strout, Sherman Alexie, A. Scott Berg and on and on and on, Hemingway scholars and different people who have different experiences with Hemingway, and they have different reasons for responding to some of these sentences. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick wrote the introduction. So we’re really excited about the book. And it’s actually a nice way to kinda sample Hemingway for people who might be like “Okay, well, What is your take on Hemingway?” So we hope that this book does a good job of that.

Brett McKay: Well, Mark, this has been a great conversation here. Where can people go to learn more about your work?

Mark Cirino: Well, we are on Twitter @1truepod, so the number 1truepod and So O-N-E, and yeah, we hope you listen if you’re interested in Hemingway.

Brett McKay: Well, Mark Cirino, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Mark Cirino: Brett, thanks so much for having me.

Brett McKay: My guest there was Mark Cirino. He’s the author and editor of several books on Ernest Hemingway, including Ernest Hemingway Thought in Action. He’s also the host of the One True Podcast available at all podcast players. Check that out if you wanna go into a deep dive on Ernest Hemingway. Also, check out our show notes at where you find links to resources, where we delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of The AOM podcast. Make sure to check out our website at where you find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles written over the years about pretty much anything you’d think of. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher premium. Head over to, sign up, use code and “Manliness” at check out for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS, and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate it if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple podcast or Spotify, it helps us a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or a family member who you think will get something out of it. As always thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay reminding you to not only listen to the AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.

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