True at First Light Analysis

Literary Techniques

The first caution when discussing techniques in True at First Light is this: the reader is dealing with an unfinished work, posthumously edited and severely cut in length without any direction from the writer. Whatever conclusions might be drawn concerning Hemingway's techniques may well need some revision when another version of the work appears, as it will in the future (a more complete edition is in the planning stages). That said, the reader may still confidently judge such matters as Hemingway's handling of point of view, especially with regard to the delicate relationship between autobiography and creative narration, or fact and fiction. All critical discussion must be premised on the recognition that this is not a mere "journal," a factual record of events. And it may be misleading to consider it a "fictionalized memoir," as it has also been called. The best description may be that of the editor who calls it "a fiction" and stresses that "ambiguous counter-point between fiction and truth lies at the heart of this memoir." Of course, this is probably true of all memoirs.

Readers familiar with Hemingway's earlier works (e.g., In Our Time and The Sun Also Rises) will recognize his deployment of familiar techniques: a modernist strategy of allusion, symbolic landscape, understatement (see Hemingway's well-known "iceberg theory" of writing and his "theory of omission"), skillful use of repetition, parallelism and counter-point, and...

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True at First Light Ideas for Group Discussions

Discussions might usefully begin with comparison of other works that contain some of the same elements: memoir or factbased fiction; the human and writerly problems inherent in a work written by a "foreigner" or "outsider" who loves, and wants to celebrate, a place and culture in which the writer was not born and raised; themes of hunting and quest; religious motifs and the desire to make religion more inclusive; the legacies of colonialism; the nature of human solidarity in a multicultural and multiethnic society.

1. How can True at First Light be understood as "fiction"? If the characters are real people, if the events really took place, where does the creative imagination enter into the process?

2. Do some background reading and discussion, e.g., one or more of the works that influenced Hemingway in writing about Africa (see Literary Precedents). Compare and contrast the way other authors treated similar matters: the African landscape, the legacy of colonialism, black-white relationships, etc.

3. Compare and contrast Hemingway's treatment of Africa and Africans in his other works dealing with Africa (see Related Titles).

4. Why does Hemingway love and admire Pop (Philip Percival)? List Pop's attributes, the specific values he embodies. (You may wish to compare the earlier portrait of Pop in Green Hills of Africa.)

5. There are numerous exemplars in True at First Light; identify at...

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True at First Light Social Concerns

This novel (or fictional memoir, or nonfiction novel) is the product of posthumous editing of an unfinished manuscript that Ernest Hemingway wrote in the mid- 1950s. Left unfinished and unpublished at Hemingway's death in 1961, the "African Book" (as scholars have long referred to it) was edited by the author's son Patrick Hemingway, provided with its current title (True at First Light), and published as capstone to the year-long celebrations of the Hemingway Centennial in 1999. Regardless of what may have been left out or insufficiently realized due to the incompleteness of the manuscript or the posthumous editing, certain key social concerns are clearly evident: 1) questions of racial and tribal identity and relationships in the waning hours of colonialism in Africa; 2) matters that fall under the ancient "man-and-nature" or, more properly, humankind-in-nature rubric, including numerous environmental issues and an examination of the ethics of hunting; 3) marriage complexities seen in the light of social and tribal intricacies; 4) codes of conduct—ethical, moral, religious—examined in the contexts of the sometimes jocular, sometimes serious "new religion" motif that is central to the book.

The narrator and the central character of the work is Ernest Hemingway. From his perspective as an acting game warden in Kenya, the narrator invites the reader to share in what has been called the "Africanization of Hemingway," to move beyond easy racial labels, and to inhabit truly the tribal complexities of Africa. During this process of Africanization, the narrator 1) criticizes many aspects of colonialism yet still grants integrity and dignity to certain British colonials; 2) treats ironically the rich European and American tourists who are the usual makers of safaris (safaris, we are given to understand, that have nothing in common with the narrator's biggame activities in Africa); 3) treats richly the racial and religious complexity of Kenyan Africa, the tribal and religious and Political identities (Masai, Kamba, Kikuyu, Mau Mau, Christian, Moslem, Sikh, Animist, etc.), as well as the place of Americans, Asians, and Europeans in Africa.

Hemingway's "Africanization" is grounded in his growing love for a specific part of Africa and Kenya, that terrain in the shadow of the Mountain-God Kilimanjaro; in his ever-deepening absorption into local tribal life, as hunter, friend and comrade, partner in "having fun" and in the "new religion" he founds with his tribal cohorts; in the delicate courtship of his tribal fiancée Debba; and in his sense of profound attachment to place, his love for the part of Africa that he never wants to leave. The essence of Hemingway's racial concerns here may be summed up as a dismissal of race as signifier of anything more than a kind of abstract categorization— what he really values is tribal brotherhood rooted in place and conduct. As Miss Mary (Hemingway's fourth wife), another major character, puts it: "One of the basic points of the faith as I gather it is that neither Papa nor I are white." Hemingway projects his racial identity as American Indian and African Kamba. Toward the end of the book, when Ngui, one of his tribal brothers and partners in the "new religion," asks what he prays for,...

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True at First Light Literary Precedents

The history of the book—memoir or fiction—written about Africa by Americans and Europeans has a rich tradition. Asked about literary precedents in this mode, Hemingway's son Patrick noted that the tradition "started with Olive Schreiner in the 19th century, who wrote a book called The Story of an African Farm which was very popular.... Wonderful book." Schreiner, a South African, was the first colonial African writer to receive widespread recognition for her evocations of the African people and landscape in her fiction, as well as for her role as a champion of women's rights and advocate for the freedom and dignity of Africans suffering under colonialism. Another important writer in this vein is Isak Dinesen (pen name of Karen Blixen), a native of Denmark who lived in Kenya and wrote the widely praised Out of Africa (1937). Hemingway knew the Blixens (he used her husband Baron von Blixen in his writing) and he admired Out of Africa. Patrick Hemingway also cites Doris Lessing and the "so-called Martha Quest novels" as a literary precedent for his father's work. Lessing, especially in her early novels, deals with white-black relations and colonialism in Africa. Hemingway probably knew this work (The Grass is Singing (1950) and the first two Martha Quest novels, Martha Quest (1952) and A Proper Marriage (1954)). Patrick Hemingway asserts that his father knew the work of all three of these extraordinary women writers on...

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True at First Light Related Titles

The most important related title is Green Hills of Africa (1935), Hemingway's first fact-based "fiction" about Africa. This work is now considered one of the first of its kind, a prototype for the "non-fiction novel." In the foreword to Green Hills of Africa Hemingway wrote: "Unlike many novels, none of the characters or incidents in this book is imaginary. Any one not finding sufficient love interest is at liberty, while reading it, to insert whatever love interest he or she may have at the time. The writer has attempted to write an absolutely true book to see whether the shape of a country and the pattern of a month's action can, if truly presented, compete with a work of the imagination." True at First Light...

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