SCOTT SIMON, host: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
Fifty years ago today, the writer who seemed to personify courage and strength put a shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Ernest Hemingway was 61 years old. He was a boxer, a boozer, philanderer, big game hunter who wrote some of the most sublime prose of the English language. Short, sharp, piercing sentences that told stories about soldiers, lovers, and hunters, bravery, fear, and death. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954 and once wrote he didn't regret that all the time he had spent shooting lions, catching marlins, chasing Nazi submarines, drinking, carousing, and telling tall tales in bars had taken him away from his work. Corey Stoll, who plays Ernest Hemingway in the film "Midnight in Paris," reads his words:
COREY STOLL: (as Ernest Hemingway) In going where you have to go, and doing what you have to do, and seeing what you have to see, you dull and blunt the instrument you write with. But I would rather have it bent and dull and know I had to put it on the grindstone again and hammer it into shape and put a whetstone to it, and know that I had something to write about, than to have it bright and shining and nothing to say, or smooth and well-oiled in the closet, but unused.
SIMON: Many wondered how could a man who had defined courage as grace under pressure take his own life? Over the past 50 years, the reasons may seem less mysterious. Hemingway's father had shot himself in the head with a Civil War pistol, and suicides often follow a family line. Hemingway drank too much for too long, and couldn't stop. He boxed, brawled, and otherwise battered his brain in car, motorbike and airplane accidents. He suffered from headaches, sleeplessness, slurred speech, and depression. He began to hear voices and see things, and told his wife Mary, in January 1961 that he could no longer write a single good sentence. And Ernest Hemingway would only settle for great ones.
But today I'd like to remember the Hemingway who was 23 years old and indestructible, struggling in Paris to be a writer. He wrote a short story - not even 1,500 words - called "Indian Camp," in which a boy named Nick Adams accompanies his father, who's 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 the way back home across a lake, Nick asks:
STOLL: (Reading) 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.
SIMON: The words of Ernest Hemingway, as read by Corey Stoll. Ernest Hemingway died by his own hand, 50 years ago today.