Ernest Hemingway hadn’t written a successful novel in a decade. His previous novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), had become a classic and he was excited about the publication of his new novel Across the River and Into the Trees (1950). Upon it’s release however, it was universally savaged by critics. It was Hemingway’s first ‘failure’ as a writer and he was deeply upset by the reception. He was also pissed off. Critics were calling him washed up and finished. Hemingway was eager to prove them wrong.

He had lived an extraordinary life. One of the world’s most famous writers, his personal exploits had become as renowned as his work. Hemingway saw action in both World Wars, lived in Paris as part of the ‘lost generation’ where he mingled with the great artists and writers of his time, immersed himself with the bullfighting culture of Spain, was a field reporter during the Spanish Civil War, lived and partied in Cuba, drank with movie stars, hunted big game in Africa, loved to box and had been married four times. Perhaps the fame had affected his writing. Perhaps by shedding his loneliness, his work had deteriorated.

Hemingway knew he wasn’t washed up and was determined that his next book reclaim his throne as the King of American Writers. For the story, he went back to an idea that he had been toying with for years. Inspired by his time fishing in the Gulf of Mexico (Hemingway was a world-class sport fisherman), and the grizzled old captain of his boat, he started writing a story of an old fisherman’s epic battle with a giant marlin. Fuelled by his naysayers, he finished the novella in eight weeks.

Despite his full schedule of manly activities, drinking and parties, writing always came first to Hemingway. He would wake at first light everyday and usually start writing by 6am and be done by noon, always making sure to stop when “you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next.” When Hemingway submitted the finished manuscript to his editor he wrote “I know that this is the best I can write ever for all of my life” and that it “will get rid of the school of criticism that I am through as a writer.”

The Old Man and The Sea was initially published in Life Magazine in 1952. The magazine’s print run of 5.3 million copies sold out in TWO days. The subsequent book was on the bestseller list for six months. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction the following year and Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. The King had regained his crown.

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Robert F. Kennedy A Ripple of Hope

– The comic passage is an excerpt from Hemingway’s Nobel Prize speech “Ernest Hemingway – Banquet Speech”. © Nobel Media AB 2017
– You can watch a beautiful Academy Award-winning animated short adaptation of The Old Man and The Sea here.