Religion and Belief in Hemingway’s “Snows of Kilimanjaro” and Wallace Stevens’ “Of Modern Poetry”


The Great War occasioned new questions in the minds of men. The superficial, apparent, and obvious observations of Realistic writers were now subsequent to the burning questions of Modernity, those of causation, meaning, and the human existence. Belief, religion, and faith were unavoidably tossed in the blend of these inquiries. Ernest Hemingway, in his work The Snows of Kilimanjaro, and Wallace Stevens, in his work Of Modern Poetry, both provide alternative directions into understanding religion and belief in the modern era, through their accentuations of existential thought and metaphysical value.


Existentialism was a prevalent philosophical uprising during the dawn of modernity, and interestingly combated religious institutionalism. One who is lost in the common ideal of any institution is one who has been alienated from his existence. The subjectivity of personal endeavor thus countered the objectivity of systematized thought. Heidegger, Sartre, Hegel, and Camus are some of existentialism’s most notable figures. More importantly, however, existentialist notions provide attractive insight into the Hemingway-Stevens comparison.

Hemingway and Existentialism

Hemingway had been retrospectively labeled under existential headings. The man never initiated these claims, apparently having no formal or technical training in the knowledge of philosophy. Camus, however, displayed the correlative leeway; and though the influence from Hemingway was merely stylistic, it provided an immediate association with Hemingway and existentialist thought. Thus, scholarship sought to draw a more formidable line from Hemingway to existentialism, or vice-versa. After a broadened definition of existentialism (a typical modification), Killinger has concluded that, “In short, to see the world and man’s role in it as Hemingway sees it is to see it existentially.”[1]

In Hemingway’s comprehensive works, he is branded for outright demeaning religious characters and ideals. In response, John Clark Pratt embarked on an extensive and scholastic journey in search of Hemingway’s religious views.[2] He spoke to scholar after scholar, and even received a response from Ernest himself. Many acquaintances of Hemingway claimed that the man’s religion was a hard identification, but others spoke of his Catholicism quite assertively. Indeed, Hemingway was a man of religion, being first accustomed to it by his second wife, Pauline, who was a Catholic, and there are significant examples of religious allusion in Hemingway’s works. Hemingway’s negative portrayal of religion, however, is one of the apparent correlations to existential principles.

As it has been noted, existentialism seeks to forgo and consequently debase all institutionalized thought, which includes religious institutions. In Snows, Hemingway’s biggest blow to religion is its complete dismissal; he has no reverential reference to organized religion throughout the entire work. In the dying distress of the main character, Harry, one would expect some inkling of religious retrospection, but Hemingway withholds. Now, even the grandest positivity of religion – its comforting insight into the afterlife, its hope – has been stripped from man’s necessary method of dying well.

Importantly, these existential parallels have been drawn from features of meaning amidst Hemingway’s writing – e.g. death, violence, and choice. Further, in observing Snows’ prevalence of death, “quite properly, Killinger insists that the meaning of death is the ‘immediate key’ to an understanding of Hemingway’s world.”[3] Here, beckons Killinger, this observation provides some purpose to the other selections of Hemingway’s choice characters: hunters, soldiers, and bullfighters. All such characters “achieve, through their intimacy with death, the ‘moment of truth.’”[4] The mentioned ‘truth’ is that of existential transcendence, not submission to the religious objective. For Hemingway, death is the means by which truth comes into the utmost clarity, because it is the end of one’s existential endeavor. In Snows, death is the eminent occasion throughout the entire work; it is the fastening of the total plot.

Lastly, in regards to existential associations throughout Hemingway’s work, there is an importance depicted in Snows where Harry regrets his under-achievement as a writer. Interestingly, this regret is wholly concerned with the eternal exertion to thrive in one’s existence. “He knew at least twenty good stories from out there and he had never written one. Why?”[5] Existentially, man is governed to continually struggle, and Hemingway accentuates this infinite struggle through Harry’s retrospection on his deathbed.

Wallace Stevens’ Existentialism

Stevens was more explicit in his existential ideals, yet, he did not often label them as such. In his work Of Modern Poetry, the existence of man and all of its happenings is where one must search to find that which it seeks. “It must be the finding of a satisfaction, and may be of a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman combing.”[6] Notice that the potentials of satisfaction are not deep metaphysical realities, but are rather everyday occurrences in the life of man. Existentially, one need not alienate himself from the world around him in search of some satisfying objective essentiality, but simply engage, choose, and act in that which encompasses his existence.

Secondly, in Steven’s parallel with existentialist thought, the aim is to deconstruct that which has been regarded with previous certainty, as to reconstruct that resolution for the alienation of current man. “The scene was set; it repeated what was in the script. Then the theater was changed… to construct a new stage.”[7] Religion is often depicted, however unfortunate and true, as a system of ritualistic repetition. In a principle of continuity, religion sanctifies certain historical “scenes” and constructs them into simple repetitions – “the script” – hoping to imitate the same causal effect. Stevens, however, calls for an existential “change” to forgo this systemization of religious ritualism.


Both writers accentuate metaphysical values to one degree or another. By metaphysics, one means that the writer extends reality in some extent, however minute or large. Notions of man’s existence are not sufficient in its exclusion of the abstract, and each writer informs the reader regarding this truth.

Subtle Mysticism in The Snows of Kilimanjaro

Once one arrives at The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Hemingway’s God is not fully dead, but is alive in subtle mysticism and Neo-Platonic allusions – e.g. the transport of Harry to the top of the mountain. Thus, Clendenning resolves, “there are unmistakable existential facets of Hemingway’s thought, yet many readers will find that his treatment of spiritual ambivalence is more interesting and significant than his exposition of any particular philosophical conclusion.”[8] Though Hemingway was notorious for his distaste of religious institutions, there are still traces of metaphysical value. Apparently, Hemingway does not see the need of religion to incorporate a transcendent experience. For Harry, there is strictly no communal aspect to the mystical experience; it is a personal and individual occurrence, unbeknown to the other characters represented in the work.

Moreover, belief in the experience does not seemingly condition the reality of the experience. Hemingway is subtly alluding to the transcendent event without any mentioned belief, doctrine, or dogma to clarify it. Conclusively, Snows represents an interest and value in such an inspirational extension to perceptive reality, and it does so without any regard to communal religion or cognitive belief.

Stevens and Imagination

In the opening line of Wallace Stevens’ work, “the poem of the mind in the act of finding,” the beckoning at the outset is one of continual action, one of persistent finding.[9] There is an honor in searching and finding; yearning has its proper place in man’s mind. Therefore, cognitive belief has its significance in the existence of man.

Belief, however, is not merely a state of mind; for Stevens, it is a “discursive exercise.”[10] Beliefs must be implemented and endorsed by the actions. Regarding the exercise, one reads the prevalence of “an act of the mind” – “it has to be living.”[11] This mentioned living-act is the ‘imagination.’ Stevens renders imagination as the transformation of reality, in that, it cannot be separated from reality and thus does not have too far of a metaphysical leap. Simply, it is metaphysical in its abstract extension of reality, but it is practical in its unavoidable use of reality. Imagination “always makes use of the familiar to produce the unfamiliar;” nonetheless, it is a method aimed at generating change and newness.[12] There must always be a desire to continue, long for that which is transcendently ineffable, and imagine. Religious belief – what Stevens would reckon as Logocentricism, an analytical influence upon belief – is a procedure that makes belief too familiar and non-subject to change. Hence, belief is a necessary act of man to thrive, but this belief most certainly cannot resolve in religious doctrine.


Hemingway and Stevens are easily distinguishable. Most apparent, the writers adapted different forms of language to express truth. Stevens wrote poetically, though he also wrote essays, and Hemingway wrote in prose with short stories as well as essays. Despite their distinctive forms, both writers shared a common dislike for institutionalized religion and belief in their works. Purposefully, both of these gentlemen arose from similar intellectual cultures that dominated the world. Existentialism imprinted its emphasis on the subjectivity of man, religion had failed the world in its nominal tyranny of destruction, and it all aided the conclusions that Hemingway and Stevens came to propagate. The comparison can be austerely summated as such: in Snows, Hemingway was much against any doctrine or belief inasmuch as it conditioned mystical experience; in Of Modern Poetry, Stevens valued mindful belief and its imaginative implementations, yet, corresponding to Hemingway’s depiction, placed its value beyond religion’s objective stagnancy.

[1] John Clendenning, “Hemingway’s Gods, Dead and Alive,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language Vol. 3, No. 4 (Winter 1962): 489.

[2] John Clark Pratt, “My Pilgrimage: Fishing for Religion with Hemingway,” The Hemingway Review 21 (Fall 2001): 78-92.

[3] Clendenning, “Hemingway’s Gods, Dead and Alive,” 490.

[4] Ibid., 490

[5] Ernest Hemingway, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” in The Norton Anthology of American Literature (Shorter Eight Edition) (Volume 2), ed. Julia Reidhead (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012), 1034.

[6] Wallace Stevens, “Of Modern Poetry,” in The Norton Anthology of American Literature (Shorter Eight Edition) (Volume 2), ed. Julia Reidhead (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012), 777.

[7] Ibid., 777

[8] Clendenning, “Hemingway’s Gods, Dead and Alive,” 502.

[9] Stevens, “Of Modern Poetry,” 776.

[10] David R. Jarraway, “Stevens and Belief,” in The Cambridge Companion to Wallace Stevens, ed. John N. Serio (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007, 204.

[11] Stevens, “Of Modern Poetry,” 777.

[12] Jarraway, “Stevens and Belief,” 205.


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