Hemingway’s first and best novel makes an escape to 1920s Spain to explore courage, cowardice and manly authenticity
In Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, Corey Stoll makes a scene-stealing appearance as the young Ernest Hemingway, tough-guy modernist and friend of Gertrude Stein. It’s a cameo grounded in the truth that, for one of America’s 20th-century greats, Paris in the 20s was a source of artistic liberation. It was also the setting for the first section of Hemingway’s first, and best, novel (published in the UK as Fiesta).
The novel, a roman à clef describing an anguished love affair between the expatriate American war veteran Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley, a femme fatale representative in the writer’s mind of 1920s womanhood, is mostly located in Spain, Hemingway’s favourite country. For some critics, the heart of the novel is the bullfight, and how each character responds to the experience of the corrida. At the same time, the escape into the wild is a great American theme that recurs in the works of Hawthorne, Melville, and Twain (Nos 16, 17 and 23 in this series). In addition, The Sun Also Rises, like most novels of the 1920s, is a response to the author’s recent wartime service.
The key to Hemingway, the thing that unlocks the most important doors to his creative life, was a deeper, more personal darkness, his complicated experience of the first world war. There are two versions. Either he was rejected for poor eyesight; or he failed to enlist and instead joined up as an ambulance driver. Each way, in the short-term, he was wounded by the shame of rejection and cowardice.
However, once with the Red Cross, Hemingway got as badly injured as if he’d been in combat. Thereafter, throughout his life, he craved the company of risk-takers – bullfighters or big-game hunters – and longed to be accepted by them. Courage, cowardice and manly authenticity in extremis became his themes.
Perhaps this is also the inspiration for his famously hard-boiled prose. The best of Hemingway’s fiction, at its purest and most influential, is found in his stories, but this first novel is also a literary landmark that earns its reputation as a modern classic.
A note on the text
Hemingway began writing the novel with the working title of Fiesta on his birthday, 21 July, in 1925. He completed the draft manuscript about eight weeks later, in September, and went on to revise it further during the winter of 1926.
The novel is based on a trip he made from Paris to Pamplona, Spain in 1924 with his wife, Hadley Richardson, and the American writer John Dos Passos. Hemingway returned again in June 1925 with another group of American and British expats. Their experiences and complex romantic entanglements became absorbed into the manuscript of The Sun Also Rises.
In the US, Scribner’s published the novel on 22 October 1926. Its first edition, just over 5,000 copies, sold well. The Hellenistic-style cover illustration by Cleonike Damianakes showed a seated, robed woman, head bent, eyes closed, shoulders and thigh exposed. Hemingway’s editor, the celebrated Maxwell Perkins, wrote that “Cleon’s respectably sexy” artwork was designed to attract “the feminine readers who control the destinies of so many novels”. Within two months, The Sun Also Riseswas in a second printing, with many subsequent printings to follow. In 1927 the novel was published in the UK by Cape under the title Fiesta. In fact, The Sun Also Rises has been in print continuously since its publication in 1926, and is said to be one of the most translated titles in the world.