The hunting legacy of literary luminary Ernest Hemingway

The hunting legacy of Ernest Hemingway

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All sports have their icons. The likes of Babe Ruth, Wilma Rudolph, Muhammed Ali, Mia Hamm, or Michael Jordan. People who were so proficient at, and reflected such a love and passion for, the sport they played that they became heroes in the public eye. Their exploits and charisma draw attention from the masses and made others want to emulate them by taking up their passions themselves. The sport of hunting is no different, having perhaps more iconic characters within its fraternity than any other. Individuals who, through their writing, podcasts, or television programs, have drawn hundreds if not thousands of us into the hunting world. Of all these ambassadors of our sport, there were few more prominent or iconic than perhaps the greatest writer of our time: Ernest Hemingway.

Rising to fame during a time when so much of the country was trying to get away from its ”wild frontier” past by building cities and engulfing itself in civilization, Ernest Hemingway stood out as an advocate for the outdoor world. He began his career as a feature writer for the Chicago Tribune and Toronto Star, where he published articles such as “Tuna Fishing In Spain” and “Trout Fishing Across Europe” before publishing his first novel, “The Sun Also Rises,” in 1926. He followed this first work with “A Farewell to Arms,” “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” and the Pulitzer- and Nobel Prize-winning “Old Man and the Sea,” as well as dozens of other short stories and books.

During his career he shot to the top tier of literary prominence. His popularity as a writer and as a personality was second to none. He became one of the first true celebrities and was counted among the most admired and influential people on the planet. People wanted to be around him, they wanted to be like him, and that desire led them to emulate him. Hemingway’s time as a soldier and war correspondent led to people joining the military. His penchant for boxing caused dozens to put on gloves and step into the ring. His love for fishing sent thousands on quests for bamboo fly rods and decked-out boats. But it was perhaps Hemingway’s greatest love—hunting—that influenced an entire generation of men and women to look at the wilderness around them not as a place to build over, but as something to preserve.

Though he lived in cities all around the world, from Chicago to Paris, Hemingway spent his childhood in the forests and fields of northern Michigan. There, in the company of his father and brother, he pursued game of all shapes and sizes, from ducks and grouse to whitetail bucks and bear. As his writing talents began to gain recognition, he became wealthy. That money enabled him to start hunting all over the world. He pursued game birds in exotic destinations like Italy and Spain, which led to the inspiration of several short stories as well as the opening scene from his novel “Across The River And Into the Trees.”

Hemingway was also a fanatical big-game hunter. During the early ’30s he spent months living and hunting on the fringes of Yellowstone National Park, where he successfully hunted mule deer, bighorn sheep, and elk. Hemingway also obsessively hunted grizzly bears, developing a great respect and admiration for the animal. In a letter he wrote to his friend, Henry “Mike” Strater, trying to get him to come hunt alongside him, Hemingway reflected his passion for the area and the hunting. “Hunting in the mts. is more damn fun than anything you can imagine. I can guarantee you shots at elk, deer, bear, and sheep…I wish to hell you’d come. This is the most beautiful country you ever saw.”

It was during his experiences in the West that Hemingway was inspired by the influence of another great hunter—Theodore Roosevelt. Wishing to follow in Teddy’s footsteps, Hemingway went on two infamous safari trips to Africa. Both of these trips were documented in his novels, “The Green Hills of Africa” and “True At First Light.” It was during his first African safari in 1933 that Hemingway truly found his inspiration from the sport of hunting, producing some of his best writing while spending three months in Kenya and Tanzania. During the trip Hemingway was guided by the great Philip Percival, who also guided Roosevelt, and took almost every trophy imaginable. From lions and leopards to rhinos, elephants, buffalo, and perhaps his favorite game species, the kudu. During his second safari 20 years later, Hemingway had earned such a reputation as a hunter that he was left temporarily in charge of an entire hunting district as an honorary game ranger. His job was to remove problem lions and elephants from the area that had been attacking villagers and harassing local farmers.   

Hemingway posing with kudu and sable skulls while on safari, 1934.

Ernest Hemingway continued to hunt late into his life. After his second safari, where he sustained a traumatic brain injury during a plane crash, he ended up spending most of his time at his home in Ketchum, Idaho. There he pursued pheasants and mule deer in the company of his sons until the point of his death by suicide in 1961. He left a true hunting legacy behind. Nearly 60 years after his death his literary works are still selling off the shelves and almost all of them have a hunting scene or story within their pages. Gun shops all over the country continue to fill requests for “the rifle Hemingway used,” and dozens of hunters make pilgrimages to Africa every year to follow in their hero’s footsteps.

Despite his many well-documented flaws as a hunter, where he seemed to care more for the kill than conservation, he was still the inspiration for many hunters to take to the field at the time, which helped to shape hunting into what it is today. Hemingway’s hunting legacy will forever be remembered in his writing, but the story of his life—filled with hunting and grand adventure—also continues to inspire new hunters to venture out and experience the majesty of the wild places in the world.

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