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Born in 1899 in Oak Park, Illinois, near Chicago, Ernest Hemingway was the second of six children. His father, a doctor, loved hunting and fishing and quickly taught these loves to young Hemingway. He gave Hemingway his first gun when he was just ten. When Hemingway finished high school, World War I was raging across Europe, and he wanted to enlist in the army. His father forbade him from enlisting, however, so Hemingway became a reporter for the Kansas City Star, where he began to hone his writing skills. Eventually, he grew restless and became an ambulance driver for the Red Cross in Italy. After being injured, he recovered at a Milan hospital, where he had an affair with a nurse. He returned home in 1919 but moved to Paris in 1921 to work as a reporter for the Toronto Daily Star. There, he joined a group of expatriate writers and artists who would come to define the “Lost Generation,” men and women whose early adulthood was defined by World War I. Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and Pablo Picasso were among his circle of friends and colleagues.
Hemingway moved back to the United States in 1928, setting up a home in Key West, Florida, where he lived for more than ten years. In 1937, he went to Spain as a reporter to cover the Spanish Civil War for the North American Newspaper Alliance and eventually published For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), a novel based on his experiences. In the years that followed, he moved around a great deal, first to Havana, Cuba, and then back to Europe to contribute to the war effort in World War II.
Hemingway published his first novel, The Torrents of Spring, in 1925 and The Sun Also Rises in 1926. The latter novel was his first literary success and coincided with the end of his marriage to Hadley Richardson. Hemingway went on to marry three more times and publish many more novels, including A Farewell to Arms (1929), based on his experiences in Italy during World War I, and The Old Man and the Sea (1952), for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. He also published many collections of short stories, including In Our Time (1925), Men Without Women (1927), and Winner Take Nothing (1933) in which “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” first appeared. The range, skill, and influence of Hemingway’s work won him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954.
“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is one of Hemingway’s most acclaimed short stories, as much for its exquisitely sparse writing style as for its expertly rendered existentialist themes. Existentialism is a philosophical movement whose adherents believe that life has no higher purpose and that no higher being exists to help us make sense of it. Instead, humans are left alone to find meaning in the world and their lives. In “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” the older waiter sums up the despair that drives him and others to brightly lit cafés by saying simply, “It is a nothing.”
Despite his great literary successes, Hemingway struggled with depression, alcoholism, and related health problems throughout his life. In 1960, Hemingway and his fourth wife, Mary Welsh, moved to Ketchum, Idaho, and Hemingway began treatments for depression. He died from self-inflicted gunshot wounds in 1961 at age sixty-one.