NEA Big Read
A Farewell to Arms

A Farewell to Arms

by Ernest Hemingway

All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you...

Ernest Hemingway in Paris, 1928 (The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston)

Josephine Reed: Welcome to The Big Read, a program created by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The largest reading program in American history, The Big Read is designed to unite communities through great literature. Here's your host, poet and former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, Dana Gioia.

Dana Gioia: Today, we will discuss Ernest Hemingway's harrowing World War I love story, A Farewell to Arms.

Stephen Lang reads from A Farewell to Arms...

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

There was fighting in the mountains and at night we could see the flashes from the artillery. In the dark it was like summer lightning, but the nights were cool and there was not the feeling of a storm coming.

Matthew Bruccoli: A Farewell to Arms is the key American World War I novel.

Tobias Wolff: When you begin this novel, really, you can't stop reading it. The rhythms of the language, the almost visionary actuality of what he is describing there just pulls you in.

Bobbie Ann Mason: This novel is one of the great romances. It is such a beautiful book. There's a kind of intensity in a war romance that doesn't fit more ordinary romances. There's this desperation.

Alice McDermott: A Farewell to Arms, for me, is about the human condition. We face death, all of us at some point and still we continue to love each other, to be hopeful, to love life, moments of peace even though we know we are up against the fact of our own mortality.

Gioia: Ernest Hemingway's 1929 novel A Farewell to Arms is set in Italy and Switzerland during World War I. A war in which Hemingway himself participated as an ambulance driver. World War I was one of the turning points in modern history. It destroyed the myth of progress by proving that technology could be used for mass violence. Writer and editor, Andrew Carroll.

Andrew Carroll: This book takes place in a backdrop of the worst catastrophe the world has seen. At the turn of this century, humanity saw the advancement of technology, of machines. And they thought the machine would serve humanity. And what was so devastating to an entire generation of people was the use of machines slaughtering individuals in a way that was never possible before. And these weapons had been used but none of the scales in World War I. You have the introduction of the machine gun, of tanks, of gas, of submarines, of planes. And the overwhelming massacre where you have tens of thousands of casualties in a single day—we had never seen anything like this before in the history of humanity.

Gioia: The main character of A Farewell to Arms is Lieutenant Frederic Henry, a young American who joins the ambulance service for the Italian Army well before the United States enters the war. Editor of the Hemingway Review, Susan Beegel.

Susan Beegel: Frederic Henry's a pretty interesting character. He hasn't really thought about what war means or why he's there. He was studying architecture in Italy and it sort of seemed like something to do.

Gioia: Hemingway provides very few details about Frederic Henry's life before the war. The author's own experience in World War I bears some obvious similarities to the situation in the novel. But despite these parallels, A Farewell to Arms is not overtly autobiographical.

Beegel: Hemingway, unlike Frederick Henry, was not in the Italian Army. He joined the American Red Cross as a very young man and went out to the war when he was 18 years old to drive an ambulance in Italy. He was badly wounded and he was taken by train to an American Red Cross hospital in Milan. That is where he met his nurse and the first great love of his life, Agnes von Kurowsky.

Ken Panda: The relationship that Hemingway has with Agnes von Kurowsky never advances beyond a social relationship.

Gioia: Ken Panda teaches literature at the University of Delaware.

Panda: They were never married. Hemingway probably read more into relationship than Agnes did, who was several years his senior. What Hemingway did was use that brief experience of his wounding to become the seed of a novel that he worked on either through reading or research or interviews for ten years before he ever wrote it.

Gioia: Andrew Carroll.

Carroll: War of course is the backdrop, but I don't think it's the central story. The love story to me is what's probably the greater focus. But in some ways it is not even a love story. And not to sound cliché but it's about life. And, it's about how we get through these experiences in the context of these historic moments such as a war, any kind of catastrophic event. What is it that we cling to during that journey?

Gioia: After Frederic Henry is wounded by a mortar shell, he's sent to an Allied Hospital in Milan. There through his long convalescence, he falls in love with an English nurse named Catherine Barkley. Novelist Bobbie Ann Mason.

Mason: This novel sets up extremes. It's an almost simplistic black and white division: love and war, the dust and the rain. When the rain comes, it's extreme, it's unending. When they are in love and together, it's total complete happiness. And when they are not together, it's total complete despair.

Beegel: When he meets Catherine, she already knows what war is about and what love is about. She has already lost her fiancé in war. She is a little bit crazy at the beginning of the novel. She wants to pretend that Frederic is her love come back to her.

Wolff: And there's something a little maternal initially about her. She's in charge of this relationship.

Gioia: Writer, Tobias Wolff.

Wolff: She is more sophisticated than he is. She's also lost someone already, so she knows better than they get in deep. So, there's this sense of control that Catherine has at the beginning that she gradually surrenders.

Gioia: Playwright, David Ives.

David Ives: He does not realize her value until he goes off to war and he comes back and that's the moment. That feeling of the world turned upside-down, when you realize you're in love with someone, is so much stronger in this book because it doesn't happen on the spur of the moment. It doesn't happen the first time he sees her.

Mason: It's a kind of romance that can only come out of war. You have such a contrast between the insanity of war and the irrationality of love. I guess that's a similarity in a way. But people are caught up in a thing that's larger than themselves and so they had to find some anchor. And so Frederic Henry and Catherine Barkley are drawn together just desperately. But at the same time this is an absolutely real love.

Gioia: Henry and Catherine carry on a secret romance while the rest of the hospital is asleep. Their affair offers them a much needed refuge from the horrors of the war outside. As Henry recovers from his wounds, he and Catherine explore the town, drink wine in cafés, go to horse races and make plans for a future together. Initially a flirtation, the relationship slowly develops into a bond that is unexpectedly passionate and tender.

Lang reads from A Farewell to Arms...

Afterward I went to bed and when they were all asleep and she was sure they would not call she came in. I loved to take her hair down and she sat on the bed and kept very still, except suddenly she would dip down to kiss me while I was doing it, and I would take out the pins and lay them on the sheet and it would be loose and I would watch her while she kept very still and then take out the last two pins and it would all come down and she would drop her head and we would both be inside of it, and it was the feeling of inside a tent or behind a falls.

She had wonderfully beautiful hair and I would lie sometimes and watch her twisting it up in the light that came in the open door, and it shone even in the night as water shines sometimes just before it is really daylight.

It was lovely in the nights and if we could only touch each other, we were happy.

Gioia: You are listening to The Big Read from the National Endowment for the Arts. Today we're discussing A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway.

Gioia: Susan Beegel and scholar Matthew Bruccoli on Hemingway's Midwestern roots.

Beegel: He was born in Oak Park, Illinois—a little village that was about 9 miles from downtown Chicago.

Matthew Bruccoli: He grew up in an exceedingly devout household with a good deal of praying, strictly moralistic. Hemingway was in revolt against that all of his life, even after he left Oak Park. The story was Oak Park was where the saloons ended and the churches started. He grew up in what was maybe the squarest community in America.

Beegel: He had an excellent high school education. He didn't go to college. After he graduated, he went to be a cub reporter on the Kansas City Star newspaper and was not there very long before signing up for the Red Cross and going off to war.

Gioia: After the war, Hemingway worked in Paris as a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star. These early journalistic experiences had a profound effect on developing his enormously influential prose style.

Beegel: Journalism taught him several things. It taught him to write with objectivity, not to take a side. It taught him to write using very simple language, declarative sentences, short paragraphs. And it taught him to write for a mass audience.

When he was in Europe and sending back dispatches, these were always sent by telegram and so he would have to distill into just a very few nouns and verbs an entire story.

Bruccoli: The foreign correspondents developed something called "cablese" in which you omitted all of the nonessential words. Hemingway sometimes said that sending cables sharpened his writing and taught him lessons in economy.

Beegel: His great achievement is his style. He changed the way Americans write forever. He threw out all the ornate Victorian prose, all the adjectives and adverbs that tell us what to think. He wanted us to see it and to understand it viscerally and to decide for ourselves.

Wolff: It really isn't as simple as people generally are led to believe—just this declarative sentence laid upon declarative sentence like a wall of bricks. It really isn't like that—it's very poetically patterned.

Gioia: Tobias Wolff.

Wolff: There's great variation in the cadences of the sentences. He uses the sounds of words in adjoining sentences to create an effect, much as a poet does. But it always feels as if these are the words that men do use. This is within the human voice. The hardest thing in the world is to sound natural as a writer.

Gioia: Matthew Bruccoli.

Bruccoli: Hemingway managed to convince his readers that everything he wrote about was real, had happened to him. This is one of his great strengths: the credibility of his work, the accuracy. The places, the names, the dates, the smell, the taste. Very few writers can trigger all of the senses. Hemingway can.

Gioia: David Ives.

Ives: The piling up of items, the piling up of physical effects is so extraordinary. There's that line of Elizabeth Bishop at the end of a poem where she talks about a child's vision and she says that as child, everything is connected by "and" and "and." That's what Hemingway is like for me. That contrast of the simplicity of the style with the complexity of the emotions is what I go to him for and for the amazing sudden effects that he gets.

Lang reads from A Farewell to Arms...

To the north we could look across a valley and see a forest of chestnut trees and behind it another mountain on this side of the river. There were mists over the river and clouds on the mountain and the trucks splashed mud on the road and the troops were muddy and wet in their capes; their rifles were wet and under their capes the two leather cartridge-boxes on the front of the belts, gray leather boxes heavy with the packs of clips of thin, long 6.5 mm. cartridges, bulged forward under the capes so that the men, passing on the road marched as though they were six months gone with child. At the start of the winter came the permanent rain and with the rain came the cholera. But it was checked and, in the end, only seven thousand died of it in the army.

Ives: One thing that I love about Hemingway is that he seemed to know how to do things in the world. When I read Hemingway, I know that he knew those bullets and those cartridges and those guns and those things that he handles—those fishing rods. We don't handle things in the physical world the way those objects come clear in his prose.

Gioia: Andrew Carroll.

Carroll: In re-reading this book, I was able to focus more on what I think is actually a very American trait with artists. You see it in Hopper's paintings, in Copland's music, in Robert Frost's poetry. It's a kind of deceptive simplicity. When you first look at it or first read it or first hear it, it seems very basic. What is so striking about it is that the more you go back to it, you realize that there is so much more at work and that there's a kind of maturity and wisdom to restraining oneself.

McDermott: People think because the language is simple, then the sentiments are also simple.

Gioia: Novelist, Alice McDermott.

McDermott: But Hemingway's characters speak very deeply about their emotions and their spiritual lives. Here you find a great spirituality, a gentleness, a weakness on the part, I think, of all his male characters. And it's internal. Sure they look good in their uniforms and they drink with the best of them and seem to cut a fine figure and yet at night, alone, they pray, they wonder, they're vulnerable.

Lang reads from A Farewell to Arms...

If people bring so much courage to this world, the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break, it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too, but there will be no special hurry.

Gioia: Matthew Bruccoli.

Bruccoli: Fitzgerald told Hemingway that that was one of the most beautiful passages in all of American literature. He's 29 years old and wrote it and he was 30 years when it was published. He was a kid. And here's this 30-year-old kid telling his readers the meaning of life, the value of life, how to live, expressing brilliantly that sense of doom that runs through this novel and runs through much of Hemingway.

Gioia: Almost from the moment he published his first major novel, The Sun Also Rises, in 1926, Hemingway became arguably the most imitated and admired American writer of the century. In 1954, his accomplishments were recognized with the Nobel Prize for Literature. This historic recording is from Hemingway's acceptance speech.

Ernest Hemingway (historic recording)...
Writing at its best is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer's loneliness. But, I doubt if they improve his writing. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer, he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.

Gioia: That writer's loneliness ultimately proved inescapable for Hemingway. In July 1961, in his home in Idaho, Hemingway took his own life. He was 61 years old.

The central turning point in A Farewell to Arms comes as Frederic Henry leads his men through the chaos of the retreating Italian army. Faced with a moment of irrational and unjust violence, Henry is forced to weigh his military duty against his personal desires and promises.

Alice McDermott.

McDermott: The thing that I admire most is that beautiful transition when we follow him through the retreat. And as things slowly breakdown and finally get to the point where he's finished with the war—its just the slow wearing away of all the things that he believed he could do as a single person in the war.

Gioia: Ken Panda.

Panda: When you get to the point where he's at the bridge at the Tagliamento and the battle police are shooting officers over a certain rank who they believe have deserted even though supposedly they're in structured retreat, it becomes literally an absurdity. "Do I die at the hands of people who I've been saving as an ambulance driver for the last two years or do I try to escape and get back to Catherine?" He makes a separate peace is what he does. He says, "I am through with it. I am done with it."

Lang reads from A Farewell to Arms...

We stood in the rain and were taken out one at a time to be questioned and shot. So far they had shot everyone they had questioned. The questioners have that beautiful detachment in devotion to stern justice of men dealing in death without being in any danger of it.

I looked at the carabinieri. They were looking at the newcomers. The others were looking at the Colonel. I ducked down, pushed between two men and ran for the river, my head down. I tripped at the edge and went in with the splash. The water was very cold and I stayed under as long as I could. I could feel the current swirl me and I stayed under until I thought I could never come up. The minute I came up I took a breath and went down again. It was easy to stay under with so much clothing and my boots. When I came up the second time I saw a piece of timber ahead of me and reached it and held on with one hand.

We passed the brush of an island above the water. I held onto the timber with both hands and let it take me along. The shore was out of sight now.

Gioia: Tobias Wolff.

Wolff: He calls into question the reality of these grand causes when we see that even those who are supposed to be on Lieutenant Henry's side are trying to shoot him and, in fact, murder him.

Gioia: David Ives.

Ives: These soldiers, including himself, are being run by men who really don't know what they're doing or don't care what happens. So, in a funny way, it is an absurdist novel about the war, because he's not concentrating on the war scenes, the battle scenes, he's concentrating on the feelings of a man who's caught up in something horrific and yet is trying to remain human.

Wolff: And there's that kind of rebirth that he goes through there. He evades being shot by diving into the river. It's an image of baptism. And when he comes out, he's a different man. He has seen the face of war, he has seen the face of political reality and, from then on, he is interested in personal reality. That's what his quest is: this long journey he goes on to neutrality, to meet his love and to take her to a safe place.

Ives: What struck me in his desertion too was that he hides in this train amongst some guns. And so he goes under that tarpaulin and he's seating amongst guns and so it's as if he can't get away from the war.

Lang reads from A Farewell to Arms...

Anger war washed away in the river along with any obligation. Although that ceased when the carabinieri put his hands on my collar. I would like to have had the uniform off, although I did not care much about the outward forms. I had taken off the stars, but that was for convenience; it was no point of honor. I was not against them. I was through and I wished them all the luck. They were the good ones, and the brave ones, and the calm ones and the sensible ones and they deserved it. But it was not my show anymore. And I wish this bloody train would get to Mestre and I would eat and stop thinking. I would have to stop.

McDermott: Hemingway's great gift to us is to be able to show us both at the same time that there is suffering, that there is craziness and war and absurdity, and you could easily say, "I wish I'd never been born." And yet, ah, there are moments—life is so fine.

Ives: I suppose you to have been in love to, to love this book in a certain way. The war is the horrible background to the beauty that's in the foreground which is what happens to him with Catherine.

Panda: It is an enduring story of sacrifice, isolation, loss, all these things are ubiquitous human emotions and experiences.

Beegel: The book is incredibly important because it bears witness to the tragedy of war. It's written by someone who was there, who was wounded, who felt it, who saw it.

Wolff: One of the things that this novel achieves for me and makes me feel again and again is the first importance of the connections of one person to another. The insufficiency of the grand phrases and platitudes that lead us into one catastrophe after another. What Hemingway asserts in this novel is that what matters is what goes on between one person and another. It's the bonds of real affection and not abstract loyalty to this or that cause, or to this or that country, but to another human being. That that is the beginning of real loyalty, of real love.

Lang reads from A Farewell to Arms...

I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by billposters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the name of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.

Gioia: Thanks for joining The Big Read. This program was created by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services. It was written and produced by Dan Stone. Assistant Producer: Adam Kampe. Readings from A Farewell to Arms were by Stephen Lang. The excerpt from Ernest Hemmingway's Nobel Prize acceptance speech was used with permission of the Nobel Foundation. Original music is by Lee Blasky. The Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana, composed by Pietro Mascagni, was used with the permission of Naxos. World War I battle sounds, Succession 970, courtesy of the Imperial War Museum. Special thanks to Philip Brunelle, Ted Libbey, Erika Koss and Kate Kaiser.

For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Dana Gioia.

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