Hemingway's Self Portrait
edited: Saturday, October 26, 2002
By Lindell J Kay
Posted: Saturday, October 26, 2002
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A piece of Ernest Hemingway can be found in each of his main characters. This is a look at Harold Krebs from "Soldier's Home."
Ernest Hemingway fought vehemently against those who sought to publish his biography. He would not cooperate with researchers and he even used legal means to suppress the few works about his life that were written while he remained alive. Why was Hemingway so adamant? Because he wrote portions of his own autobiography in each of his literary works, he felt a biography by an unqualified outsider fruitless. Hemingway never wrote out of pure imagination; he used the events and emotions of his life to construct a fictional story the way a blacksmith uses raw metals to forge powerful alloys. His fiction was an extenuation of his experience. However, Hemingway’s characters were never strictly literal autobiographical representations, but rather self-portraits drawn from different angles. “Soldier’s Home” reveals one of the loneliest, darkest times in Ernest Hemingway’s life and through the troubles of Harold Krebs the author sheds light on his own personal demons. The story is not just a simple retelling of Hemingway’s post World War One trauma, as it might first seem. Ernest Hemingway was a complex man; it follows that his work would also be complex. In the story, one of his first, three main elements of Hemingway’s character come to the surface: his psychological damage from the War, the waning relationship with his mentor, Gertrude Stein, and the seeds of existentialism.
Ernest Hemingway was an ambulance driver and lieutenant in the Italian Army during World War One. A shell from an enemy mortar caught him in the leg, causing serious injury. He was the first American wounded in the war, a fact that provided him little consolation. Laying immobilized in a hospital bed in Milan, Hemingway was forced to accept the mortality of all men, even a man as young and virile as he seemed. The wound was undoubtedly the most traumatic of Hemingway’s numerous wartime experiences. The theme of wounds that would not heal carried over into almost all of Hemingway’s work. The prevalence of war spawned wounds, both physical and mental, in his work denotes the profound affect Hemingway’s own near crippling injury. The idea of his autobiographical approach to fiction is shown in the fact that his work is cross-referential. Just like the Bible, one part of Hemingway’s body of work explains the another. In his first novel, The Sun Also Rises, the main character, Jake Barnes has been castrated and must deal with his desires versus his inability. Jake Barnes refers to his war wound as, “the old grievance.” His refusal to address the wound for what it was demonstrates how deeply he is affected. In “Soldier’s Home” Harold Krebs has not been physically castrated, but he may as well have been. The character has been hurt in such a way that he is unable to be with a woman even though he desires one. Krebs is caught in the very same quandary that ensnared Jake Barnes; he wants, but he is incapable, all due to the wounds of war. The only solution available was to run away, Krebs to Kansas City and Hemingway to Europe in 1921. But as both men should have known, our wounds cannot be left behind. It was two years before Hemingway could close his eyes and not see that mortar shell coming at him. It was much longer before he could sleep without the bedroom light on.
The apparent parallels of Ernest Hemingway’s post war life in the Twenties and Harold Krebs are obvious. After the war both the writer and his character lived with their parents. Hemingway’s parents treated him much the same way that Harold Krebs’ mother treated him. Harold Krebs could fight a world war, but could not get his parents to treat him as a grown man. Hemingway’s father decided to force his son out of the family home, but Ernest, filled with resentment toward his parents, had already decided to go. He, like his autobiographical sketch character in “Soldier’s Home,” needed to escape his mother's control. This ultra-simplistic summery of Hemingway's family life after the war led to his disenfranchisement and disillusionment of American life in general in the Twenties. He grew homesick for Europe and soon joined a flock of expatiate that left for France and Italy to replace an entire generation that had been destroyed in the war. Gertrude Stein, a writer who ran a salon in Paris, France coined the phrase “lost generation” to describe those left hurt and wandering after the war. She lured young, promising artists and authors to her with money, good times, clothes, food and drink, and even sex. Within a short time Stein had coached Hemingway into writing and he sought her constant approval of his efforts. Eventually this led to an unhealthy relationship much like the one he held with his biological mother. By 1924 Hemingway had decided to rid himself of his mentor's hold and make his own literary name in the world. This rift in Hemingway’s relationship with Stein casts a startling new light on “Soldier’s Home.” In writing the story Hemingway was rehearsing his break from Stein and announcing his independence. At the beginning of “Soldier’s Home” two photographs are described in great detail. One is of Harold Krebs at college, the other after the war. The contextual meaning of these photographs has been exhaustedly argued elsewhere. The origin of the idea much less so. Hemingway wrote, “There is a picture which shows him on the Rhine...The Rhine does not show in the picture.” He lifted the basis for the Rhine photograph that so perfectly demonstrates Krebs inability to live up to expectations, his own as well as others, from Gertrude Stein’s Geography and Plays. In her book, Stein describes two lesbian lovers living in post-war Germany near the Rhine River. Stein writes about a picture of them taken by the river in which “the Rhine hardly showed.” She is first to explore the importance of not only what a photograph captures, but also what it misses. Hemingway parodies her idea in “Soldier’s Home” to signal his intent to break away from Stein. After all, in his story, the Rhine is completely left out in perhaps a terse statement of his plans to leave out Stein and her influence from his writing.
Twenty years later the world was at war again. The aftermath of World War Two left Europe once again devastated and disillusioned. With the onset of the Cold War the world looked to never be safe again. A new philosophy gained strong ground during this era of uncertainty. Existentialism taught that man is alone in a vast universe and solely responsible for his fate. Man is just here. He has no purpose, no mission in life. Existentialists concentrate on man’s dread, alienation, and freedom. The exact problems that haunted Harold Krebs in “Soldier’s Home.” And, although prayer and Bible study were a part of Hemingway’s daily lifestyle as a child he never returned to them after his wartime injuries. In fact, almost every Hemingway character exhibited the same autobiographical trait of a lack of belief in God. As the female protagonist of The Sun Also Rises, Brett Ashley, said, “You know it makes one feel good deciding not to be a bitch. It’s sort of what we have instead of God.” In deed, the villain of “Soldier’s Home” is Krebs’ mother who utilizes a form of religious abuse called “moral blackmail” to force him to pray to a God he no longer believes in. Common among religious zealots, Mrs. Krebs cares only about her son’s outward professions of love and faith, hollow or not. Hemingway’s influence on existentialistic literature is significant. The major writers of Existentialism owe much to Hemingway’s autobiographical characters. In Albert Camus’ The Stranger the main character spends hours watching people pass beneath his apartment window. Always observing, never participating. Just as Harold Krebs watched the young American girls from his front porch. Hemingway plainly states, “the world they were in was not the world he was in.” It is now widely accepted that Hollywood had an agenda of using the popular novels of Hemingway as motion pictures because the industry believed strongly in the Existential current running through all his work.
“Soldier’s home” was coined by Florence Nightingale as a place for recreation and enjoyment for those who had served their country and lost something in the undertaking. By the end of the American Civil War, however, the phrase carried the connotation of a place of misery and loneliness where the forgotten soldiers of forgotten wars went to wither away. Certainly, in Hemingway’s version the depression and sense of utter abandonment felt by returning soldiers after a war is at the fore. But so to is the need to be free from oppressive parental figures and the idea that religion in such a situation is wasted. Ernest Hemingway’s characters, and most definitely Harold Krebs, have been accused of being heartless and cruel. Many of Hemingway’s critics have said that he has never felt a thing. In his memoir, True at First Light, Hemingway said that nothing angered him more than to be judged by critics who were not even alive when he experienced the worst life had to offer. In truth, what he feared the most was a life without feeling, ‘nada’ as he called it, or nothingness. His work reverberated with themes of the psychological damage of war, the need to be a free individual, and the terror that man is alone in a universe abandoned by God. Harold Krebs is the embodiment of all of Hemingway’s character and thus autobiographically important in understanding the writer. With “Soldier’s Home,” one would be hard pressed to separate the author from the character. And that by definition is an autobiography.