Ernest Hemingway and the Nobel Prize for Literature

By Svensson, Ove G. | The Hemingway Review, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Ernest Hemingway and the Nobel Prize for Literature


Svensson, Ove G., The Hemingway Review


Nominations for the Nobel Prize for Literature are kept classified for 50 years, which means that the documents nominating Hemingway, the 1954 winner, were opened in January 2005. Researcher Ove Swensson examined Hemingway's file at the Nobel Library of the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, and here reveals the contents of the nominating documents and of the Nobel Committee's discussion about the American writer.

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EACH YEAR THE NOBEL PRIZE FOR LITERATURE is awarded to the author who has produced "the most distinguished writing in an ideal direction." The word "ideal" has troubled the awarding members since the first Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded in 190l. What did Alfred Nobel really mean by the word? Nobody knows; perhaps the word "idealistic" would have been more appropriate. In 1954, Ernest Hemingway was awarded the Prize "for his mastery of the art of narrative, most recently demonstrated in The Old Man and the Sea, and for the influence that he has exerted on contemporary style" (Nobel Citation).

That year the Swedish Academy consisted of eighteen members, with an average age of about 70. Within the Swedish Academy there is a Nobel Committee for Literature that reviews all of the candidates nominated during a given year. Committee members read and assess the work of finalists, and in the middle of October announce the winner. He or she receives the Prize on 10 December, the date that Alfred Nobel died.

Nominations for the Nobel Prize for Literature are kept classified for 50 years, which means that nominations for Hemingway, the 1954 winner, were opened in January 2005. Hemingway may have been nominated many times over the years. Because previous Nobel laureates flora all over the world as well as professors of literature, presidents of writers' organizations, and members of academies and other literary institutions may suggest candidates, I expected to see hundreds of nominations, but the sad fact is that in 1954 Hemingway was nominated by just four people: Professor Leo von Hibler with the English-American Department of the University of Vienna and three members of the Nobel Committee (Nobel Prize Nominations).

One member of the Committee, Per Hallstrom, wrote ten pages about a nomination for Hemingway in 1947, and one-and-a-half pages in 1954, when Hemingway was nominated again--and successfully. In 1947, Hallstrom, then 81 years old, wrote of Hemingway:

      In general, from an artistic point of view, he is remarkable
   for his alert and quick view on earthly things and his
   ability to express them in words that make them immediately
   are experiences for the reader. He has a kind of appetite
   and a sort of primitive wildness. It leads the thought to
   generations from the west who created the great country
   and who have been the nerve in peoples' energy. From a
   stronger point of view I do not think he is a great writer,
   he has not written any book worth admiring. (1)

In Hallstrom's 1947 remarks Ernest Hemingway is called "Ernst" in the headline, and his year of birth is given as 1898, the usual mistake. Hemingway's marriages to Martha Gellhorn and Mary Welsh seem to have eluded Hallstrom: "He married at the age of 21, and has remarried once--as far as I know." (2)

Hallstrom discusses Hemingway's major novels: "After the First World War he wrote his first novel, called The Sun Also Rises. The title is hard to understand, but the content is very simple. It is about the erotic and bacchantic confusion within a small group of American and English people, doing nothing more than nurturing and increasing this confusion to gigantic proportions." (3) Hallstrom thinks that Hemingway is far too thorough, he writes about everything: "[H]ow many glasses he empties, every tip that is given, and when he shaves himself he even' mentions that he rinses his face afterwards." (4) The next book that Hallstrom mentions in his 1947 commentary is Farewell to the Arras (sic), a novel he considers based on Hemingway's experiences in the War. …

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