We writers are a pretty pathetic bunch. Life in the comma mines has left most of us pale and bleary eyed with the muscle tone of banana slugs. A scattered few, though, rise above the rest. They stride the Earth, doling out alliteration and ass-whippings in equal measure. These are the five most hardcore writers ever.
Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)
Growing up, Hemingway always got picked last for soccer, and he spent the rest of his life making up for it.
During World War I, he joined the ambulance corps. And after a bunch of ninnies signed the Treaty of Versailles, Hemingway bounced around the globe, reporting on the Spanish Civil War and World War II, taking up amateur bull fighting and big game hunting, all in between writing some of the most influential books of the 20th century.
In 1952, Hemingway won the Pulitzer Prize for The Old Man and the Sea. Halfway through his acceptance speech, he tore off his shirt and challenged all comers to 12 rounds of bare-knuckle boxing.
Okay, I made that last bit up, but Hemingway is often considered the ultimate manly-man author. Despite all his pomp and bluster, though, he just squeaks into the lowest slot, and that’s mostly because of his fine, luscious beard.
Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914?)
Lots of writers, including Hemingway above, got their start as war correspondents, but not many decided to end their careers that way, and only one did it at age 71.
“Bitter Bierce” was already famous thanks to his short stories and satirical Devil’s Dictionary. (Sample entry: Pray, verb: To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled on behalf of a single petitioner, confessedly unworthy.) After the death of his wife, Bierce’s already pessimistic view of human nature darkened to outright misanthropy.
In 1914, the septuagenarian sent a short letter to his niece saying he was headed to Mexico to join Poncho Villa’s revolutionary army, adding, If you hear of my being stood up against a stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart his life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico -- ah, that is euthanasia!
And then... Nobody’s sure. Bierce was never heard from again. Most historians assume he got the death he went looking for, either at the hands of federal troops or Villa’s own revolutionaries. Other theories suggest the whole Mexican thing was a ruse, that Bierce actually checked himself into a mental hospital or simply committed suicide. There’s even sketchy accounts of an old hermit, claiming to be Bierce, living in Ciudad Juárez years after his disappearance.
Whatever the truth is, that question mark trailing his death date is about the most hardcore epitaph possible.
Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593)
What’s Shakespeare’s most famous line? The one that everybody knows, even if they’ve never even read one of his plays? How about, But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Compare that to a line from Marlowe’s Jew of Malta, written several years earlier, when Barnabas sees Abigail on a balcony above him: But stay, what star shines yonder in the east? The lodestar of my life.
So let’s get this out of the way first: When Shakespeare is ripping you off, you’re a damn good writer.
But Marlowe was more than a good writer. Just how much more, nobody really knows.
When long, unexplained absences were going to keep him from graduating, Queen Elizabeth sent a letter to the administrators of Cambridge University, telling them to let Marlowe graduate or else. There’s no clear reason why the queen would pull strings for a shoemaker’s son, but it’s likely Marlowe was a spy, reporting on plots against the throne by French Catholics.
Even after becoming a prodigy of Elizabethan England’s flowering theater scene, Marlowe continued to move through its underworld of criminals and spies, which was flowering just as fast. That would be a full plate for most people, but the man who wrote Tamburlaine and Doctor Faustus kept grasping for more. When he was 28, Marlowe was arrested in the Netherlands for attempting to forge money. He got out of that scrape just to be arrested again the next year when anti-royalist tracts were found in his London apartment.
Right before he stood trial as a traitor to the crown, Marlowe was stabbed to death in a bar fight. This time Queen Elizabeth, who’d helped Marlowe graduate a decade earlier, pardoned his killer.
There’s still plenty of unanswered questions about what happened that night, but documents discovered in the 20th century prove the three men Marlowe was drinking with were all involved in espionage too, suggesting Marlowe was assassinated.
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)
Thoreau turned slacking into a higher calling. He spent most of his life bumming around Concord, glorious neck beard flapping in the breeze, spouting things like Read not the sign of the times; read the signs of eternity, Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in, and generally convincing people he was a nice enough guy, just nuttier than squirrel poop.
Their opinion didn’t change much after Thoreau decided he wanted to go to jail. A lifelong abolitionist, Thoreau stopped paying his taxes, refusing to support a government that supported slavery. When the tax collectors came to get the money, Thoreau declared Under a government that imprisons any unjustly, the true place for any man is also in prison, and quietly headed off to jail with them.
But wait, you say. Thoreau was a pacifist. He wouldn’t hurt a potato beetle. (Literally. When gardening, he picked the pests off his plants by hand and carried them out to the woods.) He’s not hardcore!
But there are many roads to hardcore-dom, my friends. Thoreau took a rather meandering path, but he got there.
Think about it: You go to prison, it’s your first night, and you’re curious about what your new cell-mates did to wind up there. The first guy says he’s in for armed robbery, another says double homicide. Then, one guy looks up at you with a serene smile and says, “Oh, I’m here voluntarily.”
Now seriously, which one of them are you never turning your back on?
Xenophon (c. 431-355 BC)
Xenophon was a student of Socrates. And since Socrates himself never wrote anything down, it was left to his students, chiefly Plato and Xenophon, to record his teachings.
He was also a mercenary. In 401 BC, he went to Persia and joined Cyrus the Younger in his war against his brother, the Emperor Artaxerxes II. Cyrus was eventually killed in battle. Then Artaxerxes summoned the generals of the Greek army to a peace conference and had them beheaded, leaving the Greeks leaderless, thousands of miles from home, and stranded in enemy territory.
They elected new leaders, Xenophon among them, and made their way to the Black Sea, having to fight every step of the way. Xenophon’s account of their journey was (very) loosely adapted for the big screen in the cult classic The Warriors. So the man who wrote The Apology, one of the pillars of Western thought, also gave the world the Baseball Furies.
They just don't come any more hardcore than that.
(Cross-posted on Kris' blog.)