Ernest Hemingway is a legendary and challenging figure in modern literature. A voracious consumer of life, Hemingway idealized a hyper-masculine image of the writer-as-adventurer. He turned his travels and experiences into fiction, developing an iconic, terse writing style that cemented him as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. Despite a decline in his work later in life precipitated by a battle with depression—a battle he would tragically lose—Hemingway remains on a short list of writers every serious reader is encouraged to engage.
Despite his elegant and concise prose, Hemingway’s themes are sometimes regarded as remote and inaccessible. The truth is the opposite: Hemingway’s “Iceberg Theory” kept his themes and ideas under the surface for the reader to tease out from his simple, journalistic prose. See for yourself how the trick was done on our list of the 10 best Hemingway books.
Hemingway’s writing style is a minimalist approach that focuses on immediate details, leaving much of the thematic and emotional context under the surface. He perfected this technique with his second novel A Farewell to Arms which he worked on for nearly a decade and re-wrote the ending dozens of times. The novel is a semi-autobiographical story of an American who joins an Italian ambulance corps during World War I, seeking heroism and adventure but finding disillusionment and heartbreak after he’s wounded and falls in love with an English nurse. While the gender roles may seem dated to modern readers, Hemingway’s exploration of death and how it influences every aspect of our lives remains potent, and he brings a raw energy to the tragic love affair at the center of the novel that is still devastating today. If you read just one Hemingway book, make it this one.
Published three years after Hemingway’s suicide, A Moveable Feast is a remarkable work of non-fiction and self-mythologizing. Based on notebooks Hemingway kept while living as an expatriate American in Paris in the 1920s, the book is remarkably detailed, offering addresses, dates, names, and even recipes. The result is a fascinating tale of an artist in formation. The Hemingway here is not the literary lion grown old, but the younger version actively honing his writing style and absorbing the influence of some of the most notable literary figures of the Jazz Age. It’s the sort of book that makes you want to quit your job and start an adventure, especially since many of the bars, restaurants, and other locations named in the book still exist today.
Hemingway’s 1940 novel For Whom the Bell Tolls is based on his own experiences in the Spanish Civil War. Robert Jordan is an American fighting with the Republicans against Francisco Franco’s fascist forces. An explosives expert, he’s ordered to dynamite a bridge in what will likely be a suicide mission and falls in with a group of guerrilla fighters. Jordan rediscovers his joy of living among them as Hemingway explores a prescient view of America’s potential for fascism and the power of fellowship, the potent bonds that form between men and women working under dangerous and stressful conditions for a goal larger than themselves. It’s a somber, mature story from a master, brought down slightly by Hemingway’s use of purposefully stilted language to represent Spanish translations and his odd choice to obscure profanities, which combine for an awkward reading experience at times.
By the 1950s, Ernest Hemingway was clearly past his prime. Papa, as he came to be known, hadn’t had a significant success since For Whom the Bell Tolls in 1940, and he was increasingly depressed about his advancing age. Many critics felt his writing over the previous decade lacked inspiration and focus. The Old Man and The Sea is his last great work. The short novel (arguably a novella) is sparse and elegiac, a rumination on age and death masquerading as the story of a Cuban fisherman battling a legendary marlin over several days. There is an epic sadness to the story that belies its relative brevity, a sadness you can’t help but conflate with the dimming of Hemingway’s literary voice. The book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1953 and was cited when Hemingway received the Nobel Prize in 1954.
Although Hemingway hadn’t yet perfected his craft and approach, The Sun Also Rises is remarkably assured for a first novel. Hemingway uses his own life experience—and characters modeled very obviously on his friends and acquaintances from his expatriate days in Paris—to explore a world reeling from a devastating World War. It’s the story of Jake Barnes, a war veteran rendered impotent by his injuries, the liberated, sexually aggressive Lady Brett Ashley, and the many men in her orbit. It’s also a story of a man deliberately forming a way of life symbolized by the pure, noble bullfighter who lives by a code the other men cannot understand. Initially, the description of expat life in Paris and bullfighting in Spain is seductive, but Hemingway slowly scratches away the glamour and reveals the bottomless nihilism and dissatisfaction of the so-called Lost Generation. It remains a powerful story nearly a century after its composition.
Hemingway’s 1937 novel was a “fix-up” of two short stories and a later novella. It’s also not often included on best-of lists; many find the narrative structure confusing and the story’s many detours lazy. It’s often cited as an early example of Hemingway’s decline, and the novel is kind of a hot mess, but it’s a brilliant one. Hemingway shifts slightly away from his characteristic minimalism to inject some literary frills into his writing, and the result makes his style feel fresh and urgent. The expansion of his focus from the purely personal to the political and social lends the story of Harry Morgan, an honest and goodhearted boat captain forced by the economic devastation of The Great Depression, to become a smuggler, a passion that much of Hemingway’s cooler works lack. It’s not his best novel, but To Have and Have Not is a must-read if you want to understand his development as an artist.
The character of Nick Adams features in 25 short stories Hemingway wrote in the 1920s and 1930s, all of which are collected in this posthumous book. These are early works for the most part, and are strongly autobiographical, drawing directly from Hemingway’s youth and his experiences during and directly after his service as an ambulance driver in WWI. Aside from the insight into Hemingway’s personality and literary philosophy, these stories also offer a guide to his development as a writer. While all of these stories are very good, the emergence of his sparse ”iceberg” style is clear as you read; you can almost see him scraping words off the page as you progress. This is young Hemingway working just for the joy of it, without the weight of his decades-old reputation hanging over him.
Hemingway’s reputation as a master of the short story is fully supported in this collection, which contains some of his most famous short works like Hills Like White Elephants and The Killers. These stories examine the themes that would become common to Hemingway’s longer work, including a fascination with death and how it informs our lives, the need for a code to live by, and masculinity. Today it can be difficult to appreciate the impact of Hemingway’s emerging style at the time, but the spare writing and muscular imagery stood in sharp contrast to the prevailing literary style of the period. After these stories saw publication, there was little doubt that Hemingway would become required reading for the foreseeable future.
Hemingway’s third collection of short stories (and the final one published in his lifetime) is dark. Really dark. Hemingway is fully-formed here, but where later work matched his bleak worldview with a sense of forward progress, the stories herein are unremittingly hopeless. That doesn’t mean they’re not expertly crafted—they are, like tiny diamond-hard bits of fiction exploring Hemingway’s lifelong themes of mortality, love and loss, and what it means to be a man in a modern world. The collection also contains one of Hemingway’s most famous stories, A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, wherein two waiters comment on an old blind man who lingers at their cafe, building to a muted, shattering conclusion.
The Snows of Kilimanjaro is one of Hemingway’s best and most famous stories, his most “Hemingway-esque.” The story is about a writer dying of gangrene reflecting on his life and his wasted artistic potential. It is a classic of minimalist prose and the universal, mysterious experience of facing our own death. This story alone makes the book worth reading, but the other stories are all excellent. Other notable inclusions are the early classic Fifty Grand, which uses boxing as a symbolic setting for Hemingway to express his evolving code of living, and The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, which is possibly the most underrated story of Hemingway’s career.