50 years ago today, July 2, 1961, America’s generally-acknowledged greatest writer, Ernest Hemingway slipped away from his wife’s supervision in his home in Ketchum, Idaho, made his way to his gun closet, removed (according to traditional accounts) a highly-cherished 12 gauge Boss best London grade shotgun, and proceeded to self-administer orally two 1 and 1/4 oz., 3 and 3/4 dram, loads of high brass number 6s, permanently curing the increasing assortment of health and mental problems which afflicted him and made him miserably unhappy.
Although only 62 years old, Hemingway had been wounded in war, suffered an extraordinary variety of contusions and broken bones (most recently in two successive African plane crashes), and had maintained a heavy drinking habit for decades. Most dispiritingly, he had begun to find his powers of concentration and acuity waning, and it had become impossible for Hemingway to write. He had become increasingly querulous and suspicious, and had developed an intense fear of persecution by the federal government and the FBI. His family and friends scoffed at his ravings on the subject, but FBI files later did reveal that J. Edgar Hoover had been keeping Hemingway under surveillance.
Ernest Hemingway’s father, a doctor, also killed himself. Inevitably, Hemingway addressed the subject of suicide in his writing, as NPR aptly recalls:
Today, let’s remember the Hemingway who was 23 years old and indestructible, struggling in Paris to be a writer. He wrote a short story â€” not even 1,500 words â€” called “Indian Camp,” in which a boy named Nick Adams accompanies his father, who is a doctor, to an Indian camp in the Michigan woods one night, where his father delivers a baby and discovers that the baby’s father has slit his throat. It’s the first time Nick has seen a baby born, or a man die, and in a boat on their way back home across a lake, Nick asks:
“Why did he kill himself, Daddy?”
“I don’t know Nick. He couldn’t stand things, I guess.”
“Is dying hard, Daddy?”
“No, I think it is pretty easy, Nick. It all depends.” …
They were seated in the boat. The sun was coming up over the hills. Nick trailed his hand in the water. It felt warm in the sharp chill of the morning. In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing, he felt quite sure that he would never die.