14 Fascinating Facts About Ernest Hemingway’s ‘A Farewell to Arms’

Hemingway came up with more then 30 potential titles, tweaked the ending 50 times, and had some choice words for F. Scott Fitzgerald when his fellow author offered 10 pages of revision notes.
The cover of Ernest Hemingway’s ‘A Farewell to Arms.’
The cover of Ernest Hemingway’s ‘A Farewell to Arms.’ / Scribner/Amazon (book cover), Justin Dodd/Mental Floss (background)

Although it seems tame by today’s standards, Ernest Hemingway’s novel about love and loss during World War I created quite a stir when it came out in 1929. Critics hounded Hemingway for writing about retreating armies, corpse-strewn battlefields, and other inglorious realities of war, and for featuring a young soldier who deserts and runs off with a recently widowed nurse. Morality quibbles have fallen aside with time (well, mostly), and nowadays A Farewell to Arms stands as a classic antiwar novel. Here’s a look at the story behind the story, and the controversy it kicked up nearly 100 years ago.

1. The title comes from a 16th-century poem.

George Peele’s poem channels a knight’s lament at being too old to bear arms for his queen (Queen Elizabeth I, in this case). Hemingway’s title is an ironic reference, since his protagonist, Frederic, shirks his duty as a deserter.

How much influence the poem actually had on Hemingway’s writing is a matter of some debate: Because he chose the title late in the process of revising the novel, Hemingway biographer Michael Reynolds declared that “neither the rejected titles nor the final title had any influence on the writing of the novel.” But Bernard Oldsey, author of Hemingway’s Hidden Craft, disagreed, noting, “Hemingway had this title in mind during a vital period of revision, including the remarkable conclusion which corresponds directly with the title; and he obviously chose it with great care from among a number of possibilities that might have done well, but not as well, in providing a key to, and a reinforcement of, the dominant themes and motifs of the novel.”

2. Hemingway drew upon his own experiences during World War I ...

Ernest Hemingway on Crutches
Ernest Hemingway. / Historical/GettyImages

In 1918, Hemingway left Kansas City for the European front. Like Frederic, he served as an ambulance driver in Italy, and was injured in a mortar attack along the Austrian border after just a month of service. He spent six months convalescing at a hospital in Milan. For a year or so after the war, Hemingway pecked away at an autobiographical novel, tentatively titled Along with Youth, but eventually gave it up. He also published two stories—one about his bouts with insomnia titled “Now I Lay Me,” and another called “In Another Country”—that scholars now believe laid the groundwork for A Farewell to Arms.

3. ... including falling in love with a nurse named Agnes.

While in the hospital in Milan, the 19-year-old Hemingway fell in love with Agnes von Kurowsky, a Red Cross nurse who was seven years older than him. The two planned to marry in America after Hemingway recovered, but shortly after returning home he received a letter in which she told him she was engaged to an Italian officer. (“I know that I am still very fond of you, but, it is more as a mother than as a sweetheart,” she wrote.) Their relationship is the basis for the classic Sandra Bullock-Chris O’Donnell film, In Love and War.

4. Much of A Farewell to Arms comes from good old fashioned research.

Many readers assume that Hemingway’s detailed description of the Italian retreat from Caporetto, and of places like Gorizia and Pava, came from personal experience. But because he’d spent most of his time in Italy confined to a hospital bed, the former Kansas City Star reporter engaged in methodical research, including interviews. Scholars note that he’s accurate down to the finest detail.

5. Bach inspired Hemingway’s writing.

Hemingway’s frequent use of the conjunction “and” came by way of the famous composer. Years after the publication of A Farewell to Arms, he wrote that he used the word for its rhythmic quality, as a “conscious imitation of the way Mr. Johann Sebastian Bach used a note in music when he was emitting counterpoint.”

6. He wrote while on the road, from Paris to Piggott, Arkansas.

During the 15 months it took him to write and revise A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway spent time in Paris, Kansas City, Wyoming, and at his wife Pauline’s family home in Piggott, Arkansas. He looked over proofs in Key West and corrected galleys of the book while in Spain.

7. Hemingway revised the ending of A Farewell to Arms nearly 50 times ...

Hemingway was a consummate editor, revising the previous day’s work every morning before beginning anything new. But even by his standards, the number of times he wrote and re-wrote the ending of A Farewell to Arms is extreme. An edition of the novel released in 2014 featured all of the alternate endings, compiled by Hemingway’s grandson Seán. They include one in which Catherine and the baby both live, and one that might be even more depressing than the one that made the cut: “Catherine died and you will die and I will die and that is all I can promise you.”

8. ... and made a list of 30 possible titles.

Ernest Hemingway at his Typewriter
Hemingway at his typewriter. / Hulton Deutsch/GettyImages

Oldesy writes that Hemingway “often used working titles for a novel in progress, and that he sometimes made lists of titles in the process of finishing off a work, during the long and thorough revision period of composition,” and that seems to be exactly what happened with A Farewell to Arms. Early potential titles included The World’s Room, Night and Forever, The Hill of Heaven, and A Separate Peace; Oldsey found even more on a page in Hemingway’s papers, A Farewell to Arms among them. Other potential titles included:

  • A World to See
  • Patriot’s Progress
  • The Italian Journey
  • Disorder and Early Sorrow
  • Death Once Dead
  • They Who Get Shot
  • Love in War
  • Education of the Flesh
  • If You Must Love
  • The Enchantment
  • In Praise of His Mistress

In all, Hemingway came up with 33 possible titles for the novel, searching “almost exclusively among literary sources,” according to Oldsey.

9. Hemingway’s editor read the manuscript on a fishing trip with him.

Hemingway’s longtime editor Maxwell Perkins traveled down to Key West in January 1929 to fish for tarpon and discuss the writer’s almost-finished novel. The New York-based Perkins was not an outdoorsman, and wrote to F. Scott Fitzgerald that “I might leave a leg with a shark, or do worse.” He later reported having a fine time and was enthusiastic about A Farewell to Arms. Upon returning to New York, he secured $16,000 from Scribner’s to serialize the novel—the most the magazine had ever paid for a serialized work.

10. He rejected edits from F. Scott Fitzgerald.

American Author Francis Scott Fitzgerald
F. Scott Fitzgerald. / Library of Congress/GettyImages

Hemingway sent a draft of A Farewell to Arms to Fitzgerald, but when the Great Gatsby author wrote back with 10 pages of notes, Hemingway responded, “Kiss my ass.” This was typical of the sarcastic, contentious relationship the two enjoyed. In a 1927 letter, Fitzgerald poked fun at Hemingway’s dashing, hard-living lifestyle, asking him, “Just before you pass out next time think of me.”

11. The original manuscript of A Farewell to Arms was censored.

Hemingway wanted to faithfully reproduce the way soldiers talked in wartime. But Perkins knew that colorful language like son of a bitch, Jesus Christ, and whorehound wouldn’t go over well with Scribner’s mainstream audience. Hemingway didn’t want the words taken out, so Perkins inserted dashes in place of the offending language. Scribner’s editor Robert Bridges ended up deleting many of the words altogether. Even with these changes, readers canceled their subscriptions and railed against the novel’s “vile language.” Frustrated by the whole ordeal, Hemingway re-inserted the words by hand in a few copies, one of which he gave to James Joyce.

12. A Farewell to Arms was banned in Boston ...

Police chief Michael H. Crowley ordered that the Scribner’s issue be banned from bookstands throughout the city, citing the book’s “salacious” love affair between Frederic and Catherine. In a letter to readers, Scribner’s stood behind its decision to publish, calling Crowley’s actions “improper” and defending Hemingway’s work as “distinctly moral.”

13. ... and in Italy.

Hemingway had a feeling his portrayal of the Italian retreat from Caporetto wouldn’t go over too well with that country’s officials. He even wrote a disclaimer that appeared with the second installment in Scribner’s emphasizing it was a work of fiction. Nevertheless, Italy banned A Farewell to Arms until 1948, and officials were also able to influence the 1932 film version.

14. One reviewer called it “venereal fiction.”

A Farewell to Arms garnered Hemingway plenty of praise after it was published in 1929, but not all the reviews were good. Novelist and critic Robert Herrick called the novel “dirt,” while another critic wrote that “The obvious purpose of the story is to offer a vicarious satisfaction to those who are either too jaded or too timid to get the satisfaction in a normal way through natural experiences,” adding that the book should be considered “venereal fiction.” Talk about an early 20th-century burn.

A version of this story ran in 2015; it has been updated for 2024.

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