The True Story of the Booze, Bullfights, and Brawls That Inspired Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises


Hemingway’s 1923 passport photo.
Courtesy of the Ernest Hemingway Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

Ernest Hemingway’s debut novel gave a voice to the Lost Generation—often by lifting it directly from his affluent expat circle in post-war Paris. A new book by Lesley M. M. Blume recounts the scandalous trip to Pamplona that inspired Jake Barnes, Lady Brett Ashley, Robert Cohn, and the characters from literature’s greatest roman à clef.


In the middle of June 1925, Ernest Hemingway sat down to write. He pulled out a stenographer’s notebook, otherwise used for list-making. The back contained a rundown of letters he “must write”; intended recipients included Ezra Pound—a mentor of his—and his Aunt Grace. Also scribbled there: a list of stories the 25-year-old writer, who had moved to Paris in 1921, had recently submitted to various publications. On this day, he opened the notebook to a fresh page and scrawled in pencil across the top:


He began writing a sea adventure, set on a troop transport ship in 1918 and featuring a character named Nick Adams. Exactly two months earlier, Hemingway had informed Maxwell Perkins, an editor at Charles Scribner’s Sons, the prestigious publishing house in New York City, that he considered the novel to be an artificial and played-out genre. (Perkins had heard through the grapevine that Hemingway was doing some remarkable writing.) Yet here he was, making a bid to jump-start one.

It was not his first attempt. Hemingway’s literary ambition at this time was seemingly limitless—yet he was still a frustrated nobody as far as the wider public was concerned. He had long been trying to sell his experimental stories to publishers back in the States, with no success. F. Scott Fitzgerald—then the celebrated oracle of the Jazz Age and the friend who had been championing Hemingway to Perkins at Scribner’s—published practically everywhere, but no commercial publication or publisher would touch Hemingway. So far, he’d managed to place stories with small literary magazines; his first book, Three Stories & Ten Poems, was published in 1923 in a run of merely 300 copies. When Hemingway’s second book, In Our Time, appeared in 1924, only 170 copies were available for sale.

“I knew I would have to write a novel,” he later recalled. After all, this is what Fitzgerald had done. Before Fitzgerald had published his debut novel, This Side of Paradise, in 1920, he too had been a regular in the slush pile. After Perkins brought out This Side of Paradise with Scribner’s, Fitzgerald remembered later, “editors and publishers were open to me, impresarios begged plays, the movies panted for screen material.” This was precisely the sort of success that Hemingway craved, and a blockbuster novel was key.

Already there had been two false starts. When Hemingway and his wife, Hadley, had moved to Paris, four years earlier, he had taken along with him the pages of a starter novel—which Hadley lost in a careless accident, along with most of his other “Juvenilia,” as he described the writings to Ezra Pound. He then hatched and abandoned an idea for another novel, satirizing a dictatorial colleague at the Toronto Star, where Hemingway had worked as a deadline reporter.

Along with Youth was destined to peter out after 27 pages. Hemingway decided that he would simply have to “let the pressure build”: when the moment came, his debut novel would simply happen. “When I had to write it,” he later recalled, “then it would be the only thing to do and there would be no choice.”

Little did he know that, at that moment, in June 1925, all of the elements were falling into place at last; he was just one fateful event away from getting the material he so desperately needed to join the novel club. With the resulting book—which would come to be called The Sun Also Rises, published 90 years ago this year—Hemingway would capture several coveted prizes: he would essentially broker for mainstream audiences a new era of modern writing, find himself dubbed the voice of a “Lost Generation,” and become launched as an international sensation.

More immediately on the horizon, though, was the month of July, which for Hemingway meant an annual trip to Pamplona, Spain, to take part in the San Fermin bullfighting festival. The bulls had become an obsession over the last few years. “He [first] heard about bullfighting from me,” Gertrude Stein later sniffed, but several friends had played a role in getting him hooked. He had gone to the Pamplona fiesta twice before. The first time, in 1923, it had been a romantic adventure for him and Hadley: at the bullfights, Hemingway had been enraptured (it was like “having a ringside seat at the war with nothing going to happen to you,” he wrote to a friend); Hadley—then pregnant with their son—had sat calmly at his side, stitching clothes for their baby and “embroidering in the presence of all that brutality,” as she later put it.

In 1924, the couple returned with a raucous entourage that included writers John Dos Passos and Donald Ogden Stewart. Pamplona still felt as pure and insular as it had the summer before, untainted by Americans and other tourists.

The town, Stewart wrote later, “was ours. No one else had discovered it. It was vintage Hemingway. It was a happy time.” No one was happier there than Hemingway. “He stuck like a leech till he had every phase of the business in his blood,” Dos Passos recalled, “and saturated himself to the bursting point.” It was a feeling Hemingway insisted his friends share. “[Hemingway] had an evangelistic streak,” Dos Passos went on, “that made him work to convert his friends to whatever mania he was encouraging at the time.”


Hemingway bull-dogging in the amateur fights, 1925.
Courtesy of the Ernest Hemingway Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

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