“In those days the distances were all very different, the dirt blew off the hills that now have been cut down, and Kansas City was very like Constantinople.”
~Ernest Hemingway, “God Rest You Merry Gentlemen,” 1933
A lot of people know something about Ernest Hemingway, even people who don’t read books and wouldn’t know John Grisham from Ernie Pyle. Not a few might remember having to read A Farewell to Arms, maybe, or For Whom the Bell Tolls or The Sun Also Rises.
Even people who like to read are often surprised to learn that Ernest Hemingway got his start writing for publication as a cub reporter at the Kansas City Star in 1917-1918. Hemingway could be a kind of role model for both guys mentioned in the first sentence: John Grisham, the best-selling novelist, and Ernie Pyle, the Pulitzer-Prize winning newspaper war correspondent. Hemingway, as it happens, started out as a journalist and won a Pulitzer Prize of his own for The Old Man And Sea in 1953. The next year he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Hemingway served in World War I, was wounded, and later wrote a short story called “Soldier’s Home” in which he mentions Kansas City. His life might have taken a very different turn had it not been for the Great War. His dad, a physician, wanted to keep him out of the death trap that was Europe in 1917. It so happened that Dr. Ed Hemingway’s younger brother, Tyler, lived in Kansas City. Tyler, Ernest Hemingway’s uncle, had been a classmate of Henry Haskell, the chief editorial writer at the Star. Tyler called Haskell and explained the situation. Haskell pulled the right strings. And the rest is history.
Now fast forward to the early morning hours of February 5, 2015, when I stepped out of the front door and retrieved the morning paper – The Kansas City Star. The name is the same but that’s where the similarity to the news organization Hemingway joined nearly a century ago ends.
The paper that morning carried a front-page story with this headline: “Data show a shift in top cause of death.” Under the headline in bold print were these words – a striking sign of the time:
“In non-medical cases, firearms may soon cause more death than motor vehicle accidents.”
The article noted that cars – not guns – have long been the leading non-medical cause of death in the U.S. But not in Missouri. Not in 2013 when and where, “Firearms proved more deadly, and by a wide margin – 880 to 781 – according to the most recent federal data available.” As if that bit of bad news weren’t enough, “…Missouri appears to be a harbinger of things to come.” Note that we’re talking about 2013, the year before the police shooting of Michael Brown in a Saint Louis suburb put Ferguson, Missouri, on the map.
The U.S. has more guns and more gun deaths than any other developed country in the world, according to World Health Organization (WHO) data. The data is damning:
A study by two New York City cardiologists found that the U.S. has 88 guns per 100 people and 10 gun-related deaths per 100,000 people — more than any of the other 27 developed countries they studied.
Japan, on the other hand, had only .6 guns per 100 people and .06 gun-related deaths per 100,000 people, making it the country with both the fewest guns per capita and the fewest gun-related deaths.
Six out of every 10 firearm related deaths in the United States today are suicides. Ernest Hemingway committed suicide. He ended his life with a gun.
On the very same day the Star ran the gun-deaths-versus-car-accidents story, Cabela’s placed a sprawling 11-page “Smokin’ Deals” ad featuring a Ruger AR 556 ($70 off) plus a real deal on American Eagle .223 Rifle Ammo (25% off) on the front page. The Ruger 556 looks for all the world like an assault rifle; it features “upper and lower receivers” and a “1:8 twist barrel with a chamber optimized to run both 5.56 NATO and .223 Remington ammunition,” see?
The semi-automatic weapons on sale at Cabela’s ranged in price from a low $649.99 – the Ruger – to the Daniel Defense M4 V11 Tornado Semiautomatic Centerfire Rifle with a 30-round magazine – that’ll set you back $1,629.99. I counted 28 different types of rifles on offer and 22 different pistol types, including two in bright pastel colors (not pink), and one Tiger-striped little beauty – a Walther PK380.
But let’s not blame the media conglomerate that owns 30 newspapers in 15 states, okay? The Star claims to be independent, and maybe it is. But with subscriptions declining, newspapers cutting staff or going belly up, and killer competition from the TV and the Internet, selling ads is where it’s at. If that leaves little room for news – or journalistic principles or moral conviction or common sense – so be it.
Like it or not, in the Orwellian order of the New America, the news is a business and corporations are people. Oh, and War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, and Ignorance is Strength. By the way, Hemingway and Orwell met only once – in Paris in the 1940s – but they had a lot in common: “Both men both fled the middle-class worlds of their youth, donned military uniforms, learned the writing trade as journalists, and travelled abroad as expatriates. Both were drawn to the Spanish Civil War and wrote books about it.”
Hemingway hated war. He knew firsthand about the horror, the atrocities, the real story. But he was not a pacifist. He didn’t hate guns. On the contrary, he “a man who spent much of his life in the company of firearms.”
What he hated was the randomness that is so often the primary waste product of violence – the wasted lives and loves. He witnessed it over and over again in World War I and later, during Spanish Civil War – young men dying for no better reason than because old men thought something was more important than the lives of the 8.5 million who perished or the 21 million who were wounded or 7.7 million POWs and MIAs in the Great War. (Another 500,000-1,000,000 died in Spain in the run-up to another world war just two decades later.)
That’s why I’m pretty sure the war veteran who wrote A Farewell to Arms would have been appalled to read that story on the front page of the paper where he once worked, to read that firearms are now the cause of more deaths than motor vehicle accidents in Missouri, and that guns cause the death of far more Americans every year right here at home than in the foreign wars we’re perpetually fighting.
I’m pretty sure Hemingway would have applauded that story and the editorial decision to run it on the front page. I’m less sure what he would have thought of that “Smokin’ Deals” ad.
Who knows? Maybe he would have gone to Cabela’s and bought a gun.