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  • The American Red Cross and the Making of Ernest Hemingway
  • Barbara Will (bio)

The impact of World War I on Ernest Hemingway’s writing, and his own harrowing experiences on the front lines in Italy in 1918, has been linked to everything from his hardboiled narratives to his spare rhythms to his traumatized protagonists. Yet scholars have also disputed the extent or shape of this influence, with many cautioning that the relationship between Hemingway’s wartime experience and his subsequent literary output is oblique at best. Michael Reynolds’s groundbreaking and meticulous 1976 study, Hemingway’s First War, argued that it was not the experience of the war itself but Hemingway’s extensive postwar reading and military and medical study that provided the background for a novel like A Farewell to Arms (1929). A decade after Reynolds, James Nagel suggested a multitude of sources for Hemingway’s postwar writing: not only his wartime actions and bedridden relationship with the Red Cross nurse Agnes Von Kurowsky, but also his complex marital life in the 1920s, his subsequent estrangement from his first son, his relationship with mentors like Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound, as well as the suicide of his father.1 And Hemingway himself acknowledged that he was well launched on his career as a fiction writer before he ever took on the task of writing directly about war.2

Following more recent interpretations by Steven Florczyk and others, this essay reconsiders the importance of lived wartime experience to Hemingway’s writing, and in particular his style, placing a new emphasis on the specific impact on this writing of Hemingway’s work for the American Red Cross (ARC)—the organization that brought him to Italy in the first place.3 For it was his Red Cross tour of duty that made him feel, as he put it in Farewell, that “there were many words that you could not stand to hear” in the wake of that war—words like “sacred, glorious, and sacrifice,” “honor, courage, or hallow”—words that were “proclamations [. . .] slapped up by billposters over other proclamations.” These words, Hemingway writes, were not just troublesome and insincere, manipulative and disingenuous, but were ultimately “obscene.”4

Yet surprisingly, little attention has been paid to the effect on Hemingway’s writing of the specific strategies employed by the ARC to forward [End Page 20] the Allied cause. These propagandistic strategies created fertile ground for disillusionment, which rapidly undercut Hemingway’s initial war fervor and reoriented his attitude toward war itself. Arguably, the ironic gap that opened up enabled Hemingway to find a new vocabulary for the unassimilable nature of traumatic violence in the wake of world war. While Hemingway’s style cannot, of course, be traced to any one source, an analysis of the Red Cross enterprise that he joined suggests an underappreciated influence. Mining his ARC experience, particularly his engagement with propagandistic performance under the guise of “service,” Hemingway found the material that would help transform zeal into stylistic skepticism.


Initially brimming with excitement when he signed up for the Seventh Missouri Infantry of the National Guard in 1917, at the age of eighteen— “I can’t let a show like this go on without getting into it,” he told his sister—Hemingway soon found himself disqualified from regular military service due to his poor vision.5 A friend at the Kansas City Star, where Hemingway was working as a newspaper reporter after high school, had spent the previous summer as an ambulance driver for the American Field Service in France, one of three American volunteer ambulance services in Europe that operated before the official US entry into the war in April 1918. When on February 22, 1918 a newspaper article announced that the ARC was looking for five ambulance drivers for Italy, Hemingway and his friend eagerly signed up.

Events moved fast. Hemingway arrived in New York City on May 12, 1918, was issued a uniform, took part in a massive Red Cross parade down Fifth Avenue of 75,000 volunteers, and joined other new recruits heading to Europe. In June he landed in Milan for his first assignment, the relief aftermath of a munitions explosion...