59 years ago, May 4, 1953, Ernest Hemingway is awarded a Pulitzer Prize, his first, for ``The Old Man and the Sea’’, his sixth novel about an old Cuban man who had gone 84 days without a catch until finally snagging one in an epic 2 ½ day struggle.
Hemingway was traveling on his 38 foot Cabin cruise, the Pilar (his pet name for his wife Pauline) when he learned that ``The Old Man and the Sea'' had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
This well traveled American author and journalist wasn't sure just how the prestigious honor would impact the book. ``Can't hurt it, I guess'', he sarcastically wrote to his editor at Scriber’s, Wallace Meyer. Hemingway also indicated that he couldn't really take the award all that seriously considering he was denied a Pulitzer for ``A Farewell to Arms’’, his semi-autobiographical novel concerning events during the Italian campaigns during World War I.
As it turns out, Hemingway had good reason to grouse. Despite a unanimous approval by the Pulitzer advisory board in 1941 to award a Pulitzer Prize to a ``For Whom the Bell Tolls, Columbia University President, Nicholas Murray Butler blocked the award, blasting the novel as ``lascivious.’’ In a memo to the Pulitzer Board, Butler wrote: ``The trustees of Columbia University would never, under any circumstances, approve the awarding of the prize for a Novel so obscene, vulgar and revolting a book as Ernest Hemingway's ``For Whom the Bell Tolls.''
No Pulitzer was awarded in 1941 in the category of fiction.
A Footnote: Hemingway briefly flirted with the titles of ``The Sea in Being’’ and ``The Dignity of Man’’ before settling on ``The Old Man and the Sea’’
Life Magazine paid him a handsome $21,000 to publish ``The Old Man and the Sea’’ in a single issue, which appeared in their September 1, 1952 edition. A week later, it was released as a book and sold 5.3 million copies in two days.
Critics, by and large, warmly received the ``The Old Man and Sea’’, a sharp departure from his previous work, ``Across the River and into the Trees’’ which was savaged by critics. The Atlantic (September, 1952) described ``Old Man and the Sea’’ as ``Hemingway at His Best’’; ``A great American classic of man’s battle with the Titan of the sea’’ wrote Fanny Butcher of the Chicago Sunday Tribune, (September 7, 1952). William Faulkner, Hemingway’s contemporary, was certainly taken with it, writing in the Shenandoah (Autumn, 1952) ``Time may show it to be the best single piece of any of us, I mean his and mine contemporaries.’’
Even The New York Times (reviewed by Robert Gorham Davis, professor of English at Smith College on September 7, 1952) embraced Hemingway’s clear unpretentious writing style and his influence on American literature, when writing: `` In the Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway has like the young man in ``Big Two-Hearted River'', got back to something good and true in himself, that has always been there. And with it are new indications of humility and maturity and a deeper sense of being at home in life which promise well for the novel in the making.’’ `` Hemingway is still a great writer’’, Davis wrote, ``with the strength and craft and courage to go far out and perhaps even far down for the truly big ones.’’
But not all reviews of ``The Old Man and the Sea’’ were so flattering.
Phillip Rahv writing in Commentary hardly considered it a masterpiece: ``The meaning of The Old Man and the Sea is sought in its profound symbolism. It may be that the symbolism is really there, though I for one have been unable to locate it...Hemingway's big marlin is no Moby Dick, and his fisherman is not Captain Ahab nor was meant to be.’’
G.T. Dempsey, writing it in the Antioch Review (Spring, 2007), offered some tough love: ``The sad truth, though, is that this short novel is a masterpiece despite its awfulness. It is marred throughout, both structurally and stylistically, by all the sentimentalizing excesses of Papa's ``hokum'' period at its most pervasive.’’
Though most literary critics agree Hemingway turned out his best work in the 1920’s, ``The Old Man and the Sea’’ nonetheless was a masterpiece, even if it was a late masterpiece. As Alfred Bendixen, Executive Director of the American Literature Association and Professor English Texas A&M University tells me: ``The Old Man and the Sea was part of a projected trilogy on the land, the sea, and the sky which never quite came together but this short, beautifully shaped work of fiction merits attention and praise as one of the few post WWII masterpieces by a modernist of the post WWI generation.’’
Ernest Miller Hemingway was born in on July 21, 1899 in Oak Park, Illinois and began reporting for the Kansas City Star in 1917; by 1920, he landed at the Toronto Star Weekly, a year later becoming their European correspondent based in Paris, covering the Greco-Turkish war along with conferences in Geneva and Lausanne.
He traveled to Spain in 1923, where he witnessed his first bullfight, a seminal event which sparked his lifelong love affair with the savage sport. He published his first major work in 1925, ``In Our Time’’; and in 1944 he fled to Europe and England to cover World War II for Collier’s with the Fourth Infantry of the U.S. Army.
Suffering most of his adult life with severe bouts of depression, paranoia, obsessions and delusions, Hemingway committed suicide on July 2, 1961, 19 days shy of 62nd birthday, killing himself with a shotgun at his home in Ketchum Idaho, two days after being released from the Mayo Clinic.
In all, Hemingway published seven novels, six short story collections and two non-fiction works and in addition to his Pulitzer Prize in 1953, he was awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954.
May 4, 2012