Thursday, 21 April 2011

Initial Thoughts on Hemingway's Catholicism

I was rather surprised to discover that, for much of his adult life, Ernest Hemingway was a Catholic. The image Hemingway projected to the world doesn't exactly suggest pious devotion but, according to one distinguished critic, we need to take his Catholicism seriously if we are to understand some of his greatest books:

"Beginning with his wounding and near-death experience on an Italian battlefield in 1918, and continuing with increasing intensity through the early and mid-1920s, Hemingway's personal religious pilgrimage takes him through a rejection of Puritanism, and far beyond the social-gospel brand of Protestantism, into an ever-deepening discovery of Catholicism. This personal faith-journey is manifest, in his life and his work, by profound engagement with the aesthetic and historical and spiritual sensibility centered in ritual and ceremony (e.g., most obviously, as in the world of Toreo, or the bullfight; and, less obviously, in the vision of life-as-pilgrimage).

"Hemingway's rootedness in the sacramental sense of experience, in the incarnational paradigms of Catholic Christianity, grows ever deeper. Before his twenty-eighth birthday (in 1927), he has accepted the tradition, the authority, and the discipline of Rome and formalized his conversion. Far from being a "nominal" or "bogus" Catholic as some biographers would have it, Hemingway is a devout practicing Catholic for much of his life. He believed that "the only way he could run his life decently was to accept the discipline of the Church," and he could not imagine taking any other religion seriously (Baker, Life Story 333)."

These ideas are developed more fully here and, even more fully, in "In the Nominal Country of the Bogus: Hemingway's Catholicism and the Biographies." Hemingway: Essays of Reassessment, ed. Frank Scafella.  New York: Oxford UP, 1991. 105-40.

I'll post a few thoughts on A Farewell to Arms and Hemingway's Catholicism after Easter.


  1. I didn't know he was a Catholic, but I KNEW it subconsciously! Reading his novels, I gleaned a moral sense and love of decency, an appreciation for art, subtle allusions to scriptural verses, a connection with ritual, history, and admiration for self-control, a need to confess, and of course, good ole guilt. In his personal life he had a God-sized soul-hole that he kept trying to fill. Thank you for your article.

  2. There's a new book just out (early 2013) entitled HEMINGWAY'S DARK NIGHT: CATHOLIC INFLUENCES AND INTERTEXTUALITIES IN THE WRITINGS OF ERNEST HEMINGWAY. Author is Matthew Nickel. Very good reviews and I enjoyed it.

  3. Thank you for the recommendation!