The Apprenticeship Of Ernest Hemingway

Legendary writer once called Toronto and Italy home

2017/08/14 - Written by Sal Difalco
During 1923 to 1924, Ernest Hemingway lived in this apartment building at 1597-1599 Bathurst Street, while he worked as a jounalist for the Toronto Star
During 1923 to 1924, Ernest Hemingway lived in this apartment building at 1597-1599 Bathurst Street, while he worked as a jounalist for the Toronto Star
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While the profound Italian influence on Ernest Hemingway’s life and work is manifest – his novel A Farewell to Arms fictionalizes his stint as an ambulance driver on the Italian front during the First World War – the lesser-known chapter of his apprenticeship was his work as a foreign correspondent with the Toronto Star.

In the early 1920s, he and his wife Hadley lived in Toronto, on Bathurst Street near the Cedarvale Ravine. A plaque in front of what is known as the Hemingway Building, on Bathurst north of St. Clair Avenue, confirms this historical tidbit. “Their apartment building overlooked a brook about a 10-minute walk upstream of this pretty little waterfall,” says Adam Bunch, a Toronto history writer and Hemingway enthusiast, who posts his findings on the website The Toronto Dreams Project. “And Hadley had her baby here, in Toronto.”

It’s difficult to imagine the Oak Park, Illinois native, future giant of letters, big-game hunter and gun aficionado – more commonly associated with Paris, Havana, or Key West – incubating and honing his craft in the monochrome Toronto of that era. “On the whole,” says Bunch, “it wasn’t the best fit. Toronto was notoriously conservative and reserved. He was pretty much the opposite.”

Hemingway arrived at the paper in January 1920 as an unknown 20-year-old would-be-novelist hoping to freelance. Founder Joe Atkinson, keen to jazz up his weekend edition known as the Star Weekly, took a chance on the young Yankee. By the age of 22, the future Nobel Prize winner was the paper’s European correspondent. 

Hemingway biographer Scott Donaldson notes that the Star had given the writer money, freedom and, above all, opportunity. “It was a great job,” Donaldson says. “He got to see Europe, and write about it.” “It’s ironic,” observes Adam Bunch, “that the Toronto Star gave him his start professionally, and then he went to Paris with the Star covering expenses. Torontonians were very interested in what was going on in Paris. And Paris is certainly where Hemingway would have rather been.” Determined to be part of the “happening” Paris of the 1920s, he soured on Toronto. Toronto never inspired Hemingway to write a novel or even a short story. “He left without notice and was happy to get out of there,” Donaldson says. 

While his feelings about Toronto were antagonistic, he maintained an affection for Italy, as evidenced in his writing. Years before joining the Star, Hemingway was eager to taste the First World War, but he had been rejected by American forces because of poor eyesight. He did eventually nudge his way into the war, though not as a soldier. Responding in 1918 to an American Red Cross call for ambulance drivers in Europe, Hemingway volunteered. Assigned to Milan, he was immediately dispatched to a bombed munitions factory to retrieve female workers – a scene he dramatized grimly years later in his book Death in the Afternoon. 

On July 8, 1918, while delivering cigarettes and chocolates to the front lines, along the Piave delta, an Austrian mortar shell struck Hemingway, knocking him unconscious and shredding his legs. Despite his injuries, he carried an Italian soldier to safety, an act for which he received the Croce di Guerra. He spent the next six months recovering from shrapnel wounds in a Milan hospital.  

A Farewell to Arms is a work of fiction, but the war experience of the young American protagonist, Frederic Henry, parallels Hemingway’s own. When asked why he joined the Italian army, as the First World War ravaged Europe, Frederic Henry deadpans, “I was in Italy . . . and I spoke Italian.” It’s not clear if Hemingway spoke Italian before arriving in Milan, but he likely was a quick study. “He loved Milan. North Italy was what he knew and liked,” Donaldson says. “He admired the Italian lifestyle –  a place you could drink wine every day. He held a lifelong warmth and fascination for Italy’s culture and cuisine that is reflected in his stories.”

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