The Sun Also Rises

The origins of the title of Hemingway's classic

by Gary Dexter

When Max Perkins [1], Hemingway's editor at Scribner's, received the first draft of The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway's first major novel [2], he was elated. He wrote back: 

The Sun Also Rises seems to me a most extraordinary performance. No one could conceive a book with more life in it. All the scenes, and particularly those when they cross the Pyrennees [sic] and come into Spain, and when they fish in that cold river, and when the bulls are sent in with the steers, and when they are fought in the arena, are of such a quality as to be like actual experience.

Not everyone agreed. Zelda Fitzgerald said later that it had three subjects:  "bullfighting, bull slinging and bullshitting". Others criticized it for its wooden dialogue, ridiculous characters, overt anti-Semitism and misogyny. Max Perkins had a hard time convincing his chief, Charles Scribner, of its value. The story goes that Perkins jotted down on a pad some of the words that needed to be removed from Hemingway's manuscript:  they included "shit fuck bitch piss". Unfortunately the heading on the pad was "Things to do today". Charles Scribner came into Perkins's office, saw the pad, and said to him:  "You must be exhausted." [3]

The novel began its textual life in 1925 as a short story entitled "Cayetano Ordonez" (the name of the bullfighter who provided the model for the fictional Pedro Romero). All the characters were based on Hemingway's friends, people with whom he had travelled in France and Spain:  Brett Ashley was the real-life Lady Duff Twysden, Mike Campbell was Pat Guthrie, Bill Gorton was Donald Ogden Stewart and Robert Cohn was Harold Loeb. In early drafts the main character (Jake Barnes) was even called "Hem". The relationships between the main characters — particularly Hem's (Jake's) unfulfilled love for Brett, Brett's affairs with Cohn, Mike and Romero, and Hem's antipathy to Cohn — were all closely modeled on life. "I'm tearing those bastards apart," Hemingway wrote to a friend in September 1925 as he was struggling with the book. "I'm putting everyone in it and that kike Loeb is the villain." And yet just after the title page Hemingway, the butter unmelted in his mouth, noted:  "No character in this book is the portrait of any actual person."

As the story lengthened the title was changed to Fiesta:  A Novel (which became its European title), and then, shortly before publication, The Sun Also Rises. Hemingway was a great user of quotations in titles, and The Sun Also Rises came from Ecclesiastes:

What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh:  but the earth abideth for ever. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.

Hemingway gave the quotation in full as the epigraph to his book, counterpoising it with an off-the-cuff remark from Gertrude Stein, which subsequently became as famous as (or more famous than) Ecclesiastes:  "You are all a lost generation." [4] Hemingway meant to contrast the two quotes, containing as they both did the word "generation", and later said that his purpose in so doing was to set the current generation of flawed humanity against the enduring power of the earth itself, the earth which "abideth for ever".

There is perhaps another nuance in The Sun Also Rises. It should be remembered that the central tragedy of the book is the genital wound of the hero, Jake Barnes. Jake, it has been pointed out by more than one commentator, rather closely parallels the Fisher King in T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, published three years earlier in 1922. Jake's sexual incapacity is reflected in the decadent and morally sterile environment of Europe after the spiritual cataclysm of the First World War. Jake finds equilibrium only when he is fishing. Whether or not Eliot was a conscious influence, Jake's wound does symbolize the inability of any of the characters to find real meaning in their lives. It is because of Jake's wound — which Hemingway implies is a wound to his penis rather than just to his testicles — that Jake and Brett are unable to consummate their love for one another. Jake is instead forced into helping Brett seduce Romero. So if the book is closely autobiographical, and Jake is Hem, and Hem is Hemingway, where does that leave us?

On July 8, 1918, while serving as an ambulance driver on the Italian Front at the end of the First World War, Hemingway was seriously injured by a trench mortar, receiving over 200 separate shrapnel wounds to his lower body. His scrotum was pierced twice, and had to be laid on a special pillow while it recovered.[5] His testicles were undamaged and his penis intact. He had not lost his penis. But he knew a man who had:

Because of this I got to know other kids who had genito-urinary wounds and I wondered what a man's life would have been like after that if his penis had been lost and his testicles and spermatic cord remained intact ... [So I] tried to find out what his problems would be when he was in love with someone who was in love with him and there was nothing that they could do about it.

Jake has all the desires of a man but is never able to consummate them. The horror of such a wound represented the greatest of all horrors, and in The Sun Also Rises Hemingway was consciously confronting it. The fundamental act of masculinity, sexual penetration, is denied Jake, and the whole of the rest of masculinity which, for Hemingway, flowed from it — the bulls, the fights, the boxing, the hunting, the drinking, the bullshitting — is rendered pointless, a dreadful joke. It had so very nearly been a joke on Hemingway. He made the sexual connotations of the title clear in a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald in late 1926, saying he was going to insert a subtitle in the next printing of the novel:  "The Sun Also Rises (Like Your Cock If You Have One)."

Reprinted from Why Not Catch-21 by Gary Dexter. Copyright 2007. Reprinted by permission from Frances Lincoln Publishers.


1. Max Perkins was also F. Scott Fitzgerald's editor.

2. The Torrents of Spring (1926) is technically his first long fiction, but it was a youthful exercise in parody (of Sherwood Anderson):  The Sun Also Rises was the beginning of the Hemingway style and his mature novelistic career.

3. There is more than one version of this story:  in another version Scribner says:  "If you need reminding to do those things you're in a worse state than I thought."

4. A more detailed account of the genesis of the remark can be found in A Moveable Feast, in which it is revealed that the phrase "lost generation" was not a coining of Stein's, but that of an anonymous gas-station proprietor:  "It was when we had come back from Canada and were living in the rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs and Miss Stein and I were still good friends that Miss Stein made the remark about the lost generation. She had some ignition trouble with the old Model T Ford she then drove and the young man who worked in the garage and had served in the last year of the war had not been adept, or perhaps had not broken the priority of other vehicles, in repairing Miss Stein's Ford. Anyway he had not been sérieux and had been corrected severely by the patron of the garage after Miss Stein's protest. The patron had said to him, 'You are all a génération perdue.' 'That's what you are. That's what you all are,' Miss Stein said. 'All of you young people who served in the war. You are a lost generation.' 'Really?' I said. 'You are,' she insisted. 'You have no respect for anything … .'"

5. The pillow is not available to view in the Hemingway Museum at Key West. Reports of the number of shrapnel wounds were confirmed by an American Red Cross representative, W.R. Castle, in a letter of July 20, 1918. Hemingway told Archibald MacLeish about the injuries to his scrotum in a letter of June 7, 1933.

This article originally appeared in Issue 21, February 2008.




Gary Dexter is the writer of a long-running column for the Sunday Telegraph (UK).

Buy Gary Dexter's books through Amazon at the LOST Store.

Articles in this Issue

Disappeared Detroit, by Jeff Byles
A Soul's Weight, by Mary Roach
Jan Michael-Vincent, by Alan Huffman
Cinematography, by David Lynch
Gray Area: Thinking With a Damaged Brain, by Floyd Skloot
Manzanar, by Karen Piper
Claude Garamond, by Simon Loxley
The Sun Also Rises, by Gary Dexter
The Life of One Man as Found in the Garbage, by Elizabeth Monoian
Maximilian's Lost Treasure, by Bill Yenne
A Nation Cannot Grow Rich by Fighting, by Henry Loomis Nelson

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