“I am interested in the goddam sad science of war.” — Ernest Hemingway

Paris Review interview, 2007:
Interviewer: Is it possible [Hemingway] showed a generation how to get emotion into a sentence without mentioning emotion?
Norman Mailer: Yes, and he did it more than anyone ever had before or after. But he’s a trap. If you’re not careful you end up writing like him. It’s very dangerous to write like Hemingway, but on the other hand it’s almost a rite of passage. I almost wouldn’t trust a young novelist – I won’t speak for the women here, but for a male novelist – who doesn’t imitate Hemingway in his youth.

It’s his birthday today.

While it has now become a kind of annoying meme, it’s always good to go back to the source. The source is always more powerful than the imitations. A writer challenged Hemingway: Write a story in 6 words. Hemingway was a gambler, a risk-taker, and would never walk away from a challenge. The problem obsessed him. 6-word story … it obsessed him for a couple of days. What he came up with is quite famous (and way better than the milque-toast imitations):

For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never Used.

Hemingway said later he thought it was the best thing he ever wrote.

Dean Stockwell and Ernest Hemingway


One of my favorite “profile” pieces done in The New Yorker was Lillian Ross’ 1950 profile of Ernest Hemingway. It’s a notorious piece, for obvious reasons. It’s very revealing. It opens with:

Ernest Hemingway, who may well be the greatest living American novelist and short-story writer, rarely comes to New York. He spends most of his time on a farm, the Finca Vigia, nine miles outside Havana, with his wife, a domestic staff of nine, fifty-two cats, sixteen dogs, a couple of hundred pigeons, and three cows. When he does come to new York, it is only because he has to pass through it on his way somewhere else. Not long ago, on his way to Europe, he stopped in New York for a few days. I had written to him asking if I might see him when he came to town, and he had sent me a typewritten letter saying that would be fine and suggesting that I meet his plane at the airport. “I don’t want to see anybody I don’t like, nor have publicity, nor be tied up all the time,” he went on. “Want to go to the Bronx Zoo, Metropolitan Museum, Museum of Modern Art, ditto of Natural History, and see a fight. Want to see the good Breughel at the Met, the one, no two, fine Goyas and Mr. El Greco’s Toledo. Don’t want to go to Toots Shor’s. Am going to try to get into town and out without having to shoot my mouth off. I want to give the joints a miss. Not seeing news people is not a pose. It is only to have time to see your friends.” In pencil, he added, “Time is the least thing we have of.”

Hemingway had this to say about his books being criticized:

It is like being a third baseman and protesting because they hit line drives to you. Line drives are regrettable, but to be expected.

Hemingway mentioned, to Ross, a war writer he once knew who set out to beat Tolstoy.

He never hears a shot fired in anger, and he sets out to beat who? Tolstoy, an artillery officer who fought at Sevastopol, who knew his stuff, who was a hell of a man anywhere you put him — bed, bar, in an empty room where he had to think. I started out very quiet and I beat Mr. Turgenev. Then I trained hard and I beat Mr. de Maupassant. I’ve fought two draws with Mr. Stendahl, and I think I had an edge in the last one. But nobody’s going to get me in any ring with Tolstoy unless I’m crazy or I keep getting better.

Classic chest-beating Hemingway.

Another snippet from the profile:

I wanted to know whether, in his opinion, the new book was different from his others, and he gave me another long, reproachful look. “What do you think?” he said after a moment. “You don’t expect me to write ‘The Farewell to Arms Boys in Addis Ababa,’ do you? Or ‘The Farewell to Arms Boys Take a Gunboat’?” The book is about the command level in the Second World War. “I am not interested in the G.I. who wasn’t one,” he said, suddenly angry again. “Or the injustices done to me, with a capital M. I am interested in the goddam sad science of war.”

On his influences:

I only went to high school and a couple of military cram courses, and never took French. I began to learn to read French by reading the A.P. story in the French paper after reading the American A.P. story, and finally learned to read it by reading accounts of things I had seen — les evenements sportifs — and from that and les crimes it was only a jump to Dr. de Maupassant, who wrote about things I had seen or could understand. Dumas, Daudet, Stendahl, who when I read him I knew that was the way I wanted to be able to write. Mr. Flaubert, who always threw them perfectly straight, hard, high, and inside. Then Mr. Baudelaire, that I learned my knuckleball from, and Mr. Rimbaud, who never threw a fast ball in his life. Mr. Gide and Mr. Valery I couldn’t learn from. I think Mr. Valery was too smart for me.


Only suckers worry about saving their souls. Who the hell should care about saving his soul when it is a man’s duty to lose it intelligently, the way you would sell a position you were defending, if you could not hold it, as expensively as possible, trying to make it the most expensive position that was ever sold. It isn’t hard to die.

I think my favorite quote from the profile is Hemingway’s comment on birds in New York City:

In this town, birds fly, but they’re not serious about it.

Here is Lillian Ross’ description of walking through the Metropolitan Museum, with Hemingway, his son and wife, on a rainy day:

As we walked along, Hemingway said to me, “I can make a landscape like Mr. Paul Cezanne. I learned how to make a landscape from Mr. Paul Cezanne by walking through the Luxembourg Museum a thousand times with an empty gut, and I am pretty sure that if Mr. Paul was around, he would like the way I make them and be happy that I learned it from him.” He had learned a lot from Mr. Johann Sebastian Bach, too. “In the first paragraphs of ‘Farewell,’ I used the word ‘and’ consciously over and over the way Mr. Johann Sebastian Bach used a note in music when he was emitting counterpoint. I can almost write like Mr. Johann sometimes — or anyway, so he would like it. All such people are easy to deal with, because we all know you have to learn.”

“Papa, look at this,” Patrick said. He was looking at “Meditation on the Passion”, by Carpaccio. Patrick said it had a lot of strange animals in it for a religious painting.

“Huh!” Hemingway said. “Those painters always put the sacred scenes in the part of Italy they liked the best or where they came from or where their girls came from. They made their girls the Madonnas. This is supposed to be Palestine, and Palestine is a long way off, he figures. So he puts in a red parrot, and he puts in deer and a leopard. And then he thinks, This is the Far East and it’s far away. So he puts in the Moors, the traditional enemy of the Venetians.” He paused and looked to see what else the painter had put in his picture. “Then he gets hungry, so he puts in rabbits,” he said. “Goddam, Mouse, we saw a lot of good pictures. Mouse, don’t you think two hours is a long time looking at pictures?”

Everybody agreed that two hours was a long time looking at pictures, so Hemingway said that we would skip the Goyas and that we would all go to the Museum again when they returned from Europe.

It was still raining when we came out of the Museum. “Goddam, I hate to go out in the rain,” Hemingway said. “Goddam, I hate to get wet.”

This New Yorker article shows that Woody Allen was barely exaggerating when he wrote his version of Ernest Hemingway in Midnight in Paris, played hilariously and straight-faced-ly by Corey Stoll.


Truman Capote:

“Hemingway is a first-rate paragrapher.”

Ernest Hemingway:

“Great poets are not necessarily Girl Guides nor scoutmasters nor splendid influences on youth. To name a few: Verlaine, Rimbaud, Shelley, Byron, Baudelaire, Proust, Gide should not have been confined to prevent them from being aped in their thinking, their manners or their morals, by local Kaspers. I am sure that it will take a footnote to this paragraph in ten years to explain who Kasper was.”

Joan Didion:

Hemingway was really early. I probably started reading him when I was just eleven or twelve. There was just something magnetic to me in the arrangement of those sentences. Because they were so simple, but they weren’t…They’re deceptively simple because he always brings a change in.

Saul Bellow:

I like Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald. I think of Hemingway as a man who developed a significant manner as an artist, a lifestyle that is important. For his generation, his language created a lifestyle, one that pathetic old gentlemen are still found clinging to. I don’t think of Hemingway as a great novelist. I like Fitzgerald’s novels better, but I often feel about Fitzgerald that he couldn’t distinguish between innocence and social climbing. I am thinking of The Great Gatsby.

Norman Mailer:

So I wrote the Gilmore book simply. Maybe it led me to think I could take a crack at Hemingway, but the fact of the matter is, when it comes to writing simply, I am not Hemingway’s equal. My great admiration for Hemingway is not necessarily for the man, the character. I think if we had met it could have been a small disaster for me. But he showed us, as no one else ever has, what the potential strength of the English sentence could be.

from “Letter to Lord Byron”
By W.H. Auden

I know I’ve not the least chance of survival
Beside the major travellers of the day.
I am no Lawrence who, on his arrival,
Sat down and typed out all he had to say;
I am not even Ernest Hemingway.
I shall not run to a two-bob edition,
So just won’t enter for the competition.

Robert Stone:

My ‘forebears’ are unsurprising. The great masters, the late Victorians; more Hemingway and Fitzgerald than Faulkner. I like Céline and Nathanael West and Dos Passos.

John Cheever:

I never much liked The Wapshot Scandal, and when it was done I was in a bad way. I wanted to burn the book. I’d wake up in the night and I would hear Hemingway’s voice – I’ve never actually heard Hemingway’s voice, but it was conspicuously his – saying, This is the small agony. The great agony comes later.

Ernest Hemingway:

My father was a coward. He shot himself without necessity. At least I thought so. I had gone through it myself until I figured it in my head. I knew what it was to be a coward and what it was to cease being a coward. Now, truly, in actual danger I felt a clean feeling in a shower. Of course it was easy now. That was because I no longer cared what happened. I knew it was better to live it so that if you died you had done everything that you could do about your work and your enjoyment of life up to that minute, reconciling the two, which is very difficult.

Truman Capote:

“Style has never been a strong point with American writers. This though some of the best have been Americans. Hawthorne got us off to a fine start. For the past thirty years Hemingway, stylistically speaking, has influenced more writers on a world scale than anyone else.”

Evelyn Waugh:

I think that Hemingway made real discoveries about the use of language in his first novel, The Sun Also Rises. I admired the way he made drunk people talk.

Ralph Ellison:

I went to Dayton, Ohio, where my brother and I hunted and sold game to earn a living. At night I practiced writing and studied Joyce, Dostoevsky, Stein, and Hemingway. Especially Hemingway. I read him to learn his sentence structure and how to organize a story. I guess many young writers were doing this, but I also used his descriptions of hunting when I went into the fields the next day. I had been hunting since I was eleven, but no one had broken down the process of wing-shooting for me, and it was from reading Hemingway that I learned to lead a bird. When [Hemingway] describes something in print; believe him; believe him even when he describes the process of art in terms of baseball or boxing; he’s been there.

Elizabeth Bishop, letter to Robert Lowell, August 20th, 1961:

I feel awful about the Hemingway suicide; it seems to be the last thing he should have done, somehow. All the notices I have read have been so STUPID–including English ones that say he learned how to write conversation from “British understatement”! I’m sure he must have been very sick for several years–out of his head–perhaps you know?

James Thurber:

“The only time I met Faulkner he told me he wanted to live long enough to do three more novels. He was fifty-three then, and I think he has done them. Then Hemingway says, you know, that he doesn’t expect to be alive after sixty. But he doesn’t look forward not to being. When I met Hemingway with John O’Hara in Costello’s Bar five or six years ago we sat around and talked about how old we were getting. You see it’s constantly on the minds of American writers. I’ve never known a woman who could weep about her age the way the men I know can.”

Jean Rhys:

I think A Moveable Feast is a spiteful book. He bullies everybody. For dwasn’t at all the way Hemingway described him … And back then Hemingway wasn’t catty. He always seemed to me as if he were enjoying himself terribly. He was a very nice-looking young man. But in that book, he was disparaging about everybody – Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, everybody. I didn’t like it at all.

Truman Capote:

Hemingway once said anybody can write a novel in the first person. I know now exactly what he meant.

From 1958 interview with Paris Review:
Interviewer: When you are writing, do you ever find yourself influenced by what you’re reading at the time?
Hemingway: Not since Joyce was writing Ulysses. His was not a direct influence. But in those days when words we knew were barred to us, and we had to fight for a single word, the influence of his work was what changed everything, and made it possible for us to break away from the restrictions.


“I read some Shakespeare every year, Lear always. Cheers you up if you read that.”

Norman Mailer on Hemingway’s suicide:

I was with Jeanne Campbell in Mexico and it was before we got married. I was truly aghast. A certain part of me has never really gotten over it. In a way, it was a huge warning. What he was saying is, Listen all you novelists out there. Get it straight: when you’re a novelist you’re entering on an extremely dangerous psychological journey, and it can blow up in your face.

Raymond Carver:

But the fiction I’m most interested in, whether it’s Tolstoy’s fiction, Chekhov, Barry Hannah, Richard Ford, Hemingway, Isaac Babel, Ann Beattie, or Anne Tyler, strikes me as autobiographical to some extent. At the very least it’s referential.

Hemingway, 1958 interview with Paris Review:

“The fact that I am interrupting serious work to answer these questions proves that I am so stupid that I should be penalized severely. I will be. Don’t worry.”

Joyce Carol Oates:

I can’t even grasp what Hemingway and the epigonic Mailer mean by battling it out with the other talent in the ring. A work of art, to my knowledge, has never displaced another work of art.


“When I have an idea, I turn down the flame, as if it were a little alcohol stove, as low as it will go. Then it explodes, and that is my idea.”

Toni Morrison:

[Hemingway] wrote about race poorly in places and brilliantly elsewhere. In his last book, The Garden of Eden, Hemingway’s heroine is getting blacker and blacker. The woman who is going mad tells her husband, I want to be your little African queen. The novel gets its charge that way: Her white white hair and her black, black skin … almost like a Man Ray photograph. Mark Twain talked about racial ideology in the most powerful, eloquent, and instructive way I ever read. Edgar Allan Poe did not. He loved white supremacy and the planter class, and he wanted to be a gentleman and he endorsed all of that. He didn’t contest it or critique it. What is exciting about American literature is that business of how writers say things under, beneath, and around their stories.

Norman Mailer:

There’s such a thing as having too much style. I think the only one who ever got away with it is Proust. He really had a perfect mating of material and style. Usually if you have a great style your material will be more constrained. That applies to Henry James and it applies to Hemingway. The reverse of that tendency would be Zola, whose style is reasonably decent, nothing remarkable, but the material is terrific.

Hemingway, letter to Sherwood Anderson, after reading Ulysses

Joyce has a most goddamn wonderful book. It’ll probably reach you in time. Meantime the report is that he and all his family are starving but you can find the whole celtic crew of them every night in Michaud’s where Binney and I can only afford to go about once a week…The damned Irish, they have to moan about something or other…

Elizabeth Bishop, letter to Robert Lowell, April 26th, 1962:

Hemingway has all been translated [in Brazil], of course–there was even a TV quiz on him.

Raymond Carver on his literary influences:

Ernest Hemingway is one. The early stories. “Big Two-Hearted River,” “Cat in the Rain,” “The Three-Day Blow,” “Soldier’s Home,” lots more.


“Always do sober what you said you’’d do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.”

Norman Mailer:

The great novelists of the nineteenth century dealt with love, they dealt with disappointment and love, they dealt with honesty, they dealt by some degree with corruption, they dealt with the forces of society as general abstract forces that could bend a person’s will. Then came the twentieth century. Hemingway was fascinated with violence because his body was torn apart in the war. Violence was central to him. When I read Hemingway I was fascinated with the way he treated violence, but never satisfied.


“I use the oldest words in the English language. People think I’m an ignorant bastard who doesn’t know the ten-dollar words. I know the ten-dollar words. There are older and better words which if you arrange them in the proper combination you make it stick. Remember, anybody who pulls his erudition or education on you hasn’t any.”

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

This entry was posted in Books, On This Day, writers and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to “I am interested in the goddam sad science of war.” — Ernest Hemingway

  1. Happy Birthday, Dear Ernie

    Sheila reminded me that today is Ernest Hemingway’s birthday. He would have been 106 today! My relationship with Hemingway has been a mysterious one. It’s almost as if my feelings reading Hemingway are like his stories: the words you can

  2. beth says:

    //For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never Used.//

    Thanks to you, Sheila, I will now be staring off into space for the rest of the day.

  3. red says:

    Isn’t that one of the most incredible and moving things EVER?

    I posted about it before – and a bunch of readers started trying to come up with their own. None of them could touch Hemingway’s, of course – but the attempts are awesome – It’s a great writing lesson, I think.

    Here’s that old post if you want to scroll through:


  4. beth says:

    i wrote my own whole thing about hemingway after reading this post. i’d be happy if you took a look at it, sheila. thanks.

  5. Carl V. says:

    One of the novels we were assigned in senior high school English was Hemmingway’s A Farewell to Arms. I thoroughly enjoyed it and will be forever thankful that Mr. Gilson introduced me to Hemmingway.

    Happy Birthday!

  6. Bernard says:

    Thanks Sheila. That was interesting.

    Couldn’t help thinking as I read Lillian Ross’s piece how close it comes to parody. (I loved the paragraph starting: “They have our indulgence…” Can’t you just imagine a skit with Hemingway and Sister Wendy arguing/pontificating on just such a walk through the Met?) And yet there’s a sweetness to it that isn’t meant, I didn’t think, to offend. But I was wondering if there were any repercussions from this profile. After all, Papa could be a little touchy at times.

  7. red says:

    Bernard – my favorite part of the profile (which I didn’t post) is when he has a reunion with his old friend “The Kraut” (aka Marlene Dietrich). He called her “The Kraut”. She shows up at his hotel room, and they have a rapturous (and snarky) reunion. Classic!

  8. Bernard says:

    My mistake, then. “The Kraut.” Hah! Gotta love that.

    Also, I adored the descriptions of Patrick’s interplay with ‘the old man’. Specifically this bit: “Patrick admired several paintings Hemingway didn’t approve of. Every time this happened, Hemingway got into an involved, technical discussion with his son about it. Patrick would shake his head and laugh and say he respected Hemingway’s opinions.”

    “He respected Hemingway’s opinions.” Now tell me that isn’t just an absolute howler.

  9. RTG says:

    For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never Used.

    That is perhaps the most evocative thing I have ever read in my life.


  10. Happy Birthday, Hemingway

    Sheila reminded me with this post that today is Papa Hemingway’s birthday. In honor of one of my favorite writers, I would like to point you to this post I wrote over a year ago….

  11. peteb says:

    Must just agree with RTG and beth –

    For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never Used.

    Wonderful.. Wonderful writing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.