Today marks the 100th anniversary of one of the most important events of modern American literature. On the night of July 8, 1918, an 18-year-old American volunteer was delivering candy and cigarettes to Italian soldiers on the frontlines of the Great War near the town of Fossalta, Italy, on the Piave River. After being rejected from the U.S. Army for poor eyesight, the American boy, a native of the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, Illinois, had volunteered to serve as an ambulance driver for the American Red Cross in Italy.
When he decided there was not enough action for ambulance drivers in his sector, he further volunteered for canteen duty that would take him right up to the most dangerous area of the frontlines. On July 8, as he sat with the Italians in a dugout cloaked in darkness, Austrian units from across the river launched a trench mortar that landed in the dugout and exploded, killing two Italians and seriously wounding the American boy, who was saved only by the fact that one of the Italians stood between him and the exploding shell. The smell of death that night would haunt the boy for the rest of his life and make him into a writer.
The boy’s name, of course, was Ernest Hemingway, and out of this seminal event would blossom some of the finest American literature of the 20th Century. Hemingway’s physical wounds—over two hundred shrapnel pieces in his legs plus machine gun bullets in his right knee and foot—would land him in the newly established Red Cross Hospital in Milan, where the physical wounds would heal, but the deep psychic wound of a near-death experience would only be multiplied. He would be tended by a tall and beautiful 26-year-old American nurse named Agnes Von Kurowsky, and, with her, he would fall deeply in love for the first time in his life.
Over the ensuing five months of recuperation and romance, young Hemingway became convinced that, in spite of their age differences, the couple would be married. He only had to find gainful employment when he returned to the States, temper his drinking, and demonstrate he was capable of supporting himself and a wife. Then she would cross the Atlantic and join him. But Agnes was never quite as in love as he was. The age difference, for one thing, mattered to her, and in March 1919, she sent a letter to Oak Park from Italy ending their affair. He was devastated.
But out of great suffering comes some of the world’s finest works of art. Fueled by these twin traumas—the near-death experience and his broken heart—Hemingway crafted some of the most remarkable short stories written in the English language, along with several novels that have stood the test of time and continue to be read and taught in high school and college literature courses everywhere. Of these works, the one most directly derived from young Hemingway’s 1918 experiences in Italy is the classic novel of love and war, A Farewell to Arms, although Hemingway would bend the facts in it to create a narrative that takes place between August 1915 and March 1918, a period entirely before his own arrival on the Italian front, in parts of Italy that he had never visited.
A Farewell to Arms is not autobiography: it is a masterly work of fiction that draws upon Hemingway’s experiences, but, more importantly, relies, as Tolstoy did for War and Peace, upon extensive historical research, as well as upon Hemingway’s deep plunge, during the decade of the 1920s, into the novels of the 19th Century European masters—Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Stendhal, Flaubert, and others. A good portion of Hemingway’s considerable talent lay in knowing against which writers to measure himself.
Would Hemingway have become a great writer if not for what happened to him on July 8, 1918? Maybe, but even so he would certainly have been a vastly different writer, and A Farewell to Arms would never have been written. The progress of modern American literature, so dependent upon and so influenced by the shadow of Hemingway, would also have been quite different. Take a moment today to honor the memory of the great writer and, yes, to honor as well the anonymous Italian soldier who gave his life and saved that of Ernest Hemingway and, finally, to remember the Austrians who launched the trench mortar that started it all.
July 8, 2018
Michael Kim Roos
Co-Author, with Robert W. Lewis, of Reading Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (to be published by Kent State University Press in 2019)