The Old Man and the Sea was published 1952 after the bleakest ten years in Hemingway's literary career. His last major work, Across the River and into the Trees, was condemned as unintentional self-parody, and people began to think that Hemingway had exhausted his store of ideas.
Santiago's story was originally conceived as part of a larger work, including material that later appeared in Islands in the Stream. This larger work, which Hemingway referred to as "The Sea Book," was proving difficult, and when Hemingway received positive reviews of the Santiago story, known then as "The Sea in Being," he decided to allow it to be published independently. He wrote to publisher Charles Scribner in October 1951, "This is the prose that I have been working for all my life that should read easily and simply and seem short and yet have all the dimensions of the visible world and the world of man's spirit. It is as good prose as I can write as of now."
The Old Man and the Sea, published in its entirety in one edition of Life magazine, was an instant success. In two days the September 1st edition of Life sold 5,300,000 copies and the book version sold 153,000. The novella soared to the top of the best-seller list and remained there for six months. At first, critical reception was warm. Many hailed it as Hemingway's best work, and no less than William Faulkner said, "Time may show it to be the best single piece of any of us, I mean his and my contemporaries." Others, however, complained of artificiality in the characterization and excess sentimentality. Despite these detractors, The Old Man and the Sea was awarded the 1953 Pulitizer Prize and American Academy of Arts and Letters' Award of Merit Medal for the Novel and played a significant role in Hemingway's selection for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954.
For the first fifteen or so years after its publication, critical response remained largely positive. Since the mid-60's, however, the work has received sustained attacks from realist critics who decry the novella's unrealistic or simply incorrect elements, e.g. the alleged eight rows of teeth in the mako's mouth or the position of the star Riegel. Through the 1970's the book became less and less the subject of serious literary criticism, and the view of the book as embarrassingly narcissistic, psychologically simplistic, and overly sentimental became more and more entrenched. While The Old Man and the Sea is popularly beloved and assigned reading for students in the US and around the world, critical opinion places it among Hemingway's less significant works.