Hemingway, Ernest (Short Story Criticism)
Ernest Hemingway 1899–-1961
American novelist, short story and novella writer, dramatist, poet, journalist, essayist, and memoirist.
The following entry presents criticism of Hemingway's short fiction works from 1995 to 2002. See also Ernest Hemingway Criticism (Introduction), and Volumes 1, 3, 6, 8, 10, 13.
Hemingway is lauded as one of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century. Considered a master of the understated prose style that became his trademark, he was awarded the 1954 Nobel Prize in literature. Although his literary stature is secure, he remains a highly controversial writer, and his novels and short stories have evoked an enormous amount of critical commentary. His narrow range of characters and his thematic focus on violence and machismo, as well as his terse, objective prose, have led some critics to regard his fiction as shallow and insensitive. Others claim that beneath the deceptively limited surface lies a complex and fully realized fictional world. Although Hemingway's literary achievement has been measured chiefly by his novels The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell to Arms (1929), and his novella The Old Man and the Sea (1952), his short stories have increasingly won critical acclaim. Today, works of both genres are widely read, and Hemingway remains one of the most imitated writers in modern literature.
Born and raised in Oak Park, Illinois, by strict Congregationalist parents, Hemingway had a fairly happy, upper-middle-class childhood. By his teens he had become interested in literature, and he wrote a weekly column for his high school newspaper and contributed poems and stories to the school magazine. Upon his graduation in 1917, he took a junior reporter position on the Kansas City Star, covering the police and hospital beats and writing feature stories. Of tremendous impact to Hemingway's development as a writer was his participation in World War I as a Red Cross ambulance driver in Italy. Wounded in both legs by a shrapnel explosion near the front lines, he returned to the United States a decorated hero. He eventually returned to journalism to support himself, contributing features to the Toronto Star.
Following his first marriage in 1921, Hemingway returned to Europe to launch a writing career. For the next seven years, Hemingway resided principally in France, though he traveled frequently, covering the Greco-Turkish War of 1922 and writing special-interest pieces for the Toronto newspaper. During this period Hemingway matured as a writer, greatly aided in his artistic development by his close contact with several of the most prominent writers of the time, including Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Ford Madox Ford, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. He eventually quit journalism, though he periodically returned to the medium, serving as a correspondent during several major wars. By the middle of the 1940s, however, a variety of recurrent physical ailments had severely curtailed his creative energy. In 1960 Hemingway suffered a mental breakdown and was admitted to the Mayo Clinic for electrotherapy treatments. His depressive behavior and other illnesses persisted, and Hemingway committed suicide the following year.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Hemingway's power and originality as a writer of compressed, impressionistic sketches became apparent with in our time (1924). A series of eighteen brief, untitled chapters stemming from Hemingway's war and journalistic experiences, this work was revised, greatly expanded, and published in the United States a year later as In Our Time. The American version included fifteen complete short stories with the remaining vignettes serving as interchapters.
By the appearance of his next story collection, Men without Women (1927), Hemingway's literary reputation—as the author of The Sun Also Rises and consequent chronicler of the “lost generation”—was all but solidified. While the 1930s were Hemingway's most prolific years, he published little of lasting significance, save for the short story collection Winner Take Nothing (1933) and an assemblage of forty-nine stories, published with the play The Fifth Column, which incorporated such widely anthologized stories as “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”
Although Hemingway’s most significant works include such renowned novels as The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940)—as well as his Pulitzer Prize-winning novella, The Old Man and the Sea—critical response to these works has been varied. His short stories, however, particularly those in In Our Time, are consistently considered some of his finest efforts. There has been a myriad of criticism on Hemingway’s short fiction; collections and individual works have been examined from autobiographical, sociopolitical, psychoanalytical, and feminist perspectives. Hemingway’s influence as a short story writer has also been a recurrent topic of critical discussion, and his spare, understated narrative style is considered Hemingway’s literary legacy. His colorful life and work has garnered unrelenting critical and popular attention, and he is generally regarded as one of the greatest American short story writers of the twentieth century.
Three Stories & Ten Poems (short stories and poetry) 1923
*in our time 1924
Men without Women 1927
Winner Take Nothing 1933
The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway 1938
The Fifth Column and the First Forty-nine Stories (drama and short stories) 1939
The Old Man and the Sea (novella) 1952
The Snows of Kilimanjaro, and Other Stories 1961
The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, and Other Stories 1963
The Nick Adams Stories 1972
The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway 1987
The Sun Also Rises [also published as Fiesta] (novel) 1926
The Torrents of Spring (novel) 1926
A Farewell to Arms (novel) 1929
Death in the Afternoon (nonfiction) 1932
Green Hills of Africa (nonfiction) 1935
To Have and Have Not (novel) 1937
The Spanish Earth (commentary and film narration) 1938
For Whom the Bell Tolls (novel) 1940
Across the River and Into the Trees (novel) 1950
A Moveable Feast (memoir) 1964
By-Line: Ernest Hemingway: Selected Articles and Dispatches of Four Decades (nonfiction) 1968
Islands in the Stream (novel) 1970
88 Poems (poetry) 1979
Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters, 1917-1961 (correspondence) 1981
*Revised edition published as In Our Time, 1925.
SOURCE: Summerhayes, Don. “Fish Story: Ways of Telling in ‘Big Two-Hearted River.’” The Hemingway Review 15, no. 1 (fall 1995): 10-26.
[In the following essay, Summerhayes examines Hemingway's use of language in “Big Two-Hearted River.”]
We've reached a stage of modernity where it is very difficult to accept innocently the idea of a “work of fiction”; from now on, our works are works of language; fiction can pass through them, contacted obliquely, indirectly present.
What do I want to communicate but what a hell of a good time I had writing it? The whole thing is performance and prowess and feats of association. Why don't critics talk about those things—what a feat it was to turn that that way, and what a feat it was to remember that, to be reminded of that by this. Why don't they talk about that?
It was really more fun than anything. That was really why you did it. He had never realized that before. It wasn't conscience. It was simply that it was the greatest pleasure. It had more bite to it than anything else. It was so damn hard to write well, too.
Near the end of “Big Two-Hearted River,” as Nick Adams anxiously anticipates fishing in the swamp, we find this passage: “He wished he had brought something to read. He felt like reading. He did not feel like going on into the swamp” (IOT [In Our Time] 211).2 In this moment the mimetic code seems to vacillate: to what voice can we assign these words? We put an asterisk or a question mark in the margin of our text to signify our intention to come back to the passage, because there's something perplexing in the alternatives Nick postulates for himself. There seems to be a misstep or lapse in the tone. Can we imagine Nick saying these words to himself? If so, could he be kidding? Is there a kind of rueful self-mockery at his bookish evasiveness?3
Other passages in “Big Two-Hearted River” similarly outplay obvious or direct meaning with extra possibilities. For instance, the narrator's voice and the character's voice seem sometimes distinct, sometimes merged. Or, now and then, through the migration of particular words or phrases, other voices or traces of voices obtrude from earlier stories in In Our Time or from earlier passages in this story, with confusing or distracting associations. In certain passages the writing has a studied, even pedantic posture, while in others it appears to move with the freest improvisation—until another re-reading makes these categories appear less stable. Finally, this is a text in which both character and narrator seem to be involved in the process of writing as it goes along, self-consciously, often even playfully, trying out phrases and locutions, reaching for ways to conjure verbal consciousness out of feelings and sensations. Every reader feels an unmistakeable energy in this text, an exhilaration that is not necessarily confined to the themes and the author's success in “trying to do country,” but that generates itself over and over in the writing, in the “words you don't remember.”4
Writing is often engaged in numerous other or extra activities besides those required to tell a story, or even to make the reader feel as if s/he's “there,” and these activities in themselves are also what this story is about. From this perspective, the question is not so much ‘what does it mean?’ but ‘what can we make of this text?’ in which “nothing happens and the writing is swell”?5 How can we “perform” it at those moments where the cleft between writing and fiction is most noticeable, and the language as language most high-spirited and playful? Questions like these, irritating or amusing from reader to reader, invite responses that deviate from our usual strategies of interpretive analysis.
What follows is a series of ruminations on passages, like the one where Nick “felt like reading” because he “did not feel like going on into the swamp,” which seem to invite a freer play of association than usual and to attract attention to the self-consciousness of the writing as writing. Reading and re-reading this way—with a kind of perverse distractibility—tends to fragment and disperse the text, of course, and to disrupt narrative sequence. Yet when we rough things up a bit we are more likely to spot those inconvenient details and patterns—loose ends, hiatuses, undecidables—that often embarrass readings that strain after complete coherence and certitude. Re-reading “Big Two-Hearted River” for forty-odd years and layering my margins with questions hasn't helped me to master the text, but it has kept it open and unpredictable and unfailingly fascinating. It so often ingeniously declines to assent to what it so often confidently asserts. Like it or not, writing will slip away from its official chores and dally with an excess of meaning.
At the climax, when Nick has lost the big trout, we read:
He had never seen so big a trout. There was a heaviness, a power not to be held, and then the bulk of him, as he jumped. He looked as broad as a salmon. … That was a trout. He had been solidly hooked. Solid as a rock. He felt like a rock, too, before he started off. By God, he was a big one. By God, he was the biggest one I ever heard of.
The vividness and immediacy of the whole passage surrounding this, including the aftermath of Nick's feeling “vaguely, a little sick” (204), don't escape us. By God, this is writing! But I can't suppress my suspicion that I'm hearing one of the innumerable fish stories I've listened to and told all my life. The biggest ever that got away! The text doesn't acknowledge any awareness of these echoes; and of course can't, like us, anticipate their return in, notably, The Old Man and the Sea. And is there an indication of something just slightly off-stride with the confusion over the narrative voice? Who says, “By God”? If it is “I,” what happened to “he”? Well, the good reader says, who has trouble with this, after all? It's probably a case of the text getting so exuberant it jumps out of the hands of the narrator. Yet that it can do so with (relative) impunity here might make us wonder where else it might be doing it without being noticed.
At its first moment of narrative the text of “Big Two-Hearted River” compromises its autonomy. The opening sentence echoes and partly reiterates the opening sentence of an earlier story in In Our Time. “The Battler” (written later than “Big Two-Hearted River” but inserted earlier into the text to replace the banned “Up in Michigan”) starts, “He looked up the track at the lights of the caboose going out of sight around a curve” (65). “Big Two-Hearted River” starts, “The train went on up the track out of sight, around one of the hills of burnt timber” (177).
The similarity in the language, like the similarity of Nick's standpoint, can't be innocent. Whether Hemingway thoughtlessly or cunningly (mis)quotes himself, any reader of In Our Time still retains some traces of Nick's reaction to being “busted” by the brakeman. And some echo still lingers, unmeasurable, of the meeting with the nightmarish Ad Francis and his companion Bugs. The language, not the narrator, tells us that Nick is not entering an idyllic fishing trip. Or not only idyllic.
The text doesn't openly acknowledge echo or trace. The voice that speaks here, like a voice momentarily booming in on a car radio from some distant station, is heard only through the reader's unwillingness to ignore it.6 Call it the reader's voice, perhaps, since it speaks on behalf of the reader who wants to hear everything a text has to say.7
Further down the opening page, Nick registers delayed shock to the discovery that “There was no town, nothing but the rails and the burned-over country” (177). The text intimates—what, surprise? dismay?—with the timing of the phrase, “The river was there.” We can hear Nick whisper to himself. We can sense the calculating narrator set up a metonymic sequence—“burned-over stretch of hillside … railroad track … bridge … river”—delaying and then delivering the punchline: “The river was there!”
As if the matter were in doubt. The sentence confirms the presence of the river, and it seems to confirm also the nature of Nick's presence. He is there, too. He is really there, and this is no dream. But the sequence that sets up the sentence confirms also the presence of a narrator ordering the language, and manipulating the reader. For the reader's pleasure. Some time later, Nick “was there, in the good place” (186). The text is quoting, the reader remembering.
“Big Two-Hearted River” comes in two “Parts.” “Part One” ends, “He curled up under the blanket and went to sleep” (192). “Part Two” begins, “In the morning …” (195). Nick presumably sleeps between the two parts. When the story appears in anthologies “Part Two” immediately follows “Part One.” In In Our Time, however, the parts are separated by “Chapter XV” (“They hanged Sam Cardinella … [at six a.m.] in the corridor of the county jail” (193-4)). One of five men sentenced to be hanged, Sam has been “like that since about four o'clock in the morning”—“like that” meaning so immobilized by fear that he is unable to keep control of his “sphincter muscles” and has to be carried. He is admonished, “Be a man, my son,” by one of two priests, maybe the one who “skipped” back on the scaffolding just before the “drop” fell.
“Chapter XV” is positioned precisely where we might expect, in a certain kind of story, to encounter a dream. This text, however, will not acknowledge any such design, and leaves readers to speculate independently on whether the account of Sam's death constitutes some of the material Nick Adams's unconscious is working with at the beginning of his fishing trip: “Be a man, my son.”
If so, whose voice can we speak it in? If not, then what can we make of it? Does a trace of the priest's voice linger in other admonitions scattered through the text? Should we search Nick's earlier sleep in the “island of pine trees” (183-84) for possible implications?
Lacking companions, Nick talks to himself. He is speaker and listener, actor and audience. He tosses a blackened grasshopper into the air: “‘Go on, hopper.’ Nick said, speaking out loud for the first time. ‘Fly away somewhere.’” (181) Later, making his meal: “‘I've got a right to eat this kind of stuff, if I'm willing to carry it,’ Nick said. His voice sounded strange in the darkening woods. He did not speak again” (187). Didn't want to hear his voice again? Didn't want to sound “strange”? All the same, one page later, after tasting the hot beans and spaghetti: “‘Chrise,’ Nick said. ‘Geezus Chrise,’ he said happily.” Three times the text distinguishes between Nick's speaking out loud and speaking silently:
1) an idle echo of child-like communion with an insect—(“Ladybug, Ladybug,/Fly away home”) (“Fly away, Peter, fly away, Paul”); or is this a sophisticated writer's self-conscious imitation of child-like communion, an impersonation?
2) a gratuitous self-defence, a peevish reaction to internalized judges and critics: “I've got a right.” (Be a man, my son.)
3) a burlesque blessing on a meal, saying grace by accident—“Chrise.”
The speeches, and the impulse to speak out loud, are part of the story of Nick Adams. Suppose he's taking the kind of pleasure he might take in posturing in front of a mirror, just to find out how he looks or sounds, or might look or sound to an audience. Suppose these little bits of natural behaviour don't merely enhance the narrative's reality illusion, but also provide spot-checks whereby Nick tests and confirms his identity? Or maybe not his identity so much as the high spirits (the “old feeling”) that insist on breaking out. Whose high spirits? Try the narrator too. Try Hemingway. Try language itself.
Earlier, after confirming that the river is there, Nick stands on the bridge and watches the trout “keeping themselves steady in the current” (177). We wait for more than twenty pages for “steady” to confirm its function as a word the text conjures with. When Nick releases the first trout he catches, it pauses on the bottom until Nick reaches down to touch it: “The trout was steady in the moving stream, resting on the gravel, beside a stone” (201). Another few pages on, after he has lost the big one, we read: “He thought of the trout somewhere on the bottom, holding himself steady over the gravel, far down below the light, under the logs, with the hook in his jaw” (204). The repetition of “steady” turns it inward, reinforcing its earned new power, so that it becomes, almost explicitly, a kind of admonition to himself to be steady—for example, not to “rush his sensations any.”
At the same time the repetition discreetly invites the reader to respond to language as language, writing as writing, at play with itself even as it promotes the story's negotiations with meaning. In fact, in our pleasure at the text's ingenuity in generating these recycled words and sentences, we may even forget that we are reading a “work of fiction.” Over and over the text quotes itself, plagiarizes itself, reproduces itself, and dangles invitations to its [re]reader to read it as a “work of language.”
Let's try another cast over that early scene in Seney:
Nick looked down into the pool from the bridge. It was a hot day. A kingfisher flew up the stream. It was a long time since Nick had looked into a stream and seen trout. They were very satisfactory.
In the fitful, half-perceptible oscillation between voices throughout this text, whereby from time to time we suspect that the character is aware of the language which operates his story, these words register Nick's self-conscious detachment from his activity and his commentary on it. The whole process of looking, as of inscribing the looking, holds off generalization until a series can be laid down that permits the subject to say, “They were very satisfactory,” decanting the word either for its modest precision or for its ironic value to the self-amusement Nick sometimes favors. A term like this—this term, sa-tis-fac-to-ry—is hard to come by; it has to be worried, then tested by being spoken (out loud or in one's head, it doesn't matter), which requires that the speaker choose the tone of its speaking. Like “tightened” at the bottom of the same page it invites a ludic performance, as one might imagine Henry James saying with deliberative pauses, “They were, as you might say, very satisfactory.”
Until it's actually used, there's no way to establish its function. It stays ready in the reader's memory, the first of a series of words by which this text glosses its vocabulary of sensation. Almost immediately it's followed by another “found” word: “He was happy … but Nick felt happy” (179).
At the beginning of “Part Two” Nick crawls out of his tent “to look at the morning”:...
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SOURCE: Lamb, Robert Paul. “Hemingway's Critique of Anti-Semitism: Semiotic Confusion in ‘God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen.’” Studies in Short Fiction 33, no. 1 (winter 1996): 25-34.
[In the following essay, Lamb contends that Hemingway uses a semiotic approach to critique anti-Semitism in “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen.”]
Hemingway's “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” (1933) seems, at first glance, a scant story; consequently, it has been the subject of only three brief scholarly essays, none of which has appeared in the past two decades. Peter Hays reads the story as a modern revision of the legend of the Fisher King; Julian Smith sees it as an analeptic...
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SOURCE: Lamb, Robert Paul. “Hemingway and the Creation of Twentieth-Century Dialogue.” Twentieth Century Literature 42, no. 4 (winter 1996): 453-80.
[In the following essay, Lamb analyzes the dialogue in “Indian Camp,” “A Canary for One," and “Hills Like White Elephants.”]
[W]hile one can do nothing about choosing one's relatives, one can, as artist, choose one's “ancestors.” … Hemingway [was] an “ancestor.”
—Ralph Ellison (140)
In July 1961, the Saturday Review devoted a special memorial issue to Ernest Hemingway, in which writers and critics from around the world...
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SOURCE: Strong, Amy. “Screaming Through Silence: The Violence of Race in ‘Indian Camp’ and ‘The Doctor and The Doctor's Wife.’” The Hemingway Review 16, no. 1 (fall 1996): 18-32.
[In the following essay, Strong elucidates the way in which Hemingway “negotiates the matter of race” in “Indian Camp” and “The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife.”]
In her recent work of literary criticism, Playing in the Dark, Toni Morrison calls our attention to the way critics have ignored an abiding Africanist presence that weaves its way through the works of white American authors:
There seems to be a more or less tacit...
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SOURCE: Ferrero, David J. “Nikki Adams and the Limits of Gender Criticism.” The Hemingway Review 17, no. 2 (spring 1998): 18-30.
[In the following essay, Ferrero explores the usefulness of gender criticism in Hemingway's short fiction.]
Hemingway is the perfect straw man for feminist critics. And in many ways he was asking for it. Witness his sometimes self-parodic machismo; his preoccupation with war, boxing, hunting and bullfighting; his string of divorces; his celebration of the masculine in much of his writing after 1930. Yet this view distorts our understanding of much Hemingway fiction. This is especially true of the Nick Adams stories from In Our...
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SOURCE: Brogan, Jacqueline Vaught. “Hemingway's In Our Time: A Cubist Anatomy.” The Hemingway Review 17, no. 2 (spring 1998): 31-46.
[In the following essay, Brogan investigates the genre and aesthetics of In Our Time.]
We know that the final long version of In Our Time, specifically the 1925 short story collection and its 1930 reprinting with “On the Quai at Smyrna” as “Introduction by the Author,” was in no way initially planned by the young artist Ernest Hemingway. Starting from the early, short, and visually interesting collection of vignettes—the three mountains press in our time of 1923—Hemingway seems to have devised and...
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SOURCE: Stewart, Matthew C. “Ernest Hemingway and World War I: Combatting Recent Psychobiographical Reassessments, Restoring the War.” Papers on Language and Literature 36, no. 2 (spring 2000): 115-217.
[In the following essay, Stewart attempts to refute revisionist arguments about the influence of World War I on Hemingway's fiction.]
“Napoleon taught Stendahl how to write.”
To ask whether or not the First World War had a profound effect upon Ernest Hemingway would, not so long ago, have been considered a rhetorical question. It can no longer be considered so, since the...
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SOURCE: Lindsay, Creighton. “Hemingway's Nexus of Pastoral and Tragedy.” CLA Journal 43, no. 4 (June 2000): 454-78.
[In the following essay, Lindsay suggests that Hemingway fuses the traditions of the pastoral and tragedy in his writing.]
Less than three weeks before his death by suicide in the summer of 1961, Ernest Hemingway wrote to the ailing son of a friend that he was “very cheerful about things in general.”1 The discrepancy between Hemingway's chatty tone and the inner turmoil of his life in his final days stands as a poignant symbol of the ironies and contrasts, the opposition of macho surface and fragile psyche, that we have come to see as...
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SOURCE: Helstern, Linda Lizut. “Indians, Woodcraft, and the Construction of White Masculinity: The Boyhood of Nick Adams.” The Hemingway Review 20, no. 1 (fall 2000): 61-78.
[In the following essay, Helstern investigates the ways in which white masculinity gets constructed in the Nick Adams stories.]
Indians, to use the common but problematic term, captured Ernest Hemingway's imagination at a very early age. His first full sentence—“‘I don't know Buffalo Bill’”—was duly recorded by his mother in 1901. He would soon assert, “‘I not a Dutch dolly, I Pawnee Bill. Bang. I shoot Fweetee’” (cited in Baker 4-5). The little boy, who also acted out...
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SOURCE: Tilton, Margaret A. “Garnering an Opinion: A Double Look at Nick's Surrogate Mother and Her Relationship to Dr. Adams in Hemingway's ‘Ten Little Indians.’” The Hemingway Review 20, no. 1 (fall 2000): 79-89.
[In the following essay, Tilton examines the behavior of Mrs. Garner in the story “Ten Indians.”]
Ernest Hemingway's short story “Ten Indians” involves a cast of predominantly male characters, for the Garner and Adams families include five men and only one woman. Many readers have interpreted this woman, Mrs. Garner, as sympathetic and nurturing. Joseph Flora, for example, praises her for being “relaxed (but not lax) in her roles as mother...
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SOURCE: Nolan, Charles J. “Hemingway's ‘The Sea Change’: What Close Reading and Evolutionary Psychology Reveal.” The Hemingway Review 21, no. 1 (fall 2001): 53-67.
[In the following essay, Nolan provides a close reading of a much neglected story “The Sea Change,” in order to demonstrate Hemingway's artistry.]
In a wide-ranging but rather petulant letter of 16 November 1933 to Maxwell Perkins, complaining about the response of various critics to his short fiction, Hemingway listed “The Sea Change” and several other stories as “invent[ed] completely.” They were not, as one commentator had charged, merely a reporter's transcription of actual events...
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SOURCE: Cohen, Milton. “‘There Was a Woman Having a Kid’—From Her Point of View: An Unpublished Draft of In Our Time's Chapter 11.” The Hemingway Review 22, no. 1 (fall 2002): 105–08.
[In the following essay, Cohen contrasts the treatment of a central female character in an unpublished draft entitled “Exodus” against its published version within In Our Time.]
Readers of Hemingway's early work know that, contrary to the claims of Hemingphobes, it often portrays women sympathetically in “unhappily-ever-after” love affairs. “Hills Like White Elephants,” “Out of Season” and “Cat in the Rain” feature oafish, manipulative, or...
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DeFazio, Jr., Albert J. “Current Bibliography: Annotated.” Hemingway Review 21, no. 2 (spring 2002): 159–67.
Adair, William. “Hemingway's ‘A Veteran Visits His Old Front’: Images and Situations for the Fiction.” ANQ 8, no. 1 (winter 1995): 27-30.
Discusses approaches to teaching “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” in the classroom.
Berman, Ron. “Vaudeville Philosophers: ‘The Killers.’” Twentieth Century Literature 45, no. 1 (spring 1999): 79-93.
Considers the “Vaudeville philosophy” in “The Killers.”
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