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Ernest (Miller) Hemingway 1899–1961
American short story writer, novelist, nonfiction writer, journalist, poet, and dramatist. See also Ernest Hemingway Criticism, and Volumes 1, 3, 6, 8, 10, 13.
Hemingway is regarded by many as one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. Considered master of the understated prose style which became his trademark, Hemingway was awarded the 1954 Nobel Prize in literature. Both his novels and short stories have evoked an enormous amount of critical commentary; although his literary stature is secure, he remains a highly controversial writer. 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. His supporters note the supreme importance of the things left unsaid. As Hemingway commented in Death in the Afternoon (1932), the "dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water." Despite the fact that his style is variously applauded and denounced, Hemingway is one of the most widely imitated writers of contemporary literature.
Critical assessment of Hemingway's writing frequently focuses on the connections between his life and his work. Born and raised in affluent, suburban Oak Park, Illinois, Hemingway spent the greater part of his life trying to escape the repressive code of behavior set by his strict, disciplinarian parents and their society. His first break from home came in 1918 when he volunteered for service in World War I. Hemingway was stationed in Italy for only a few weeks before he was wounded and forced to return to Oak Park. Scarred physically and emotionally from the war and stifled by his home environment, Hemingway, according to some critics, began a quest for psychological and artistic freedom that was to lead him first to the secluded woods of northern Michigan, where he had spent his most pleasant childhood moments, and then to Europe, where his literary talents began to take shape.
Although Hemingway's most significant works include such renowned novels as The Sun Also Rises (1926), A Farewell to Arms (1929), and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), as well as his Pulitzer Prize-winning novella, The Old Man and the Sea (1952), critical response to his longer fiction has been less uniformly favorable than to that of his short stories. The short stories in his first major publication, In Our Time (1925), are increasingly considered to be some of his most successful works and are seen to embody the predominant stylistic and thematic concerns which mark all of his later fiction. The majority of these stories focus on Nick Adams, a protagonist often discussed as the quintessential Hemingway hero and the first in the line of Hemingway's "fictional selves."
Nick Adams stories are scattered throughout Hemingway's collections, including In Our Time, Men without Women (1927), Winner Take Nothing (1933), and The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories (1938). Although the Nick Adams stories were not initially identified as a unified sequence, Philip Young, a noted Hemingway scholar, edited a volume in 1972 which collects these stories and places them roughly in chro-nological order based on Nick's maturation. Young has been influential in directing critical attention to connections between Hemingway's work and his early life.
Like Hemingway, Nick Adams spent much of his early youth in the Michigan woods, went overseas to fight in the war, was wounded, and returned. The early stories set in Michigan, such as "Indian Camp," "The End of Something," "The Three-Day Blow," and "The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife," introduce Nick as a vulnerable adolescent attempting to understand a brutal, violent, and confusing world. On the surface, Nick, like Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises, Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls, and, in fact, all of Hemingway's protagonists, appears tough and insensitive. However, critical exploration has resulted in a widespread conclusion that the toughness stems not from insensitivity but from a strict moral code which functions as the characters' sole defense against the overwhelming chaos of the world. Cleanth Brooks, Jr. and Robert Penn Warren, in their influential exposition of the short story "The Killers," noted that "it is the tough man,… the disciplined man, who actually is aware of pathos or tragedy." Though he seems to lack spontaneous human emotion, the hero "sheathes (his sensibility) in the code of toughness" because "he has learned that the only way to hold on to 'honor,' to individuality, to even, the human order … is to live by his code."
One of the most popular and provocative of the Nick Adams stories is "Big Two-Hearted River." For many years its ambiguities puzzled critics and other readers. On the surface it simply recounts Nick's solitary fishing expedition along the Big Two-Hearted River in northern Michigan. However, there is an air of unsettling calm underlying the uneventful plot. As is characteristic of Hemingway's fiction, the terse, almost journalistic prose, the compressed action, and the subdued yet suggestive symbolism point to a deeper meaning than appears on the surface. In the late 1930s Edmund Wilson introduced the idea that the "thing left out" of "Big Two-Hearted River" is its entire social context. He proposed that Nick has recently returned from war and that the "touch of panic" which surrounds him is in fact his shock and withdrawal from the brutal nature of life. Nick's escape along the Big Two-Hearted River, like Huck Finn's along the Mississippi, can be seen in a wider context as a rejection of society as a whole. In 1952 Philip Young, expanding on Wilson's theory, suggested that all of Hemingway's fiction revolves around the psychologically wounded hero, which in turn reflects Hemingway's own relentless struggle to face the world with "grace under pressure." Earl Rovit notes that "in a sense, (Nick Adams) is a released devil of our innocence…. He suffers our accidents and defeats before they happen to us…. On this level, then, the Nick Adams projection is a vital defensive weapon in Hemingway's combat with the universe." Wilson's and Young's theories, though controversial, have been widely accepted and form the basis of critical interpretation of Hemingway's fiction.
Like William Faulkner, Hemingway began his literary career by publishing poetry; he also wrote a play, The Fifth Column (1937). But these works are considered less significant contributions to his overall literary achievement. In 1961, at the age of 61, Hemingway committed suicide, thus ending the life of one of the most influential prose stylists of the twentieth century.
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 6, 8, 10, 13, 19; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 4, 9; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1981; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 1.)
In this volume commentary on Ernest Hemingway is focused on the Nick Adams stories.
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Ernest Hemingway's In Our Time was an odd and original book. It had the appearance of a miscellany of stories and fragments; but actually the parts hung together and produced a definite effect. There were two distinct series of pieces which alternated with one another: one a set of brief and brutal sketches of police shootings, bullfight crises, hangings of criminals, and incidents of the war; and the other a set of short stories dealing in its principal sequence with the growing-up of an American boy against a landscape of idyllic Michigan, but interspersed also with glimpses of American soldiers returning home. It seems to have been Hemingway's intention—'In Our Time'—that the war should set the key for the whole. The cold-bloodedness of the battles and executions strikes a discord with the sensitiveness and candor of the boy at home in the States; and presently the boy turns up in Europe in one of the intermediate vignettes as a soldier in the Italian army, hit in the spine by machinegun fire and trying to talk to a dying Italian: 'Senta, Rinaldi. Senta,' he says, 'you and me, we've made a separate peace.'
But there is a more fundamental relationship between the pieces of the two series. The shooting of Nick in the war does not really connect two different worlds: has he not found in the butchery abroad the same world that he knew back in Michigan? Was not life in the Michigan woods equally destructive and cruel? He had gone once with his father, the doctor, when he had performed a Caesarean operation on an Indian squaw with a jackknife and no anaesthetic and had sewed her up with fishing leaders, while the Indian hadn't been able to bear it and had cut his throat in his bunk…. Even fishing in Big Two-Hearted River—away and free in the woods—he had been conscious in a curious way of the cruelty inflicted on the fish, even of the silent agonies endured by the live bait, the grasshoppers kicking on the hook.
Not that life isn't enjoyable. Talking and drinking with one's friends is great fun; fishing in Big Two-Hearted River is a tranquil exhilaration. But the brutality of life is always there, and it is somehow bound up with the enjoyment. Bullfights are especially enjoyable. It is even exhilarating to build a simply priceless barricade and pot the enemy as they are trying to get over it. The condition of life is pain; and the joys of the most innocent surface are somehow tied to its stifled pangs.
The resolution of this dissonance in art made the beauty of Hemingway's stories. He had in the process tuned a marvelous prose. Out of the colloquial American speech, with its simple declarative sentences and its strings of Nordic monosyllables, he got effects of the utmost sublety. F. M. Ford has found the perfect simile for the impression produced by this writing: 'Hemingway's words strike you, each one, as if they were pebbles fetched fresh from a brook. They live and shine, each in its place. So one of his pages has the effect of a brook-bottom into which you look down through the flowing water. The words form a tesellation, each in order beside the other.'
Looking back, we can see how this style was already being refined and developed at a time—fifty years before—when it was regarded in most literary quarters as hopelessly non-literary and vulgar. Had there not been the nineteenth chapter of Huckleberry Finn?—'Two or three nights went by; I reckon I might say they swum by; they slid along so quick and smooth and lovely. Here is the way we put in the time. It was a monstrous big river down there—sometimes a mile and a half wide,' and so forth. These pages, when we happen to meet them in Carl Van Doren's anthology of world literature, stand up in a striking way beside a passage of description from [Ivan] Turgenev; and the pages which Hemingway was later to write about American wood and water are equivalents to the transcriptions by Turgenev—the Sportsman's Notebook is much admired by Hemingway—of Russian forests and fields. Each has brought to an immense and wild country the freshness of a new speech and a sensibility not yet conventionalized by literary associations. Yet it is the European sensibility which has come to Big Two-Hearted River, where the Indians are now obsolescent; in those solitudes it feels for the first time the cold current, the hot morning sun, sees the pine stumps, smells the sweet fern. And along with the mottled trout, with its 'clear water-over-gravel color,' the boy from the American Middle West fishes up a nice little masterpiece.
In the meantime there had been also Ring Lardner, Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein, using this American language for irony, lyric poetry or psychological insight. Hemingway seems to have learned from them all. But he is now able to charge this naïve accent with a new complexity of emotion, a new shade of emotion: a malaise. The wholesale shattering of human beings in which he has taken part has given the boy a touch of panic. (pp. 174-76)
Going back over Hemingway's books today, we can see clearly what an error of the politicos it was to accuse him of an indifference to society. His whole work is a criticism of society: he has responded to every pressure of the moral atmosphere of the time, as it is felt at the roots of human relations, with a sensitivity almost unrivaled. Even his preoccupation with licking the gang in the next block and being known as the best basketball player in high school has its meaning in the present epoch. After all, whatever is done in the world, political as well as athletic, depends on personal courage and strength. With Hemingway, courage and strength are always thought of in physical terms, so that he tends to give the impression that the bullfighter who can take it and dish it out is more of a man than any other kind of man, and that the sole duty of the revolutionary socialist is to get the counter-revolutionary gang before they get him.
But ideas, however correct, will never prevail by themselves: there must be people who are prepared to stand or fall with them, and the ability to act on principle is still subject to the same competitive laws which operate in sporting contests and sexual relations. Hemingway has expressed with genius the terrors of the modern man at the danger of losing control of his world, and he has also, within his scope, provided his own kind of antidote. This antidote, paradoxically, is almost entirely moral. Despite Hemingway's preoccupation with physical contests, his heroes are almost always defeated physically, nervously, practically: their victories are moral ones. (pp. 195-96)
Edmund Wilson, "Hemingway: Gauge of Morale," in his The Wound and the Bow: Seven Studies in Literature, 1941. Reprint by Farrar Straus Giroux, 1978, pp. 174-97.
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[This essay was originally published in 1943.]
[In addition to the structure of "The Killers," as it concerns the relations among incidents and with regard to the attitudes of the characters,] there remain as important questions such items as the following: What is Hemingway's attitude toward his material? How does this attitude find its expression?
Perhaps the simplest approach to these questions may be through a consideration of the situations and characters which interest Hemingway. These situations are usually violent ones: the hard-drinking and sexually promiscuous world of The Sun Also Rises; the chaotic and brutal world of war as in A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, or "A Way You'll Never Be"; the dangerous and exciting world of the bull ring or the prize ring as in The Sun Also Rises, Death in the Afternoon, "The Undefeated," "Fifty Grand"; the world of crime, as in "The Killers," To Have and Have Not, or "The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio." Hemingway's typical characters are usually tough men, experienced in the hard worlds they inhabit, and apparently insensitive: Lieutenant Henry in A Farewell to Arms, the big-game hunter in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls, or even Ole Andreson. They are, also, usually defeated men. Out of their practical defeat, however, they have managed to salvage something. And here we come upon Hemingway's basic interest in such situations and such characters. They are not defeated except upon their own terms; some of them have even courted defeat; certainly, they have maintained, even in the practical defeat, an ideal of themselves, formulated or unformulated, by which they have lived. Hemingway's attitude is, in a sense, like that of Robert Louis Stevenson…. (pp. 319-20)
For Stevenson, the world … is, objectively considered, a violent and meaningless world—"our rotary island loaded with predatory life and more drenched with blood … than ever mutinied ship, scuds through space." This is Hemingway's world, too. But its characters, at least those whose story Hemingway cares to tell, make one gallant effort to redeem the incoherence and meaninglessness of this world: they attempt to impose some form upon the disorder of their lives, the technique of the bullfighter or sportsman, the discipline of the soldier, the code of the gangster, which, even though brutal and dehumanizing, has its own ethic…. The form is never quite adequate to subdue the world, but the fidelity to it is part of the gallantry of defeat.
It has been said above that the typical Hemingway character is tough and, apparently, insensitive. But only apparently, for the fidelity to a code, to a discipline, may be an index to a sensitivity which allows the characters to see, at moments, their true plight. At times, and usually at times of stress, it is the tough man, for Hemingway, the disciplined man, who actually is aware of pathos or tragedy. The individual toughness (which may be taken to be the private discipline demanded by the world), may find itself in conflict with some more natural and spontaneous human emotion; in contrast with this the discipline may, even, seem to be inhuman; but the Hemingway hero, though he is aware of the claims of this spontaneous human emotion, is afraid to yield to those claims because he has learned that the only way to hold on to "honor," to individuality, to, even, the human order as against the brute chaos of the world, is to live by his code. This is the irony of the situation in which the hero finds himself. Hemingway's heroes are aristocrats in the sense that they are the initiate, and practice a lonely virtue.
Hemingway's heroes utter themselves, not in rant and bombast, but in terms of ironic understatement. This understatement, stemming from the contrast between the toughness and the sensitivity, the violence and the sensitivity, is a constant aspect of Hemingway's method…. Just as there is a margin of victory in the defeat of the Hemingway characters, so there is a little margin of sensibility in their brutal and violent world. The revelation arises from the most unpromising circumstances and from the most unpromising people—the little streak of poetry or pathos in "The Pursuit Race," "The Undefeated," "My Old Man," and, let us say, "The Killers." (pp. 321-22)
[Ole Andreson of "The Killers"] fits into this pattern. Andreson won't whimper. He takes his medicine quietly. But Ole Andreson's story is buried in the larger story, which is focused on Nick. How does Nick Adams fit into the pattern? Hemingway, as a matter of fact, is accustomed to treat his basic situation at one or the other of two levels. There is the story of the person who is already initiated, who already has adopted his appropriate code, or discipline, in the world which otherwise he cannot cope with…. There is also the story of the process of the initiation, the discovery of evil and disorder, and the first step toward the mastery of the discipline. This is Nick's story. (But the same basic situation occurs in many other stories by Hemingway, for example, "Up In Michigan," "Indian Camp," and "The Three-Day Blow.")
It has been observed that the typical Hemingway character is tough and apparently insensitive. Usually, too, that character is simple. The impulse which has led Hemingway to the simple character is akin to that which led a Romantic poet like [William] Wordsworth to the same choice. Wordsworth felt that his unsophisticated peasants or children, who are the characters of so many of his poems, were more honest in their responses than the cultivated man, and therefore more poetic. Instead of Wordsworth's typical peasant we find in Hemingway's work the bullfighter, the soldier, the revolutionist, the sportsman, and the gangster; instead of Wordsworth's children, we find the young men like Nick. There are, of course, differences between the approach of Wordsworth and that of Hemingway, but there is little difference on the point of marginal sensibility.
The main difference between the two writers depends on the difference in their two worlds. Hemingway's world is a more disordered world, and more violent, than the simple and innocent world of Wordsworth. Therefore, the sensibility of Hemingway's characters is in sharper contrast to the nature of his world. This creates an irony which is not found in the work of Wordsworth. Hemingway plays down the sensibility as such, and sheathes it in the code of toughness…. The typical character is sensitive, but his sensitivity is never insisted upon; he may be worthy of pity, but he never demands it. The underlying attitude in Hemingway's work may be stated like this: pity is only valid when it is wrung from a man who has been seasoned by experience, and is only earned by a man who never demands it, a man who takes his chances. Therefore, a premium is placed upon the fact of violent experience. (pp. 322-23)
Cleanth Brooks, Jr. and Robert Penn Warren, "'The Killers', Ernest Hemingway: Interpretation," in Understanding Fiction, edited by Cleanth Brooks, Jr. and Robert Penn Warren, Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1959, pp. 306-25.
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[Hemingway's] first forty-five stories may be conveniently taken as a kind of unit, since they were all written within ten years, and since they represent what Hemingway thought worthy of including in his first three collections: In Our Time (1925), Men Without Women (1927), and Winner Take Nothing (1933). Taken together or separately, they are among the great short stories of modern literature.
Their range of symbolic effects is even greater than the variety of subjects and themes employed. The subjects and themes, in turn, are far more various than has been commonly supposed. Like any writer with a passion for craftsmanship, Hemingway not only accepts but also sets himself the most difficult experimental problems. Few writers of the past fifty years, and no American writers of the same period except [Henry] James and [William] Faulkner, have grappled so manfully with extremely difficult problems in communication. One cannot be aware of the real extent of this experimentation (much of it highly successful, though there are some lapses) until he has read through the first three collections attempting to watch both the surfaces and the real inward content. (p. 119)
If we read ["Big Two-Hearted River"] singly, looking merely at what it says, there is probably no more effective account of euphoria in the language…. It tells with great simplicity of a lone fisherman's expedition after trout. He gets a sandwich and coffee in the railway station at St. Ignace, Michigan, and then rides the train northwest to the town of Seney, which has been destroyed by fire. From there he hikes under a heavy pack over the burned ground until he reaches a rolling pine-plain. After a nap in a grove of trees, he moves on to his campsite near the Two-Hearted River. There he makes camp, eats, and sleeps. Finally, as sum and crown of the expedition, there is the detailed story of a morning's fishing downstream from the camp. At the surface of the story one finds an absolute and very satisfying reportorial accuracy.
During one of the colloquies of Dean Gauss, [F. Scott] Fitzgerald, and Hemingway in the summer of 1925, "Big Two-Hearted River" came up for consideration. Both of Hemingway's friends had read it in the spring number of Ernest Walsh's little magazine, This Quarter. Half in fun, half in seriousness, they now accused him of "having written a story in which nothing happened," with the result that it was "lacking in human interest." Hemingway, Dean Gauss continued, "countered by insisting that we were just ordinary book reviewers and hadn't even taken the trouble to find out what he had been trying to do." This anecdote is a typical instance of the unfortunately widespread assumption that Hemingway's hand can be read at a glance. (pp. 125-26)
For here, as elsewhere in Hemingway, something is going on down under…. Malcolm Cowley, one of the few genuinely sympathetic critics of Hemingway, has suggested that "the whole fishing expedition … might be regarded as an incantation, a spell to banish evil spirits" [see CLC, Vol. 13]. The story is full of rituals. There is, for example, the long hike across the country—a ritual of endurance, for Nick does not stop to eat until he has made camp and can feel that he has earned the right to supper. There is the ritual of homemaking, the raising-up of a wall against the dark; the ritual of food-preparation and thoughtful, grateful eating; of bedmaking and deep untroubled sleep. Next morning comes the ritual of bait-catching, intelligently done and timed rightly before the sun has warmed and dried the grasshoppers. When Nick threads one on his hook, the grasshopper holds the hook with his front feet and spits tobacco-juice on it—as if for fisherman's luck. "The grasshopper," as Mr. Cowley says, "is playing its own part in a ritual." The whole of the fishing is conducted according to the ritualistic codes of fair play. When Nick catches a trout too small to keep, he carefully wets his hands before touching the fish so as not to disturb the mucous coating on the scales and thus destroy the fish he is trying to save. Down under, in short, the close reader finds a carefully determined order of virtue and simplicity which goes far towards explaining from below the oddly satisfying effect of the surface story.
Still, there is more to the symbolism of the story than a ritual of self-disciplined moral conduct. Two very carefully prepared atmospheric symbols begin and end the account. One is the burned ground near the town of Seney. The other is the swamp which lies farther down the Big Two-Hearted River than Nick yet wishes to go. Both are somehow sinister. One probably legitimate guess on the background of the first is that Nick, who is said to have been away for a long time, is in fact a returned war-veteran, going fishing both for fun and for therapeutic purposes. In some special way, the destroyed town of Seney and the scorched earth around it carry the hint of war—the area of destruction Nick must pass through in order to reach the high rolling pine plain where the exorcism is to take place. In much the same way, the swamp symbolizes an area of the sinister which Nick wishes to avoid, at least for the time being.
The pine plain, the quiet grove where he naps, the security of the camp, the pleasures of the open river are, all together, Nick's "clean, well-lighted place." In the afternoon grove, carefully described as an "island" of pine trees, Nick does not have to turn on any light or exert any vigilance while he peacefully slumbers. The same kind of feeling returns that night at the camp after he has rigged his shelter-half and crawled inside. "It smelled pleasantly of canvas. Already there was something mysterious and home-like…. He was settled. Nothing could touch him…. He was there, in the good place. He was in his home where he had made it." Back in the low country around Seney, even the grasshoppers had turned dark from living in the burned-over ground. Up ahead in the swamp "the big cedars came together overhead, the sun did not come through, except in patches; in the fast deep water, in the half light, the fishing would be tragic…. Nick did not want it." For now, on his island between sinister and sinister, Nick wants to keep his fishing tender and if possible comic.
"Big Two-Hearted River" was based on an expedition which Hemingway once made to Michigan's northern peninsula. His determination to write only those aspects of experience with which he was personally acquainted gave a number of the first forty-five stories the flavor of fictionalized personal history. He was always prepared to invent people and circumstances, to choose backgrounds which would throw his people into three-dimensional relief, and to employ as symbols those elements of the physical setting which could be psychologically justified by the time and place he was writing about. But during the decade when the first forty-five stories were written, he was unwilling to stray very far from the life he knew by direct personal contact, or to do any more guessing than was absolutely necessary.
The recurrent figure of Nicholas Adams is not of course Hemingway, though the places Nick goes and the events he watches are ordinarily places Hemingway had visited or events about which he had heard on good authority and could assimilate to his own experience of comparable ones. Future biographers will have to proceed warily to separate autobiographical elements from the nexus of invented circumstances in which they may be lodged. For present purposes it is enough to notice that well over half of the first forty-five stories center on Nick Adams, or other young men who could easily be mistaken for him.
They might be arranged under some such title as "The Education of Nicholas Adams." It could even be said that when placed end to end they do for the twentieth century roughly what Henry Adams did for the nineteenth, though with obvious differences in formality of approach. The education of Henry Adams in Boston, Quincy, Berlin, London, and Washington presented an informative contrast with the education of Nicholas Adams in Chicago, northern Michigan, Italy, and Switzerland. Nick's life in the twentieth century was on the whole considerably more spectacular than Henry's in the nineteenth; it was franker, less polite, less diplomatic. Chicago, where Nick was born just before the turn of the century, was a rougher climate than Henry's mid-Victorian Boston, just as Nick's Ojibway Indians were far more primitive than Henry's Boston Irish. Partly because of the times he lived in and partly, no doubt, because he was of a more adventurous temperament, Nick came more easily on examples of barbarism than Henry was to know until his visit to the South Seas. In place of the Great Exposition of 1900 which so stimulated Henry's imagination, Nick was involved in the World's Fair of 1914–1918. But in retrospect one parallelism stood out momentously: both Henry and Nicholas had occasion to marvel bitterly at how badly their respective worlds were governed.
Nick's father, Dr. Henry Adams, played a notable part in Nick's early education…. Though they gradually grew apart, they were the best of companions during Nick's boyhood. In middle life Dr. Adams died by his own hand for reasons that Nick sorrowfully hints at but does not reveal.
Ten of the stories record Nick's growing-up. He recalls the move from one house to another and the accidental burning of Dr. Adams's collection of Indian arrowheads and preserved snakes. One Fourth of July, he remembers (and it is one of the century's best stories of the growing-up of puppy-love) there was a ride in a neighbor's wagon back from town past nine drunken Indians, while bad news of his girl, Indian number ten in the story called "Ten Indians," was relayed to him by his father on his return home…. It was part of his informal education to be manhandled by two gangsters in a Chicago lunchroom, and to share supper with two tramps, one of them a dangerously punch-drunk ex-prizefighter, in the woods near Mancelona, Michigan.
Like Hemingway, Nick Adams went to war. The earliest glimpses of his career as soldier come in the sixth and seventh miniatures of In Our Time. One shows Nick fiercely praying while Austrian artillery pounds the Italian trenches near Fossalta di Piave. In the other, he has been hit in the spine by an Austrian bullet and is leaning back with paralyzed legs against the wall of an Italian church. (pp. 126-30)
There are no Nick Adams stories of the homecoming, the process which Henry Adams found so instructive after his service abroad. The fate of the male character in "A Very Short Story" might, however, be thought of as one episode in the postwar adventures of Nick Adams. In a base-hospital at Padua, he falls in love with a nurse named Luz—an idea much expanded and altered in A Farewell to Arms. But when the young man returns to Chicago to get a good job so that he can marry Luz, he soon receives a letter saying that she has fallen in love with a major in the Arditi. The protagonist in "Soldier's Home" is called Harold Krebs, and he is a native of Oklahoma rather than Illinois. But once again the story might have had Nick Adams as its central character. Like Nick's mother, Mrs. Krebs is a sentimental woman who shows an indisposition to face reality and is unable to understand what has happened to her boy in the war.
Nick Adams returned to Europe not long after the armistice. "Cross-Country Snow" reveals that he is married to a girl named Helen who is expecting a baby. "Out of Season" and "Alpine Idyll" could easily be associated with Nick's life on the continent, while the very moving "Fathers and Sons," which stands as the concluding story in Hemingway's collected short fiction, shows Nick on one of his return trips to the United States, driving his own son through familiar country and thinking back to the life and the too early death of the boy's grandfather, Dr. Henry Adams.
The story of Nick's education, so far as we have it, differs in no essential way from that of almost any middleclass American male who started life at the beginning of the present century or even with the generation of 1920. After the comparatively happy boyhood and the experimental adolescence, the young males went off to war; and after the war, in a time of parlous peace, they set out to marry and build themselves families and get their work done. The story of Adams is a presented vision of our time. There is every reason why it should arouse in us, to use the phrase of Conrad, "that feeling of unavoidable solidarity" which "binds men to each other and all mankind to the visible world."
Future biographers, able to examine the Nick Adams stories against the full and detailed background of Hemingway's life from his birth on July 21, 1899, until, say, his thirty-first birthday in 1930, should uncover some valuable data on the methods by which he refashioned reality into the shape of a short story. What they may fail to see—and what a contemporary evaluator is justified in pointing out—is that Hemingway's aim in the Nick Adams stories is always the aim of an artist. He is deeply interested in the communication of an effect, or several effects together, in such a way as to evoke the deep response of shared human experience. To record for posterity another chapter in his own fictional autobiography does not interest him at all. (pp. 130-31)
Carlos Baker, in his Hemingway: The Writer As Artist, 1952. Fourth edition reprint by Princeton University Press, 1972, 438 p.
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There are, as criticism has come slowly to recognize, not one but two Hemingway heroes; or, to use Philip Young's designations, the "Nick-Adams-hero" and the "code-hero." The generic Nick Adams character, who lives through the course of Hemingway's fiction, appears first as the shocked invisible "voice" of the miniatures of in our time; he grows up through Hemingway's three volumes of short stories and at least four of his novels, sometimes changing his name to Jake Barnes, Frederick Henry, Mr. Frazer, Macomber, Harry, Robert Jordan, Richard Cantwell; and he makes his final appearances (appropriately un-named as when he first entered the fictional stage) in Hemingway's last two published stories in 1957. The code-hero also figures in Hemingway's earliest fiction. He dies of a cogida as Maera in in our time, and he is resurrected in a considerable variety of shapes, forms, and accents (usually non-American) through the bulk of Hemingway's creative output. His manifestations would include the Belmonte of The Sun Also Rises; Manuel in "The Undefeated"; the Major of "In Another Country."… (p. 55)
For convenience sake I will refer to the Nick Adams hero as the tyro and to the "code-hero" as the tutor; for it is basically an educational relationship, albeit a very one-sided one, which binds them together. The tyro, faced with the overwhelming confusion and hurt (nada) inherent in an attempt to live an active sensual life, admires the deliberate self-containment of the tutor (a much "simpler man") who is seemingly not beset with inner uncertainties. Accordingly, the tyro tries to model his behavior on the pattern he discerns. However, the tyro is not a simple man; being in fact a very near projection of Hemingway himself, he is never able to attain the state of serene unself-consciousness—what [Henry] James once called nastily "the deep intellectual repose"—that seems to come naturally to the tutor. What he can learn, however, is the appearance of that self-containment. He can laboriously train himself in the conventions of the appearance which is "the code"; and he can so severely practice those external restraints as to be provided with a pragmatic defense against the horrors that never cease to assault him.
It may be salutary to digress slightly to what we can call "The Education of Nick Adams" because there is some inevitable confusion surrounding it. In one sense the education is thoroughly abortive; Nick at the end of his multi-chequered career is as terrified and lost as he was, for example, in his encounter with the stark, machined horror of the Chicago gangsters in "The Killers." In the following quotation is the tyro, aged somewhere in his mid-fifties, trying to cope with the loss of his eyesight ("Get a Seeing-Eyed Dog"): "Because I am not doing too well at this. That I can promise you. But what else can you do? Nothing, he thought. There's nothing you can do. But maybe, as you go along, you will get good at it." The tyro, with his unfair inheritance from Hemingway of a particularly fecund and hyperactive imagination of disaster, has lost nothing of his capacities to be afraid—in spite of his long indoctrination in the craft of courage. In fact, he has rather increased his capacities, for his accumulated experience of horror has taught him many more things of which to be afraid. Measured pragmatically, however—and the defense never pretends to be more than a pragmatic one—Nick does survive for an astonishingly long time. He does, as Hemingway puts it, get pretty good at it as he goes along.
If we sketch briefly Nick's biography, we will be able to judge somewhat better the values of his education and to note also the varying ways that Hemingway employed him as shock absorber and seismographer of emotional stress. Nick is born, roughly at the turn of the twentieth century, somewhere in the Midwest. His father, a physician, is ford of hunting and shooting, and is concerned to teach Nick the proper ways of handling a rod and a gun. Dr. Adams has incredibly sharp eyesight and is a better wing-shot than Nick will ever be. He is also intimidated by his wife—a suspiciously indistinct character who is a blur of polite nagging and vague religious sentiments—and, on one occasion, Nick is shocked to see his father back down from a fight. The pattern of cowardice and intimidation, never actually explained, comes to a disgusting (to Nick) finale when his father commits suicide in the 1920's with Nick's grandfather's gun. (pp. 55-6)
As a boy, Nick's adventures are an extreme distillation of the excitements, perplexities, and terrors that are classically supposed to accompany adolescence…. His characteristic response to the situations in which he finds himself is open-eyed shock; he registers the events as though he were a slow-motion camera, but rarely if ever does he actively participate in these events. He never really gets into a fight; he does not argue; he does not retreat to protect his sensibilities. Like the camera, he has a curious masochistic quality of total acceptance and receptivity. At about this point we begin to suspect that the adventures of Nick Adams are approximately as realistic as "The Adventures of Tom Swift," although any individual episode in the serial is gratifyingly convincing. We begin to suspect that Hemingway's tyro figure is a projection into the nightmare possibilities of confusion, pain, and immolation; that his adventures are mythic fantasies, guided by the rhythms of intense fear and alienation. That, in short, Nick Adams is a sacrificial victim, bound time and time again to the slaughtering-table to be almost slaughtered in order that his creator and readers may be free of fear. (pp. 56-7)
Such is Nick Adams, surely not, as one critic explains, "[the story of a man's life which] differs in no essential way from that of almost any middleclass American male who started life at the beginning of the present century or even with the generation of 1920" [see excerpt above by Carlos Baker]. There is very little that is realistically representative in the career of Nicholas Adams, nor, I would submit, is there meant to be. In a sense—which his name suggests—he is a released devil of our innocence, an enfleshment of our conscious and unconscious fears dispatched to do battle with the frightening possibilities that an always uncertain future holds over our heads. He is the whipping-boy of our fearful awareness, the pragmatic probability extrapolated into a possible tomorrow to serve as a propitiary buffer against the evils which tomorrow may or may not bring. He suffers our accidents and defeats before they happen to us…. Hemingway plays him as the sacrificial card in his hand which will finesse the ruthless king; he is the defeated victim, but in experiencing his defeat, Hemingway (and we) can ring ourselves in invisible armor so that we will be undefeated if and when the catastrophes of our imagination do actually occur. On this level, then, the Nick Adams projection is a vital defensive weapon in Hemingway's combat with the universe. (p. 59)
[The] tyro and the tutor figures … were central to the typical Hemingway fiction…. (p. 78)
There are, I suppose, three characteristic Hemingway stories: those in which the tyro appears more or less alone; those in which the tutor dominates the space of the fiction; and those in which the tutor-tyro axis regulates the revolution of the story…. [The] tyro story is an exposition of severe emotional reaction, with the tension of the story dependent on the contrast between the accumulated momentum of the emotion demanding to be released and the resisting forces within the style and content which attempt to restrain that release. The tyro story thus tends to resemble an unexploded bomb in imminent danger of explosion. The tutor story has a greater degree of narrative distance and therefore depends less for its effect on the creation of an immediate emotional impact. It is a form of exemplary story with the developed tensions released along the channels of pathos. Its direction will move inevitably toward the genre of the fable and the parable. And the tutor-tyro story follows the structure of the educational romance or, as it has been called, the "epistemological story," that characteristically American variation on the Bildungsroman (which is too loosely termed an "initiation" or "rites of passage" story). Its direction tends to lead to a revelation of "truth," generally in the form of self-discovery or self-realization. These three forms are, of course, not that distinct and arbitary in Hemingway's work, and there is a constant infiltration of one form into the other.
The tyro stories, in their purest form, are those Nick Adams stories in which there are no other significant characters except Nick. These would include "Big Two-Hearted River: Parts I and II," "Now I Lay Me," and "A Way You'll Never Be." "Now I Lay Me" is a straight first-person narration, while the other two are presented from an impersonal third-person viewpoint so closely focused on the tyro character as to make the narrative device very similar to James's use of a "lucid reflector." In terms of Nick's biography, "Now I Lay Me" (1927) comes first; a direct recounting of his convalescence in Milan after the Fossalta wound, it deals largely with his almost Proustian inability to go to sleep and with the various ways he diverts his mind from dangerous preoccupations that might carry him over the thin edge. The last full third of the story records the banal dialogue between Nick and a wounded fellow soldier, John…. The story doesn't quite work, however, although the straight interior memory passages are excellent; for the two sections of the story never quite engage each other. The first section is narrated with an interest that diverts the reader's attention from the state of Nick's mind to his memories themselves; and the second section has perhaps too flatted a key to provide the necessary contrast. We are meant to feel, I think, that Nick is in a far other country than the more prosaic, less sensitive John; this is one of Hemingway's recurrent themes, but I do not find it successfully dramatized within the texture of the prose.
"A Way You'll Never Be" (1933), second in the Nick chronology, deals with his shell-shocked return to his outfit after his release from the hospital. His nerves are shattered and his mind has a tendency to jump around and off, as though its flywheel were disconnected. There is some experimentation with stream-of-consciousness exposition, valuable for what it tells us about Nick; but these sections are not so selectively controlled as those in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" and in For Whom the Bell Tolls. In spite of the tone of the story—and there is more obvious hysteria in it than anywhere else in Hemingway's fiction—it fails to create a meaningful tension. There just simply isn't any real conflict in the plot, the structure, or the style to make this a potential bomb. The best part of the story—a part which does develop a real tension—is the description of Nick's ride over the war-pocked road to his meeting with Captain Paravicini.
"Big Two-Hearted River: Parts I and II" (1925), third in the sequence of Nick's adventures, describes approximately twenty-four hours of activity from the time Nick gets off a train in desolated Upper Michigan to hike to a suitable campsite until he calls the fishing over for the day on the following afternoon. Although the story has no plot of any significance, and nothing happens that is in any way untoward in such a fishing trip, it builds up an almost unbelievable tension and has justly been considered one of Hemingway's finest fictions. It is really a tour de force of style, since it is almost exclusively the style which persuades the reader that Nick is in a most precarious state of nervous tension which he is desperately holding under clenched control. From having read other Nick stories, the reader may be prepared to fill in the antecedent background to this innocuous fishing trip; but even without that background the dramatic situation of the story seems obvious. (pp. 78-80)
The story operates … on two levels. On the first it describes the self-administered therapy of a badly shocked young man, deliberately slowing down his emotional metabolism in order to allow scar tissue to form over the wounds of his past experience. On another level it represents the commencement of the journey into self. But this journey is highly cautious: "He did not want to rush his sensations any." He makes sure that he has a good safe place from which to operate. He fishes first in the brightly lit part of his stream of consciousness. And even there he acts with slow, controlled care; precipitate action may frighten away the quarry he seeks, or it may even frighten off the seeker. He knows that the big fish are in the almost dark places, in the frightening mist-hung swamps of his awareness; he knows also that, if he is to find himself, it is there that he ultimately must look. Meanwhile he gathers his courage together and takes the first measured steps of exploration into the undiscovered country of his mind. There will be plenty of time to fish the swamp.
"Big Two-Hearted River" can be seen, then, as a tyro story which generates its power not from what it actually says, but from what it does not say. It is the latter, the unspoken volumes which shriek from beneath the pressure of the taut prose exposition, that expresses the emotional communication to the reader. This technique, which we may call "the irony of the unsaid," is one of Hemingway's favorite tricks and one of his most powerful ways of transmitting the shock of emotion in prose. This common device of the miniatures of in our time (his earliest tyro stories) Hemingway uses to great advantage in those tyro stories which confront Nick with situations of severe violence with which he is unable to cope. Thus, in "The Killers," in "The Battler," and in "An Alpine Idyll," situations are developed of such moral outrage as to demand a comment or an indication of appropriate reaction. The situations themselves are reported impersonally and even laconically; the presentation, as in "Big Two-Hearted River," emphasizes the disparity between what has happened and what ought to be the reaction. Hemingway's artful refusal to give an overt outlet to these reactions in the events or the style of the fictions brings the crescendo of tension to a breaking point. Hemingway … holds his pressure on the line until he has exacted the maximum degree of strain; if he slackens it, the reader may get away; if he pulls it too tight, the line may break (as it does in "An Alpine Idyll") and the reader will be free. But when it is just right, as in "Big Two-Hearted River," the reader is caught and forced into response. (pp. 82-3)
[The] third typical Hemingway structure … [is] the tutor-tyro story. In such a story—"The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" and "In Another Country" are good examples—the protagonist is placed in a learning relationship to one or more characters and events which will teach him something about the nature of life; how best to live it; and also, more important, something about himself. These then tend to be stories of growth, and many critics have somewhat inaccurately dubbed them "initiation" stories or chronicles of the "rites of passage." (p. 94)
In Hemingway's stories of this type, the protagonist is always the tyro. Sometimes, as in "In Another Country," this is difficult to see; but it is always the tyro figure who encloses and structures the story. These stories are usually narrated in the first person; but, when narrated from an impersonal viewpoint, they achieve the same effect through a variation of the Jamesian device of the "reflecting consciousness." Also, since the tyro is generally in a state of stress or imbalance, this tutor-tyro story frequently merges with the straight tyro stories or "unexploded bomb" stories. "The Killers" or "The Battler," for example, might be included in this type. The distinctive feature of the epistemological story, it seems to me, is the emphasized presence within the story of a tutor figure who serves as a model of instruction for the tyro. Such a tutor must have created for himself a specific modus vivendi which is pertinent to the tyro's immediate emotional needs. The tyro … cannot become as adept as the tutor. But he can learn some partial lessons, and he can, in processive pragmatic fashion, learn who and what he is at the specific time of the learning. He can also lay plans for the immediate future. These last two points should be borne in mind because they help to explain why absolute systems are incompatible with Hemingway's vision of himself and the world. Hemingway's view of man … accepts and even demands the possibility of change. Thus his epistemological stories are "growth" stories in which the new shapes of growth are unpredictable beforehand. (p. 95)
"In Another Country" seems at first to be more of a sketch than a story. Narrated in first person by Nick Adams, it describes in seemingly random fashion his experiences undergoing rehabilitation treatment for his knee wound in Milan. He, along with other wounded, reports to the hospital every afternoon to work on the therapeutic machines. He becomes friendly with three wounded officers, all of them deservedly decorated for valor in combat…. It is clear that the experiences of battle and of being wounded have set the four of them off "in another country" from the people who jostle them on the streets. Similarly, the hospital is separated from the main part of the city by a network of canals; and, from whatever direction it is approached, it can only be entered by crossing a bridge. However, Nick's three friends, "the hunting hawks" who have proved their bravery, read the papers on his decorations and realize that he is not really one of them; his decorations have been given him because he is an American. He is not friendly with them after that because they have already crossed a bridge that is at the moment beyond his approach. Nick does stay friendly with a boy who was wounded on his first day at the front, because he also is not a "hawk."
It is at this point that Nick meets the Major … and from this point on in the story, Nick appears to become merely a spectator-recorder of the Major's travail. But to read the story in this way is to miss Hemingway's careful construction of back-ground in the first section. Nick knows that he would not have performed as bravely as the "hunting hawks," and he worries about his real or potential lack of bravery. Set apart by an unrecrossable bridge from the people who have not suffered the immediate violence of war, he is also set apart from those who have fought bravely and without fear: "I was very much afraid to die, and often lay in bed at night by myself, afraid to die and wondering how I would be when I went back to the front again." The Major's agony and his heroic hold on dignity under the burden of his wife's sudden death—a dignity which does not place itself above showing emotion in basic physical ways—become an object lesson to Nick which is directly relevant to his concern with bravery. The "hunting hawks" believe in bravery; it is because they do that they can reject Nick. The Major "did not believe in bravery"; he also had no confidence in the machines that were to restore his hand. He does believe in grammar, in punctuality, in courtesy, and in following the line of duty. And in the story he becomes an exemplar of courage and of dignified resolution in meeting disaster. His actions point out to Nick that a man should find things he cannot lose; that is, a man should slice away from his thoughts and convictions all the illusions that he can live without. And to Nick's immediate concern, he demonstrates that bravery is merely another illusion. He teaches Nick that there is "another country" he can enter which is open to him even with his fear. And this is a country in which unillusioned courage is a more valuable human quality than bravery.
One of Hemingway's masterful achievements in modern short-story technique is exhibited in the structure of this story. His device of "the irony of the unsaid" takes on another employment in his handling of the educational climax of Nick's studies. Nowhere does he indicate that Nick learned anything from the Major's example. Reading the story swiftly, it appears that Nick is not even present at the denouement. But from the first magnificent paragraph describing the cold autumn in Milan to the last description of the Major looking emptily out the window, the selection of every detail is controlled by Nick's mind and by his urgent concern with his fear. The power of the Major's resolution is communicated because it makes a powerful impression on Nick. Nick does not state its impression on him, probably because he has not yet synthesized his impressions into a conceptual form. But they have been synthesized in the narrative structure through juxtaposition and a repetition of the bravery theme. Hemingway once wrote proudly that he chose not to put a "Wow" at the ends of his stories; he preferred to let them end and hang fire, as it were. In a story like "In Another Country," we can see the device handled with consummate artistry. The reader is forced into a participative position; he dots the "i's" and crosses the "t's" and learns Nick's lesson simultaneously with him. At times Hemingway's use of this structure becomes so over subtle as to be entirely lost to a reader, and the story drifts away into vignette or sketch ("The Light of the World," "Wine of Wyoming"); less frequently, the lesson is too well learned and overly articulated at the end, and the story becomes the text for a moralizing sermon ("The Gambler, The Nun, and the Radio"). But in those cases where the "wow" is deliberately withheld to create a cogent meaningful ambiguity at the end, the tutor-tyro stories can be extremely effective. (pp. 96-8)
Earl Rovit, in his Ernest Hemingway, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1963, 192 p.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4639
In the attempt to get at the "truth" of real-life experience and to attain the ideal of writing a "classic" that he initially posed for himself, Hemingway began in his early volumes of short stories to describe the adventures of a boy on the threshold of manhood. As Philip Young and Carlos Baker have pointed out in their studies, half of the stories of In Our Time (1925), the first short story collection, are devoted to the development of Nick Adams. They are arranged chronologically, moving from Nick's boyhood to his young manhood, and all of these stories are thematically related. Several more stories about the same character appear in the next two collections, Men Without Women (1927) and Winner Take Nothing (1933). Of importance to the whole of Hemingway's fiction is this early focus on a young hero, for if Philip Young is correct, this hero is to become the prototype "Hemingway Hero" who later will have essentially the same background that Nick has had through his childhood, adolescence, and young manhood. More important than a mere similarity of background in the successive protagonists is the resemblance they bear to each other psychologically. All experience the same needs in meeting the struggle and frustration of twentieth-century man, and even of all men of all times. Some become involved in war, suffer wounds, and are forced to reconcile the psychological disturbances created by these hurts. Others are forced to come to terms with the reality of the traumata created by the pressures of a hostile environment. (pp. 13-14)
In his fiction Hemingway examines the effect upon the inner being of the traumata that modern man has experienced in the world. This attempt to get beyond surface manifestations and deal with more basic, primal contexts led Hemingway to apply certain distinct, psychologically symbolic techniques in his fiction. When these work for him, the entire tone and texture of his prose comes to a close approximation of the "classic" he always tried to write.
At the outset, Hemingway gives Nick Adams and the other protagonists a responsive sensibility. This technique is not a simple device of characterization intended solely to illuminate the character's inner feelings. More expansive, it parallels the questioning attitude that heroes have exhibited in literature since Homer shaped the epic form. Homer forged into two epic works the whole of Greek thought and culture. Just as his heroes in their victories and defeats represented the needs and drives and experiences of that culture, so Hemingway has for the twentieth century attempted to expand the significance of the experiences of his protagonists into a range far exceeding local and subjective considerations of ordinary fictional conflict. In short, he has tried to write "classics" by capturing the tone and tensions of his own culture.
As his organizing principle, Hemingway chose to depict a series of heroes who become progressively older and experience both literally and psychologically what all men of the twentieth century have experienced over a period of almost fifty years. When these heroes seem unusually introspective and the themes seem too narrow and local, Hemingway may have failed as a craftsman, but he has not lost sight of his ideals. Even in those works where he has been criticized most for organizational failures, one step further in his overall plan has been developed. This plan to view man's relationship to his culture, to the other men in that culture, and ultimately to the cosmos, he carefully develops throughout his short stories. An investigation of this pattern in them reveals the substance of an underlying organization which is the core of his artistry.
In the short stories focusing on Nick Adams and in the other short stories of the three collections, inner attitudes are externalized by means of symbolic reflection. These symbolizations manifest themselves in a variety of conventional ways, but they also appear in unique and quite unexpected combinations. Sometimes characters represent particular attitudes, or episodes point up conflicts, or a sequence of images is repeated a sufficient number of times to create symbolic formations; many times there is a major, controlling symbol from which all of the details take their meaning. One of the most important symbolizations takes the form of a ritualization of a familiar activity, thereby objectifying the intense struggle of the characters in their attempt to find a solution to their inner turmoil. In this way Hemingway maintains a studied control over his material, and this careful control forms a contrast to the content. Ordered artistry is always juxtaposed to the chaos in which most of the central characters find themselves.
In the development of Nick Adams as the leading protagonist in the early short stories, Hemingway utilizes one of his most significant symbolic devices to project his themes. This is the journey artifice. In one sense, all of Hemingway's works employ some aspect of this motif. (pp. 14-16)
[At] least two broad areas of interpretation and movement in all works of art may be recognized: the surface level, or outward movement, with the literal development of plot; and the psychological level, or inner movement, incorporating imagery and symbol as the primary means of expression. In Hemingway's works the employment of the journey artifice provides an outstanding example of these two movements. In his use of the artifice one can discern the employment of a surface narrative technique as his simple, mechanical method of furthering plot development, but one can just as surely discover that the content of his novels and stories, the more meaningful revelation, is far below the surface and lies in the realm of symbolic allusion. In part, the high artistry of Hemingway's fiction is derived from his ability to utilize these levels of meaning in such a way as to fuse the content of a work with its form. (p. 21)
When Hemingway gave the hero of so many of his early stories the name of "Nick Adams," he was doing more than designating a simple appellation to stand for a character. Rather, he intentionally used a symbolic name as a conscious device to illustrate what the character himself would reveal throughout every story in which he appeared. (p. 25)
The surname is particularly appropriate inasmuch as Nick Adams is in a very real sense a second Adam. He is not in any literal sense the progenitor of a whole race, but he does typify a whole race of contemporary men who have encountered irrational elements in their environment and have been forced to deal with them. In the stories in which Nick is depicted as a young boy, he is the innocent, akin to the first Adam before the Fall. But as in the biblical story, the state of innocence is short-lived, and the serpent here too enters the "garden." In this case, however, the entry is not a blatant caricature of the forces of evil; it is the subtle growing of awareness of the incalculable events that disturb the natural order of things, of the caprice in that disturbance, and, what is more important, it is a growing of awareness of the irrational forces that operate within the self.
Hemingway directly reinforces the implications of the name "Adam" as incorporating the forces of evil and the chthonic by giving his hero a first name that might easily be associated with "Old Nick" or Satan, the archetype of evil. Having thus named his character, Hemingway in one stroke characterizes the inherited tendencies of all men. The tension created by the implications of the association of these names is in itself archetypal in its suggestion of the eternal struggle between the forces of good and evil. But the hero in the Hemingway stories encounters evil in many guises, and it goes by many names, be it a wound—literal or psychological—terror in the night, death, or anything else. Always, however, evil is inescapable and unpredictable. In many ways what the Hemingway hero must learn throughout the stories is the nature of evil, and the tension created by the struggle of opposing forces within himself provides the underlying dynamics for the learning process.
Experience itself may be one of the guises of contingent evil. Just as surely as eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge precipitated Adam's fall, so for the innocent the initial encounter with elements foreign to the womb-like existence of home and mother is the first stage of a long and dangerous journey. To the individual involved, retreat from the implications of this first encounter might seem possible, but once exposed, his own nature automatically commits him to the entire journey. If he denies the validity of the commitment, he merely postpones the inevitable or damns himself eternally to the regions of infantile fantasy.
In the short story "Indian Camp," the first of the "Nick" stories of In Our Time, Hemingway illustrates the compelling tendency to revert to the state of naïve innocence once the first contact with forces outside the protected environment has been made. Nick as a young boy accompanies his father, a doctor, to an Indian village where an Indian woman is to have a baby…. Certain revelations concerning the doctor's character emerge because of the method of delivery, for he has failed to bring along the proper equipment. The operation must be performed with a jack-knife and without benefit of an anesthetic. As a result of the woman's screams during the operation, her husband, who has been lying all the while in the overhead bunk with a severe ax wound, commits suicide by cutting his own throat.
Although the surface plot is of some consequence in itself, the major focus of the story is Nick's reaction to these events. This emphasis clarifies in light of the initiatory motif around which the story is constructed, and a seemingly slight interlude with a bizarre ending is revealed as having more than situational import. In this story Hemingway establishes a controlling symbol, the Indian camp itself. As in other stories, the camp is suggestive of the primitive and dark side of life. It is a manifestation of the intrusive and irrational elements that impose upon the secure and rational faculties where order and light prevail. For Nick, whose own home is across the lake, the night journey to the camp has all the possibilities of a learning experience. But he must be prepared to accept the knowledge it can give him. As it turns out, Nick is incapable of accepting the events he has witnessed, and the initial preview of the realities of the world is abortive. (pp. 26-8)
Nick's denial of the learning experience begins when he addresses his father as "Daddy" instead of "Dad," as he had at the beginning. But the most telling revelation of the abortive nature of the learning situation comes when he asks, "'Is dying hard, Daddy?'" Having witnessed the bizarre events at the camp, the question reflects his inability to grasp the significance of his exposure to pain and death….
Nick's refusal to accept the terrors of pain and death and the father's inability to cope with them are revealed in an ironic light in the conclusion: "In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing, he [Nick] felt quite sure that he would never die."… But Nick has been exposed to some of the primal terrors of human experience, and his "feeling" is depicted as illusory and child-like because it is a romantic reaction to the experience he has undergone. (p. 32)
[The] early stories preface to a considerable extent many of the activities in which the hero of the later ones will engage. Whether he is in the guise of Nick Adams—the new Adam—or under some other apellation, the hero must learn to adjust to contingencies, reconcile himself to them, and eventually create for himself a new moral center in harmony with his own innermost drives…. [The] tremendous task of self-discovery requires the loss of all former attachments that indicate infantile dependence. As the hero divests himself of all former ideals, the creation of a new self must follow. (p. 39)
In "Indian Camp" and in "The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife," Nick is depicted as a young boy on the threshold of adolescence. His actions and responses are unemotive and child-like…. This is typical of the young innocent about to begin the greater journey, but that journey is one that requires a positive commitment to an essentially moral purpose.
In the third story of the Nick sequence the title serves as a rubric to the surface plot as well as to the underlying psychological level of the story. "The End of Something" as a title indicates that this is to be a story of termination; it also poses a question as to the nature of the "Something."
The plot concerns Nick and a girl friend, Marjorie, and relates the events of a night fishing trip the two have taken. Nick has apparently planned in advance that this is to be the finale of their romantic interlude, for after preparing for the night's fishing and making the camp he tells Marjorie that "it isn't fun anymore."… The story closes with a touch of irony, for Nick is unhappy with the outcome of the episode. (p. 40)
In the final portion of this story a definite progression has been accomplished in the development of Nick Adams from child to adolescent, for with the exhibition of his inner feelings he has at the same time revealed his sensibility. No longer is he girded in the armor of protective infantile illusion and detachment; he takes a positive course of action, and he alone must bear the brunt of its consequences. The "Something" that has come to an end is his belief in the efficacy of romantic illusion. (p. 41)
"The Three-Day Blow" is the fourth in the sequence, and it expands the characterization of Nick. In this story Hemingway depicts a boastful, adolescent central character. His actions and attitudes, however, re-enforce the importance of the initiation into life encountered in "Indian Camp," the destruction of the father figure in "The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife," and the insight gained into the cycle of existence in "The End of Something." The story may be said to be a story of recapitulation.
The subject matter directly complements "The End of Something." The events take place not long after those depicted in the earlier story and illustrate Nick's reactions. Essentially an adjustment story, it relates Nick's coming to Bill's cabin and talking of baseball, literature, and his affair with Marjorie. At the conclusion, having first decided to get drunk, then having decided not to get drunk, they go out to find Bill's father and to hunt. The surface line of action is obviously scant, but that is of little significance. What is important is the revelation of Nick's attitudes toward his experiences and toward life in general.
At the psychological level something quite different is expressed from what at first glance seems obvious at the literal level. Nick here engages in a fantasy of infantile regression and escape within that regression. This tendency is not unusual in any journey toward discovery of the self; for the implications of experience with the forces beyond the control of the individual are terrifying. No one would choose to destroy himself—an act which is what the discovery of the self implies—unless under the severest provocation. Thus it is that all heroes who set out on this journey have at some point faltered on the way. Nick Adams is no exception. (pp. 44-5)
[At] the end of the story he is poised at the peak of his infantile optimism: "None of it was important now. The wind blew it out of his head. Still he could always go into town Saturday night. It was a good thing to have in reserve."…
Hemingway apparently was keenly aware of and much interested in the inability of youth to accept the reality of a given situation. In all of these early stories, even though an external narrator relates the events, it is the youthful Nick's sensibility that is always the central focus…. The hero's exposure to the variety of forces which operate in the world and over which he has no control point to Hemingway's concern with the relationship of all men to an external world not of their making. The fact that many of the stories are complementary to each other, as in the Nick sequence, illustrates not so much Hemingway's concern with one generic hero as his intense desire to explore the various psychological implications of the first, almost primal experiences with life. (p. 49)
[Both] war and bullfighting have always been recognized as the major metaphorical bases for much of Hemingway's fiction. Since both emphasize the importance of adjustment to death, this common denominator provides a view of the interworkings of Hemingway's artistry when it concerns itself with either bullfighting or war.
Philip Young, in his full-length study, attaches a personal significance to Hemingway's concern with the death theme. Young suggests in Freudian terms that Hemingway suffered from a traumatic neurosis incurred by a severe wound in the First World War. As a means of adjusting to the neurosis. Hemingway acts under a "repetition-compulsion," which is the need to repeat an experience over and over. Hemingway's fiction, Young suggests, may be like Freud's war patients' dreams, in which the dreamers obeyed the repetition-compulsion, contrary to Freud's own notion of wish-fulfillment and the pleasure principle. (pp. 102-03)
In another and more recent full-length study, John Killinger, though repeating Carlos Baker and Philip Young on Hemingway's concern with death, refers to the Hemingway hero as one who has the existentialist pose. (p. 103)
These and other commentaries indicate the importance of Hemingway's concern with death and violence. Whether his hero emerges with a healthy or sick mind, or whether he reflects an extreme individualism, can be judged only by examining the particular story in which he appears. What seems certain, however, is that Hemingway chose to focus upon these motifs as part of his attempt to explore the reactions of man under the pressures of the extreme in psychological and physical environment. (p. 104)
In the two stories entitled "Now I Lay Me" and "A Way You'll Never Be," Hemingway treats a young protagonist in the war. In the first the narrative identifies the character as "Nick," presumably Nick Adams. In the second he is identified as "Nick Adams," and most commentators consider that the same person is meant. (pp. 104-05)
In a somewhat different manner than in "Now I Lay Me," Hemingway in "A Way You'll Never Be" treats the compulsive tendencies of an obviously "sick" hero. Although the two stories employ as protagonists characters who have been wounded in war and suffer deep underlying traumata, and although both "dream" while awake, the major similarity exists in Hemingway's treatment of the motif of adjustment to death and the ramifications of that theme. The whole of the dramatic action in "Now I Lay Me" takes place while the central character lies in his bed afraid of losing his soul in sleep, and the ensuing account is one of a waking-dream state. In "A Way You'll Never Be" the dramatic action follows a literal journey through a land that is suggestive of the trauma the protagonist has suffered. What is more, the narrative method differs in that "Now I Lay Me" is told in the first person, with the narrator relating in a self-analytic fashion his journey through certain major life experiences; in the other, "A Way You'll Never Be," the point of view is a central intelligence which objectifies the experience in the description of external realities away from the "sick" mind of the hero. This use of point of view is extremely important to the thematic emphasis of the story, for the tale is of an individual who is poised on the borderline of sanity and insanity, reality and unreality, and, ultimately, life and death. The point of view thus supports the central emphasis of the story by depicting both the inner thoughts of the character and the real world about him.
The framework of the conflict evolves from Hemingway's execution of the form of the story and his employment of at least the surface outline of the conventional journey motif. When Nick Adams is introduced at the beginning of the story, he arrives upon a scene of death and desolation caused by the war. The central intelligence describes in a matter-of-fact fashion the horrors depicted in the aftermath of a battle scene. The long descriptions and the cataloguing of the dead soldiers' paraphernalia is similar to the extended portrait of a battlefield in "A Natural History of the Dead," but here the scene serves to establish an important detail of setting which becomes the substructure of the whole story. The world to which Nick Adams has returned is the world of the dead. What follows the initial description of the land of the dead is a picture of a reality that is just as grotesque as this initial scene.
The central focus of the plot concerns Nick's visit to a battalion encamped along the bank of a river. The commander is an old acquaintance with whom Nick has endured many bitterly difficult war experiences. Nick has apparently just been released from a hospital after suffering a head-wound which has left him, as he puts it, "nutty." (pp. 114-16)
As he becomes further involved in the action, it becomes evident that this is a journey of return for him. The places he passes, the landmarks he observes, and the meeting with his former soldier-comrade are all part of a world Nick has formerly been a part of in an intimate fashion. That he no longer belongs is apparent for many reasons, and his friend, Para, directly tells him to go back. In his response. Nick reveals his need to re-establish contact with the familiar in order to regain his former identity. (p. 116)
Nick's periods of mental disorientation alternate with periods of complete rationality. When he has less lucid moments the innerworkings of his mind and his need to reconcile past trauma become evident, for his lapses function as an unconscious desire to create order out of his chaotic experiences….
["A Way You'll Never Be"] is directly associated with Nick's need to reconcile the hurts suffered in his war experiences with his personal plight in the present. Hemingway graphically illustrates the extent to which the character has approached complete and final disorientation by the use of a triadic image [of a house, a stable, and a river in a dream]…. (p. 117)
Nick's journey back into the recesses of his mind as a result of wounds suffered in the war is directed toward a clarification of the processes of life and death and the role the individual must play. In many ways he is a kind of Lazarus who has returned. What marks him as different from the biblical character is that in his journey Nick has lost rather than gained reconciliation. Death, insanity, and complete dissociation are still close at hand, as evidenced in his "dream" of the house, stable, and canal. Both house and stable are given a yellow color in the shifting emphasis of the repeated image, and the river runs "stiller" and "wider," depending upon how close he is to a state of utter detachment from reality. These are comforting and alluring manifestations of the death state conjured up by Nick's unconscious, and they suggest the pull toward total irrationality. For him they are directly ambivalent in their connotations. He recognizes they are "what he needed," and still they frighten him. At one point they frighten him "especially when the boat lay there quietly in the willows on the canal."… This fear signals a very close proximity to total regression into the death-state, and the classical association with the river Styx and the boat provided for passage into the realm of death is evident.
Hemingway capsules the meaning of the images in a final dream sequence when the one-for-one relationship of the trauma Nick has sublimated into the triadic image is revealed: "He shut his eyes, and in place of the man with the beard who looked at him over the sights of the rifle, quite calmly before squeezing off, the white flash and the clublike impact, on his knees, hot-sweet choking, coughing it onto the rock while they went past him, he saw a long, yellow house with a low stable and the river much wider than it was and stiller."… The direct identification of the recurring image with death as the result of a particular wound brings the thematic emphasis of the story into direct focus. Having made the journey of return to the scenes of his initial trauma, Nick can now make the association demanded by the dreams. Thus fortified, he is equipped to leave this symbolic realm of death and return to other pursuits…. He has no function or purpose there any longer, for, literally, it is "a way he'll never be" again. He has reconciled himself to the knowledge of death, and any further return would be a useless repetition. He directly states his own positive step toward reconcilement to the Captain before he leaves: "'You don't need to worry,' Nick said. 'I'm all right now for quite a while. I had one then but it was easy. They're getting much better. I can tell when I'm going to have one because I talk so much'."… (pp. 118-20)
As Nick goes back, the central intelligence projects his thoughts, and all the images are peaceful and pleasant. The canal image is again mentioned, but in this context the victory over the forces it represents is apparent: "In the afternoon the road would be shady once he had passed the canal."… It also becomes evident at the conclusion that this is a new Nick, in the sense that he not only has overcome the possibility of slipping completely into the realm of regressive insanity but also that he has progressed beyond the stage of romantic notions concerning war. Passing a certain road in his projection of the return trip, he recalls: "It was on that stretch that, marching, they had once passed the Terza Savoia cavalry regiment riding in the snow with their lances. The horses' breath made plumes in the cold air. No, that was somewhere else. Where was that? 'I'd better get to that damned bicycle' Nick said to himself. 'I don't want to lose the way to Fornaci'."… The emphatic rejection of the romantic in war concretely illustrates the change in Nick's personality. Although he still drifts from rationality, he does have control. He has essentially reconciled himself to his trauma by this return journey. (p. 120)
War suggests in all these stories a process of dehumanization. The mode of survival, the real hope for man, always emanates from within individuals, and the response to be valid must be individual. A man's "road of trials" which he must travel throughout life is thus symbolized by the war-metaphor. Whether or not the particular protagonist is cognizant of the implications of his own isolated situation always depends upon his own strength of character. Few men are able to restore or find their own humanity under such stress. Hemingway does not aim to reveal man's continual victory over the forces represented by war, and neither does he aim to show man's continual defeat. These stories are portraits of man as an individual in conflict with overwhelming forces, and the reactions are those of man as a human being, not as a romantic caricature. (pp. 136-37)
Joseph DeFalco, in his The Hero in Hemingway's Short Stories. University of Pittsburgh Press, 1963, 226 p.
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In Our Time incorporates [the Nick Adams stories in a broad] … unity of form and theme and in a complexity of structure well worth exploring. Reading the book for these qualities yields unexpected and exciting dividends, for it reveals that In Our Time is indeed a consciously unified work built on a noble model and containing the careful artistry and the central vision of the world and the human condition which characterize Hemingway's writing from beginning to end. As such, In Our Time is not only the first of Hemingway's major works but also the best introduction to his thought and art in the rest.
When it was published on October 5, 1925, In Our Time was the culmination of a long development and a combination of previously published and new work. Several of the sixteen inter-story vignettes had originated as newspaper dispatches … and all, as well as two of the stories which began as vignettes, were published together in Paris as in our time in January, 1924. Of the fourteen stories, ten had been published earlier. For the 1925 In Our Time, Hemingway took the vignettes of the Paris in our time, made two of them into the stories "A Very Short Story" and "The Revolutionist," changed the order of the rest and used them as interchapters between the stories, and added four new stories, "The End of Something," "The Three-Day Blow," "The Battler," and "Cat in the Rain." And finally, for the 1930 edition of the book, he added the introductory sketch now entitled "On the Quai at Smyrna." Clearly, in all this maneuvering, Hemingway was getting at something more coherent and significant than a simple anthology of loosely related stories and sketches.
The title points in the same direction by suggesting that a common theme unifies the individual pieces which comprise the book. Several critics have implied such a theme by identifying the title as an ironic echo from the Book of Common Prayer: "Give peace in our time, O Lord"; and certainly In Our Time defines a world and a human condition in which there is very little peace of any kind. Moreover, in the Paris edition of the vignettes in 1924, the title in our time is printed on a cover format composed of newspaper clippings—designed, apparently, to suggest to potential readers that the book reflects the events and qualities of contemporary life. And by keeping for the expanded In Our Time of 1925 this title under which the vignettes had appeared as a separate and unified work. Hemingway subtly implies that they are not subordinate introductions to the stories but the essential context in which the stories must be read and understood. (pp. 313-14)
If the structure of the vignettes and of the stories and the intimate relationship between the two point to a central theme unifying In Our Time at its deepest levels, their content argues the same thematic unity even more forcefully. Here, Hemingway is saying, here are the world and the human condition with the masks off, with all the fraudulent illusions stripped away. It's not a pretty world and certainly not a very safe or comfortable one for men to live in; but, taken as it really is, it's a world men can live in with meaning and value if they look in the right places for them.
"To give the picture of the whole between examining it in detail"—Hemingway in his letter to [Edmund] Wilson defines unequivocally his thematic purpose in both the vignettes and the stories. Centering on war, bullfighting, and crime, the vignettes are significantly related in substance as well as in structure. War, of course, concerns the chaos and violence of conflict between and within nations; crime is the lesser chaos and violence within social groups; and bullfighting, in Hemingway's view a spectacle combining real rather than merely acted violence and tragedy controlled by esthetic forms and rules, symbolizes a way to face a world and a human condition characterized by war and crime. In these impressionistic sketches, then, Hemingway outlines the world and the human condition as he sees them and suggests what man must be and do in such a world; and the stories derive their unifying significance as detailed explorations of the premises posed in the vignettes.
In this context, the vignettes can be grouped not only by general content but also by common theme. Six focus on events and characters reflecting primarily the qualities which to Hemingway identify the world as it really is "in our time."… These six vignettes … reflect in general the world which Nick, the soldier in "A Very Short Story," and Krebs in "Soldier's Home" experience in detail.
A second group of five vignettes, while continuing to reflect the nature and the qualities of the world, centers even more specifically on various ways in which men immediately threatened by such a human condition respond to it…. Together, these vignettes show men responding to harsh experience with fear, drunkenness, disillusion, hypocritical prayer, and dissociation. None of these responses, however understandable, is either admirable or very practical; and the sketches reflecting them … occur at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of the book as constant reminders that natural and uncontrolled responses to the world as it really is "in our time" are simply not enough.
The remaining vignettes, the six on bullfighting, complete the thematic "picture of the whole" by dramatizing the attitudes and qualities through which man can face the human condition and make it meaningful. In Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway defines the aspect of the bullfight which most interests him…. [It] contains life's basic realities—violence, suffering, inevitable death; and it imposes human meaning and order on these realities by containing them within the forms and rules of esthetic ritual and by requiring that the bullfighter stake his life against the bull's with courage and grace. Written some eight years before Death in the Afternoon, these vignettes reflect in outline and in subtle shading the same view of the bullfight which Hemingway details in the later work. (pp. 316-18)
As a group, these vignettes recapitulate the implications of the other two thematic groupings…. But the bullfight vignettes go further to show the qualities men must and can have to live as men in such a world and human condition: courage, responsibility, determination, skill, and grace. The world, Hemingway implies, is for most men in one way or another only a bullring in disguise; and these positive qualities enable men not to escape its inevitable realities but to impose on them a human dignity and value. Stressing this thematic projection of the "picture of the whole," the bullfight sketches … dominate the last half of the vignettes. And in this position they occur between and provide background for stories most of which deal not with the initiation themes of the first six or seven stories but rather with the problems of living in the world as it really is.
For if the vignettes are masterfully organized in structure and theme to reveal the "picture of the whole," the stories are no less impressively arranged to examine "it in detail." If they do not have the unity of central character and event and the consistent development of a novel, they have nevertheless a complexly interwoven thematic unity in themselves and in their relationship to the vignettes which seems too often overlooked. For the stories explore and develop in a variety of characters and events the two themes working centrally in the vignettes: the problem of recognizing and accepting the world and the human condition as they really are; and the consequent problem of trying to live with meaning and value in such a world and human condition.
The first five stories reflect both problems; but, inevitably in view of Nick's age, they focus primarily on the first, on his initiation into actuality. In a series of crucial experiences involving the most fundamental human realities and relationships—pain and suffering, birth and death, conflict and violence, love and loss, topsy-turvy disorder—Nick is forced to recognize that the world and his place in it are neither comfortable nor orderly and that few human stories have a conventional happy ending. In "Indian Camp," he discovers that nature is not always beautiful and orderly in her processes nor concerned at all with human suffering. (pp. 318-19)
Birth and death, Nick discovers, are alike commingled with violence and suffering; and in between, man lives on the knife-edge of paradox. Going home across the lake, with the sun rising above the hills and fish jumping in the warm water, Nick feels sure he will never die. But this feeling clearly rises from its own denial: like Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon, Nick knows now that "all stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and he is no true-story teller who would keep that from you."
Of all the Nick Adams stories in the book. "The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife" is the only one not obviously centered on Nick and on what he learns from experience in the world of actuality. Here, his father backs down from a senseless fight with a man who wants to avoid working out a debt he owes the doctor, and Nick's mother refuses to believe that anyone could really behave so. Nick doesn't appear in the story until the last few lines, when his father finds him reading beneath a tree and tells him his mother wants to see him. Without hesitation, Nick replies that he wants to go with his father, and does.
Whether or not Nick saw his father's quarrel and retreat is uncertain, but there is at least some indication that he did. Such is the implication of the story's position amid other accounts of Nick's deepening understanding and insight; in this direction, too, point his immediate desire to go with his father and his consequent rejection of his mother's appeal. But the issue is not essential; the story serves the same thematic function in either event. Extending into society "Indian Camp"'s focus on nature's disorder, violence, and indifference to human suffering, "The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife" contrasts three ways of looking at man and his interrelationships. At one extreme is Dick Boulton, primitive, violent, and amoral, willing to beat up the doctor to avoid paying what he owes him. At the other is the doctor's wife, romantic, sentimental, and religious, unwilling to believe that anyone could be so motivated. In between is the doctor, rational, non-violent, and civilized, recognizing Dick for what he is but too intelligent to take a meaningless beating for some quixotic concept of bravery. This, then, is the real world which Nick must learn to live in, both in nature and in society. And whether or not he saw the quarrel, Nick's immediate choice to go with his father into the woods implies an acceptance of the doctor's position in denial of the two extremes which challenge it.
In the next two stories, Nick's education in actuality deepens. Apparently simple and artless but complexly woven and brilliantly evocative, "The End of Something" and "The Three-Day Blow" are as much two episodes in a single story as are the two parts of "The Big Two-Hearted River." In "The End of Something," Nick falls out of love and learns thereby that violence, suffering, and death are inner as well as outer realities. There is no reason for his falling out of love, no explanation for it; like falling in love, it just happens. (pp. 320-21)
In "The Three-Day Blow," Nick and his friend Bill talk and drink while an early autumn storm blows around the cottage. They discuss the peat flavor of Irish whiskey, but neither has ever seen peat …; baseball, but conclude that "'there's always more to it than we know about'" …; and novels of impractical romance and thwarted love…. Against this background of ignorance and obscurity, they talk about the equally mysterious end of Nick's love for Marjorie. "'All of a sudden everything was over,' Nick said. 'I don't know why it was. I couldn't help it. Just like when the three-day blows come now and rip all the leaves off the trees'."… Bill warns him that he might get involved with Marjorie again, and Nick is surprised into new joy. If falling in love is not absolute, neither is falling out of love, and perhaps he will love Marjorie again. "There was not anything that was irrevocable…. Nothing was finished. Nothing was ever lost."… In any event. Nick now looks at love in perspective: outdoors, "the Marge business was no longer so tragic. It was not even very important. The wind blew everything like that away."… (p. 321)
"The Battler" takes Nick away from his family and friends and involves him in a world in which everything is topsy-turvey…. [He learns that] the world is a confused and treacherous place, but not without love and compassion.
As these stories present Nick with the actualities of the world and the human condition, the next two stories deepen this initiation theme into disillusion. Neither protagonist is named Nick Adams; but both, without any substantial or significant change, could be young Nick a few years later. "A Very Short Story" was originally a vignette in the 1924 in our time, but Hemingway prints it here as a story, apparently to make use of its disillusion theme. Moreover, the vignette which precedes it practically forces the reader to associate the protagonist of "A Very Short Story" with Nick Adams. In this vignette—the only one which links two stories so directly—Nick moves from his boyhood Michigan world to the greater world of his young manhood, and he finds their actualities much the same. Wounded in the general slaughter of World War I, he decides to make "a separate peace." Similarly, the protagonist of "A Very Short Story" is a wounded American soldier. He falls in love with his nurse, and they decide to marry, but she insists on their waiting until he returns home and is settled in a good job. While he is gone, she falls in love with an Italian major and dismisses her earlier affair as puppy love. Later, the disillusioned American gets gonorrhea making love in a taxi. As Nick Adams learned that love can come and go like an autumn storm and as he found that war is ultimately stupid butchery, so the protagonist of "A Very Short Story" discovers that love, no matter how deep and true, can be betrayed and lost—and even for the best reasons.
In the second of these disillusion stories, "Soldier's Home," a Marine—again, similar in background and experience to Nick Adams—returns from fighting in most of the major American battles to the Midwestern world in which he had grown up and finds himself isolated and a stranger. Krebs had been a good soldier; whatever else the war had been for him, he had found being a soldier simple and honest, and he had been proud of doing his job well…. [When he comes home] he finds the relationships of civilian life based on politics, intrigue, sentimentality, and still more lies…. Ironically, Krebs is disillusioned less by the war than by the normal peacetime world which the war has made him see too clearly to accept.
For Nick Adams and others like him, then, the world "in our time" turns out to be exactly what the vignettes suggest it is—a puzzling and disillusioning place in which beauty and wonder, love and compassion, are strangely mixed with cruelty, violence, suffering, loss, alienation, and death. But the vignettes also imply that recognizing the world for what it is forms only one dimension of the human problem: equally vital is the consequent dimension of imposing a human order and meaning on such a world. And in the next two stories, Hemingway turns from the actuality of disillusion to the problem of man's idealism confronted by it.
In "The Revolutionist," the narrator describes a sensitive and idealistic young Hungarian communist whom he obviously likes and admires, not for the young man's beliefs but for the way he holds them…. Within experienced and tested idealism, he has in full measure that courage which Hemingway defines as grace under pressure. Like Villalta and Maera in the bullfight vignettes, the young revolutionist personifies the way a man can face the violent and disillusioning actualities of the world and give his life order and meaning and value.
This realistically positive significance in "The Revolutionist" and the story's central place in the book help to explain why Hemingway changed it to a story from its original form as a vignette in the 1924 in our time. For the hard-earned idealism of the young revolutionist contrasts directly with the childish romanticism of "Mr. and Mrs. Elliot" in the following story. (pp. 321-23)
Unlike the young revolutionist, [the Elliots'] ideals are abstract, untested, and unearned, without roots in experience and knowledge. Consequently, Mr. and Mrs. Elliot are totally unprepared for the disillusioning actualities of life and of real human relationships, and they are bitterly disappointed. Worse, they respond to this disappointment by seeking escape in further romanticism….
At the center of In Our Time, then, these two stories focus on idealism and romanticism in conflict with disillusioning actuality and on two contrasting responses to this conflict….
From a focus on initiation into life as it really is "in our time," on some of the characteristic disillusions of that life, and on the problems of giving it a human meaning and value, Hemingway in the next three stories ["Cat in the Rain," "Out of Season," and "Cross-Country Snow"] explores in further detail the paradoxical and topsy-turvy nature of the human condition and the difficulties of living in it. Here, the characters are neither young innocents in their first contacts with actuality nor mature people shaken by profound disillusion nor contrasting idealists; instead, they are ordinary people in ordinary situations which have developed unaccountably contrary to what the people involved have expected or desired. (p. 324)
The world as it actually is "in our time" set against man's expectations and hopes; and his consequent problems and difficulties in trying to live in it with meaning and order—these, then, are the central themes which Hemingway explores "in detail" in the stories as he had made them "the picture of the whole" in the vignettes. Completing this pattern, the final two stories function as a coda, each restating and focussing sharply on one of these two unifying themes. Indeed, this function helps to explain the otherwise puzzling position of "My Old Man": on the surface, the story seems to belong both chronologically and thematically with the early Nick Adams stories. But in its young narrator's complete initiation and total disillusion, particularly as expressed in the last line, "My Old Man" makes a stark restatement of one major theme [initiation into an amoral universe] and a perfect bridge to the compelling restatement of the second [the fundamental problem of living in this kind of world] in "Big Two-Hearted River." (p. 326)
Many writers on Hemingway have pointed out that "My Old Man," one of his earliest stories, reflects the influence of Sherwood Anderson and that The Torrents of Spring (1926) is at least partly a lampooning declaration of full independence from Anderson. Between these extremes, however, In Our Time testifies to the deep and continuing influence of the older writer. In 1925, the year in which In Our Time was published, "Hemingway told Scott Fitzgerald that his first pattern had been Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio"; and in its complex unity, in Hemingway's avowed intention "to give the picture of the whole between examining it in detail," In Our Time turns the clear light of an ironic and contradictory actuality on the world of the first quarter of the twentieth century as Winesburg, Ohio had shone it on midwestern America.
Like its model, then, In Our Time is neither anthology nor novel but a new form, a literary hybrid, with something of the variety of the anthology combined with something of the unity of the novel. Moreover, in its view of the world and of man's efforts to live in it with meaning and order, in its conscious and intricate structure, in its ironic and symbolic method, and in its lean, intensified style, Hemingway's first book reflects the central intellectual and esthetic concerns which dominated his life and writing from beginning to end. Grow and develop, broaden and deepen, these concerns may, but change essentially they seldom do; and the later harvest is implicit in these, its first shoots. Better than any other single work, more than any one or few of its stories and vignettes, the unified whole of In Our Time introduces Hemingway's world and the art in which he creates it. (p. 328)
Clinton S. Burhans, Jr., "The Complex Unity of 'In Our Time'," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. XIV, No. 3, Autumn, 1968, pp. 313-28.
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It is now accepted by almost every critic of Hemingway that the hero in his work deserves special attention. Philip Young sees the Hemingway protagonist as a sick man, wounded physically and psychically [see CLC, Vol 13]. Carlos Baker reads in him symbolic meanings, expressive of the contemporary emotional tensions [see excerpt above], Leo Gurko has written a full-length book on the subject, for to him Hemingway's novels are essentially portrayals of the hero as the "individual man" [see CLC, Vol. 6]. Thus, it is almost generally agreed that one of the important expressions of the Hemingway literary aesthetics is his hero. As it happens, his shorter fiction, now to be considered, offers as wide a scope as his novels for describing the Hemingway hero. (p. 80)
It is a mistake to imagine that Hemingway wrote all [his] stories and sketches merely to promote or develop only one character—that is, Nick Adams. This is a miscalculation made by most critics of Hemingway; they have all tried to concentrate on Nick Adams. Superficially the stories give that impression, for you meet Nick in them at different age levels and his aging follows a chronological sequence. But artistically each story is complete in itself, a major aesthetic consideration when we try to see whether or not there is a link between the stories. The link between them is only the general association that always runs through the entire body of a writer's work; in no way is one story dependent on the other for the completion of its meaning. Thus, it would be more helpful to see each story separately and to think of Nick Adams in the plural rather than in the singular. There are many Nick Adamses in the stories, and the name does not necessarily identify the same character.
It would be more useful to imagine that Hemingway in these stories was concerned with a question of choice, of priorities. He seems to have put the stories, or the writing of them, to the same use as Shakespeare put his history plays; he thought out his ideas and his technique in them, and used them as a kind of workshop. If the Shakespearean hero—to continue the analogy—was initially worked out by Shakespeare in the Henry V trilogy, the Hemingway hero took shape for Hemingway in In Our Time, Men Without Women, and Winner Take Nothing. (p. 81)
[Hemingway] had Nick Adams in mind from the beginning, for the simple reason that he knew this character rather intimately, based as it was on his own life. But he had a s well several other types of humans before him. The preoccupation of the artist in these stories is therefore not so much with the development of a mythical figure based on one character as with the exploration and establishment of his preferences.
Philip Young, in Ernest Hemingway, seems to assume that each story was written to complete the development of Nick Adams, as if with each separate sketch something new were added on to Hemingway's presentation of that character. This is true insofar as physical details vary from story to story to accommodate the new age level at which Nick appears in them. But it does not appear that Hemingway consciously used a method of accretion in these tales. The conclusion Young reaches in his chapter on the Hemingway hero is: "He has seen a great deal of unpleasantness, not only in the war but … in Michigan as well; and he has been wounded by these experiences in a physical way, and—since the spine blow is both fact and symbol—also in a psychical way." Beginning with the first story in In Our Time, and continuing through the stories in the order in which they appear in the book, he tells us each time: "This is Nick's initiation to pain" ("Indian Camp"); this teaches Nick "about the solidarity of the male sex" ("The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife"); this teaches about "a somewhat peculiar attitude toward women" ("The End of Something",) and so on. He adds confidently, "Nick is learning things," meaning thereby that the principal concern of Hemingway is Nick Adams and his complete identification with his hero.
But in the very next chapter of his book, Young offers the theory of what he calls the "code hero" in Hemingway. The code hero is what Hemingway's ideal concept of man is, his concept of honor and courage. To quote Young: "This code is very important because the 'code hero,' as he is … called, presents a solution to the problems of Nick Adams, of the true 'Hemingway hero,' and for Hemingway it was about the only solution." This surely is confusing. Is Young for the code hero or the true hero, then? Who was Hemingway for?—for the code hero or the true hero? According to Young, Hemingway obviously was for the code hero, as the code gave Hemingway "about the only solution" he could think of for Nick Adams, his true hero. So who in the opinion of Young was the real Hemingway hero, the code hero or the true hero? If it was the code hero that really mattered to him, why should Hemingway have devoted all his stories to the development of a non-code hero, Nick Adams? And if the true hero, Nick Adams, is the real hero, what is the code hero doing here?
The simple explanation is that Hemingway in these stories is undertaking an enormous experiment. In addition to Nick, there are many characters in the stories who are substantially different individuals from Nick. To give a brief list, they are Doctor Adams, the He of "A Very Short Story"; Krebs of "Soldier's Home"; the I of "Now I Lay Me"; the I of "After the Storm"; the Old Waiter in "A Clean, Well-lighted Place"; the I of "The Light of the World"; Mr. Johnson and Mr. Harris in "Homage to Switzerland" [and others]…. (pp. 82-4)
If we like, we may say that some of these characters are like Nick and that they supplement his image. But that would be oversimplifying the aesthetic issue involved. For Hemingway these characters are what they are; they represent no one but themselves. In the stories in which they appear, they are the center of attraction and Hemingway sees them as such. To give one example, the story "The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife," is about Doctor Adams, or perhaps it is about the doctor's wife or about the Indian, Dick Boulton, who picks the quarrel with the doctor. These are the main characters of the story, and none of them is identical with Nick.
Again, as far as plot goes, this story has nothing whatsoever to do with Nick, and it is difficult to see how Young reads the story as primarily about Nick. Nick has not watched the quarrel between his father and Dick Boulton, he has not heard the remarks of his mother addressed to his father; he is nowhere near the scene. And yet in Young's words, what has happened has revealed to Nick the companionship he can form with his father as a male and how unhappy and dissatisfied he is with his mother. Later still, Young adds that Nick cannot bear his mother's inability to admit evil or come face to face with it. One fails to understand how any of these observations is justifiable.
Hemingway's heroes are not "sick," nor are they particularly "heroic." The key word for understanding the Hemingway hero, according to my reading, is spontaneity. The Hemingway hero is a man immensely alive to everything, and in his spontaneity he has the vital capacity to react to life in innumerable and unpredictable ways.
That is the true Hemingway hero: a genuinely spontaneous individual. This kind of spontaneity is impossible to acquire unless one has learned the art of quieting the ego. Ultimately, therefore, the spontaneity gets tied up with creative passivity. The desire in his heroes is to feel everything fully—and therefore slowly, egolessly. "He did not want to rush his sensations any," says Hemingway about Nick in "Big Two-Hearted River," and the expression is typical. The life of the trout, of the mink, and of the mosquitoes and the grasshoppers that is painted in the story comes rushing to Nick because of his extreme spontaneity, his extreme sensitivity to what is going on around him: In spite of what is commonly believed about his characters, Hemingway's heroes are not in the least egotistical. For egoism and sensitivity in an individual cannot go together. It is possible to have one or the other—not both. His hero thus acts from dark sources within his own self and is perennially in touch with the unknown of existence. (pp. 84-5)
[In] almost all the stories we can discover two distinct modes of action: systolic [or active] action and diastolic [or passive] action. In the latter, which is the more important mode of the two, the systolic action comes to a standstill. These are moments when the entire systolic action that has preceded is in a way relived and consolidated, and the individual made ready for the next systolic move in the light of his experiences of the diastolic period. The moments of diastolic action are moments of return to one's deepest self; they are moments of mystical revelation. They are not moments of analysis, of self-analysis, or of "conscience," as Hemingway once cynically put it. These are moments when the individual recognizes, without the shadow of a doubt, that the rhythm of all life is much greater than that of his own individual self.
In the short stories, the diastolic action is introduced in two ways. Either the entire story is divided into two halves, not necessarily equal, where the first offers the systolic action and the second the diastolic. Or the diastolic action and the moments of pause are interspersed in the main movement of the story. (pp. 86-7)
Since the second kind requires greater craftsmanship, the stories where the diastolic action is interspersed are superior and structurally more complex. (p. 87)
[In "Big Two-Hearted River"] the systolic and the diastolic states alternate from the beginning and they come and go all the time. There is the physical countryside around Nick and his fishing in it that represent the systolic action. And then there is what the country does to him. That is the diastolic action. (p. 105)
In Part II, we read of Nick's camp as a "good" camp. Is that atmosphere, or Nick's reaction symptomatic of the paranoid? Nick has simply come to revisit his "old man" river. He was not less happy than most other men, from what we read in the story. He had not come here looking for a refuge, or an escape. It is just a visit. But as soon as he gets here, the greater life of the countryside overwhelms him, and he becomes aware of the greater mystery of life, the greater holiness of it.
An important passage in the story is when Nick, having pitched his tent, crawls into it:
Inside the tent the light came through the brown canvas. It smelled pleasantly of canvas. Already there was something mysterious and homelike. Nick was happy as he crawled inside the tent. He had not been unhappy all day. This was different though. Now things were done. There had been this to do. Now it was done. It had been a hard trip. He was very tired. That was done. He had made his camp. He was settled. Nothing could touch him. It was a good place to camp. He was there, in the good place. He was in his home where he had made it. Now he was hungry.
The passive, the creatively passive, surrender of the individual to the cosmos is extremely well conveyed. Nick has now reestablished his contact with the unknown. It is very much like the Zen concept of an individual's relatedness to the life around him. The life of the individual has a meaning only in the corporate life of the total universe.
The actual fishing is done in Part II of "Big Two-Hearted River." With meticulous care, and with much delight, Hemingway gives us every single detail of the machinery and mechanism of fishing: from the point where the bait is prepared to the pulling in of the trout, we are told that Nick is "excited" or "happy" or is having a "good feeling." The pulse of the cosmos beats mysteriously around him and he is an integral part of that cosmos. The systolic and diastolic pattern is also maintained in Part II. Frequently the forward movement of the story comes to a halt, and we see Nick reveling in his present sensation: "He did not want to rush his sensations any." At the moment, the sensation is one of disappointment because he has just lost a good trout. But … [there is also tranquility]. (pp. 106-07)
[The story] finally closes with the promise of many more happy days for Nick. For the river of life is truly "big" and "twohearted," and it has spells enough to hold him for a lifetime. (p. 107)
The Hemingway hero that emerges in ["Big Two-Hearted River" and other] stories is a highly sensitive individual, who derives his sensitivity from his ability to be in tune with the spirit of the universe. He is a highly passive human, by choice, as this enables him to respond to the cosmic rhythm more effectively. He values moments of action, but moments of creative resignation he values even more. He is not a particularly serene individual, but then, cultivated serenity is as much a pose as deliberate self-assertion, and he wants to be free of poses. He, however, has the capacity of true religious awareness of life. This awareness keeps him disturbed most of the time—that restlessness or disturbance being a part of the very design of living—but now and then he lapses into an unusual calm. The calm is not of his own making; it comes to him from the outside. At such moments he is more like a mystic than a man of action. (pp. 118-19)
Chaman Nahal, in his The Narrative Pattern in Ernest Hemingway's Fiction, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1971, 245 p.
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[Until the publication of The Nick Adams Stories], the stories involving Nick have always appeared so many to a book, in jumbled sequence. As a result the coherence of his adventures has been obscured, and their impact fragmented. (p. 5)
Arranged in chronological sequence, the events of Nick's life make up a meaningful narrative in which a memorable character grows from child to adolescent to soldier, veteran, writer, and parent—a sequence closely paralleling the events of Hemingway's own life. In this arrangement Nick Adams, who for a long time was not widely recognized as a consistent character at all, emerges clearly as the first in a long line of Hemingway's fictional selves. Later versions, from Jake Barnes and Frederic Henry to Richard Cantwell and Thomas Hudson, were all to have behind them part of Nick's history and, correspondingly, part of Hemingway's.
As is true for many writers of fiction, the relationship between Hemingway's work and the events of his own life is an immediate and intricate one. In some stories he appears to report details of actual experience as faithfully as he might have entered them in a diary. In others the play of his imagination has transformed experience into a new and different reality. (pp. 5-6)
The first Nick Adams fiction appeared almost a half-century ago, the last in 1933, and over the years a great deal has been written about it. Among the unpublished manuscripts Hemingway left behind him, however, eight new contributions to the over-all narrative were discovered. Presented here [in The Nick Adams Stories] for the first time, inserted in the places in time where the events fall, they are varied in length and apparent purpose. Three accounts—of how the Indians left the country of Nick's boyhood, of his first sight of the Mississippi, and of what happened just before and after his wedding—are quite brief. If the author had larger plans for any of them, such are unknown; they might be read simply as sketches in an artist's notebook. In two other cases his plans are self-evident, for here we have the beginnings of works that were never completed. Nick on board the Chicago, bound for France during World War I, was the start of a novel called Along with Youth that was abandoned long ago. Similarly, though much later, the plot of "The Last Good Country" was left in midair, and many pages would have been required to resolve it. Two other pieces are known to have originated in Nick stories already published. "Three Shots" tells how the young boy became frightened while on a camping trip. It once preceded the story called "Indian Camp." And Nick's "stream of consciousness" reflections on his writing career once (anachronistically) concluded "Big Two-Hearted River." Of these new works only "Summer People," very likely the first fiction Hemingway wrote about Nick Adams, can be regarded as a full-length, completed story. (pp. 6-7)
[These] pieces throw new light on the work and personality of one of our foremost writers and genuinely increase our understanding of him. (p. 7)
Philip Young, in a preface to The Nick Adams Stories by Ernest Hemingway, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1972, pp. 5-7.
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[Philip Young, a noted Hemingway scholar, originally wrote the essay excerpted below as an introduction to The Nick Adams Stories (1972).]
[As we follow Nick in The Nick Adams Stories] across the span of a generation in time we have got a story worth following. As it turns out, Hemingway arranged it (consciously or otherwise) in five distinct stages—that is, the original fifteen stories occur in five segments of Nick's life, three stories to each part. "The Northern Woods," as the first section is called, deals with heredity and environment, parents and Michigan Indians. "On His Own" is all away from home, or on the road, and instead of Indians, prizefighters. "War" is exactly that, or as the author put it later on, "hit properly and for good." Then "A Soldier Home": Michigan revisited, hail and farewell. And fifth, "Company of Two": marriage, Europe revisited, and finally looking backward, a sort of coda.
Maybe it will also appear now and at long last that in Nick Hemingway gave us the most important single character in all his work—the first in a long line of fictional self-projections, the start of everything. Later protagonists from Jake Barnes and Frederic Henry to Richard Cantwell and Thomas Hudson were shaped by Nick, were all to have (if only tacitly) his history behind them. So had Hemingway. Not that everything that happens to Nick had happened to him. Indeed the author remarks right here, in the fragment called "On Writing," that "Nick in the stories was never himself. He made them up." To an extent that is of course true; the autobiography is transmuted. But it is bemusing that at the very moment when the writer is categorically disassociating himself from his persona he makes him interchangeable with himself, as the "he," the consciousness of the piece, shifts from Nick to Hemingway back to Nick again…. But the real point is that this extended and disciplined self-portrait became a significant story in its own right: the story of an American born with the century, complicated in boyhood and badly hurt in a war, who came to terms with what happened and turned it to lasting fiction. (p. 6)
"It's the account of a boy on a fishing trip,"… [wrote] Scott Fitzgerald … about "Big Two-Hearted River." "Nothing more—but I read it with the most breathless unwilling interest I have experienced since Conrad first bent my reluctant eyes upon the sea." In 1926 Hemingway was happy to settle for such published praise. But Fitzgerald might have asked himself why nothing more than a fishing trip should have galvanized his attention. If he had done so he might have discovered that he was responding perfectly to what Hemingway called in those days "my new theory that you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted … and make people feel something more than they understood." The things he had left out before were never really crucial, but this time an omission made all the difference. As he pointed out years later, "The story was about coming back from the war but there was no mention of the war in it."
There is no doubt, however, that the perilous state of Nick's nervous system, unmentioned in the story, accounts for the intensity of the writing, which is what arrested Fitzgerald. Here is the quintessential Hemingway style: simplicity, forged under great pressure, out of complexity. The trout, "keeping themselves steady in the current with wavering fins," reflect Nick as in a mirror…. Acting, and not thinking, his trip proves a remarkable success. He will carry his scars, but will never be badly shaken again. Fishing is better therapy than Milan's; for Nick the war in Italy ended in Michigan. (pp. 13-14)
[In "Fathers and Sons"] Nick looks backward to his boyhood and rounds it off. Nick is now thirty-eight and a writer; [his] son is about the age of Nick when he first appeared in "Indian Camp." The action has covered a generation. The doctor who discussed suicide with his boy in the first story has now committed it, though we are told only that he is dead—another important omission. And as Nick remembers how useless his father was on the subject of sex, which he learned about from Trudy instead, so now he cannot talk to his boy about the doctor's death, though he knows that sooner or later they will have to visit "the tomb of my grandfather" (the boy has been raised abroad). A son is now father to the son, things have come full circle, and in his collected First Forty-Nine Stories Hemingway put this one forty-ninth.
The tale is told, but if Nick's history seems in retrospect to amount to slightly more than the sum of its chapters it may be because his progress through the first third of our century is at once representative, distinctive, and personal. Representative as a national passage from the innocence of a shaky prewar security through the disillusionment of a European ordeal-by-fire, and the rejection of much that a previous age had stood for, to "normalcy." Distinctive for memories of specific experiences the exact like of which we never had. And personal as the recreated autobiography of a culture hero of his time. But if anyone still feels more than he can account for in remembering Nick, he might ask what if anything Hemingway omitted from the story as a whole. The answer is so obvious that it might never dawn on us. The Nick Adams fiction is about leaving Oak Park, but there is no mention of Oak Park in it.
The text may be taken from [his sister] Marcelline. When Ernest was flopping loose in their suburban house on his return from the war he spoke to her one day about "all the other things in life that aren't here…. There's a whole big world out there…." What he omitted is what he escaped from. What he escaped to, for the rest of his life and all of his career, moves against a background he expunged. Oak Park was rejected for Michigan, and when that became a small world it was in turn put behind for a greater one. All that is simple to understand. But it is hard to realize today how great was the need for rebellion—how preposterous were things At the Hemingways, the name of Marcelline's affectionate book. (pp. 17-18)
What Hemingway called "Mr. Young's trauma theory of literature" is not retracted: the wounds in Italy are still climactic and central in the lives of Hemingway and all his personal protagonists. Nor is there any reason to withdraw the notion, which the author also objected to, that he wrote chiefly about himself; he was not lacking in imagination, but to live his life as he wished, then to write about it, was the way he basically operated. Neither is there any reason to abandon the idea that the adventures of Nick Adams were foreshadowed by The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
But a different emphasis can be put on this combination. Huck's rebellion was of course from Aunt Sally—and St. Petersburg, which Twain did not omit. Nick's rebellion is a given—omitted but as basic as the wound, and prior to it. Almost nothing Hemingway ever wrote could be set in Oak Park; it is extremely doubtful that he could have written a "wonderful novel" about the place. What he could write about happens "out there"—an exact equivalent for what, departing "sivilization" for the last time, Huck called "the territory." In the overall adventure, life becomes an escape to reality. No reward whatever is promised, and the cost in comfort and security is high. Out there can kill you, and nearly did. But it beats "home," which is a meaner death, as Ernest tried to tell Marcelline. (pp. 18-29)
Philip Young, "'Big World Out There': 'The Nick Adams Stories'," in Novel: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 6, No. 1, Fall, 1972, pp. 5-19.
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A proper consideration of the Nick Adams stories has been seriously bedevilled by the current critical orthodoxy surrounding the notion of 'initiation'. The desire to 'initiate' or 'educate' Nick is more apparent in the critics than in his creator who, for the most part, is content to let Nick fool around, in and around Michigan, before lighting out for the territory ahead—Europe. The reason for this pedagogical obsession is to be sought in the desire of the critics to relate the Nick stories to the early novels, especially The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms, and see in Nick dim adumbrations of the sensitive but impotent Jake Barnes and the equally sensitive but potent Frederick Henry. A new departure with the same end in view (viz. Nick's 'initiation') has been to see the 'complex unity' of In Our Time by the simple manoeuvre of converting even non-Nick stories into crypto-Nick stories, thus giving Nick more chances for education [see excerpt above by Clinton S. Burhans, Jr.]. Meanwhile, manful efforts are being made through the columns of Studies in Short Fiction to establish the splendid autonomy of the stories and even pieces like 'The End of Something' and 'The Three-Day Blow' which tell the same story, are allowed, like Himalayan peaks, to exist in splendid isolation. But even here the old siren song of initiation is heard with all the sweetness of heard melodies. We must remain thankful that the two parts of 'Big Two-Hearted River' are still seen as parts of the same whole. It is to be hoped that critical ingenuity will not introduce a rift at least here.
'Initiation' was first employed by Philip Young in his early study in 1952 to describe the character of the Nick Adams stories in In Our Time, although Edmund Wilson, in his still useful 1939 essay [see excerpt above] had already laid the foundations. 'A typical Nick Adams Story,' writes Young, 'is of an intiation.' And later, more definitively, he observes: 'The pattern of Nick Adams' development … is of a boy who, while with his father up in Michigan, and without him on his own as a hobo or with friends, has been learning some lessons about life' (italics mine). This definition seems to have had a hypnotic influence on Hemingway criticism, for, with minor exceptions, many later writers on Hemingway have been under its spell…. Joseph De Falco's The Hero in Hemingway's Short Stories [see excerpt above] is written directly under the protective shadow of Young and although he is patently annoyed when the stories don't fit the master's categories, he consistently toes the line. And so does Earl Rovit in his 1963 study: 'For convenience' sake I will refer to the Nick Adams hero as the tyro and to the code-hero as the tutor: for it is basically an educational relationship, albeit a very one-sided one, which binds them together [see excerpt above].
In the face of this formidable array of Hemingway criticism it may seem a little presumptuous to ask whether the notion of 'initiation' is at all useful to an understanding of Hemingway's short fiction. Yet so pervasive has been its influence on criticim and so limiting its results when applied to the stories that it looks as if it is time to take stock again and ask some fundamental questions. To start with: What is initiation?… [We may] define an 'initiation' story as one which shows a significant change in its protagonist, either in his knowledge of the world or of himself or which shows a moral change directly in him or both and this/these change(s) must point to or lead him towards an acceptance of the world.
Obviously many so-called 'initiation' stories do not satisfy any of the above conditions. Most of Hemingway's early stories, for instance, merely bring their protagonist, Nick Adams, to the threshold of maturity without actually making him cross it. (pp. 203-05)
To take the [favourite of Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren]: 'The Killers'. The authors concluded, in their now famous reading, that the story is 'a discovery of evil' by Nick the protagonist [see excerpt above]. Recent criticism … has cast doubts even on this foundational assumption and has put forward Ole Andreson as the real protagonist of the story. But we need not go so far. Assuming Nick to be the protagonist, can we say that at the end he gains in self-knowledge or knowledge of the world or that he is a thoroughly changed man, morally speaking? What we find in the story is that at the end he merely expresses an intention to leave the town. As to self-knowledge, he merely states: 'I can't bear to think about him waiting in the room and knowing he's going to get it. It's too damned awful.' This is perhaps what any young man of his youth and inexperience would have felt. It hardly deserves the ennobling label of self-knowledge. And in what sense can we say with Brooks and Warren that it is 'a discovery of evil'? What evil? The evil of gangsterdom? Or the evil of indifference in Sam, the cook? Or the evil of apathy in Ole Andreson himself? All we know is that Nick can't bear to think about it. Yet [Adrian H. Jaffe and Virgil Scott], blind to the facts of the story, can confidently assert [in their Studies in the Short Stories] that the story shows 'a person who suddenly discovers the basic nature of existence'. Such is the power of the myth.
'The Killers' is an excellent short story but, unfortunately, it does not meet the requirements of either a weak or a strong initiation story. We cannot even confidently assert that its protagonist has been brought to the threshold of maturity because the 'episodic' nature of the story, which has been completely overlooked by the critics, does not permit of any such facile inferences. The plot is static and the feeling generated at the end is one of horror at the plight of Ole Andreson who is taking his imminent murder with a disquieting apathy. The focus is too little on Nick for us to expect any change in him. A careful examination of many of the early stories will similarly reveal Nick not at the centre of the experience described, but very likely at the periphery. He is mostly a spectator of the action and only occasionally moves to the centre. And even when he does so it is often (with important exceptions) not clear what kind of experience he has had and whether this will leave any permanent marks on him.
A good example of the latter kind of story is 'The Battler'. Here, certainly, there can be no doubt that Nick is at the centre of the experience described. To start with, he is 'busted' by the brakeman on the freight train and gets a black eye. This is our introduction to the naive Nick who has certainly left home and has nowhere in particular to go. He meets another exchamp in this story (as in 'The Killers'), Ad Francis, and the two get on famously till Ad's Negro assistant, Bugs, appears on the scene. Unexpectedly, tensions erupt to the surface and Nick's refusal of a knife to Ad—this at the instance of Bugs—brings things to a boil. The ex-champ suddenly turns belligerent and invites Nick to a fight which is forestalled by Bugs knocking his friend out cold with a blackjack. Nick is curious to know how the champion got 'crazy' and Bugs obliges Nick and the reader with a detailed biographical sketch. And yet at the end of the story there is no indication at all how all this has affected Nick. The reader is certainly the wiser at the end but the spare, taut third person narration tells us nothing of Nick's state of mind. Here Nick is at the centre of the story but passively, transparently, letting the main action flow through him; there is little indication that it has done anything to him. (pp. 205-07)
Nor is this an isolated instance. Of the early stories, 'The End of Something' and 'The Three-Day Blow' certainly have Nick at the centre of the action. To begin with, even the title of the first story could be a warning against reading anything specific into the 'something' that has ended. A recent reading of the story has rightly drawn attention to the opening paragraph where the history of Hortons Bay has been described in ways which prefigure the decline of the Nick-Marjorie relationship. This would imply that the course that Nick's love for Marjorie has taken is a natural one and is as remorseless as it is inevitable. Nick of course feels a certain amount of remorse for the breakup: 'I feel as though everything has gone to hell inside of me. I don't know, Marge. I don't know what to say.' But any assurance we may draw that Nick has 'learnt' anything from this break-up is quickly shattered by the next story which is a continuation of the same theme. Nick goes to his friend Bill's home and after rambling around several topics (chiefly literary) the friends return to the subject of Nick's break-up. Bill speaks in a misogynic vein but evokes little response from Nick. But when he casually remarks that by thinking about it too much one might 'get back into it' again, Nick feels extraordinarily bucked up: 'He felt happy now. There was not anything that was irrevocable … Nothing was finished. Nothing was ever lost.' This piece of childish regression has of course been quietly ignored by initiation-obsessed critics. Not only do we get the impression from this story that Nick, at this stage, is incapable of any growth but we also feel that he has been all along like this. (pp. 207-08)
It is time to take stock of Nick as his picture emerges from the early stories. In doing this it will be helpful … [to look at] the closing remarks concerning Nick in the so-called 'initiation' stories. (p. 210)
[It is undeniable that with the possible exception of "The Battler"] Nick has consistently resolved an unfamiliar situation either though (a) wish fulfilment ('Indian Camp' and 'The Three-Day Blow') where the meaning of the experience gone through (death, a broken love affair) is denied through a wish that makes the opposite kind of experience (immortality, resumption of the love affair) possible, or (b) refusal to think ('The End of Something,' 'The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife' and 'The Killers') by which the strain of the experience undergone (disappointment in love, disillusion with a parent, horror at human apathy) is nullified, or (c) flight ('The Killers' and, perhaps, even 'The Battler'). (p. 211)
[In the crucial interchapter which reports on the wounding of Nick in the war, we] are not surprised to read that Nick has made 'a separate peace.' This is of a piece with his behaviour in all the stories concerning his boyhood. He has always run away from problems. He has been an escapist all along and now he will not face up to the consequences of enlisting. We learn in 'Now I Lay Me' that he joined the war because 'he wanted to' and presumably he wants to quit now because he simply wants to. This is not to deny that Nick ever learns from experience but only that the experience he learns from is not of a piece with his experiences as a boy. In other words, what is denied is that there is a continuum of cumulative experiences, strung in a convenient linear order, all of which contribute to Nick's education. But this is precisely what the initiation critics claim. Here is Edmund Wilson [see excerpt above]:
The shooting of Nick in the war does not really connect two different worlds: has he not found in the butchery abroad the same world that he knew back in Michigan?
And a final quotation from Clinton S. Burhans, Jr., the most recent spokesman of the 'initiation' school [see excerpt above].
In this vignette ['A Very Short Story']—the only one which links two stories so directly—Nick moves from his boyhood Michigan world to the greater world of his young manhood, and he finds their actualities much the same.
Are the 'actualities' of war in Europe and peace in Michigan really the same for Nick? They can be the same only in the interests of a theory that demands that they be the same…. That Hemingway saw life 'steadily and saw it whole' (in the Arnoldian sense) is not in dispute here for there is a sense in which the cruelties of life are equally reflected in war and peace. We are not concerned with this philosophical (if, some what, Darwinian) truth. We are solely concerned with Nick and asking if these widely separated experiences were the same to him. His spiritual agonies as the result of his war experiences are given in stories like 'In Another Country', 'Now I Lay Me' and 'A Way You'll Never Be' and we can certainly say that he suffered during this period and it seems reasonable to assume that he learnt from his suffering. There is evidence, for instance, in 'A Way You'll Never Be' (presumably a Nick Adams story) that he returns to the actual scene of his injury to find out why he wakes up each night 'soaking wet, more frightened than he had ever been in a bombardment, because of a house and a long stable and a canal.' That he does find out to the extent of regaining his mental health we know from stories like 'Big Two-Hearted River' and 'Cross-Country Snow' to which [we] should turn for signs of the matured Nick. But simply to equate the mythical wounds of his boyhood with the very complex and real wounds of his manhood—both physical and mental—is to obscure the meaning of what Nick really learnt from life. His suffering and learning due to war merely throw into relief his young boyhood innocence, his ignorance and vulnerability, an ignorance so marked that it led him to volunteer for the Italian army in World War I, because, as he explains to his orderly John in 'Now I Lay Me', 'I don't know, John. I wanted to, then.' That is indeed, as John rightly observes, 'a hell of a reason'.
'A Way You'll Never Be', then, is the embryonic Nick Adams initiation story. De Falco, however, makes much larger claims for it:
It … becomes evident at the conclusion that this is a new Nick, in the sense that he not only has overcome the possibility of slipping completely into the realm of regressive insanity but also that he has progressed beyond the stage of romantic notions concerning war.
The evidence for all this is rather slender and by no means unequivocal in its implications. Nick's uncertain memory at the end as to when exactly, 'marching, they had once passed the Terza Savoia cavalry regiment riding in the snow with their lances' and his immediately ensuing panic: 'Where was that? I'd better get to that damned bicycle … I don't want to lose the way to Fornaci' is enough to warn us that all is not still well with him.
But all is very nearly well with the Nick of 'Big Two-Hearted River' and, finally, we do meet a very poised Nick in 'Cross-Country Snow.'… Both these stories have completed actions and reversals which signify the points at which the learning has taken place. The first story shows Nick back from the war fishing in Michigan. It richly deserves the enormous critical reputation it has enjoyed since Malcolm Cowley drew attention, in his introduction to the Portable Hemingway in 1944 [see CLC, Vol. 13], to 'the shadows in the background', to the fact that parts of the story take place in an inner world. Its studied division into two parts, its subdued utterance hinting always at a faint menace, its quiet rendering of the precariously maintained equilibrium of Nick, all go to make it a fulcrum on which the gradually emerging maturity of Nick swings into focus for the first time…. (pp. 213-15)
[Furthermore, there] can be no mistake that Nick is a very different person in ['Cross-Country Snow'] from the boy we knew from the early stories. He has indeed grown up. There is neither fantasy nor wish-fulfilment about his thinking now, nor a refusal to think and face up to actualities, nor any panicky flight from reality. The Nick of 'Cross-Country Snow' leads in a straight line to the Nick of 'Fathers and Sons' (the last of the first forty-nine stories), where Nick Adams is telling his young son how it all was in our time and in his time. The Hemingway wheel has come full circle. (p. 217)
T. G. Vaidyanathan, "'The Nick Adams Stories' and the Myth of Initiation,' in Indian Studies in American Fiction, M. K. Naik, S. K. Desai, S. Mokashi-Punekar, eds., Macmillan, India, 1974, pp. 203-18.
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In his preface to The Nick Adams Stories [see excerpt above], Philip Young quite correctly notes that the eight hitherto unpublished sketches and fragments add new dimension to our understanding of one of Hemingway's earliest fictional protagonists. Indeed, by bringing all the fiction involving Nick Adams together into a single volume, Professor Young has performed a needed and important service for Hemingway scholarship. If one was uncertain before, one can be certain now that Hemingway must have, at one time, planned a story cycle or novel featuring Nick as the central character—something similar to Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio or William Faulkner's The Unvanquished.
It is equally certain that The Nick Adams Stories does not have the esthetic continuity achieved in the aforementioned works; nor is Nick Adams as consistently characterized or developed as are George Willard and Bayard Sartoris. Indeed, one may further assert that, valuable as the material is in other contexts, it does not add to the "coherence of his adventures," as Young has intimated. That it does not is partly Young's fault, but primarily due to the unmanageability of the material itself. For the fact is that in his statement regarding the arrangement of the stories, Young has seriously oversimplified matters…. (p. 133)
Young makes three assertions … worthy of note: 1) That the Stories presents Nick's adventures in chronological order; 2) That Nick's experiences parallel Hemingway's own; 3) That in the present arrangement of the stories, Nick emerges as a consistent character. Young's first and third premises are demonstrably incorrect. The placement of "The End of Something" and "The Three-Day Blow" as postwar experiences violates the internal evidence within those stories. But even if one were to put them where they belong—at the beginning of the section entitled "On His Own"—that would only partially solve the problem. To include the fragmentary material is to render a logical chronology impossible. On the other hand, Young's second premise is valid; yet this premise appears to have led to his erroneous misplacement of the two stories mentioned above.
One rather obvious example will illustrate my point. Hemingway obviously was relying on his own postwar experiences for some of the material he puts into "The End of Something" and "The Three-Day Blow."… But while the incidents providing the source for the fiction are certainly postwar, the fictional time-setting just as certainly is not. Nick Adams's breakup with Marjorie occurs before he enters the war, in the fall of 1916. First of all Nick's "method" of getting rid of Marjorie is essentially adolescent, as is his naïve conversation about drinking, in the companion story. More to the point is Nick and Bill's discussion of baseball in "The Three-Day Blow." When Nick mentions that he'd "like to see the World Series," Bill responds, "They're always in New York or Philadelphia now."… During the same conversation, the two boys discuss John McGraw's (manager of the New York Giants) recent purchase of "Heinie Zim."… They are clearly referring to Heinie Zimmerman, Giant third baseman from midsummer 1916 through 1921. Assuming that the boys' conversation occurs in the fall of 1916, then Bill's statement about the World Series always being in New York or Philadelphia also makes general sense. Between the years 1911 and 1916, Boston was the only site of a World Series in addition to the cities he mentions.
Of course, one could argue that Hemingway had a poor memory or was indifferent to actual facts when inserting baseball lore into his stories. But there would seem to be too much evidence to the contrary. For example, in "Crossing the Mississippi," Hemingway's details about the 1917 series between the White Sox and the Giants are precise even to the point of his reference to Giant outfielder Happy Felsch's first-game home run off White Sox pitcher Slim Solee.
Viewed as the experiences of a veteran of the war, these two stories shake the reader's faith in Nick's development or maturity. That a person who has suffered the traumas of war should, after his return, be "impressed" by the philosophy that "opening bottles is what makes drunkards" … is simply incredible. So, for that matter, is Nick's naïve comment regarding a love scene in a book he has recently read. Says Nick:
It's a swell book. What I couldn't ever understand was what good the sword would do. It would have to stay edge up all the time because if it went over flat you could roll right over it and it wouldn't make any trouble….
Perhaps Candide or Don Quixote could have retained this kind of innocence; but not Hemingway or his fictional self. In short, the Nick Adams who appears in "The End of Something" is at best a callow youth, unforgivably boorish if we must perforce view him as a returned veteran. The fact is, however, that we need not so view him. Whether Hemingway, as a returned veteran, actually indulged in such adolescent antics as he details in "The End of Something," or whether he took a real experience and modified it so it would express the adolescent character of his protagonist, is beside the point here. The important thing is that Hemingway clearly intended the events to happen to, and to be typical of, a seventeen-year-old youth, not a twenty-year-old, war-scarred veteran. (pp. 134-36)
[At] some point Hemingway clearly abandoned his plan to shape the stories about Nick Adams into a volume which would have the form of a novel like The Unvanquished or even an ordering protagonist like George Willard. Inasmuch as the unpublished sketches contain sequential contradiction, it is fruitless to speculate on what the correct chronology would have been or should be. A more valid approach might be to arrange them in an order that would clarify and enhance a thematic progression, if it is possible to do so.
I believe it is possible. (p. 138)
[The] consistency of Nick's character is not so much evidenced by his developing maturity as by his continuing and frustrated efforts to return to "the good country," that Edenic time and place before his fall from innocence—a time represented by the presence of trout streams, Indians, and uncomplicated sexual encounters.
A major theme in The Nick Adams Stories is that of loss. In relation to this theme it appears that "The Last Good Country" may have occupied a strategic position in Hemingway's plan for the work. In that story Adams doubly alienates himself from Eden: by violating nature through his poaching activities and by involving himself in some complicated love affair from which no pure relationship with his kid sister can redeem him. (pp. 139-40)
One can see why Hemingway at one time appended the section "On Writing" to "Big Two-Hearted River." For the Nick Adams of that story is not just trying to recover his equilibrium after the shock of the war, as Young suggests. Certainly that is part of it; but essentially Nick is trying, ineffectually, to recover his lost innocence or, failing in that as he must, to find a method to protect himself against the psychologically unsettling awareness of the realities of sex and death he has acquired.
One need not argue whether Hemingway's ultimate choice of fishing over writing as a metaphor for ordering existence against the crippling realities of war and women was a better or a poorer choice. One might note, however, that by discarding the section "On Writing," he passed up the opportunity to use both writing and fishing as metaphoric defenses against the ravages of growing up. In doing so he varied once more, in his fiction, from the pattern he set for his life. (p. 140)
Stuart L. Burns, "Scrambling the Unscrambleable: 'The Nick Adams Stories'," in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 2, Summer. 1977, pp. 133-40.
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When F. Scott Fitzgerald commented to Hemingway that Catherine Barkley in A Farewell to Arms is less successful than some of the women from his early short stories, he showed again his acute literary judgment. As Fitzgerald phrases it, "in the stories you were really listening to women—here you're only listening to yourself." Whatever the reason for the distancing that was to mar Hemingway's portrayal of women characters from 1929 on (except for Pilar, Maria, and Marie Morgan), there is little question that Hemingway was at his most sympathetic and skillful in drawing the female leads of the short stories of In Our Time and Men Without Women and of The Sun Also Rises. (p. 239)
One of the most striking characteristics of Hemingway's women in his early fiction is their resemblance to the later, mature Hemingway hero…. [In] Hemingway's earlier stories—"Up in Michigan," "Indian Camp," "The End of Something," "The Three-Day Blow," and "Cross-Country Snow"—the women have already reached that plateau of semi-stoic self awareness which Hemingway's men have, usually, yet to attain.
When Marjorie understands her rejection in "The End of Something," she behaves so admirably that Nick feels the impact of his loss doubly, and continues to mourn it throughout "The Three-Day Blow." "'I'm taking the boat,'" she called to him as she moved away, out of reach of both touch and sound. What the expected female behavior was is indicated a few lines later as Bill appears on the scene:
"Did she go all right?" Bill said.
"Yes," Nick said, lying, his face on the blanket.
"Have a scene?"
"No, there wasn't any scene."
"How do you feel?"
"Oh, go away, Bill! Go away for a while."
If Hemingway/Nick were to choose at that moment, he would surely prefer Marjorie's pride and grace to Bill's insensitive smirking.
"The End of Something" is one of the earliest of Hemingway's well-made, well-imaged stories. In these, much characterization is accomplished through the attribution of the insightful perception. Marjorie, here, sees the old mill as both an emblem of their relationship ("There's our old ruin, Nick") and something magical ("It seems more like a castle"). In response to each suggestion, "Nick said nothing." An early version of the dialogue gives us Nick as a sharp-tongued anti-romantic:
'What's that ruin, Nick?'
'It's Stroud's old mill.'
'It looks like a castle.'
An inability to see clearly, perceptively, is Robert Cohn's flaw by the time of The Sun Also Rises; finding these early male protagonists—Nick, Bill, Harold Krebs—marked by the same insensitivity provides interesting parallels. Truly stories of male initiation, the short stories of In Our Time and Men Without Women tend to give us male characters who need that initiation. They learn from Hemingway's women. Or, tragically, they fail to learn. (pp. 239-40)
It can certainly be said that fascination with women characters, if not the characters themselves, dominates In Our Time…. Although the interspersed vignettes might suggest more externally oriented themes of war and bullfighting, of the stories included in the collection, only five or six have a focus other than a woman character or a relationship. And even within the vignettes, a character's humanity is gauged by his or her sympathy toward the life processes—birth as well as death. (p. 242)
For Hemingway, the prototype of marriage was that tragic relationship between his parents. Their marriage appeared early in his fiction with "The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife" (a story virtually untouched from manuscript to publication), "Indian Camp," and in the magnificent house-cleaning scene of "Fathers and Sons." (p. 243)
Marriage for Hemingway—at least fictionally—was never an ideal state. Rather, his ideal seemed to be caught most effectively in the companionship of man/woman, boy/girl, brother/sister—a relationship bound by caring and sacrifice but not by obligation and power…. A story of peril and macho bravado, "The Last Good Country" conveys the tender rapport between brother and hero-worshipping little sister. It is also a story of Nick as initiator rather than initiated. "We're partners," Littless says, as she accepts her brother as guide and protector. Yet when Nick longs to kill the boy who turned him in, he realizes that Littless's greater moral consciousness will protect him, will keep him from harming anyone…. (p. 244)
"The Last Good Country," though unfinished and hence never published until the Nick Adams stories were collected, also moves through images, and one passage in particular gives the sense of Nick's love for Littless, his affinity with nature, and his admiration for personal qualities like pride and grace:
They went along down the creek. Nick was studying the banks. He had seen a mink's track and shown it to his sister and they had seen tiny ruby-crowned kinglets that were hunting insects and let the boy and girl come close as they moved sharply and delicately in the cedars. They had seen cedar waxwings so calm and gentle and distinguished moving in their lovely elegance with the magic wax touches on their wing coverts and their tails, and Littless had said, 'They're the most beautiful, Nickie. There couldn't be more simply beautiful birds.'
'They're built like your face,' he said.
'No, Nickie, Don't make fun. Cedar waxwings make me so proud and happy that I cry.'
'When they wheel and light and then move so proud and friendly and gently …'
It also works to create that image of Utopia that Hemingway will repeat throughout his work—the undiscovered, untouched country (or sea); the place free from corruption, malaise, personal dishonesty; the place clean and well lighted; the place—whether geographical or anatomical—found through initiative (travel, exploration, sexual discovery); the country that gives answers instead of only dilemmas.
The pervasive imagery begins here, in one of the few pieces of Hemingway's fiction which include a gentle and loving male and female relationship. But that there are few Hemingway stories in which male-female love is idyllic, that his second story collection was titled Men Without Women, lies less in his attitudes toward his women characters (at least in his early fiction) than in his characterization of male characters as adolescent, selfish, misdirected. There is evidence of much sympathy on Hemingway's part of the women he portrays in this early fiction, and his focus is not to narrow—to concentrate almost obsessively on the reflexive self—until after A Farewell to Arms. It is as if the young Hemingway believed in the romantic, mystic ideal of a genuine love, of a man's finding ultimate completion with a woman, until the catastrophe of his father's death. (pp. 244-45)
Marred, saddened, mistrustful of marriage because of his childhood experiences, Hemingway gave up most attempts to draw sympathetic women characters after he wrote the vehicle for expressing his own deep bereavement. A Farewell to Arms is not a romantic novel; it is instead a novel about loss. And the loss is that of his father, not of Catherine or a child…. Unable to trust that better experiences would be his, Hemingway transferred that emotion into some of the most powerful of his fiction—the loss of Santiago, of Robert Jordan, and particularly of Thomas Hudson in Islands in the Stream. It is Hudson who relinquishes all relationship with women, reaching humanity through his love for his sons—the male tie again reinforced. (pp. 245-46)
Truer than he may have known, Fitzgerald's words of analysis, that Hemingway had stopped listening to his women characters. In his early fiction, Hemingway's attention was on women as themselves. In the later novels and stories, because his attention had been usurped by the deaths of his father and other men, women characters exist primarily to give the Hemingway character another dimension. The angle of vision is skewed, oblique; it still reflects, but less accurately. And Robert Lowell's theory—that any good poet creates for us his world—is once again borne out: the last Hemingway world was utopian, full of seas and energy and words, but strangely devoid of women. (p. 246)
Linda W. Wagner, "'Proud and Friendly and Gently': Women in Hemingway's Early Fiction," in College Literature, Vol. VII, No. 3, Fall, 1980, pp. 239-47.
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In the summer of 1924, Ernest Hemingway wrote to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas to report on the progress he was making with a long short story in which he was "trying to do the country like [Paul] Cézanne and having a hell of a time and sometimes getting it a little bit. It is about 100 pages long and nothing happens and the country is swell, I made it all up, so I see it all and part of it comes out the way it ought to, it is swell about the fish, but isn't writing a hard job though?"
The story in question was "Big Two-Hearted River," which in addition to being swell about the fish and as visually powerful as a Cézanne landscape, turned out to be a nice little master-piece of psychological indeterminacy….
[The] story abounds in details of how splendid the fishing is and what a good time Nick is having. Yet some sort of problem is lurking on the margins of his mind….
For a decade and a half after its appearance as the concluding episode of In Our Time (1925), "Big Two-Hearted River" was admired by literary critics for its ambiguities. Then in the late 1930's this situation changed, when Edmund Wilson took it upon himself to improve the story by making it more explicit. The experience that has given Nick Adams "a touch of panic," Wilson asserted in 1939, is "the wholesale shattering of human beings in which he has taken part" [see excerpt above]. The statement had no basis in fact. For World War I is not mentioned in "Big Two-Hearted River," and there is no reference in the story to feelings of panic.
That Wilson nevertheless described Hemingway's hero as the psychological victim of a brutal war was a measure of the extent to which his literary sensibility was ruled by political nausea. In the early 30's, Wilson's nausea had led him to the Marxist faith, because Marxism called for the total rejection of the entire existing society. With visions of destruction dancing in his head, Wilson had dedicated himself to writing an ambitious book on European radical thought. To the Finland Station was completed in 1939, but by that time the author had come to the realization that the Marxist cure for social disease was no solution. (p. 24)
Turning away from the study of radical political thought, he reread Hemingway—and promptly found in "Big Two-Hearted River" the vision of a sensitive writer whose suffering has been caused not by mistakes he himself has made, but by the belligerency of great powers. The commentators have been wrong in accusing Hemingway of an indifference to society, Wilson proclaimed at the end of his essay, for in fact "his whole work is a criticism of society."
When, in 1940, Malcolm Cowley finally ceased apologizing for Stalinism, he, too, began to cast about for non-Marxist modes of continuing his assault on the moral credentials of capitalist society. America's entrance into the war against Hitler made this problem particularly difficult for him, but Wilson's overinterpretation of Hemingway seems to have showed him how to solve it. In addition to shoveling much more warvictim material into "Big Two-Hearted River" than Wilson had done, Cowley's introduction to the Viking Portable Hemingway (1944) [see CLC, Vol. 13] went on to insist that a haunted, hypnagogic quality characterizes all of Hemingway's work. His stories are told against the background of the countries he has seen, Cowley said, but
these countries are presented in a strangely mortuary light. In no other writer of our time can you find such a profusion of corpses: dead women in the rain; dead soldiers bloated in their uniforms and surrounded by torn papers; sunken liners full of bodies that float past the closed portholes. In no other writer can you find so many suffering animals: mules with their forelegs broken drowning in shallow water off the quay at Smyrna; gored horses in the bull ring; wounded hyenas first snapping at their own entrails and then eating them with relish.
In a strangely mortuary light. To a critic who had argued all through the 1930's that the difference between the Soviet Union and other countries was the difference between life and death, it must have felt like vindication to write those words, and to append to them that long list of fearsome illustrations. For while history had revealed that the critic might have been a bit incautious in his praise of the Soviet Union, Hemingway's stories certainly seemed to confirm Cowley's judgment of the rest of the world.
Was it really accurate, though, to say that Hemingway had presented France, Spain, Switzerland, the United States, and the other countries he knew as a series of hypnagogic visions? Convincing proof of this bold proposition would have required a great many demonstrations across the whole range of his work. The Viking Portable's editor, however, stuck to a strikingly limited number of stories; indeed, there was one story he kept coming back to again and again. In the end, all the credibility of his "nightmares at noonday" interpretation was invested in his comments on "Big Two-Hearted River."
Cowley's Nick Adams is in far worse psychological shape than Edmund Wilson's. The evidence of his condition is not to be found in the story, to be sure, but that was nothing to worry about because "Hemingway's stories are most of them continued," and in a somewhat later book that In Our Time there is a story called "Now I Lay Me" that "casts a retrospective light" on "Big Two-Hearted River." The later story is concerned with "an American volunteer in the Italian army who isn't named but who might easily be Nick Adams." (The critic is in error. The volunteer is named, and his name is Nick.) As a result of being wounded in action, the young man is afraid to go to sleep at night. "I had been living for a long time," he confesses, "with the knowledge that if I ever shut my eyes in the dark and let myself go, my soul would go out of my body." This confession, we are assured, enables us to appreciate the psychological fragility of the man who is fishing the Big Two-Hearted River.
Among the things Cowley neglects to tell us about "Now I Lay Me" is that the frightened American soldier is lying in a room a scant seven kilometers behind the lines. Moreover, the soldier knows that, as surely as autumn follows summer, he will have to return to the fighting—and in fact at the end of the story we learn of his later participation in the "October offensive." The story, in short, is very much like another Hemingway story called "In Another Country," in which a recuperating American soldier lies in bed at night in Milan, "afraid to die and wondering how I would be when I went back to the front again."
In "Big Two-Hearted River," we are in a very different world. Nick is a civilian, safely back in the United States. Now that he no longer has any worries about coming under fire again, has his psyche healed as rapidly as his body has, or is he still afraid to close his eyes at night, lest his soul take flight? Hemingway's answer is clear. "Nick lay down … under the blankets. He turned on his side and shut his eyes. He was sleepy. He felt sleep coming. He curled up under the blanket and went to sleep." So much for the retrospective light cast by "Now I Lay Me."
Cowley's essay on Hemingway is not a work that can bear careful scrutiny; it does not even give the correct year of Hemingway's birth. Yet no sooner was the essay published than it began to influence critics everywhere. A young man named Philip Young, for instance, "ported a Portable Hemingway … half way across Europe during World War II," and after the war he wrote a book that carried Cowley's critical extravagances to further heights of absurdity. The wound Hemingway suffered in World War I, Young contended, had so deeply traumatized him that he spent his entire life as a writer composing variations on the story of the psychically crippled "sick man" who fishes the Big Two-Hearted River [see CLC, Vol. 13]. Alas, Young never thought to ask himself whether reading the Viking Portable Hemingway against the dramatic backdrop of World War II had not made it all too easy for him to believe in the obsessive importance to Hemingway of World War I. Nor did Young ever suspect that Cowley's conversion of a sundrenched, Cézannesque picture of a predominantly happy fishing trip into a tale as spooky as any of [Edgar Allan] Poe's or [Nathaniel] Hawthorne's was governed by an ideological purpose, which was to bathe American life in a strangely mortuary light.
Intellectual naiveté, however, was not the only reason Cowley's introduction slew the minds of so many critics. In the wake of the triumph of American power in World War II, the anti-American prejudice of intellectuals who automatically identified themselves with powerlessness became more virulent than ever before, and anti-American interpretations of American literature sprang up like poisonous weeds. In Huckleberry Finn, for instance, Huck's decision at the end of the book to cross over into the Oklahoma Territory for a few weeks of howling adventures with Tom Sawyer and Nigger Jim before returning to his home town in Missouri was transformed by post-World War II critics into a decision to secede forever from American society, because American society sickened the boy.
It was the critics, however, who were sickened by American society, not Huck Finn, and their endorsement of a war-wound interpretation of the life and work of Hemingway was a further reflection of their bias. Thus the late Mark Schorer, in an essay published in 1962, projected upon the author of "Big Two-Hearted River" his own sense of social victimization. Only July 8, 1918, while on service with the Red Cross on the Italian front, Schorer wrote, Hemingway "was severely wounded by the explosion of a mortar shell and the next three months he spent in a hsopital in Milan. Nothing more important than this wounding was ever to happen to him. A wound was to become the central symbol of nearly everything he was to write, and the consequences of a wound his persistent thematic preoccupation."
Carlos Baker had a golden opportunity to overturn the prevailing clichés when he undertook to write his massive Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story (1969). But the weight of thirty years of accumulated critical authority was too much for Baker, and the opportunity was lost. (pp. 24-6)
[As can be seen in the recently published Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters, 1917–1961, between] the time he arrived at his parents' home in Oak Park, Illinois, in January 1919, and his reembarkation for Europe in the late fall of 1921, the returned war veteran wrote many letters to many people. In none of them is there either an explicit or implicit indication of the sort of psychic malaise that literary criticism would subsequently assign to the autobiographical hero who fishes the Big Two-Hearted River. An emotion of startling intensity does surge to the surface of the correspondence in the middle of these postwar years, but the name of that emotion is not panic, or hypnagogic horror, or anything like. It is anger, an all-consuming anger, of the sort he manifested when he was jilted by the nurse. And what would trigger it would be a contest of wills with his mother. (p. 27)
Right from the start of his career as a creative writer, Hemingway … sought to pursue his war with his mother by fictional means. From the vantage point of Paris's Left Bank in 1924, he looked back upon Oak Park in anger, as he worked upon the stories that became the book called In Our Time. "The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife," the second of the stories in the book, presents a sanctimonious wife, her hen-pecked husband, and their little boy. Instead of obeying his mother's request that he come up to the bedroom where she is lying with the blinds drawn and a Bible beside her, the boy goes off for a walk in the woods with his father. In "Soldier's Home," the seventh story, we meet a mother who willingly cooks breakfast for her war-veteran son, but who doesn't allow him to "muss up" the morning newspaper—it is the Kansas City Star, we learn—which he wants to read while eating. She then completes the young man's annoyance by asking him if he loves her, to which he replies, "I don't love anybody," and by urging him to kneel and pray with her, to which he replies, "I can't." In both of these stories, the need to comply with a mother's demands is defied by a rebellious son. The final story in In Our Time, as we have seen, centers on a fisherman who feels, as he enters the woods, that he has left everything behind, "the need for thinking, the need to write, other needs." Whether the "other needs" he has escaped include the need to please his mother is never made clear.
Yet if the fisherman's dark thoughts in "Big Two-Hearted River" are choked off before they reach the level of consciousness, Grace Hall Hemingway was surely on the story-teller's mind. The satisfaction Nick takes in referring to his tent as his home, for instance, derives from the author's inability either to forget or to forgive his mother's banishment of him four years before from their home in Michigan. As Nick sets up the tent, he is defiantly establishing a counter-domicile—and as he proceeds to hang his pack from a nail that he has "gently" driven into a pine tree, to prepare a delicious meal of beans and spaghetti, to brew his coffee by a carefully described method, and to clean up after himself with scrupulous thoroughness, he is defining a counter-domesticity. Hemingway may have rebelled against the values of his mother and father, but he was also marked by them; in the woods, Nick Adams apes the cooking skills and the careful housekeeping habits that Hemingway had observed in his father on fishing and hunting trips and in his mother at home.
Happiness for the hero of "Big Two-Hearted River" is an inordinate concern with small details. On the one hand, his obsessiveness keeps dark thoughts at bay; on the other hand, it demonstrates how responsible he is. Before reaching down into the stream to touch a trout resting on the bottom, Nick conscientiously wets his hand, "so that he would not disturb the delicate mucus that covered him. If a trout was touched with a dry hand, a white fungus attacked the unprotected spot." The author who would cry out to his mother that his work was nothing to be ashamed of, and that the day would come when she would be proud of him, could not have continued writing if he had not believed himself to be, in his own way, a moralist. He had incorporated into himself too much of her personality to have embraced the nihilism with which his interpreters have been so eager to associate him.
The question of why the author elected not to specify the nature of the malaise that underlies Nick's happiness in "Big Two-Hearted River" can never be answered with certainty. But the most plausible answer is that, unlike "The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife" and "Soldier's Home," in which sons are clearly unhappy in the homes of their mothers, "Big Two-Hearted River" takes place in the woods. If Nick Adams had been revealed as a man so angry at his mother that he could not even forget her when he was off on a fishing trip, readers might simply have concluded that Nick was an emotional adolescent. The only way to avoid such a judgment would have been to show Nick using his time in the woods to sort out his feelings about his mother and come to an understanding of the tension between them. Writing that kind of story, however, would have required of Hemingway a degree of self-understanding that he would never achieve.
"I had a wonderful novel to write about Oak Park," he told the literary critic Charles Fenton in 1952, but "would never do it because I did not want to hurt liveing [sic] people." The excuse rings false. Neither as a man nor as a writer had Hemingway ever hesitated to hurt living people, and furthermore both of his parents were dead when he wrote to Fenton. If pangs of conscience had previously stayed his hand, why did he not write the Oak Park novel at some point during the ten years of life that remained to him after his mother's death in 1951? Clearly, it was not a concern for protecting his parents that forever prevented him from writing the book, but rather his own failure to master its materials. A novel-length exploration of the experience of growing up in Oak Park would have led Hemingway into a swamp filled with deep water and overgrown with trees, in which big trout might be hooked but not landed. (pp. 28-9)
Across the entire length of his adult life, Hemingway kept a double record of his feelings by writing stories and by writing letters. In contrast to the appalling frankness of the letters, the stories suppress information, conflate memories, play tricks with time-frames, speak in symbols. But with the help of the letters, they can be decoded and, at long last, properly understood. In the light of this understanding, the interpretation of Hemingway's fiction that originated forty years ago in Edmund Wilson's misreading of "Big Two-Hearted River," and that was then magnified by Malcolm Cowley into a misreading of the entire oeuvre, can also be recognized for what it really is: the exploitation of an author's work for ideological purposes.
Taken together, the letters and the stories show that what happened to Hemingway on July 8, 1918, did not give him night-mares for the rest of his life. If World War I played hob with his future, it was not because of a wound but because it suddenly propelled a rebellious youth who was barely out of high school into a very much bigger and more exciting world than the one he was slowly getting to know as a newspaperman in Kansas City.
Perhaps his separation from his mother and the values she stood for could never have been accomplished in the spirit of mutual understanding and love that Sherwood Anderson describes so delicately in his account of the relationship between young George Willard and his mother in Winesburg, Ohio. Perhaps, like figures in [a Eugene] O'Neill tragedy, Hemingway and his mother were doomed to claw and slash at one another, no matter what. The high-gear acceleration in his development that resulted from the war, however, certainly did not enhance the chances of establishing peace on the home front. Hemingway came back to Oak Park in 1919 spoiling for a fight, and his mother was waiting for him. (p. 33)
Kenneth S. Lynn, "Hemingway's Private War," in Commentary, Vol. 72, No. 1, July, 1981, pp. 24-33.
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