illustrated portrait of American author Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway

Start Free Trial

Thomas Strychacz (essay date 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 14994

SOURCE: Strychacz, Thomas. “Dramatizations of Manhood in In Our Time and The Sun Also Rises.” In Hemingway's Theaters of Masculinity, pp. 53-86. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003.

[In the following excerpt, from an essay that was origingally published in 1989, Strychacz discusses the ways in which Hemingway's characters enact masculine identity and explores the meanings and difficulties of masculinity in In Our Time and The Sun Also Rises.]

In the bullring, men are made or unmanned. The “kid” in the first bullfight vignette of In Our Time submits to the code of the ring and, by killing five times, reaches his majority. Then, remarks the narrator, he “sat down in the sand and puked and they held a cape over him.”1 Such modest concealment does not satisfy the delighted crowd, which “hollered and threw things down into the bullring,” recognizing that this kid has “finally made it” to manhood. Villalta, the matador at the height of his powers, plays to the crowd more deliberately. His killing becomes a test of intense watching as he “sighted” the bull along the sword blade with the bull “looking at him straight in front, hating.” With Villalta's life and manhood on the line, the crowd watches and roars with every pass of the muleta. The vignette refers repeatedly to the spectacle of the bullfight. “If it happened right down close in front of you, you could see Villalta snarl at the bull and curse him,” begins the narrator: the observer becomes “you” the reader, and Villalta the cynosure of all eyes. At the end, Villalta's “hand up at the crowd” announces the successful completion of this ritual of manhood—and acknowledges its essentially theatrical nature.

Hemingway, as Leo Gurko neatly puts it, “made himself master of the small arena,” an observation that applies not only to the bullring but to many other symbolic spaces—houses and hotels, bedrooms, camps and clearings—that take on the characteristics of a ceremonial arena.2 These arenas are rich in significance. The bullring's physical characteristics sanction—and configure—the rituals enacted there. Empty space becomes ordered space, providing necessary boundaries within which potentially chaotic action might reveal a comprehensible structure. In turn, as critics argue and Hemingway seems to suggest, the small arena permits men to display their mastery over other creatures and, perhaps more importantly, over themselves. Ritualized actions serve as index to the masculine codes practiced by the bullfighter. Villalta's “hand up at the crowd”—like Macomber's wave to Margot—is a vitally gestic part of that ritual. The gesture demands the crowd's attention and respect while reminding it of the stylized (phallic) thrust that dispatched the bull. Conversely, breaking those masculine codes disrupts the space of the ring. The bad bullfighter of Chapter XI, for instance, suffers the humiliation not only of symbolic castration (“some one cut off his pigtail”) but of the crowd invading his territory as it “came over the barrera and around the torero.”

Yet by themselves a bullfighter's actions are insufficient to affirm (or to make a travesty of) the ritual act. Space becomes arena only within the presence of an audience, which, acting as an agent of legitimation for ritual gestures made in the ring, assimilates all action to performance and invests performance with value. Part of the audience's function is to appraise rituals of manhood and bestow praise or condemnation on the protagonist—a particularly important role if we take the matador's actions as somehow representative of masculine codes of behavior. And such moments of evaluatory watching are not confined to bullrings: many different individuals or groups of characters function as audience...

(This entire section contains 14994 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

in Hemingway's work. By the same token, the kid and Villalta are just two of many characters whose potency as men depends on their ability to transform space into spectacle; and the bad bullfighter of Chapter XI is one of many who fail to master an audience. In a paradox whose resolution is crucial to my argument, the characters who succeed and those who fail to master the arena are often one and the same, though caught in different circumstances. Continuing to elaborate my argument about “The Short Happy Life,” this chapter contends that Hemingway's logic of performance precludes consistency and stability of character in these works and that manhood-fashioning must be analyzed in terms of theatricalized arenas, audiences, shared social codes of watching and evaluation, and role-playing. Manhood for Hemingway, in short, is thoroughly gestic.

Of the five Nick Adams stories that begin In Our Time, “Indian Camp” is the most remarkable, treating with extraordinary delicacy the cultural, familial, and gender conflicts so central to the collection. Appropriately, the story concerns origins: not only birth, and not only Nick's untimely initiation into an adult world of blood and death, but the origins of a bitter racial conflict between Native and white American. The first scene of the story opens on what we soon know to be a doctor's humanitarian mission: “At the lake shore there was another rowboat drawn up. The two Indians stood waiting” (16). Yet immediately it presents an archetypal moment of a different sort. Boats beached, Indians waiting, whites debarking: the scene of whites arriving in the New World or encountering tribes within the New World is strong in cultural memories, pictured over the centuries in scores of illustrations and books. The similarities continue, for the narrative reenacts a subsequent history of dispossession, annexation, betrayal, and death. To the doctor and Uncle George, the mercy mission affords the opportunity for revisiting a form of Manifest Destiny upon the Indian camp. They play the role of the Great White Father, bringing to birth a child/nation supposedly deficient in civilized attributes. Uncle George even “gave both the Indians cigars,” thus usurping the role traditionally accorded the father in Anglo-American culture as well as iterating a long history of territories purchased by means of trinkets and other cheap gifts. Still more effectively, as the doctor deploys his medical expertise in the cabin he implies by contrast the Native Americans' ignorance of hygiene and medical procedure. His actions and words suggest their general cultural incompetence—a reading supported by the feeling of distanced superiority he shows (or at least affects) when the woman screams: “her screams are not important. I don't hear them because they are not important.” What is important, apparently, is to preserve the history of this cultural and racial domination, for the doctor proceeds to sketch out the narrative he wishes to write: “That's one for the medical journal, George. … Doing a Caesarian with a jack-knife and sewing it up with nine-foot, tapered gut leaders.”

Though recurring images of doorways link the cabin metaphorically to the womb, the entrance of Nick's father quickly transforms womb-space into a masculine arena and associates the baby's struggles to be born with other barely repressed racial and social conflicts. In particular, “Indian Camp” concerns a struggle for masculine authority, which Nick's father tries to master by directing the visual dynamics of a space transformed from shanty/womb to operating theater. That shift in the metaphoric meaning of the cabin-space keys a series of cultural and sexual overthrows in which male midwives (three whites and three Indians) supplant the traditional roles of the “old women” (16) of the camp and in which the white doctor supplants the cultural and parental authority of the Indian father. According to the narrative, the three white characters transgress what has traditionally been an intimate female space. The doctor has been called only after customary procedures of birth, which tacitly preclude the presence of men, fail: “She had been trying to have her baby for two days. All the old women in the camp had been helping her.”

While this situation allows the doctor to demonstrate his skill, it seems to have degraded the Indian father, who has had to share his wife's experience of giving birth. After all, the “men” (not the “other men”) of the camp have “moved off up the road to sit in the dark and smoke out of range of the noise she made.” In a futile attempt to follow the appropriate masculine role, the Indian father is also smoking and will soon bury his head in blankets to summon his own darkness. Indeed, the Indian father's cultural role has been jeopardized in several ways. He cannot “father” the child in the sense of bringing it to life and consciousness, and he has lost control of his own space (the cabin). In each case, the white doctor—the “great man,” as Uncle George somewhat sarcastically labels Nick's father—symbolically usurps the Indian father's role. Even the father's posture (he lies in the other bunk with a cut that prefigures his wife's) physically aligns him with his wife. The father's presence is thus doubly problematic: helpless to escape, he symbolically occupies a female role while prevented by his sex from trying to help. The doctor, on his part, not only transgresses an age-old custom (and possesses a knowledge of the woman's sexuality previously appropriate only to the husband and the “old women”), but gives rise to the suspicion that the old customs are no longer valid and powerful anyway.

Already displaced from the authority of the other men's positions “off up the road,” the Indian father bears unwilling witness while the white doctor dramatizes his superior medical skills. Critics have defended Nick's father on the basis of his pragmatic handling of the operation, but the real point is that he constantly dramatizes his pragmatism, especially before the eyes of his son, whom he insistently invites to watch: “You see, Nick, babies are supposed to be born head first,” “See, it's a boy,” “You can watch this or not, Nick.” The doctor plays out a fantasy of being both director and star actor in his own operating theater. His expert perception and appraisal of the medical situation calls for an audience to appraise him, and his several attempts to explain and show the mysteries of birth to his son suggest less a detached interest in Nick's education than a desire to educate Nick's perception of him. Indeed, as the operation progresses the doctor's sense of his potential audiences becomes more expansive, including not only George to whom he boasts about his accomplishments, and not only the Indian father whose attention he tries to attract, but an imagined audience of his peers in some future medical journal.

Attending to the complex play of gazes in the story tells us much about relationships of power. It reveals, for instance, interesting (but oddly skewed) analogies between the paired set of fathers and sons—for the newborn child is also a boy. The Indian father who, according to Nick's father, “couldn't stand things” (19), hides his face by rolling over against the wall. And it is Nick whose actions correspond: “He was looking away so as not to see what his father was doing”; “Nick did not watch” (17). Deprived of fatherhood and manhood, the Indian father plays the inappropriate role of son to the usurping white father. The relationship between Nick and his father thus represents and articulates the unvoiced relationship between the doctor and the Indian father. The doctor revels in emphasizing the inequality of that relationship by pressuring Nick to accept his authority. When Nick answers “I know” to the revelation that “This lady is going to have a baby, Nick,” for instance, his father replies: “You don't know. … Listen to me.” Later, the doctor refers to the details of the operation (“You can watch this or not, Nick, just as you like”; “There. That gets it”) in direct proportion to Nick's unwillingness to watch. The doctor insists on his son's failure to watch rather than his putative freedom (“just as you like”). He is not inviting him to undergo a bloody initiation into a frightening adult world so much as reminding Nick (and, as a corollary, the Indian father) of the toughness and ability to “face” the adult world that the boy clearly lacks.

At other times, however, the doctor loses his grasp on the play of glances that hitherto he commanded with ease. Though the Indian father actively shuns the audience that could witness his degradation—his vision is blocked by the wall he rolls over against and the blanket that covers his head—his self-willed blindness has complex consequences. The refusal to be seen signifies his humiliation, but it also frees him from watching the doctor's performance. The doctor's subsequent move, as he “mounted on the edge of the lower bunk with the lamp in one hand and looked in” at the dead man, demonstrates the paradoxical efficacy of the suicide. The doctor's action, which suggests an attempt to force the “proud father” to acknowledge the doctor's pride in his own skill (and perhaps in the enlightened, civilizing influence he seems to feel he represents) suddenly forces him into the role of observer. Even more telling, his action switches Nick's attention from one proud father to the other: Nick “had a good view of the upper bunk when his father, the lamp in one hand, tipped the Indian's head back.” From Nick's point of view, his father has become lamp-bearer to illuminate the Indian father's final self-dramatization. (We might note that on the doctor's arrival, the role of watcher and lamp-bearer was played by an “old woman”). Though the tableau is nothing more than a symbolic victory for the Indian father, the doctor does quickly lose his “post-operative exhilaration.”

The characters in “Indian Camp,” in other words, play several roles in succession or even simultaneously as the nature of their performance and the function of the audience changes. The rapid transformation of roles in the cabin (the doctor becoming the “great man” and surrogate father to the Indian child, the Indian father becoming, as it were, both son and wife) suggests the friable, temporary, and constructed nature of masculine (and feminine) roles. Doubled characters merely emphasize this malleability of role. Though the two fathers might suggest an identity of authority and role, the fact that they possess very different standings in the play of glances that construct meaning and authority in the cabin demonstrates that paternal authority, at least, is not contingent merely on being a father. Nor can we distinguish forms of paternal authority on the basis of racial difference, for even in “Indian Camp” the doctor's authority is not absolute. It grows—and diminishes—with his precarious ability to play to an audience. Authority, it seems, is not vested in the man but in the man's role; and the role depends on how easily external factors (such as race, culture, class, medical expertise, and so on) can be brought to bear on a particular situation.

The next story in In Our Time, “The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife,” underscores this point by replaying the drama of power and humiliation contained in “Indian Camp” while reversing the earlier story's dramatic structure: three Native Americans are invited into the doctor's garden, and this time it is the doctor's authority that suffers. The doctor's garden, cleared from the surrounding forest and fenced in (as the presence of gates attests), becomes a highly charged symbolic space in which the doctor and the three Indians enact a drama of great significance for their authority as men. Like “Indian Camp,” this story describes the wielding of personal power against a backdrop of cultural conflict. The quarrel over the stolen logs, to begin with, disguises the fact that the garden (like the logs) has been expropriated from the Native Americans in the first place. The mark of the scaler's hammer in the log shows that it belongs to “White” and McNally, which gives rise to a double irony: the mark exposes the historic truth of Boulton's remark that “You know they're stolen as well as I do,” in the sense that White has stolen from the Indian, but the immorality of the act comes home to the doctor only in the idea of a white stealing from White. In “Indian Camp,” the doctor relied on superior technology to support a symbolic appropriation of the cabin-space. In “Doctor's Wife,” with the fact of appropriation suddenly evident, the moral superiority of white culture is shown to be a mere covering for an aggressive exploitation of natural resources. Tellingly, Boulton's first action with the log is to have the obscuring dirt cleaned off: “Wash it off. Clean off the sand. … I want to see who it belongs to” (24).

These moral conflicts key the cultural and racial power plays with which this story is concerned. Playing star surgeon in “Indian Camp,” the doctor transformed the Indian's camp into a metaphoric arena; Boulton, conversely, threatens to turn the doctor's garden into a real arena (a boxing ring) that will display physical strength rather than scientific know-how. Appropriately, Hemingway emphasizes the play of glances between audience and the (potential) protagonists: “Dick Boulton looked at the doctor,” Eddy and Billy Tabeshaw “looked at the doctor,” they “could see from his back how angry he was,” they “all watched him walk up the hill and go inside the cottage.” Although the doctor tries to reciprocate in kind (he “looked at Dick Boulton”), he sees only Boulton's conviction of superiority: “He knew how big a man he was.” The paradoxical nature of evaluatory watching is evident here, for whereas an audience empowered the doctor in the Indian's cabin, here it lays bare his inadequacy. Shamed by his ignominious retreat, the doctor withdraws (like the Indian father in “Indian Camp”) from the gaze of spectators, leaving the garden/ring in their possession. Doubles once more abound, this time across the boundaries of individual stories. The doctor now reprises the role of the humiliated Indian father while Boulton, playing the doctor's part, appropriates the garden for a drama of his own devising, in which he has convincingly upstaged the doctor and dispossessed him of his manhood.

Back in the cottage, the doctor pumps shells in and out of his shotgun in a masturbatory attempt to regain his lost confidence in his manhood—first to prove that he is a “man” and, second, to demonstrate his access to the cultural and technological prowess that “won the West” for white settlers. Having put away the gun, however, the doctor's humiliations continue. Sent on an errand by his wife to find Nick, he must first apologize for slamming the screen door, unlike Dick Boulton, who deliberately leaves open the gate into the woods. But the errand does give him the opportunity to reprise the father-son relationship played so powerfully at the end of “Indian Camp.” Nick's “I want to go with you” (27) allows his father to reassert an authoritative role (“His father looked down at him”) in a way that is reminiscent of “Indian Camp”: the son sitting in the stern of the boat, his father authoritatively rowing. But the likeness is only superficial. The doctor's escape into the woods merely points up his inability to confront his wife directly. Moreover, the impetus for their retreat comes from Nick, who “know[s] where there's black squirrels.” Having lost the authority he possessed while rowing and steering the boat, and having forfeited the privileged knowledge he tried to impart to Nick in the cabin and boat, the doctor follows the leader into the woods his child knows better than he.

At the end of the first section of the Nick Adams stories, “The Battler,” which features an avatar of Nick's father in Ad Francis, links together many of the functions of the symbolic arena registered so far and suggests new perspectives on the role of men within it. Bugs and Ad Francis's camp directly recalls “Indian Camp” (and “The End of Something”) and the transgressions enacted there. Once again, “The Battler” evokes disputed territories, threats of humiliation, and symbolic evictions. “Who the hell asked you to butt in here?” (59) asks Ad Francis, a question the brakeman who knocks Nick off the train might also have asked. Like Dick Boulton, both Francis and the brakeman wish to transform enclosed spaces into symbolic arenas—in this case boxing rings—in which men compete to demonstrate their manhood. Nick's poor performance on the train (the “lousy kid thing to have done”) inspires only a new devotion to self-dramatization and to that correlation between evaluatory watching and male identity. Touching his black eye, Nick, rather mysteriously, “wished he could see it,” and then apparently tries to see his reflection: “Could not see it looking into the water, though” (53). While berating himself for his immaturity, he nonetheless prizes the black eye as one sign of his initiation into manhood: “That was all he had gotten out of it. Cheap at the price.” In lieu of the hollering crowd at the bullfight in Chapter IX, Nick, another “kid,” tries to become the audience to the spectacle of his own maturation. Self-display puts him in mind of what he must remember not to do again.

The ensuing scene bears out that correspondence between manhood and performance. Nick enters the firelit clearing to find Francis using him as audience to Francis's exhibition of toughness. Francis constantly refers to the importance of visible wounds as an index of toughness, acknowledging, for instance, Nick's black eye with his first words (“Where did you get the shiner?”) before going on to dramatize his own battered face: “Look here!” and “Ever see one like that?” The echoes of the doctor's comments to Nick in “Indian Camp” are telling, for both insistently draw attention to the iconography of their professions. The doctor's surgical skill warranted the attention of the other “midwives”; and Francis's “pan,” manifesting his performances in the ring, signifies his indomitable courage to a fellow battler: “I could take it,” “They couldn't hurt me.” That delight in displaying his battered face provides a key to his behavior during the rest of the story. For his failure to get Nick's knife destroys his self-image, carefully maintained before the younger man, of the heroic prizefighter. Consequently, like the doctor who is transformed from medical marvel to lamp-bearer in “Indian Camp,” Francis becomes the frustrated but passive observer: “The little white man looked at Nick,” “He was looking at Nick” (repeated twice), “Ad kept on looking at Nick,” “He glared at Nick.” Such manic staring suggests Francis's humiliation; it also suggests the root of his humiliation. For Francis, more than anyone else in the Nick Adams stories, has been battered in the public eye: first in the ring, where he “took too many beatings,” and then in the papers, because his wife “Looked enough like him to be twins.” Like the matador who admits “I am not really a good bull fighter” (95), Francis's shame has grown because of the crowds that witness it. His compensatory solution in the clearing is to recall the scene of his most successful dramatizations of physical prowess: the boxing ring. Thus he does not swing wildly at Nick but adopts the stance of the trained boxer, stepping “flat-footed forward.” But the battler's attempt at self-dramatization merely parodies his earlier ability to dominate arenas as he falls unconscious in the most dishonorable way possible—being hit from behind.

It is tempting to read Ad Francis in terms of the archetypally beaten but undaunted Hemingway hero, avatar of Nick Adams himself. Nick, as Bugs says, has “got a lot coming to him,” and the ensuing vignette describing Nick's wounding connects him to the beatings suffered by Ad Francis. Each acts, indeed, as if the presence of marks somehow constituted proud manliness. Francis's mutilated face signifies “I could take it,” while Nick's black eye connotes for him a transition from the acts of a “lousy kid” to a new maturity: “They would never suck him in that way again.” But Hemingway confronts quite different dilemmas about masculine identity in “The Battler.” Nick knows Francis “by name as a former champion fighter,” and the narrator, at the moment when Nick refuses him the knife, calls him the “prizefighter”; Francis, it seems, has become commensurate with his role, named and remembered by and through performances enacted for others and identifying himself with a set of remembered movements. Yet identity suffers when performance no longer serves. Clubbed by Bugs in an ugly parody of a boxing match, he fails to perform the expected role and falls unconscious—indicative, perhaps, of his profound absence of self. Moreover, the story reveals the inadequacy or even inappropriateness of masculine codes of conduct that issue in Francis's confused, self-destructive courage and Nick's wavering command over his conduct. In his first conversation with Francis, for instance, Nick first admits his lack of inner resilience, denying that he is “a tough one,” then attempts to fall back on the aggressive role that Francis expects of him and that Nick deems appropriate to the situation: “You got to be tough.” In fact neither Francis nor Nick carries off the role of tough fighter: Nick is identified as a “kid,” while Francis ends with his face looking “childish” in repose. Though both Nick and Francis carry the signs of beatings, each errs in interpreting the visible marks as signifying toughness. As the next chapter shows, Nick will again be “sucked in” and still more severely wounded, while for Bugs Francis's mutilated face merely suggests the unheroic possibility that he “took too many beatings.”

Interestingly, critics persuaded by the wounded hero hypothesis read a character's marks in the heroic spirit of Nick and Francis, who are convinced that they “could take it,” rather than as a sign of foolishness. Philip Young, most obviously, constructs his compelling and influential account of Hemingway's work by universalizing the wound that Nick receives in the war. The “culminating blow in the spine,” Young writes, is “symbol and climax for a process that has been going on since we first met Nick.” It represents the psychic and physical wounds Nick has experienced and will undergo, as well as the wounds suffered by other characters, such as Jake Barnes and Colonel Cantwell. Though the wound is an “outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual dis-grace,” it is nonetheless responsible for the masculine codes of discipline and restraint that for Young characterize Hemingway's adult male.3 Nick in “Big Two-Hearted River,” as Young is careful to point out, is a man rather than a boy, damaged, to be sure, but still a “man who knows his way around.”4 Experiences like the caesarean in “Indian Camp” and his “shiner” in “The Battler” do not imply Nick's boyhood so much as an emerging manhood; receiving the wound from which all other wounds derive meaning constellates diverse experiences into a pattern that now seems to have been present all along. The overarching trajectory of a journey to manhood now appears as the hidden meaning and value of each one of those early encounters. Put differently, we understand the hollowness of boyhood experiences by figuring back from whatever value—discipline, courage, holding tight, suffering wounds, enduring pain—is held to characterize a man. The outcome is threefold. First, boyish actions are not understood as problematic in their own right but only insofar as they fail to measure up to actions performed by a man; masculine codes themselves are not recognized as the problem boys must face. Second, a man's problems are inflicted upon him from outside sources (epitomized by the bullet that hits Nick's spine) rather than from the codes that seem to sustain him. Third, manhood emerges as a stable and solid quality, capable of being encoded and employed in many different situations.

A story like “The Battler” and other stories of the young Nick Adams, however, give little cause for certainty on any of these points. “The Three-Day Blow,” in which we find Nick pondering the wisdom of breaking up with Marjorie, demonstrates Hemingway's acute insights into the early travails of manhood-fashioning. The story portrays with a kind of relish the spartan but comfortable appurtenances of a world without women, where Nick and Bill drink, talk about sport, hunting, fishing, writing, and women, and shape a masculine paradise familiar from dozens of boys' stories of adventure. According to Leslie Fiedler's classic Love and Death in the American Novel (1959), such scenes are also familiar as the primal material of American literature in books where the male protagonist must leave behind society and the women who embody it in order to achieve freedom and self-determination. As a consequence, male characters in American literature remain boys, forever seeking a pristine boyhood paradise free of the responsibility of adult, heterosexual relationships. “Once a man's married he's absolutely bitched,” Bill states in succinct praise of Nick's breaking off “that Marge business”; with Marge around, in fact, “we wouldn't even be going fishing tomorrow” (46-47). Despite Nick's ambivalent feelings about renewing a relationship with Marjorie, the story provides evidence of the adolescent, tough posturing of which his detractors accuse Hemingway, and which, not surprisingly, has been interpreted by many feminist writers as signifying a deep-rooted hostility toward women.

There is much to recommend Fiedler's account and other critiques of Hemingway's stories insofar as they accurately describe the codes that govern Nick and Bill's behavior and conversation. But the story explores the socially constructed nature of those codes and exposes their contradictions rather than representing them as the standards to which Nick and Bill should aspire. Both Nick and Bill, for instance, resist a world of consequences, though for crucially different reasons. For Bill, the consequences of marriage are destructive and should thus be avoided, an act that leaves a man free while symbolically asserting the power of masculine agency and volition. For Nick, picking up Bill's hint that he “might get back into it again,” the consequences of the breakup appear suddenly reversible. “There was not anything,” according to Nick, “that was irrevocable.” But Nick himself has just given an example of something that is: “All of a sudden everything was over. … I couldn't help it. Just like when the three-day blows come now and rip all the leaves off the trees” (47-48). Nick here might simply be in the maudlin stages of incipient drunkenness, but his image conforms more closely than the boys' fantasies of volitional action to the world of inescapable contingencies that Hemingway depicts. The three-day blows occur in fall for a predictable length of time; they are irrevocable and consequential. They mean that it is “getting too late to go around without socks” (40) and that the “birds will lie right down in the grass with this” (49). And they inevitably limit action, for, as Bill proclaims at the end, “You can't shoot in this wind.”

Unable to shoot, the two nevertheless carry their guns when setting off to find Bill's father, determined, in spite of the storm, to conform to a masculine code of potent action. Like the shotgun in “The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife,” the guns are useless, but are powerful reminders of the (phallic) masculine authority Nick and Bill hope to inherit. The guns signify not an intention to kill but a desired form of conduct. In what has come to seem the archetypal Hemingwayesque gesture of grace under pressure, Nick and Bill value their ostensible goal less than the process of trying to achieve it. Indeed, the entire story concerns process of behavior: how to drink, how to use practical symbols in a narrative, how to love women, and even, as the intoxicated Nick struggles in with a beech log, how to pick up spilled apricots: “He laid the log down and picked up the pan. It had contained dried apricots, soaking in water. He carefully picked up all the apricots off the floor, some of them had gone under the stove, and put them back in the pan. He dipped some more water onto them from the pail by the table. He felt quite proud of himself. He had been thoroughly practical” (44-45). Nick sets the spilled apricots to rights using the kind of ritual thoroughnesss and care that seems more pertinent to the Villalta bullfighting vignette and to “Big Two-Hearted River.” But his drunken lucidity (which even includes a wonderfully slurred run-on sentence in “picked up all the apricots off the floor, some of them had gone under the stove”) imparts an unsettlingly comic feel to these scenes of heroic action. Similarly, Nick and Bill attempt to abide by paternal codes and prohibitions even when they are blatantly ludicrous. Bill, for instance, says with regard to whisky that there is “plenty more but dad only likes me to drink what's open,” because he “says opening bottles is what makes drunkards.” If opening bottles really made drunkards, of course, Bill should never open another bottle. Nick, on the other hand, had thought that it was “solitary drinking that made drunkards,” a difference of opinion that is quietly suppressed in their quest for cohesive standards of conduct. For Nick and Bill, the point is not to question the appropriateness of the injunction but to internalize the appropriateness of making codes. The story persuades us that Hemingway's intent might be parodic rather than celebratory. Nick and Bill naively and unsuccessfully try to imitate the codes of true manhood; but because those codes appear to govern even the most inappropriate and trivial situation, they testify to their own limitations.

The problematic nature of those codes becomes particularly evident in stories like “The End of Something” and “Cat in the Rain,” in which masculine roles are subtly inhabited by women. In “The End of Something,” for instance, we might read Nick's taciturn treatment of Marjorie as setting the scene for the ensuing display of precise professionalism and careful mastery of emotion that, to many, characterize the manly conduct of Hemingway's heroes. As fishing expert, moreover, Nick holds the upper hand in the play of glances that, once more, transforms this camp into an arena. At one point Nick appraises her work (“Nick looked at her fish”) and advises: “You don't want to take the ventral fin out.” So proficient is he that we may miss Hemingway's provocative critique of Nick's fumbling attempts to perform an adult masculine role. For Nick's treatment of her arises out of the threat of being out-performed. Marjorie proves every bit as adept as Nick, rowing while “holding the line in her teeth” at one point, smartly “row[ing] up the point a little way so she would not disturb the line,” then driving the boat powerfully “way up the beach.” As Nick finally admits, Marjorie is less an apprentice than an equal: “You know everything. That's the trouble. You know you do. … I've taught you everything. You know you do. What don't you know, anyway?” (32-34).

The fact that Marjorie can match Nick's expertise, experience, and toughness threatens him precisely because the acquisition of such attributes has traditionally been the prerogative of a male. As a consequence, “The End of Something” subverts the “heroic” qualities usually identified in Hemingway's male characters. In particular, the story reveals Nick's heroic pose of cool detachment to be contingent not on his authority but on a double fear of humiliation. First, Marjorie vies with Nick to possess the role he attempts to make his own. Though Philip Young makes some intriguing connections between Nick Adams and Huckleberry Finn (both are “masculine and solitary and out-of-doors … and fond of … hunting and fishing”), it is Marjorie who in this story exhibits the panache and strength of a Huck Finn.5 Second, and perhaps more worrying, Marjorie demonstrates that these manly characteristics do not automatically accrue to any male. To be male is not the same as being a man, but what is a man if Marjorie can possess all the requisite attributes? One might argue that Nick in adolescent fashion is only aping the characteristics that will define the true Hemingway hero. The example of Marjorie, however, suggests the opposite: that there is something deeply problematic about the way masculine codes of behavior initiate boys into manhood.

If the model of Huck Finn reconfigures our easy expectations about roles appropriate to Nick and Marjorie, the woman in “Cat in the Rain” brings to our attention the potentially malleable nature of role-playing itself. The two Americans stopping at the unnamed hotel of an unnamed Italian seaside resort “did not know any of the people” (91) at the hotel and are themselves not known. Tourists without tourism, the Americans are stripped of everything but the most rudimentary roles. George spends the story reading, his wife wishing for whatever she does not have. The narrator, moreover, constantly identifies them in the simplest and most generic way, labeling the woman “the American wife,” “the wife,” and then “the American girl,” while designating to George the position of “her husband” and then, even more indifferently, “The husband” (91-92). Tellingly, when going downstairs the American wife thinks of the padrone first as the “hotel owner” and then “hotel-keeper”; the maid, whose umbrage at the American wife's speaking English hints at depths of character never revealed in the story, remains “the maid.”

These epithets hint at a cultural baggage of stereotypical roles that circumscribe the characters' lives yet are not adequate to the task of expressing their deepest desires and fears. This is particularly true of the “American wife,” whose barely conscious feelings of entrapment and yearnings for powerful models of behavior make her one of Hemingway's most sensitive portraits of a female character. That portrait is nowhere more profound than in the rich metaphoric relationship the narrative draws between the woman and the cat. Initially the cat, which is “crouched under one of the dripping green tables … trying to make herself so compact that she would not be dripped on,” represents the woman's own claustrophobia in the hotel room, where she stands at the window looking out. While the cat wishes only to escape the rain, however, the woman wants to break through the protective shelters that confine her. Her mission to rescue the cat reveals a fantasy of escape into the rain. Yet, ambivalently, she wishes to rescue the cat by securing it more completely within her hotel room. After her abortive venture into the rain, in fact, the fantasy she weaves around the cat suggests a longing for a traditionally feminine and maternal role: “I want to pull my hair back tight and smooth and make a big knot at the back that I can feel. … I want to have a kitty to sit on my lap and purr when I stroke her.” The “kitty” substitutes for what she lacks: perhaps the lack of a child and certainly the complete lack of emotional and physical contact from George. The maternal woman/“kitty” relationship thus doubles for the (conventionally) romantic one between the male lover and female object of affection. The latter roles both depend on George's ability or willingness to restore a conventional paternalism.

The point, however, is not that Hemingway maneuvers the woman back into the position of “American wife,” but that none of her fantasies affords her a stable and sustaining role. Her predicament is evident in her relationship to the padrone of the hotel, which recalls and extends the tense cultural engagements of the early stories. To begin with, the wife liked the hotel keeper. She “liked the deadly serious way he received any complaints. She liked his dignity. She liked the way he wanted to serve her.” After her mission to find the cat, however, the woman's reaction is more complex: “As the American girl passed the office, the padrone bowed from his desk. Something felt very small and tight inside the girl. The padrone made her feel very small and at the same time really important. She had a momentary feeling of being of supreme importance” (93). The servant-to-queen relationship augments the woman's sense of superiority as a wealthy American tourist. Even more ironically, the padrone assumes the conventionally romantic gestures of the lover, bowing to the woman, catering to her every whim, and finally offering her the gift (the cat) she wanted most of all. George instructs her “Don't get wet” (92) and halfheartedly offers to retrieve the cat, but it is the padrone who actually causes the woman to be sheltered and the cat to be found. By quietly anticipating and performing every action for her, however, the padrone also ensures that her experience will remain vicarious. As surrogate lover/father, he merely confirms the uselessness of her existence. Feeling “very small,” the American girl thus becomes child to the protective father and realizes her “supreme importance” only within his strict limits. The conclusion to the story, in which the woman receives her heart's desire, is thus a brilliantly parodic fairy-tale ending. “I want a cat. I want a cat now. If I can't have long hair or any fun, I can have a cat,” complains the woman, only to have a cat miraculously delivered. But with her articulated wants so comprehensively assuaged and her fantasies made real, the ill-defined and chaotic yearnings that the cat symbolizes remain unfulfilled. And worse: by getting exactly what she said she wanted, the woman loses the means for expressing metaphorically the true extent of her predicament. The problem the story poses, then, is not that George fails to measure up to the woman's romantic fantasy of being treated like a princess but that such culturally sanctioned roles are themselves not generative or appropriate to her desires. We see this most clearly when, by playing dutiful hero to the woman's fantasy of being rescued, the padrone causes her fantasy of heroic rescue to succeed.

The mock fairy-tale ending brings to ironic closure the story's dynamic of displacement and substitution most clearly figured in the relationship between woman and cat. Expatriated from their own country, prevented by the rain from being tourists, and, it appears, alienated from each other, the American tourists seem lost in a freeplay of substitutive elements. Linguistically, this dynamic is signaled by the sliding of “cat” into “kitty” and the frequent displacement of one language for another: “brutto tempo. It's very bad weather,” and the conversational sequence that goes “A cat?” “Si, il gatto.” “A cat?” But other forms of substitution pervade the story. The woman's longing for the cat, as many interpretations have pointed out, may represent a baby or perhaps, as Carlos Baker has it, “comfortable bourgeois domesticity.”6 Her desire for long hair substitutes for an emotional attachment to her husband; the padrone substitutes for her husband; the maid, sent by the hotel-keeper to protect her from the rain, symbolically enacts his role, while replacing the woman's yearning for escape with an umbrella-protected charade; and the woman's gazing into the rain represents a stifled desire for action.

Enmeshed in a play of substitutions, the woman struggles to express authentic and original desires as if to bring to an end the bewildering freeplay of sliding roles. In one of the key substitutions of the story, the woman wishes to discard the sense of boyishness and immaturity associated with short hair and grow the long hair that signifies womanhood. The fantasy that long hair grants access to true womanhood seems to reveal to her the truth about her frustration, which can now be explained away as having short hair, “looking like a boy,” and thus acting out an inappropriate role. The authenticity of long hair suggests that she is only metaphorically female—a substitute for a true, long-haired, and womanly self. This substitution has the power to end the play of substitutions as the woman imaginatively dons the authentic sign of womanhood, hitherto obscured by her illusions of grandeur and her perverse misinterpretation of appropriate gender roles. At this point one is tempted to read the story as a parable of expatriation in which traditional gender roles, imbued with meaningful, authentic, and regenerative codes of conduct, have yielded to inappropriate and inadequate replacements. Thus, we might argue, George, passively reading, reneges on a potent, masculine role while the “American girl” substitutes boyish fashion for her womanly prerogatives. Such unnatural pursuits condemn them, like many other characters in In Our Time (such as Krebs in “Soldier's Home” and the couple in “Out of Season”), to near-paralysis.

But “Cat in the Rain” does not imply that expatriation has divorced George and his wife from sustaining patterns of behavior. In fact, it is the traditional roles themselves that seem to force the American woman into a logic of displacement by inviting her to speak her frustration in a false language of authenticity. Though her fantasy of long hair posits a movement from metaphor (looking like a boy) to the real (being a long-haired woman), her actions imply the opposite. During her thorough survey of her face in the mirror, for instance, the woman merely engages culturally constructed types of femininity that place her squarely within the purview of objectifying gazes: “She studied her profile, first one side and then the other. Then she studied the back of her head and her neck.” Her conclusion, after asking George to observe her too, is that “I get so tired of looking like a boy.” But this traditionally narcissistic perusal of her own beauty, culminating in a claim on the “feminine” prerogative of long hair, places her as a center of attention emptied of true authority. Her attempt to command center stage merely entangles her in culturally sanctioned images; a potential power over the gaze becomes submission to the way women and men are supposed to look. Tellingly, her next action is to direct her gaze outwards—a gaze that, though empty in terms of specific motivation, suggests her yearnings for potent observation: “She laid the mirror down on the dresser and went over to the window and looked out.”

The woman, then, can only study her reflection and invite George's gaze within a theater of culturally approved appearances that is by definition out of her control; her only mode of expressing authenticity is to draw attention to a cult of beautiful womanhood whose limitations are evident in her ambivalent response to the padrone and in George's waning interest in her looks. The woman is most displaced from her amorphous desires for liberation when most assiduously performing the role expected of a woman. (Tellingly, she wants to make of that long hair a “big knot.”) Indeed, the mock fairy-tale ending wholly deflates the victory of the authentic over the metaphoric, for the arrival of the authentic and actual in the shape of the cat effectively brings to an end the frustrating but revealing course of the woman's metaphoric expression of her predicament. Though the substitutive rhetoric of longing for the “kitty” obscures the true sources of her frustration, it at least allows a series of metaphoric reflections that keep alive her sense of frustration. Her dilemma, at least in part, is how to keep the freeplay of metaphor alive.

While the woman in “Cat in the Rain” and Marjorie play relatively minor parts in In Our Time, the import of their actions is crucial to an understanding of Hemingway's work. Their actions and longings combine traditionally male and female perspectives. Marjorie, expert on the water and more resilient than Nick, makes her own proud exit from the camp. The woman in “Cat in the Rain” wants to be rescued, but also to be the rescuer; she refuses to let her husband get the cat for her, preferring to experience the traditionally masculine role of self-liberation. The fact that the padrone circumvents the woman's fragile rebellion is perhaps less important than the fact of the rebellion, which reveals that women, like men, harbor urges toward heroic action. If so, this story, like “The End of Something,” urges the possibility that identity is culturally constructed rather than biologically ordained. The American wife's paralysis might be seen more fruitfully within a matrix of social repression rather than as her biological destiny. The characters of Marjorie and the American woman, moreover, inveigh against the tendency of many critics to construct a limited classification of female types. Roger Whitlow in Cassandra's Daughters (1984) rightly condemns the propensity to categorize Hemingway's female characters and argues that they are more complex than his most influential critics (of which Whitlow provides a long list) credit. Comley and Scholes's recent Hemingway's Genders suggest that Whitlow's argument has not been entirely persuasive. They argue that Hemingway “worked all his life with a relatively simple repertory of male and female figures, modifying and individuating them with minimalist economy,” a repertory that the title of Chapter 2 defines as “Mothers, Nurses, Bitches, Girls, and Devils.” For Comley and Scholes, whatever complexity Hemingway manages in his female characters arises from a kind of elaborate cutting and pasting: what makes Brett in The Sun Also Rises “interesting as a character,” for instance, is the way that “Hemingway has assigned her qualities from both sides of his gendered repertory of typical figures.”7

This neo-structuralist reading of Hemingway, which sees his narrative method as selecting and combining from a paradigm class of feminine elements, underestimates the full range and depth of Hemingway's female characters. Like all typologies of Hemingway's characters, each putative category assimilates and erases all idiosyncrasies and potential points of difference. And like all typologies, it assumes the presence of qualities (such as bitchiness or devilishness) with the force of ideal essences. On the other hand, Whitlow, who tends to read those characters simply as fully dimensional human beings (he wonders, for instance, how Marjorie felt about the breakup with Nick), misses the crucial importance of role-playing in Hemingway's narrative.8 To read the woman in “Cat in the Rain” as simply a woman misses the specific ways in which womanhood is constructed (and found wanting), in which the woman herself assigns others to certain roles, and in which the woman tentatively inhabits roles that American and Italian cultures place out of bounds. What makes her interesting as a character, to rephrase Comley and Scholes, is her experience of the simple repertory of female roles she is expected to play, yet cannot.

These rereadings of Marjorie and the American woman parlay into a much more thoroughgoing critique of roles and role-definitions in Hemingway's work. As we have seen, until recently the most influential thrust of Hemingway criticism construed his male characters in terms of their adherence to specific categories of male experience and behavior—the code hero and tutor being the most famous, though by no means the only ones. Delbert E. Wylder, for instance, though rightly disagreeing with the easy code hero/Hemingway hero thesis, simply goes on to construct a more elaborate classification in his Hemingway's Heroes (1969): we now have the sentimental hero of The Torrents of Spring and the tyrant hero of Across the River and into the Trees, among others. Whatever the many virtues of his analysis, Wylder must still ignore or assimilate potentially disruptive aspects of a character's behavior in the process of defining what typifies it. The example of Ad Francis in “The Battler” suggests how problematic such attempts are. It is not just that Francis's tough pose masks a deep fragility, but that the story questions whether one can distinguish his pose from his authentic self. Having knocked Francis unconscious, Bugs argues that “I have to do it to change him when he gets that way.” But does Francis change from “crazy” belligerence to the “normal” man whom Nick overhears saying “I got an awful headache, Bugs”? Or does he change from a normal state of craziness, attributable to his having sustained too many beatings, to a temporary state that is merely manageable? Since Francis “won't remember nothing of it” (60), there is a sense in which his personality is fundamentally incoherent; what defines him is not so much his craziness as the changes he undergoes, which, once forgotten, cannot be assimilated into a coherent sense of identity. Nick Adams, as the analogies between him and Ad Francis suggest, experiences similar changes as he shifts from “kid” to adult (“They would never suck him in that way again”) and from victim to “tough one.” We might even argue that Nick's famous statement in Chapter VI that he and Rinaldi are “Not patriots” has something of the force of “not patriots anymore,” and that his comment thus suggests that he has been sucked into patriotism by more pernicious lies. In that case he has indeed forgotten the lessons of “The Battler.”

What used to be one of the most problematic aspects of “The Battler”—its homoerotic underpinnings—is pertinent to this question of role-playing. The story, as Philip Young coyly states, “can have only one very probable interpretation,” which is that the “tender, motherly, male-nursing Bugs is too comfortable in the relationship with the little, demented ex-fighter” and that it is “not only Ad who is ‘queer.’” This all-male colloquy in the wilderness, replete with phallic imagery of knives and a cosh that had a “flexible handle and was limber in [Nick's] hand,” certainly supports Young's point. But his contention that the theme of homoeroticism is “normally used by Hemingway as it is used here—a kind of ultimate in evil” does the story, and indeed his own reading, a disservice.9 For if Bugs is gay, he is also, as Young points out, motherly; and lest this association between homoeroticism and mothering be construed as portraying Bugs as one more Bad Mother in In Our Time, we should also note that Bugs addresses Nick with the respectful “Mister Adams.” (It is Francis who addresses Nick as “kid” and “Nick.”) If anything, Bugs provides an important counter to the brakeman, who exemplifies lies and brutal “masculine” aggression. And if Francis is gay, his struggles to survive the many beatings he has endured potentially mark him as heroically masculine—if, for instance, we read back from Hemingway's aphorism in Death in the Afternoon that “you will find no man who is a man who will not bear some marks of past misfortune.”10 Moreover, Nick's interest in Bugs's cosh and the proliferating analogies between Francis and Nick would suggest that Nick himself is at least symbolically implicated in the story's rich homoerotic overtones. The story presents no necessary or logical contradiction between homoeroticism and masculinity—between, that is, a “transgressive” male sexuality and “normal” manly behavior.

The story does, however, suggest that “normal” behavior contains a carnivalesque diversity of potential, and ever-changing, roles; it permits Bugs to be motherly and an avatar of the brakeman (for Bugs not only coshes Francis but has been in jail for “cuttin' a man”). But it is not only that Young's “probable interpretation” can be stood on its head so that aspects of masculinity and motherhood can be read as entangled within the purview of homoeroticism. What is truly transgressive about the story is that it refuses to specify a fundamental social and sexual role for Bugs and Francis. Because “The Battler” omits any authoritative indication of the couple's homoeroticism, it permits a constant permutation of interpretive judgments. The story can be interpreted as justifying Young's point that Nick can or should learn to construct a more complete masculine identity out of his awareness of Francis's failures, so that, for instance, Nick carries away a sense that “You got to be tough”—though tempered with a sane contempt for empty violence and abnormal relationships. Equally, the story could be interpreted as suggesting Nick's fascination with the wide range of behavioral patterns liberated by the “abnormal.” Equally, we might argue that the story simply exhibits a wide range of behaviors, none of which should be judged either normal or abnormal. The point is that each of these potential interpretations (among many others) depends upon stabilizing one foundational element out of a play of possibilities. Once a foundation has been adduced, it rigorously governs subsequent readings. In Young's reading, for instance, the assumption that Nick encounters a brutally abnormal relationship between Francis and Bugs assimilates the concept of motherliness, which is similarly made suspect by virtue of its transgressive relationship to “normal” manliness. A man, that is, should not be a mother, though a queer male might be motherly. The possibility that Bugs could be a motherly man (whether queer or not) puts in doubt the very grounds of Young's assumption—though, by the same token, the story also puts in doubt the extent to which one could construe the presence of a motherly man into an affirmative view of homoeroticism.

My point is not to castigate Young for covert homophobia but to criticize the all too overt tendency in Young and most other scholars toward assuming the stability of Hemingway's concept of manhood. Actually, the constant displacements of role in narratives like “The Battler” and “Cat in the Rain” problematize the very idea of masculinity, and not simply because Nick is fascinated by limber blackjacks, Bugs shows propensities for mothering, and the woman in “Cat in the Rain” exhibits fantasies of heroic conduct. More profoundly, these stories consistently put in question available categories of judgment. Hemingway's genius is to place constant interpretive pressure on us to make decisions about actions and values appropriate to men or women—as when Dick Boulton thinks about “how big a man he was” or when the American tourist gets “tired of looking like a boy”—while asking us to recognize how hazardous is the task of negotiating definitions that are rarely specified in the text. Categorical definitions within these stories are finalized only at the risk of ignoring the logic of narrative decentering contained within their gestic structure. What seem to be fairly straightforward representations of masculine and feminine types—Francis enduring the beatings, the woman in “Cat in the Rain” wanting long hair and a kitty—turn out to be much more complex negotiations of roles and values. Some roles that scholars have considered to represent the heart of Hemingway's concept of manhood, such as the taciturn man dealing expertly with intransigent experience, are treated ironically. Other roles possessing cultural sanction, such as the woman wishing for long hair, are exposed as inadequate shams.

The signs that construct masculine and feminine roles, in fact, are constantly shown to be transient and subject to negotiation: the Doctor who dominates the operating theater of the cabin thus suffers humiliation in the arena of his own garden, just as Ad Francis's attempt to dominate the camp suddenly changes to the image of his body in “childish” repose. Masculinity and femininity are fundamentally metaphorical in the sense that they possess no categorical or absolute value. They demand negotiation, not only in the sense that audiences within narratives need to observe, judge, and interpret the value of a man's actions, but in the sense that readers, as I argued in the case of “The Short Happy Life,” must construe the significance of actions that simply do not speak for themselves. In judging whether Bugs is a motherly man, or a motherly gay (and therefore to Hemingway not a “man” at all?), or androgynous, or a sensitive (and thus “real”?) man, we become aware of our predilection for strong definitions of masculinity and femininity that the story, just as surely, puts in question.

Conventional assessments of Hemingway's work conclude that attaining manhood—as in the numinous moments when the “kid” becomes a man and when Villalta kills—promises to deliver the true meaning of a man's life. My reading of these stories suggests instead that meaning in Hemingway's work is always negotiable. His fiction concerns both the ways in which masculine and feminine roles are performed; and it foregrounds the ways in which readers perform definitions of masculinity and femininity. Reading “Cat in the Rain” in terms of the woman's attempts to dramatize herself amid the gazes of husband, padrone, maid, and mirror suggests something of the potential malleability of performed roles. At the same time, we should recognize that to argue that the woman in “Cat in the Rain” pursues “masculine” fantasies of rescue and self-liberation is as much a construction of the evidence as to argue that Bugs demonstrates “feminine” delicacies of tenderness and nurturing. It may be that Bugs's particular quality of tenderness should not be confused with mothering or that the American wife's “masculine” longing to break out of her room should not be equated with Nick's desire to separate from Marjorie. In each of these readings a conventional interpretation of “masculine” and “feminine” has been brought to bear from outside the story itself. The result would be the same, however, if we chose to define these terms more unconventionally—through, say, Hélène Cixous's notion of linear masculinity and oceanic femininity.11 My point is that Hemingway's fiction forces us to try out various constructions of masculinity and femininity while recognizing that we are merely staging significations that have no eternal or absolute validity.


In In Our Time, Hemingway turns repeatedly to the arenas where, he suggests, men act out their dramas of power and shame. Some of these characters (such as Boulton and Villalta) demonstrate the authority accruing to the successful self-dramatist. More often, exposure to the watching crowd brings humiliation: in crucial scenes, characters like Ad Francis and Nick's father reach center stage only to display their inadequacy. Audiences may be disappointing, as Nick realizes in Chapter VI, but they do play a crucial part in the fashioning of manhood. They function as legitimating agents for men's images of themselves while problematizing the articulation of a secure and stable masculine identity. These narratives displace self, as it were, into seeing, and thus disrupt a monologic representation of masculinity by way of a theatrical experience that emphasizes the stage/arena, staged actions, watching audiences, and gestic role playing. Though Hemingway is primarily concerned with masculine identity, we have also seen that female characters like Marjorie and the American wife contribute to a more general sense that human identity rests precariously on the possibilities of role playing.

Jake Barnes, in The Sun Also Rises, shares with Nick Adams the displacement of self into seeing amid a landscape of theatricalized and carnivalized actions that are, if anything, more insistently woven into the narrative fabric than in In Our Time. Jake himself is primarily responsible, as many critics have pointed out, since his role as observer-participant dominates the novel's narrative trajectory, constantly drawing attention to the multiple acts of watching that shape his identity and that lead, ultimately, to his psychological travail in the arenas where men demonstrate their potency. This sense that Jake's watching embroils him with other characters in theatricalized arenas has, however, received little attention. Critics usually construe Jake's watching as a mode of detachment, though opinions vary as to whether detachment signifies a pure and objective disinterest or an unfortunate passivity. James T. Farrell noted that Jake's occupation as journalist “tends to develop the point of view of the spectator,” and others concur. Edwin Burgum claims that Jake is a “disinterested observer,” Carlos Baker that Jake is a “detached observer looking on at aimless revels which at once amused him and left him sick at heart.” As a variation on this theme, Benson argues that Jake is a “developing character whose awareness and commitment is shaky until the end of the novel” when he finds the “bitter detachment” that other critics posit as his defining characteristic. At this point, Jake “finally becomes his own man.” The main disagreement with this sense of Jake as the fatally or successfully detached observer has come from those who, like H. R. Stoneback, argue that Hemingway is “one of the great cartographers of the deus loci” and that Jake's role as an observer-figure at sacred places adds a mythic and transcendent resonance to his spectatorial abilities.12

Yet the most immediate impression of Jake's watching in The Sun Also Rises suggests neither detachment nor spirituality; his watching reads as a compensatory mechanism operating within an economy of lack. Early in the novel, Jake reports, “I looked at myself in the mirror of the big armoire beside the bed,” thinking “Of all the ways to be wounded” (30).13 The term “myself,” interestingly, signifies in contradictory ways. On the one hand, it represents a productive combination of body and the conscious gaze. Seeing is responsible for awareness of being, though there also seems to be an “I” that precedes the act of watching (“I looked”) that is reducible neither to the imaged body nor to the act of watching. On the other hand, because “myself” also refers metonymically to the genitals—the male equipment that (supposedly) establishes a masculine self—the term also represents an absence (either of penis, testicles, or both). In this sense, Jake sees nothing at all or not enough: an absence or a lack. He faces the conundrum of watching a self into being that is simultaneously revealed to be missing or lacking. He is simultaneously “myself” and “not-myself.”

What remains to his advantage, it seems, is the act of watching and being watched, which at once represents his loss/lack of physical completeness and sexual potency and compensates for it. The theatricality of watching “myself” at least allows him to represent a lost plenitude to himself, though it is by the same token a precarious and possibly inauthentic substitute for the whole self that equivocally appears when he looks into the mirror. Watching and being watched establishes selfhood; yet it establishes selfhood in terms of loss/lack. Not surprisingly, then, Jake demonstrates a vexed relationship to the acts of seeing that sustain and, it might be said, create him. Jake remarks early on that “I have a rotten habit of picturing the bedroom scenes of my friends” (13). His impotence has transformed his friends' acts into theater and himself into director, a habit of voyeurism that appears to be at once a product of and compensation for his inability to participate in his own bedroom scenes. Similarly, his self-disgusted comment that “I liked to see [Mike] hurt Cohn” (148) suggests a burden of desire, anger, and guilt cathected onto the act of seeing.

The scene at the Irati River—which critics persist in reading as an edenic interlude between the hellish scenes at Paris and Pamplona—indicates further some of the complicated roots of Jake's voyeurism. Bill, producing his haul of four trout, lays them out on the grass and asks:

“How are yours?”


“Let's see them.”

“They're packed.”

“How big are they really?”

“They're all about the size of your smallest.”


In this conspicuously phallic show-and-tell, Jake refuses the competitive display that would mark his as “smaller.” His act of looking (at Bill's trout) doubles for the display he will not make; his assessment of the size of Bill's trout relative to his own covers for the assessment he will not allow Bill. A refusal to put his (Jake's) on display thus reconfigures the play of glances around an absence (the absent trout/phallus)—with the unforeseen consequence that this absence generates both the rich rhetorical play of the passage and its fascination with a dynamic interplay of probing, competing, and revealing glances. At the same time, Jake rather slyly reserves to himself the role of evaluation. Like the earlier scene where Jake watches himself in the mirror, this moment at the Irati River suggests the equivocal dynamic of watching and being watched: watching and evaluating grants Jake a measure of authority in scenes where men compete against and test each other, yet he forfeits the self-display that seemed so problematic when “I looked at myself” in the mirror, but which characterizes the confidence of Bill and Pedro Romero.

In still another sense, Jake's “rotten habit” corresponds to that passionate witnessing which is his aficion. They “saw that I had aficion” (132), claims Jake of Montoya's friends, as if aficion is a matter of seeing true rather than of interrogation. Several other characters comment on Jake's perceptiveness. Romero remarks: “I like it very much that you like my work. … But you haven't seen it yet. To-morrow, if I get a good bull, I will try and show it to you” (174). And when Jake advises Montoya (to the hotel keeper's pleasure) not to give Romero the invitation from the American ambassador, Montoya asks Jake three times to “look” (171-72) for him. Cast as the archetypal observer by other men who accept his evaluations of their endeavors, Jake has managed to transform observation itself into a kind of powerful witnessing—though the closing scenes at Pamplona will show how flimsy his authority truly is. Not surprisingly, after Jake assists Brett to seduce Romero Montoya responds to what he perceives as the American's betrayal of aficion by refusing the gaze that signifies a commonality and community of interest: Montoya “bowed” (209) upon meeting Jake and Brett on the stairs; on departure, the hotel keeper “did not come near us” (228).

Jake Barnes is thus much more than a recording eye or a detached observer occasionally implicated in the immoral conduct of his expatriate friends. My point, though, is not simply to characterize Jake's habit of watching as less disinterested and more of an activity than critics usually grant, but to show that he employs some of the functions of gazing within a theatrical representation of manhood. His status as spectator-participant underpins Hemingway's sense of manhood-fashioning as a performance carried out before an evaluating audience. Jake's acts of gazing—as opposed to Benson's account of Jake becoming “his own man” in “bitter detachment”—can never be separated from the structure of authority and humiliation that inform his (and others') gestures toward manhood. But it would be a mistake to construe Jake's dependence on watching as signifying his lack of manhood, as though his status of observer, perpetually cut off from the activities of real men, were the consequence of his genital injury. On the contrary: Jake, as odd as it sounds, exemplifies the condition of manhood. As the above example of Bill's flaunting of his trout suggests, and as Romero's bullfighting will demonstrate still more effectively, Jake is not alone in working within a visual economy of display and spectatorship. If his habit of observing places him in the important but apparently subsidiary role of passionate witness (aficionado), the novel also draws our attention to the general economy of lack, facing all men, within which observing and being observed become functional, and within which both imply lack. Jake watches others to compensate for his sexual impotency; but the need to be observed on the part of those in the novel who are not generally recognized to be in need of support (like Romero) testifies to a situation in which the male self is never felt to be complete, authentic, and independent.

Approved by the adoring crowd as well as by Jake's expert appraisal, Romero's victories in the bullring after the beating by Cohn are not only the narrative conclusion of Book II but the focus of Jake's own attempts to redeem his impotence. Jake perceives Romero's painful trial in the ring as a testing and affirmation of the matador's spirit—and perhaps, since Jake is another survivor of Cohn's assaults, as a vicarious affirmation of his own: “The fight with Cohn had not touched his spirit but his face had been smashed and his body hurt. He was wiping all that out now. Each thing that he did with this bull wiped that out a little cleaner” (219). Romero's process of recuperation, to Jake, depends upon a complex relationship between being watched and disavowing the watching audience (Brett in particular). For Sun, and for Hemingway's early work in general, interpretation of this passage is crucial: “Everything of which he [Romero] could control the locality he did in front of her all that afternoon. Never once did he look up. He made it stronger that way, and did it for himself, too, as well as for her. Because he did not look up to ask if it pleased he did it all for himself inside, and it strengthened him, and yet he did it for her, too. But he did not do it for her at any loss to himself. He gained by it all through the afternoon” (216). Jake's conundrum of profit and loss (if Romero did it “all” for himself, what could be left for Brett?) involves, once again, the matador's intimate relationship with his audience. Unlike Villalta in Chapter XII of In Our Time, who played self-consciously to the crowd, Romero “did not look up” and thus, according to Jake, “did it all for himself inside.” Even at the end of the fight, when the crowd raises him in triumph, this most reticent of actors tries to resist: “He did not want to be carried on people's shoulders” (221). Yet by defying the rules of performance in Hemingway's quintessential arena, Romero appears to Jake to increase the potency of his actions—a formulation that seems to justify scholarly accounts of his detached heroism and to contradict those many scenes in In Our Time and Sun where a man's prestige is seen to depend on the legitimating approval of an audience.

Most critics have concurred with Jake. Few characters in Hemingway seem to fit more exactly the profile of the tutor or code hero, whose governing feature, according to Earl Rovit, is his “self-containment” (39). Lawrence R. Broer speaks of the “self-contained Romero,” Mark Spilka agrees that Romero's “manhood is a thing independent of women,” and Allen Josephs has recently written in a similar vein that Romero is “an innocent.”14 Yet Romero's mode of asserting his manhood is far more self-consciously part of a “system of authority” (185) than Jake (like the critics) perceives: he performs as close to Brett as possible; he follows the wishes of the audience when, with the second bull, “the crowd made him go on” (219), and proceeds to give a complete exhibition of bullfighting. He also holds his posture as consciously as any actor: he “finished with a half-veronica that turned his back on the bull and came away toward the applause, his hand on his hip, his cape on his arm, and the bull watching his back going away” (217). In the bullfight, Romero dispenses with the audience only because the audience is there. He never once looks up, because the arena supplies an audience that looks down, celebrating his actions for him. At the dramatic climax of the fight, the presentation of the bull's ear to Brett takes on significance precisely because it happens before an audience. As Jake describes it, Romero “leaned up against the barrera and gave the ear to Brett. The crowd were all about him. Brett held down the cape.” The crowd here is not merely an element of the scene: it is “all about,” the element that creates a scene, converting the act of giving into a ceremony and transforming these actors into celebrities.

Romero, as the scene in the café with Brett and Jake shows, is an accomplished actor. During the conversation he “tipped his hat down over his eyes and changed the angle of his cigar and the expression of his face. … He had mimicked exactly the expression of Nacional” (186). The cigar itself is a kind of stage prop marking him as one of the “bull-fighters and bull-fight critics,” who are all smoking cigars, and that continues to invest him with authority when he joins Brett and Jake. Jake intimates that Romero continues smoking despite his “very nice manners,” for the cigar, as Jake observes, “went well with his face.” Though Brett at one point tells Jake “I can't look at him” (184), Romero (in a foreshadowing of his later performance in the bullring) is eager to display himself, quickly inviting Brett to “look” and “see [the] bulls in my hand.” In the next chapter, Mike's account of Cohn's beating of Romero (learnt secondhand from Brett) attests once more to Romero's prowess at self-display. Mike casts Cohn as the villain in a melodrama of humiliation—it is Cohn who wishes to create a “Damned touching scene” (201) in making Brett an honest woman, who cries, and who wants to shake hands with Romero in a lugubrious gesture of respect and reconciliation. But Romero—whose willingness to continue the battle with Cohn despite its one-sided nature has usually been taken to signify a code of indomitable courage—plays a crucial role in this “touching scene.” The struggle, after all, is enacted before the eyes of Brett (who later recounts it to Mike for yet another dramatization). Defeated by Cohn's superior technique, Romero can only gain face by prolonging his heroic resistance to the point where an outclassed boxing performance can be seen as a gesture of pride in the face of physical defeat, and where physical loss can be transformed into a theater of evaluatory watching. Romero's sole statement during his punishment (“So you won't hit me?”), which is intended to incite a resumption of the conflict, can therefore be read as an act of profound courage—in which, as Melvin Backman writes, the “hard male core of the young bullfighter could not be touched by Cohn's punches”—or a melodramatically conceived throwing down of the gauntlet to an equally theatrical rival.15 In this latter sense, Romero's work in the bullring should be seen not so much as a “wiping … out” (219) of the beating by Cohn than as a resumption of the code of display that the scene with Cohn and Brett exemplifies.

Considering the subtle but insistent theatricality of Romero's performances, the motives behind Jake's assertions that the matador does it “all for himself inside” become more complex than critics have generally recognized. Christian Messenger is not unusual in claiming that Romero “provides Jake Barnes with a hero whom Jake can learn from and appreciate by spectatorial comprehension of the sporting rite.”16 Yet Jake's role at the ringside is actually far more than that of spectator and student of Romero's expert work with the bull. Jake represses the element of theatricality in Romero's actions because of his own failure in crucial scenes to control the way he displays himself; a more complete characterization of Jake must include the dramas of humiliation in which he plays the leading role. The key scene in which he tacitly pimps for Brett in the café, which as we have already noted features Romero's successful self-dramatization, becomes even more of a theatrical event when we figure in Jake's role. His ambiguous brief from Brett is to “see me through this” (184), and Jake literally watches the relationship between Romero and Brett into being. If Brett, through embarrassment or nerves, cannot at first look at Romero (“I can't look at him”), Jake has no such compunction: observing that Romero is “nice to look at,” Jake proceeds to give a detailed description and then notes that “I saw he [Romero] was watching Brett.” Romero twice more “looked at her across the table” (186, 187)—glances that bracket Brett's study of his hand—before Jake leaves after Romero's “final look to ask if it were understood.” “It was,” Jake comments wryly, “understood all right.”

Many things are potentially understood in this exchange of glances between Romero and Jake. Though Jake acts as consultant to an incipient love affair, his actual role and authority is ambiguous. It is unclear, for instance, whether “it” refers to a contract fashioned between men—a kind of transfer of Brett from impotent watcher to potent matador—or to Jake's understanding of Brett's desires. In either case, the inquiring glance that Romero directs at Jake only bestows on him titular authority. Acting as mediator, translator, and consultant to the desires of others, Jake takes center stage only to discover his own humiliation. For his account of the evaluatory glances at the table have thus far obscured the presence of yet another audience to his actions. On leaving the café, Jake notes that the “hard-eyed people at the bull-fighter table watched me go” and comments dryly that it “was not pleasant.” Several things are not pleasant for Jake here: the sense that Romero has usurped him sexually, and the sense that he has betrayed his tough masculine role by pimping for Brett. Above all, it is not pleasant that his failures are played out before a crowd of aficionados who watch and judge him. The whole scene thus comprises a series of actions framed by diverse glances: Romero watches Brett for signs of attraction; Jake watches Romero's victorious campaign for Brett; and the aficionados watch the entire show. In this theater of seduction, the role of watcher constantly switches function. The hard-eyed aficionados' stares come as an unpleasant shock to Jake; his watching, in contrast, appears only as a function of Romero's need for an audience. Though in some ways Jake has powerfully shaped the scene in this theater-café by directing the liaison of Brett and Romero, he does not control the play of glances. By the end of the scene, he is effectively “looked down,” and looked down upon, by Romero and the aficionados.

Jake's appreciation of Romero's disdain for the crowd in the bullring takes on a richer significance in the context of his humiliating failure to dramatize himself successfully before the “hard-eyed people.” In the café, for the first time in the novel, Jake inadvertently steps into the part hitherto enacted by characters like Romero and Dick Boulton: a man dramatizing his manhood before other men (and, in this case, Brett). Every potent action of Romero's in the bullring thus recalls a double failure on Jake's part: he fails to perform a tough masculine role in the café and then betrays, before his co-aficionados, his compensatory ability to watch and evaluate the masculine behavior of another. Such betrayals inform Jake's fascination with Romero's performance in the bullring. Romero “did it all for himself inside,” but Jake does it for Brett; Romero scripts the killing of the bull, but Jake directs in accordance with Brett's script of seduction; Romero does not look up, disdaining the audience yet inviting applause, while Jake suffers the stares of the “hard-eyed people.” Jake's fascination with Romero's display and his corresponding desire to play down the importance of self-display both arise from his humiliating lack of mastery over his own performances.

This interpretation of Jake as an interested (and failed) participant in scenes of masculine display illuminates two more aspects of the final bullfight. First, it helps to account for the long passage on Belmonte. Another man who has a “crowd … actively against him” (214) and who proves to be a secret observer of Romero (“Belmonte watched Romero too, watched him always without seeming to”), Belmonte has similar motives to Jake: both men have suffered the contempt of the crowd, and both jealously watch Romero enact what they may never again possess. And Belmonte sketches a possible role for Jake. For Belmonte, at least according to Jake, is “utterly contemptuous and indifferent” to the crowd that scorns him and, in our last glimpse of him, able to ignore the evaluatory stares altogether: he “leaned on the barrera below us, his head on his arms, not seeing, not hearing anything, only going through his pain.” But Jake's answer is to attempt to return to the aficionado role he has forfeited, telling Brett to “Watch how” and comparing his knowledge of Romero's perfect handling of the visually impaired bull with that of the “Biarritz crowd,” who misread Romero's actions as cowardice and who prefer “Belmonte's imitation of himself or Marcial's imitation of Belmonte.” In contrast to Belmonte's indifference to the crowd, Jake searches for a way to resurrect the privilege of watching, and it is telling that as this lengthy scene unfolds the crowd plays an increasingly effective and even intrusive role. It showers Belmonte with “cushions and pieces of bread and vegetables,” “made a great row” when it “wanted the bull changed,” “made [Romero] go on” fighting his last bull, and is finally “all about him” and “all around him” during the concluding celebrations. If Romero's performances represent and recall all that Jake lacks, Jake's insistence on the role played by the crowd at the final bullfight at least serves to remind us of the crowd dynamics that structure Romero's own “system of authority.”

Watching Romero typifies Jake's role in The Sun Also Rises. But the key scenes where Pedro Romero performs before the eyes of Brett and Jake—exemplified by Romero's command over the bullring—force a complete reconsideration of the usual claims about the masculine, moral, mythic, or spiritual significance of the ritual encounter, and about the psychic renewal Jake gains from it. Neither Jake's refusal to take center-stage nor his ability to transmit heroic and mythic values to his various audiences are compelling reasons for accepting at face value his role of detached, heroic witness. Instead, his expert analysis of the various arenas where men perform reveals the problematic nature of manhood-fashioning. As the mirror scene suggests, Jake struggles to construe a workable identity out of a precarious dynamic of presence/absence. Watching others substitutes for the lack of visible signs of maleness that keep him, it seems, from competing with other men in displays of masculine prowess. Lacking confidence in a masculine presence that exists prior to the play of evaluating glances, he constructs Romero as the type of man who “did it all for himself inside” while obsessively recording the details of Romero's performance. Watching, ironically, projects his unfulfilled desire for a masculine plenitude beyond the purview of watching.

But in The Sun Also Rises no man escapes from theatricality and self-dramatization into the full presence of autonomous selfhood. The point is worth emphasizing lest it seem that Jake's humiliation and the power of Romero's performance, arising from the kind of masculine show-and-tell staged on the Irati River, simply suggest the bullfighter's phallic power and the watcher's obvious lack. That Romero stages himself authoritatively while Jake (apart from his poor display before the “hard-eyed people”) manages to avoid center-stage does not in the end suggest that each character finds a different way to manhood or that the novel argues for a dialectic of man/not-man or that the novel constructs its theaters only for those who lack the full male equipment. Indeed, because Jake, lacking his “manhood,” must overtly struggle to construct a sense of masculine selfhood, it is Jake rather than Romero who exemplifies the novel's metaphorics of manhood-fashioning. Romero's and Jake's distinct roles bespeak the same structure of performance, and in that sense both confront the same peril of lacking or losing manhood.

My account of manhood-fashioning in The Sun Also Rises and In Our Time, building on my earlier analysis of “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” suggests that Hemingway's fictions affirm a concept of masculinity that is multiply transformed and subject to rupture, inconsistency, and lack. This sliding of masculine identities and the inevitable deferral of a complete and autonomous masculine self, which is constantly being filled, voided, and refashioned before an audience, must, I argue, be read as a theatrical imperative experienced by men (if not women as well). Hemingway's work thus sustains a provocative interpretation of his characters' travails. Jake Barnes's obsession with Romero's performances springs from a vexed relationship with the very modes of masculine display that structure his identity. And the dynamic of man/not-man that characterizes Jake's mirror-gaze is consistent with the structural relationship between protagonist and audience experienced elsewhere in Hemingway's work. Nick's father switches from master of the operating theater to the humiliated husband of his own house and garden; Macomber voids his hollow fear to become a man, determined to display his new understanding of the code; and Wilson, giving up the “thing he had lived by” in several different misdemeanors against the logic of his own code, is thereby unmanned. It is in an effort to explore further the implications of theatricalized masculine behavior that the next chapter turns to Hemingway's theaters of war.


  1. Ernest Hemingway, In Our Time (New York: Scribner's, 1925), 83. This work will hereinafter be cited parenthetically by page number in the text. Parts of this chapter were first published in “Dramatizations of Manhood in Hemingway's In Our Time and The Sun Also Rises,American Literature 61, no. 2 (1989): 245-60, and in “In Our Time, Out of Season,” in Companion to Hemingway, ed. Scott Donaldson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 55-86.

  2. Leo Gurko, Ernest Hemingway and the Pursuit of Heroism (New York: Thomas Crowell, 1968), 230.

  3. Young [Ernest Hemingway: A Reconsideration. New Mexico: University of New Mexico Press, 1969], 13.

  4. Ibid., 27.

  5. Ibid., 202.

  6. Baker, [Hemingway: The Writer as Artist. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1952], 135.

  7. [Nancy R. Comley, and Robert Scholes. Hemingway's Genders: Rereading Hemingway. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994], 23, 45.

  8. [Roger Whitlow. Cassandra's Daughters: The Women in Hemingway. Westport; Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1984], 88.

  9. Young, 11.

  10. Hemingway, Afternoon, 99-100.

  11. See, for instance, Hélène Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” trans. Keith and Paul Cohen, Signs 1 (1976): 865-80.

  12. James T. Farrell, “The Sun Also Rises,” in Ernest Hemingway: Critiques of Four Major Novels, ed. Carlos Baker (New York: Scribner's, 1962), 5; Edwin Berry Burgum, “Ernest Hemingway and the Psychology of the Lost Generation,” in Ernest Hemingway: The Man and His Work, ed. John K. M. McCaffery (Cleveland: World Publishing, 1950), 315; Baker, Writer as Artist, 77; Benson, 40; H. R. Stoneback, “From the rue Saint-Jacques to the Pass of Roland to the ‘Unfinished Church on the Edge of the Cliff,’” Hemingway Review 6, no. 1 (fall 1986): 27.

  13. Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises (New York: Scribner's, 1926). This work will hereinafter be cited parenthetically by page number in the text.

  14. Lawrence R. Broer, Hemingway's Spanish Tragedy (University, Ala.: University of Alabama Press, 1973), 49; Mark Spilka, “The Death of Love in The Sun Also Rises,” in Twelve Original Essays on Great American Novels, ed. Charles Shapiro (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1958), 250; Allen Josephs, “Toreo: The Moral Axis of The Sun Also Rises,Hemingway Review 6, no. 1 (1986), 92.

  15. Melvin Backman, “Hemingway: The Matador and the Crucified,” in ed. Baker, Hemingway and His Critics, 247.

  16. [Christian K. Messenger. Sport and the Spirit of Play in American Fiction. New York: Columbia University Press, 1981], 251.

Toni D. Knott (essay date 1999)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11101

SOURCE: Knott, Toni D. “The Critical Reception—Through Time.” In One Man Alone: Hemingway and To Have and Have Not, edited by Toni D. Knott, pp. 11-39. Latham, N.Y.: University Press of America, 1999.

[In the following essay from an anthology celebrating Hemingway's centennial, Knott reviews responses to the author's controversial novel To Have and Have Not.]

Manning: “Is there anything you've written that you would do differently if your could do it over?” Hemingway: “Not yet.”

“Hemingway in Cuba,” from Bruccoli's Conversations


Lionel Trilling's 1937 statement sounds a ring of truth today: “More than any writer of our time he has been under glass, watched, checked up on, predicted, suspected, warned” (62). By the time The Sun Also Rises (TSAR) was published in 1926, the seeds of the Hemingway legend were firmly planted, and the accompanying stream of criticism with its penchant for entanglement in E. H.'s life had begun. Edmund Wilson described the situation in 1927: “The reputation of Ernest Hemingway has, in a very short time, assumed such proportions that it has already become fashionable to disparage him” (Shores 339).

From that time and into the present, a great deal of criticism on E. H.'s works has focused on linking his personal life to his fiction and his characters to living people. Nadine DeVost says that “by 1952, when the film version of ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’ appeared, Hemingway's life and the plots of his stories and novels had become thoroughly interchangeable in the public's mind …” (39). Of course, E. H. added fuel to these fires. Yet, we want to remember that although some incidents in Hemingway's life and individuals that he knew may have served as a basis for his fiction, such insights are not necessary for an enjoyment or understanding of his fiction.1 Michael Reynolds says, “After he wrote The Sun Also Rises, most of his readers and more than one biographer assumed that all of his fiction was thinly veiled biography, which it almost never was” (Paris Years 61). Also, as Peter Hays, Robert Lewis (Hemingway in Italy), Reynolds (Hemingway's First War), and others have discovered, most of the time E. H. conducted research before he wrote. It is unfortunate when guesses detract from an objective reading or analysis of his works. To Have and Have Not (THHN) particularly has suffered from conjectures and to such an extent that until recently the novel's text and its clues have not received the attention that they deserve.

As if biographical confusion were not enough, Trilling believed that derogatory criticism had a negative effect on E. H. and blamed it “for the illegitimate emergence of Hemingway the ‘man’”—meaning that E. H. attempted to respond in his works to demands put upon him by critics (62). Trilling is not the only one who believed this; as a matter of fact, this tendency—also prevalent in THHN criticism—serves as a good example of how in some respects Hemingway criticism has changed little over the years. Thirty-three years after Trilling wrote the above, Arthur Waldhorn wrote that “the confusion of sounds from within and without damaged Hemingway's artistic inner ear and contributed to the intellectual imbalance of To Have and Have Not” (153). Jeffrey Meyers wrote thirteen years later than THHN “was a half-hearted attempt to meet the contemporary demand for political awareness …” (Biography 292, emphasis added). Seven years later, Michael M. Boardman stated, “The effect of such continuous scrutiny, especially on a man of such strong aesthetic convictions, was a defensive stance toward his reader” (165, emphasis added). Again, while opinions regarding critical influence on Hemingway's writings may hold interest for some, such speculations offer no insight into his works. Instead—like biographical guesses—they obscure his artistic skill, or relegate it to second in importance. Also, while E. H. was irritated by misguided criticism, it is difficult to prove that much of it ever went so far as to influence his published work. It may, however, have influenced his first drafts, which seem to have served as release valves; it was not uncommon for him to use his own name and those of acquaintances in early drafts. Yet, I have difficulty imagining that he would have allowed anyone or anything to interrupt his search for truth in writing.

One possible reason that some of E. H.'s contemporary critics heaped detrimental criticism upon him may be that he did not fit neatly into the literary or intellectual mold, nor did he try to fit. He never cared to attend college, an option open to him, nor did he value a college degree. Yet, many Ivy League graduates were impressed with his intelligence and perception, as were the many artists, poets, and authors that he met. Hemingway possessed “perhaps the best ear that has ever been brought to the creation of English prose,” and his mind worked like “a vacuum cleaner … picking up any little thing, technique, or possible subject that might be of use” (Benson 3). He was a self-taught man and a voracious reader, and he also absorbed knowledge from almost all around him: “every torero, every fisherman, every writer, every statesman, every soldier, every historian, and every person whose life and expertise merited his attention” (Gajdusek E-mail 31 Jan. 1995).

Certainly E. H. was disturbed by the practice of some of his contemporary critics to write a review without seeming to have taken the time to actually read his work. For example, Cyril Connolly found THHN “morally odious” and then proved that he didn't read the work or pay much attention to it by saying that Harry Morgan broke the neck of the man who didn't pay him for his fishing lessons (228). Hemingway wrote in 1936 to Ivan Kashkin, a Russian critic for whom he had respect: “Wilson is really very funny … I'm not sure he really read the Green Hills book even. I think he read the criticisms” (Baker, SL [Selected Letters] 430). Ironically, Wilson, “considered America's foremost man of letters in the twentieth century” (Contemporary Literary Criticism 101), admitted in 1935 that critics may be guilty of the practice of not actually reading a work—although he did not specifically implicate himself:

He [the author] has been laboring for months or for years to focus some comprehensive vision or to make out some compelling case, and then finds his book discussed by persons who not only have not understood it, but do not even in some instances appear to have read it.

(Shores 599)

Hemingway wrote to Kashkin in 1935:

Here [in America] criticism is a joke. The bourgeois critics do not know their ass from a hole in the ground. … Edmund Wilson is the best critic we have but he no longer reads anything that comes out. [Malcolm] Cowley is honest. … He is also tending to stop reading. The others are all careerists.

(Baker, SL 417-18)

Wilson also reinforced E. H.'s perception that critics' articles “are often copied word for word from one another” (Shores 599). Such ploys enabled critics to write a greater number of articles for a greater amount of money—hence, “careerists.” Wilson added that we shouldn't expect these writers—overburdened as they were by “one or more books a day for five or six days a week”—to give us “much serious criticism” (601). Years later, Joseph DeFalco agrees: “Not surprisingly the nature of the criticisms often reflected the preoccupations of the critics themselves”:

Those of the left, for example, were nearly of a mind that To Have and Have Not (1937) and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) presented crucial proletarian issues but failed to present a convincing portrait of solidarity within the masses.


Hemingway could not help but also be disturbed by some of the blatantly personal attacks published during his lifetime. He must have been angered by such comments as Louis Kronenberger's in a 1937 review: “These may seem like artistic rather than intellectual matters, but their failure as art is based on a defect of intelligence” (182). Surely there was no way to ignore such comments. Hemingway wrote in July 1938 to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, “I don't think it is persecution mania or egotism if I say that there are a lot of critics who really seem to hate me very much and would like to put me out of business” (Baker, SL 471). Elliott Paul agreed in his 1937 essay: “No other American writer would be subjected to such an impertinent barrage, no matter what he published” (110). Unfortunately, the habit has not been restricted to E. H.'s lifetime; Waldhorn wrote in 1972: “Among other crippling thoughts, To Have and Have Not is hobbled also by lame thinking” (153).

While disappointed with the aforementioned brands of criticism—“I think there's nothing more discouraging than unintelligent appreciation” (Wilson, Shores 123)—at the same time, E. H. was appreciative of honest and thorough examinations of his talent. He wrote in January 1936 to Kashkin:

You know more about my writing than anybody but you do not know anything about me and I have very great pride and a hatred of the shit that will be written about me and my stuff after I am dead (I am not so silly but to know that my work will last) and though you may be an enemy of what I believe in I would rather have one setting down by an intelligent enemy who knows you than all the blurry minded, fuzzy brained shit we produce in this country and call criticism.

(Baker, SL 432)

It is small wonder that Hemingway delighted in witnessing a critic being put in his place, so to speak, or in putting a critic in his place. At the same time, he looked forward to a new dawning in the critical profession:

The critic, out on a limb, is more fun to see than a mountain lion. The critic gets paid for it so it is much more just that he should be out on that limb than the poor cat who does it for nothing. Altogether I believe it has been quite healthy and the extremely dull thuds one hears as the critics fall from their limbs when the tree is shaken slightly may presage a more decent era in criticism—when books are read and criticized rather than personalities attacked.

(Breit 65)

Hemingway also was aware, considerate, and appreciative of the essential part of the reader and the critic in the creation and interpretation of a work, its success, and its continued popularity. Yet, during a 1958 interview, when asked about symbolism in his works, in spite of his stated distaste for discussing symbols, E. H. finally answered:

You can be sure that there is much more than will be read at any first reading and having made this it is not the writer's province to explain it or run guided tours through the more difficult country of his work.

(Plimpton 120)

This statement, of course, relates to his iceberg theory or theory of omission in which much material in his works is purposely excluded and left to the interpretation of the reader. Gerry Brenner says that the iceberg theory “notifies serious readers to bring special equipment or vision if they hope to see many of those eighths below the water line” (Concealments 10). At the same time, Hemingway also was alert to the possibility of getting too far ahead of his critics and readers: “And as long as they do not understand it you are ahead of them. Oh sure, I thought, I'm so far ahead of them now that I can't afford to eat regularly. It would not be bad if they caught up a little” (A Moveable Feast 75). Nonetheless, he persevered, being true to his writing. His third wife, Martha Gellhorn, also a writer and a friend of President and Mrs. Roosevelt, wrote Eleanor that E. H. was “a marvelous storyteller”: “In a writer, she noted this would be called imagination, ‘in anyone else, it's lying. That's where the genius comes in’” (Mellow 484).

“In writing, I have moved through arithmetic, through plane geometry and algebra, and now I am in calculus,” Hemingway told Harvey Breit during a 1950 interview (62).2 In Green Hills of Africa (GHOA), the main character refers to a “fourth and fifth dimension” of writing (26-27). No one is sure exactly what E. H. meant when he referred to these other dimensions, but there has been much speculation. For more on this subject, see essays by Robert E. Gajdusek (“Sacrifice and Redemption”), Tracy Banis, Larry Grimes, and Toni D. Knott (“Time Will Tell”) in this book.

Of course, not all critics were or are “careerists,” engage in personal attacks, or focus on linkages between the man's life and his fiction to the exclusion of examining the fiction. Many were and are serious readers and reviewers of his works, and their carefully considered interpretations, meant to shed light on subtle layers of meaning, are refreshing and delightful to read, as well as instructive. Recent scholarly articles tend to be serious considerations based on at least one reading of a work. Today, a reviewer is more apt, as Wilson says, to

be more or less familiar, or be ready to familiarize himself, with the past work of every important writer he deals with and be able to write about an author's … book in the light of his general development and intention.

(Shores 603)

There are many different interpretations of a Hemingway work, and there are just as many critics, scholars, and readers who are convinced that they know beyond a doubt each work's true meaning. (Of course, there are just as many who cringe at the thought of a true meaning.) The elements in E. H.'s works simply do not combine in the same manner each time, resulting in the same conclusion. Adding to the moral ambiguity of THHN, for example, is that there are many unanswered questions throughout the novel; at least, they remain unanswered in any conventional sense. Near the end of the novel, after Harry's death, Harry's girls ask their mom: “How's Daddy?” “Marie did not answer,” the text tells us (255). The nature of these questions and others throughout the novel is that they are not easily answered, or, as John Clark Pratt says, they “can of course be answered by many, but only from their own particular points of view” (156). There are individual truths for each reader, critic, and scholar to discover in the mirror that E. H. holds for us in the work—in all of his works. “Consequently … Hemingway … has been denounced and condemned by groups which do not regard him as P.C. [politically correct] and also by feminists who see in him a hateful macho” (Asselineau 3). Gajdusek says:

Even as we began to move away from our biographical obsession, cleared to read the texts, we were putting on the blinders of post-modernist modes, removing one determining filter by replacing it with another.

(“Mad, Sad” 37)

This replacing of one set of blinders with another is particularly true of THHN, and Robert Lewis' words, although he applied them to A Farewell to Arms (AFTA), describe this novel, as well:

It is not reducible to easy understanding from only one or two perspectives. Looked at from feminist, Marxist, psychological, and historical vantage points, the novel grows in our consciousness. Looked at from a narrow perspective, as it sometimes has been, the novel narrows.

(“Inception and Reception” 95)

Hemingway expected and depended upon different reactions from different readers. One of his greatest skills lay in the wide range and variety of individual responses that his images evoked and continue to evoke, ensuring the longevity of his works. Needless to say, some individuals were not and are not comfortable with some of the feelings that THHN arouses. It is a disturbing book, another possible reason for its unpopularity. It not only reflects the times but also forces us to face our own mirrors, for the human characteristics portrayed by E. H. are enduring. The most eloquent expression of the importance of each individual reader's part, with impressive insight into the value of each future reader's perception, as well, is found in E. H.'s 1954 Nobel Prize acceptance statement:

Things may not be immediately discernible in what a man writes, and in this sometimes he is fortunate; but eventually they are quite clear and by these and the degree of alchemy that he possesses he will endure or be forgotten.


Such a statement is apt for a book as complex as THHN. However, immediately after its release, one critic went so far—Watch that limb!—as to say that the work “is a stupid and foolish book, a disgrace to a good writer, a book which should never have been printed” (Schwartz 123). Unfortunately, this statement is only the tip of the iceberg in this particular regard. To understand why the immediate critical reaction to the novel was so harsh, an examination of the atmosphere leading up to its publication is enlightening. In essence, because of expectations, most of E. H.'s contemporary critics misinterpreted—and consequently denounced—THHN's title, structure, characters, hero, and themes. Unfortunately, some of these misunderstandings have persisted to this day.

Hemingway was disappointed with the critical response to Death in the Afternoon (DIA) and GHOA, his fiction/nonfiction works—the choice is left to us—appearing before THHN. He described the critical climate leading up to THHN's publication and immediately afterward in letters to Perkins: “For Christ sake Max don't you see that they have to attack me to believe in themselves. You can't be popular all the time unless you make a career of it. … I will survive this unpopularity …” (Baker, SL 423). In 1936, he wrote: “I stink so to the N.Y. critics that if I bring out a book of stories no matter how good this fall they will all try to kill it” (448). After the publication of THHN, he wrote: “You want to remember, Max, there was about the biggest gang-up in the reviews on that last novel … which was not a bad novel, that you would almost ever see” (471).

Soviet critics were compelled to comment on the negative treatment that Hemingway received at the hands of American critics. A reprint of a Wilson article in a 1936 issue of Internatsionalnaya Literatura was accompanied by an editorial comment noting that “when Green Hills of Africa came out … a regular Witches' Sabbath took place in the literary departments of the newspapers and magazines” (Shores 626).


One of the reasons that most critics, including Granville Hicks and Wilson, panned GHOA is because it seemed an almost frivolous book written and published during a time when most Americans were greatly suffering—the Depression.

Hicks would “like to have Hemingway write a novel about a strike, to use an obvious example [and an ironic one], not because a strike is the only thing worth writing about, but because it would do something to Hemingway. If he would just let himself look squarely at the contemporary American scene, he would be bound to grow.”

(Donaldson 103)

Although E. H. lived in an era of “‘isms’ (Dadaism, existentialism, Fascism, Communism), he swam against the current of those isms” (Sullivan E-mail 18 Oct. 1998). Featuring an American on an expensive African safari—drinking, joking, and sharing “anecdotes” around the campfire when not shooting for trophies—Green Hills of Africa also was written in an almost insouciant tone. As a result, Wilson viewed the work as evidence that Hemingway was “losing interest in his fellow men” (Meyers, Critical Heritage 28). Such criticisms also intimated hope that E. H. would write a more appropriate and serious work exhibiting social and political concern—showing that the evils of the world could be cured with a certain political and/or economic system, if you will.

In response, Hemingway presented the world with a peculiar and evocative book, and many simply did not know what to make of it. It didn't help that

Time magazine gave the book the biggest publicity in a cover story of October 18 … [which] relied heavily on the fact of Ernest's current involvement in the Spanish Civil War and stated that the conflict had pushed Ernest into a new social awareness that had given birth to the novel. Of course, this was not true, since the book had been begun a full two years before Ernest's involvement in the war effort.

(McLendon 171)

However, believing that E. H. had striven to respond to their demands, many Hemingway contemporary critics agreed—and some scholars still agree, also believing that E. H. was responding to critical demands—that the culmination of the plot, Harry's dying line, is not supported by the rest of the work. Some critics read the line as an indication that E. H. was “turning away from his earlier individualism” and even embracing Marxism (Donaldson 106-07). Cowley believed that Harry's last gasp was E. H.'s “own free translation of Marx and Engels: ‘Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose …’” (Lynn 463). Some Russian critics also thought that THHN indicated that E. H. was coming “to grips with economic and social problems …” (Brown 308). They cheered a bitter article written by E. H. for New Masses in 1935, about the Bonus March veterans portrayed in THHN, which blamed the United States government for the deaths of several thousand unemployed war veterans that it had sent to the Keys during the hurricane months:

The article was immediately translated and printed in the Russian edition of International Literature, with the following editorial footnote: “We insert the article by Ernest Hemingway as one of the most important documents of the development of revolutionary literature in America.”

(Brown 307)

The Russian critic Platonov “felt that Harry [Morgan] displayed most of the traits of a real proletarian hero,” although he found that Harry lacked “an understanding that one must ally oneself with all workingmen” (Brown 308). The “critic Silman remarked approvingly that Hemingway was beginning to release himself from the shackles of ‘absolute neutrality’ by seeking ways of effective protest against bourgeois society” (307-08).

Scott Donaldson said in 1977, “To conclude … that Harry Morgan's last words signaled Hemingway's political change of heart would be to distort everything that the novel has to say” (110). Boardman said in 1992 that THHN “is a thumbing of the nose at those critics who insist Hemingway join the [socialist] movement” (180). As anyone can see, the novel has a strong sociopolitical framework but it does not convey a message, as sought by some critics; instead, E. H. sought to objectively reflect the times. (See the essay, “The Setting” [in Knott's One Man Alone].) Ironically, his desire to be a part of the Spanish Civil War “caused Hemingway to interrupt the meditation on the role of the writer and his responsibilities to his talent and to his fellow human beings that was evident in works such as To Have and Have Not and ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’” (Fleming 84).


Again—as a result of expectations, as well as preconceived notions—most critics determined that the novel's title was simply what it most obviously was: a reference to the financially rich and poor of America. Leo Gurko says, “The novel emphasizes the absolute separation of rich and poor. … Its title, ending with ‘have not’ [is] an obvious reference to the dispossessed” (Pursuit 143-44). While the financial angle of the title is obvious, more recently some reviewers have surmised that the “have nots” were actually the “haves,” and also that the distinction may apply to more than financial divisions:

In fact, Hemingway effects an irony by creating the materially wealthy people as have-nots. To have what? To have not what? How are the haves separated from the have-nots? Who are which? To answer these questions is to find more complexity and rewarding thought in the novel than is usually conceded. The characters can be divided according to economics, but such a division is insignificant as well as overlapping and frustrating … Hemingway is saying that his have-have not distinction crosses social, economic, and political lines.

(Robert Lewis, Love 115-16)

Steven T. Ryan notes that “Hemingway's distinctions of have's and have not's has little to do with being affluent in the ‘it’ world” (31).3 “Instead of economic have's and have not's … Hemingway's final contrast is between those who have had Life and those who have had only life …” We also note that there are differences not only between the rich and the poor but also between individuals within the same class division:

What distinguishes Harry from Albert, and from most of the other working men in the novel, is an excess of cojones, an unwillingness to rely on anyone or anything other than himself to support his family.

(Cooper 67)

Hemingway, although it took him some to decide, was happy with the novel's title:

I have got now to like the title To Have and Have Not very much. Certainly it fits the Vets in a literal fashion, and in some sense it fits everything that will be in the book. I would be for sticking to it.

(Bruccoli, Correspondence 251)

Clearly, the title's meaning is not as simplistic as many thought and may think; its meanings go much deeper. Knowing Hemingway's familiarity with the Bible, that he'd found at least one other title there, and that Biblical quotations are integral to many of his works, we acknowledge that THHN's title also was derived from the Bible. It comes from the thirteenth chapter of St. Matthew, which begins with Jesus relating to the multitudes the parable of the seed sower. For more on this, see the essay, “Dimensions of Love” [in Knott's One Man Alone].


Many critics continue to find fault, as did many of E. H.'s contemporary critics, with his character portrayals, particularly of the intellectuals or the monetarily rich. Delmore Schwartz found the conversations “often farcical in their effort at satire, or simply false” (127).4 Cowley said that a serious weakness “lies in the characters themselves, or rather in the author's attitude toward [them]” (234). He felt that these people were very similar to those described in TSAR but added, “This time Hemingway really hates the people” (234). Similar feelings have been expressed in more recent critical essays. Anne Rowe finds the wealthy yacht owners to be “merely caricatures of people” (100), and Waldhorn says, “Even those few among the affluent who escape censure—Helen Gordon and the Happy Family—earn approval as symbols rather than as characters” (158). Ralph Ellison, on the other hand, knew that

in fiction stereotypes partake of archetypes. … And yes, in literary form stereotypes function as do other forms of characterization, as motives. … But the point is that they act as imposed motives which treat reality and character arbitrarily. Thus to redeem them … the writer is challenged to reveal the archetypical truth hidden within the stereotype …

(Thompson et al. 80)

In this respect, Hemingway succeeded.


Hemingway also had to contend with those critics who were upset when, expecting to find a theme exalting literary intellectuals, instead they found a work seemingly demeaning intellectuals and praising a man with little learning and lots of cojones. Some of them took it very personally, as a matter of fact, judging from their comments:

Nothing could be more inept here, more lacking in true insight, than Hemingway's brand of satire against literary loafers and the complacent rich. It is not only crude and slapdash, misunderstanding its own ends, but some of it is hardly professional.

(Kronenberger 182)

Schwartz complains that “throughout the narrative the role of the rich is underscored very heavily and they are presented in an unrelieved nastiness which amounts to little else than the worst caricature” (125). Stephen Cooper says, “The rich characters … are presented satirically, with no sympathy and very little understanding” (68). Hemingway may have thought that such critics are merely exposing that measure of themselves that they bring to the work. Indeed, his brilliant pegging in his works of some intellectuals as vain fools was a source of irritation for many years to many critics and friends, some who faulted him for turning against friends:

The heavy-handed satire on successful, individualistic capitalists at the end of the novel—which links financial manipulation with sexual perversion—is flawed because Hemingway condemns his own economic class from the ‘have-not’ point of view while continuing to enjoy his comfortable life.

(Meyers, Biography 293)

Critics failed and often still fail to realize that E. H.—who first had to bravely face his own mirror's reflection before he attempted to write—included himself as one of the biggest of those vain fools, and that his animosity was not directed toward all rich literary intellectuals but only toward snobs and the “wasteful wealthy” (Donaldson 103). Philip Young discovered, as others could have and can, that “a sensitive reading of the book will show some of the Haves, whom we expect to despise as the villains, to have been drawn with considerable sympathy …” (“Focus” 48)


It is amazing that critics and readers did not—and that some still do not—recognize or admit that few characters in THHN escape being labeled with disparaging terms or described negatively. Many of the terms used by the novel's omniscient narrator or by Harry or Albert—such as Chinks, nigger, and yellow stuff—were prevalent during the thirties, particularly in America. It is unfortunate that many of these terms continue to be heard in our time. The debate over THHN's meaning and E. H.'s intent with regard to this particular aspect continues, as well. More recently, there are those who believe that Hemingway aimed the novel's most insulting remarks at African-Americans.

In her essay on THHN, Toni Morrison says that she used the novel “to test some of the propositions” that she has been “advancing” in her book, Playing in the Dark (70). She states that many writers, among them, Hemingway, included African Americans in their works to enable the white characters—with specific reference to Harry Morgan—to gain identity “from the wholly available and serviceable lives of Africanist others” (25). Morrison's basic thesis that whites disparaged and belittled African Americans and other people of color cannot be faulted, although her belief that they did it in order to raise their own sense of self-worth may be questioned. Likely there were many reasons, among them ignorance and cruelty. Also, that this disparagement and belittlement should be a literary device employed by writers indeed emphasizes their limitations, as she asserts. However, Morrison is misguided when she attributes such motives to E. H., and she exposes her own misunderstanding of at least one of the messages of THHN by making such statements as those previously mentioned. See the essay, “Dimensions of Love” [in Knott's One Man Alone] for more on this subject.

In thinking that the novel's black characters serve to make Harry Morgan look good, Morrison aligns herself with Hemingway's critics, past and recent, who view Harry as the hero of the novel and believe that E. H. intended for Harry to be perceived as admirable. Although it is true that Harry possesses some worthy traits, it is also true that he makes some very wrong choices and performs some downright despicable actions, such as killing Mr. Sing, that could not possibly be construed as heroic. There is a world of difference between a hero and a main character or protagonist or indeed an anti-hero. We do not approve, nor should we, of the majority of Harry's actions, whether or not we understand or accept his motives. Therefore, Hemingway had no intention of employing African American characters to accomplish such a need as that claimed by Morrison, specifically with reference to Harry Morgan.

Hemingway's portrayals of women in THHN also were and are viewed as being unnecessarily harsh. It is true that women suffer a great deal of negative treatment in the novel—again, along with most of the other characters. At the same time, E. H.'s portrayals of women in the novel were drawn with sympathy and understanding. Richard Hovey says that “To Have and Have Not … sounds a new note: its author displays a wiser sympathy with women”:

There is nothing new in his sympathetic treatment of Marie; but Hemingway is also on the side of the more complex and sophisticated Helen Gordon. And though he does not much care for a narcissistic type like Dorothy Hollis, he is remarkably fair in presenting what is tender and affectionate in her and her clear-cut preference for monogamy.


More recently, Lisa Tyler finds that Hemingway “suggests, obliquely, that women are more skilled at interpretation than men, and he implies that women might make better writers” (58).


The sexual aspect of THHN is significant to one of the novel's levels of meaning; however, once again, some critics have misunderstood their significance. (See the essay, “Sacrifice and Redemption” [in Knott's One Man Alone] for more on the significance of sexual relationships in THHN.) Philip Young says that the “superiority of the Nots is apparently based on the superiority of the sex life of the Morgans …” (Ernest Hemingway 18). Furthermore, he attributes this superiority “to the somewhat chance fact that he [Harry Morgan] has only a stub for one arm” (Reconsideration 101).5 John S. Hill illustrates his misunderstanding of Harry's relationship with his wife when he says, “Nowhere does Hemingway indicate more than a sexual relationship between [them]” (352).

At one point in her essay, Morrison focuses on Harry's answer to Marie's question regarding what it's like to “do it with a nigger wench” (THHN 113). Harry tells her that it's “like nurse shark.” Morrison states that “the strong notion here is that of a black female as the furthest thing from human, so far away as to be not even mammal but fish,” and she views this identification as “brutal, contrary, and alien” (85). Yet, the comparison likely was meant as complimentary by Harry, for the female nurse shark is a slow-moving, graceful fish and a choosy lover, often leaving her mate collapsed on the bottom of the sea after a spectacular lovemaking session. Also, nurse sharks are not aggressive or carnivorous; they also are not nurses. These are facts that a fisherman such as Harry would possess. At the same time, it is worth noting that “Conchs”—the term that the natives of Key West use to describe themselves—are mollusks, and that Harry describes his missing arm as being “like a flipper on a loggerhead” (THHN 113). These textual facts seriously weaken Morrison's argument. It is also significant that throughout the novel, marine life parallels human behavior, adding another dimension of meaning. (See Larry Grimes' and Carl Eby's essays [in Knott's One Man Alone] for discussions on Harry's animalism.)


Another source of critical debate surrounds the question of “whether Harry Morgan should be regarded as an admirable figure or as a modern antihero” (Donaldson 108-09). Most criticisms assert that Harry is the hero of the novel and that the other characters serve as mere foils and contrasts to him. Indeed, Harry was one of the first tough-guy heroes developed in the 1930s, a characterization that influenced many writers of that genre; To Have and Have Not had an enormous influence on detective fiction. Gurko intimates that “Dashiell Hammett, an early master of the genre, took his cue mainly from the stories of In Our Time and Men Without Women” (Heroes 151). It was Hemingway who made tough guys famous—

men who learned at an early age that the world was a tragic place in which ‘one's breath was drawn in pain,’ and who developed a code of endurance and bravery which enabled them to survive in it without losing their manhood.

(Gurko, Heroes 186)

In To Have and Have Not Hemingway wrote what is probably the best tough novel of the Thirties and certainly that which best depicts both the moral pragmatism of the hard-boiled hero and the class conflict which is a subtle but recurrent factor in the work of [future] tough guy writers.

(Grebstein 19)

However, critics who viewed and view Harry as a hero in a conventional sense concluded and conclude that E. H. failed with this particular aspect of the novel, as well. Wilson wrote that “the hero is like a wooden-headed Punch … or, rather, he combines the characteristics of Punch with those of Popeye the sailor …” (Wound 229). Frederick Busch states that E. H. sacrificed unity and smoothness in order to make Harry “what a Hemingway hero should be” (100). Unfortunately, Busch's statement not only abets the assumption that E. H. was responding in his published works to pressures from critics but also insinuates that he was responding to pressure put upon himself, arising from his past works.

Just as there are many different interpretations of a hero, there are many levels of the genre.

Despite Camus's reservations about such American tough guys, Harry Morgan is the apotheosis of existentialism. He is courageous, acts independently, has the will to endure, and never … contemplates suicide. … While he may be unscrupulous, he also has feelings of responsibility toward his friends and toward Marie.

(Lehan 50)

According to Gurko, in THHN, “the ‘never-say-die’ spirit of the Horatio Alger hero was now lifted into a complex level of action” (Heroes 187). Others see in Harry one of the last of the American Western heroes; he also is similar to a 1936 famous hero, that varmint Rhett Butler. Harry's name links him to a seventeenth-century pirate, Henry Morgan, one of the most obvious sources for his character. Brenner views Harry as a tragic hero in a classical tradition (“Classical Tragedy”).

According to Lawrence R. Broer, “Harry is the first major Hemingway protagonist to act out dramatically the author's vision of the majestic life and death of the matador” (80). Harry possesses “particularismo—[an] intensely individualistic and bellicose nature” (21) and “pundonor, with pride as its governing value,” which “raises the peasant to the level of the king and his courtiers” (61, 63). Hemingway wrote in DIA: “In Spain, honor is a very real thing. Called pundonor, it means honor, probity, courage, self-respect and pride in one word” (91). Also, “like those defiant Spaniards … Harry has cojones—Hemingway's [adoption of the] Spanish symbol for manliness and integrity—and must prevail on his own terms no matter what the cost” (81-82). Allen Josephs says, “You must have cojones for valor …” (64). Harry uses his cojones to protect and provide for those who depend on him, which distinguishes him and his cojones from a currently popular term—macho. Broer concludes that

the Hero's fatalistic acceptance of the Spaniard's view of the world as endlessly unjust and destructive leads him to sanction the destructive impulse to cruelty and death-dealing in himself and in the world around him. But at more rational moments, the hero seems to recognize that these aggressive impulses are preludes to moral and physical disaster …


Harry Morgan is similar to the “composite protagonist” described by Bickford Sylvester who

as he grows up is progressively failed by every source of guidance, security, and authority (both individual and institutional) that he has inherited a need to believe in—inherited as representative human being, as American and European romantic idealist, and as twentieth-century man set up and betrayed by the western tradition, the failed faith of his consequently failing, psychically-wounded and impotent leaders.

(“Waste Land Parallels” 12)

Sylvester also says, “These older people fail their dependents because … twentieth-century functionaries are not ‘saved’ by belief in a purpose beyond themselves” (“Complex Unity” 77). They merely mirror “their own confusion and emptiness” (85). Nonetheless, unlike Hemingway's early protagonist, Nick Adams, Harry Morgan was able to successfully connect with Marie and share love. For more on these subjects, see the essays, “Sacrifice and Redemption,” “Dimensions of Love,” “‘Juxtaposition’ and ‘Contrast,’” and “Time Will Tell” [in Knott's One Man Alone].


Most critics also agreed and agree that the shifting points of view within the work cause confusion; consequently, they labeled and label it a failed experiment along with the other perceived failures of the novel. There seems to be a general consensus that Hemingway changed points of view willy-nilly. Schwartz says, “Such shifts … would be less intolerable if there were any effort to make them systematic” (252). Cooper says that the shifts damaged the novel's unity, and Waldhorn despairs that the “random shifts … add to the reader's despair” (66; 157).

The reasoning behind switching points of view is to render significant perspectives “both from outside and inside consciousness” (Williams 119). After seeing how Harry reacts to pressure and threats to his means of living and his level of wellbeing, the seemingly tacked-on ending shows us how other characters respond to their own problems. Robert Lewis also recognizes that the shifting points of view are essential to the novel's thematic structuring, complementing “the growing impersonality of the inevitably corrupting forces of nonlove” (122). Each individual on each yacht reacts differently to each individual problem, whether it is by contemplating suicide, masturbating, or reaching for a bottle of luminol—except for the “happy family,” who find comfort in each other. The veterans lose themselves in excessive drinking, and they come to enjoy giving and receiving pain. As E. H. skillfully illustrates, one of the keys to this novel is that life's stresses and dangers are not merely related to finances, and they are not easily solved.6 After all, Harry's situations do not offer choices between good and evil; they only offer choices among many evils. There simply are no good choices. In essence, the shifting points of view were essential to the structure, as well as some of the meanings, of the novel. Genevieve Hily-Mane says, “Hemingway has shown himself to be very much aware of the advantages and disadvantages of both the first and third person narrative techniques” (37). She concludes:

Thus all sorts of relationships are woven between the narrator and the characters he impinges upon; between the narrator and his story, which he deforms, mutilates, creates or thinks of creating; between the narrator and the reader who is seized and impinged upon as well—not to mention the discrepancy between the reader and the image of himself held up to him by the story; or the relationship between the narrator and the author.



Nonetheless, the perceived fractured structure of the novel has been another source of critical derision, and, once again, critical expectations may have kept some from understanding E. H.'s tactic in this respect. Cowley wrote, “As a whole it lacks unity. … Part of its weakness is a simple matter of plot structure” (179). Sinclair Lewis said that the work “is not even a novel but a thinly connected group of tales [that are] not only dull [but] annoying” (178). Schwartz says, “The progress of the story is … poorly constructed” (125). Years later, while acknowledging the experimental nature of THHN, Carlos Baker wrote that “the attempt to dove-tail and arc-weld two essentially disparate plots” was unsuccessful (Writer as Artist 216).

Ignoring modern writers' well-established approach to thematic structure, some recent essays agree with the view prevalent during Hemingway's time that the work is a combination of two previously published short stories and a third tacked on, “seams showing” (Busch 97). Although Boardman comments on the “seamlessness” of E. H.'s works—a feat learned from “a number of great novelists, but especially from Conrad” (178)—he does not feel that Hemingway accomplished this in THHN: “He fails to make clear the connections between his main action and episodes …” (187).

When discussing the failure or success of THHN's structure, we ponder such Hemingway quotations as the one that seems to agree with the above assessments: “The thing wrong with To Have and Have Not is that it is made of short stories” (Van Gelder 20). We know that from experience E. H. was aware that many critics failed to understand his works; he grew weary of being asked to explain complexities to them. The previously published short stories, “One Trip Across” and “The Trademan's Return,” undoubtedly played an important role in Hemingway's progression toward the completion of THHN, as they were incorporated into the published novel. However, the stories stand as separate entities deserving special attention, just as THHN, in its published form, merits its own special attention. Gajdusek notes that E. H. “may have suddenly shouted ‘Eureka!’ when he realized that the whole was a gradually evolved whole reaching toward its fulfillment at last in the tripartite structure that was ‘given’ to him” (E-mail 4 February 1995).

Other Hemingway quotations that may be considered with regard to the novel's structure include the following.

I think To Have etc. … is a good book. Jerry built like a position you fortify quickly and with errors but declare to hold. It is much better than people think and not nearly as good as I hoped … threw away about 100,000 words which was better than most of what left in. It is the most cut book in the world.

(Baker, SL 648)7

I am trying, always, to convey to the reader a full and complete feeling of the thing I am dealing with; to make the person reading feel it has happened to them. … Because it is very hard to do I must sometimes fail. But I might fail with one reader and succeed with another.

(Baker, SL 380-81)

The latter statement is particularly true of a novel as complex as THHN. Nevertheless, many critics continued and continue to feel that E. H. threw the book together without much care. Again, such opinions undermine the talent and effort involved in the writing of THHN; they also ignore the many years spent on its creation. …

There are many more valuable Hemingway comments to prove that he cared deeply for THHN. He told Perkins in 1936 that he had cut his Esquire pieces to six a year “so as not to interfere” with the writing of THHN (Baker, SL 448). In another letter to Perkins, he wrote, “Have not wanted to do any writing that would interfere with this book,” adding, “I hate to have missed this Spanish thing [Civil War] worse than anything in the world but have to have this book finished first” (Baker, SL 454-55).

And so it was finished—until Perkins insisted that E. H. cut much of the work for fear of libel. Perkins never failed to guide E. H. in such essential considerations of publication, and he was instrumental in the great writer's success. Yet, as he said, “Nobody ever edited Hemingway, beyond excising a line or two for fear of libel …” (Wheelock 228). Hemingway had already missed some of the “Spanish thing” and after meeting and falling for Gellhorn, who was soon leaving to cover the war—and having his own assignment as a North American Newspaper Alliance correspondent—E. H. may have gotten anxious about getting THHN to press. However, after Perkins' reminder that sending a potentially libelous novel to press is not a good decision, Hemingway decided to take the work with him to complete the editing, again lamenting “the excellence of the stuff cut out”—regardless of its possibly libelous nature.

His brother, Leicester, says that Hemingway told him that “in many ways … [THHN was] the most important story he had ever written. From this point on, he really gave a damn about other people's lives” (204). Paul says that E. H. was “dangerously fond” of the characters of the novel, adding that there “is not a writer in America who treats his people with such extraordinary … delicacy or who is capable of so many shades of meaning, in the lines and between them” (111).

Granting that THHN comprised previously published short stories, we also should acknowledge and embrace the fact that E. H. felt a need to transform these short stories into a greater whole with its “full revelation and statement” (Gajdusek E-mail 4 Feb. 1995). It also goes without saying that Hemingway is not the first—nor will he be the last—to meld short stories into novels; the practice has become even more common in our time.


Of course, not all reviewers disliked or dislike the novel. In 1937, Paul wrote that “a few modest men saw the worth of [THHN] and disdained to amplify the absurd legends that have been published … about Hemingway's personality and his activities” (110). He also said that “of the novels I think the new one To Have and Have Not is by far the best—style, subject matter, dialogue, and all” (109). F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to E. H.:

I never got to tell you how I liked To Have and Have Not either. There is observation and writing in that that the boys will be imitating with a vengeance—paragraphs and pages that are right up with Dostoiefski [sic] in their undeflected intensity.

(Bruccoli, Fitzgerald 470)

There are others who extol the novel's virtues. Brenner offers an explanation as to why the unfortunate qualifier—THHN being one of E. H.'s worst books—begins many critical articles on the novel. Agreeing with earlier remarks regarding preconceived expectations for THHN, he says that it may be caused by “our disinclination to read it … from perspectives other than psychobiographical or new critical ones” (“Classical Tragedy” 82). He adds, “To be bold about it, of all E. H.'s novels, this is structurally the tightest.” DeFalco says, “There remains sufficient internal evidence to indicate that Hemingway attempted such a [episodic] structure for sound artistic reasons” (146). Boardman says:

To Have and Have Not works better than most of its critics would concede. … [Hemingway] used every narrative technique and device at his disposal to render this simple tragic story so that it would not only be understandable to what he saw as a diminished reader but would also be a novelistic tour de force.

(178, 176)

Jim Nagel agrees that E. H. knew what he was doing when he wrote THHN:

The most dramatic device of the novel is its multiple narrative perspectives which give the reader indications of how various characters view the central action and emphasize how little any one perspective reveals of the full complexity of the events. The cause of Harry Morgan's death, for example, is never understood by any of the other characters in the novel, nor can any of them be certain that his friend Albert Tracy is actually dead. This ironic limitation of knowledge helps create a narrative of considerable suspense and emotional intensity.


Reynolds says that E. H. was also aware that:

the first rule of the short story is never change point of view: use one narrator only or the reader will become confused. In this story [“The Undefeated”] Hemingway, without making an issue of it, neatly shifted the narrative line from one character to another, much as a movie camera will shift within a scene. It was a bold experiment, one from which he learned a good deal.


It is interesting to note that Hemingway continued refining the multiple-perspective technique in For Whom the Bell Tolls.

To Have and Have Not was developed thematically, a structuring method common to twentieth century writings, including the works of James Joyce. It is difficult to understand why so many of Hemingway's contemporary critics derided THHN for lack of structure. War and Peace, described by E. H. as “magnificent torture” with its sprawling form, nonetheless was and still is considered one of the greatest novels of all time (Gregory Hemingway 102). Thomas Daniel Young notes that Henry James also felt that a “novel's subject should demonstrate its structure” (3). Young also says, “The modern reader expects the novelist to recapitulate human experience, not to make some comment about it” (5). As Reynolds tells us, Hemingway's aspiration was to:

without telling readers how to respond, what to feel, how to judge, let images convey meaning. If action is presented truly, precisely, using only its essential elements, then readers, without being told will respond emotionally as the writer intended.


Reynolds says that this “technique had been in the air since early 1912 when, in London, Pound helped form the Imagist Manifesto” (31). It also has been linked to the rise of photographic realism in modern fiction (Twentieth Century Literary Criticism 135). Hemingway told Arnold Samuelson, “It's your object to convey everything to the reader so that he remembers it not as a story he has read but something that happened to himself” (11). He painstakingly sought words that evoked for the reader the feeling of being there, of experiencing “it.” In a 1925 letter to his father, he wrote:

You see I'm trying in all my stories to get the feeling of actual life—not to just depict life—or criticize it—but to actually make it alive. So that when you have read something by me you actually experience the thing. You can't do this without putting in the bad and the ugly as well as what is beautiful. Because if it is all beautiful you can't believe in it. Things aren't that way. It is only by showing both sides—3 dimensions and if possible 4 that you can write the way I want to. So when you see anything of mine that you don't like remember that I'm sincere in doing it and that I'm working toward something.

(as quoted in Reynolds Paris Years 278)

The “bad and the ugly” included, as anyone familiar with Hemingway's works is aware, obscenities that made it difficult for him to get his works published. Again, he was ahead of the times, and his efforts significantly influenced our own acceptance and now overuse of such obscenities. Today, almost no book or Hollywood movie is considered complete without an abundance of obscenities. Hemingway wrote to Perkins about AFTA:

It's a fight with me for the return to the full use of the language and what we accomplish in that direction may be of more value in the end than anything I write. I never use a word if I can avoid it, but if I must have it I know it.

(“Three Words” 74)

He again addressed the subject in a letter to Everett R. Perry, City Librarian in Los Angeles, who had “tactfully asked E. H. what he thought was gained by using certain plain words in Death in the Afternoon”:

The fundamental reason that I used certain words no longer a part of the usual written language is that they are very much a part of the vocabulary of the people I was writing about and there was no way I could avoid using them and still give anything like a complete feeling of what I was trying to convey to the reader.

(Baker, SL 380-81)

To Have and Have Not represents a victory for E. H. in this respect, as, “for the first time, without dashes or excluded letters, Hemingway was allowed to print in full the word fucking” (from Robert Trogdon's essay, “Their Money's Worth: The Composition, Editing, and Publication” [in Knott's One Man Alone]). “No doubt the power and importance of the [Harry's] speech in the novel convinced Perkins” that the word should be printed (Trogdon's essay).

The “bad and the ugly” also included violence, another prevalent force in today's books and movies, and even moreso in life these days:

It is the bare happening that is set down, and only the happening that must arouse in the reader whatever emotion he is capable of according to his nature: pity, horror, disgust.

(Hemingway, as quoted in Wilson, Bishop 43)

Alfred Kazin notes that E. H. was “fated to become one of the great expressers of enduring disorder in this century” (54). Indeed, this very characteristic earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature:

The Swedish Academy commented on the central themes of his work. Courage and compassion in a world of violence and death were seen as the distinguishing marks of “one of the great writers of our time … who, honestly and undauntedly, reproduces the genuine features of the hard countenance of the age.”

(Kirkpatrick 279)

Also, the novel's emphasis on the healing power of love links Hemingway with those who “insist that love of a certain kind—a sort that contains a large measure of what was once called lust—can save humankind from the destructive forces of civilization” (Wayne Booth, as quoted in Thomas Daniel Young 4). For more on this subject, see the essays on love in the section, “In Our Time” [in Knott's One Man Alone].

To Have and Have Not is a work steeped in tradition yet improved by and flavored with E. H.'s insight, intuition, and genius for capturing, universalizing, and immortalizing not only the essence of his time and place, but also of enduring human characteristics. Ryan realizes that after writing a novel with “limitations resulting from a meticulous focusing of character, setting, and mood”—AFTA—Hemingway felt a need to experiment and expand his skills. “He had to let loose, enlarging his scope and testing his artistic ability …” (27). Brenner says:

One value in seeing Hemingway as a writer deeply committed to literary experimentation: it shows him in the mainstream of modern literature, aligns him—though on a much lesser scale with his fellow artist-scholar-experimenters Eliot, Joyce, and Pound.

(Concealments 8)8

He adds, “Hemingway's sustained literary experimentation has been relatively neglected” (8). Philip Young writes that THHN “is in the main line of development of one of our minor literary traditions, in which naturalism goes primitive with a Nietzschean morality in Norris, and is tested and found wanting by London” (Reconsideration 199-200). In Young's opinion, E. H. “did it better.”

Hemingway made no secret that one of his goals in writing was to take the best of the best—most of whom were dead—and make it better. John Bishop Peale says that E. H. carried “the Flaubertian discipline … to a point Flaubert never knew …” (as quoted in Wilson, Peale 43). Hemingway's profound influence on writing continues to this day and will continue.9

Hemingway said that Pound taught him “how to achieve a compressed and precise Imagist style” (Meyers, Biography 74). He described Pound as “the man who believed in the mot juste—the one and only correct word to use—the man who had taught me to distrust adjectives” (AMF 14).

Two monologues in THHN have been connected to Joyce's stream-of-consciousness technique: those by Dorothy Hollis and Marie Morgan, after her husband's death.10 Ryan notes the significance of these “deceptively simple” soliloquies, which “the reader may fail to see” because of “the brief chapter separating them” (29). They also help prove his opinion that “Hemingway's final contrast is between those who have had Life and those who have had only life …” (28). There are many significant parallels and contrasts throughout the novel, and, as Ryan says, the soliloquies illustrate one of the parallels, as well as one of the contrasts: “Both women discuss a similar characteristic of the men they have known,” yet, their opinions sharply contrast (31). (For more on parallels and contrasts in THHN, see the essay, “‘Juxtaposition’ and ‘Contrast’: Unifying To Have and Have Not” [in Knott's One Man Alone]). While “Dorothy Hollis accepts that men tire of a particular woman and discusses a wife's attempt to be many women,” Marie Morgan “accepts the human frailty. … Her realization that she must be many women only adds to the fascination of life …” (31-32). Of course, Marie's former profession as a prostitute may have broadened her tolerance for human frailty.

Hollow feelings shared by many of the characters throughout the novel represent another parallel. Harry feels hollow before and after he kills the Cubans on Freddy's boat (THHN 169, 171); “a hollow had come in [Richard Gordon] where his heart had been (185); Marie feels “hate and a hollow feeling” after Harry's death (259). T. S. Eliot's “The Hollow Men” also examines hollow feelings shared by different individuals in different ways at different points in their lives; this and Eliot's Waste-Land view of modern life with its “artificiality and impotence of modern man” are said to be evident throughout THHN (Bender 178-79).

Ryan also recognizes that

To Have and Have Not is unified through opposition. … A deeper opposition is discovered when one realizes that in this novel Hemingway has enlarged his scope by examining the enormous grey area of ordinary life which lies between spiritual life and death.


Another parallel and contrast easily missed in the novel occurs when Harry is listening to the young boy Cuban revolutionary and grows increasingly disgusted with the revolutionaries' justification of violent means toward an end. He does not realize that their situation parallels his own: he keeps having to perform actions that he otherwise would not perform but asks himself, “What choice do I have?” (THHN 166). He keeps using other people, as well, friends such as Eddy, Freddy, and Albert, to accomplish his ends. Harry calls the young Cuban revolutionary a “radical” (166) after Albert earlier called Harry a “radical” (96). There is more talk of radicals and Communists among the veterans in the bar (206).

There is a wonderful parallel and contrast between the scenes where Richard Gordon sees and misjudges Marie Morgan from afar and the later scene when she sees him walking bloodied down the street and pities him. Gordon completely misunderstands and maligns Marie's character, then calls it “perception” (THHN 177). Marie thinks, “Some poor rummy …” (THHN 255). (For an in-depth discussion of this scene, see the essay, “Bad Luck or No Luck at All: Religion, Magic, and Chance” [in Knott's One Man Alone].) Earlier in the novel, she expressed pity for rummies—Eddie Marshall (Eddy) and “another rummy he'd picked up …” after they had stopped by the Morgans' home (64).

Hemingway was caught up in a time of isms and ists with respect to literary criticism, as well as with politics. He has been described as a Romanticist, realist, naturalist, minimalist, cubist11, and as an avant-garde writer, among other descriptions. Painters such as Cézanne, Goya, and Homer also influenced him. A recent article on Winslow Homer includes a quote that sounds Hemingwayesque:

Homer was especially sensitive to questions about “The Gulf Stream,” perhaps because he spent so long creating the piece. … When a dealer in New York asked for an explanation, Homer's response was unusually acerbic: “Regret very much that I have painted a picture that requires any description …”


Frederic Svoboda says that “the blend of realism and romanticism, filtered through a modernist presentation, is one factor in Hemingway's continued popularity” (E-mail 28 Oct. 1998). As with all writers, E. H. was influenced by many. Yet, different from most other writers, he gave back as much as, if not more than, he gave—not only to his contemporaries but also to future writers and readers. Once again, it seems that Kashkin knew Hemingway and his writing best:

The fact is that he was a master of many forms of writing and at different times used them separately and sometimes together, depending on what he was aiming at, at the artistic problems to be solved, and the given circumstances.


Hemingway said, “I might fail with one reader and succeed with another” (Baker, SL 381). With To Have and Have Not, even the readers with whom he may have failed found an exciting action story from which a wealth of Hollywood film material was derived. Still it is the readers who not only truly enjoy the novel but also benefit from the personal and possible moral meanings that it possesses for them who are the truly lucky ones. I count myself among them.


  1. The fact that each Hemingway work is solidly based in a particular geographic location and time period is a different matter, as discussed in the essay, “The Setting,” which reiterates Hays', Robert Lewis', and Reynolds' contention that E. H. researched heavily before writing.

  2. See James H. Meredith's article, “Calculating the Complexity in Across the River and into the Trees,” in which he applies this statement to that novel.

  3. The “‘it’ world” is explained in Ryan's article. In spite of Ryan's belief that Hemingway failed in his experiment in THHN, I have to highly recommend his article.

  4. Schwartz undermines his own statements by adding that E. H. is “writing about a theme which he does not know anything about …” (127).

  5. To call the loss of Harry's arm a “somewhat chance fact” is a misleading statement. For a deeper understanding of the significance of the loss of Harry's arm, see the essays, “Dimensions of Love” and “A Farewell to Arm: Amputation, Castration, and Masculinity” [in Knott's One Man Alone]

  6. Hemingway also points out in this novel that pleasures or feelings of contentment also are not only related to finances.

  7. John Dos Passos told Hemingway, “A book ought to be judged by the author according to the excellence of the stuff cut out” (Beegel 51). Hemingway modified the quotation somewhat: “But anything should be judged by the man who writes it by the quality of what he can eliminate” (Beegel 107).

  8. Sylvester says that there is a “bias against seeing Hemingway as the modernist he was, the student of Pound and rival of Joyce and Eliot, who craftily demonstrated (too craftily, perhaps) that he could adapt to his unique style the allusive narrative approach and much of the vision and perspective that brought Joyce and Eliot the enviable respect of the intelligentsia” (“Waste Land Parallels” 10).

  9. A superbly written work on the subject of influence is Myler Wilkinson's Hemingway and Turgenev: The Nature of Literary Influence. In spite of the title, Wilkinson also includes a broad overview of other Russian writers and their influence, as well as other possible influences. His appendices include “an interpretation of all entries on Hemingway's library cards” from Shakespeare and Company, Sylvia Beach's Paris bookstore, and an inventory of Hemingway's reading of Turgenev (13).

  10. Robert E. Gajdusek's monograph is an excellent source covering Joyce's influence on Hemingway.

  11. Jacqueline V. Brogan has described Hemingway's novel, In Our Time, as cubist because of E. H.'s “tendency to offer, intentionally, multiple perspectives. … We see multiple conjunctions overlapping in an intricately evolved pattern. This has led me to describe it as a Cubist Novel …” (E-mail 15 May 1995). It is my hope that Jacque will apply her theory to THHN.

Works Cited

Asselineau, Roger. Preface. The Hemingway Review (Special European Issue, Summer 1992): 3.

Baker, Carlos. Hemingway: The Writer as Artist. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1952.

———, ed. Ernest Hemingway Selected Letters (SL) 1917-1961. New York: Scribners, 1981.

Beegel, Susan F. Hemingway's Craft of Omission: Four Manuscript Examples. Studies in Modern Literature. No. 74. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1988.

Bender, Bert. Sea-Brothers: The Tradition of American Sea Fiction from Moby-Dick to the Present. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988.

Benson, Jackson J. Introduction. Hemingway: In Our Time. Eds. Richard Astro and Jackson J. Benson. Corvallis: Oregon State UP, 1974.

Boardman, Michael M. Narrative Innovation and Incoherence: Ideology in Defoe, Goldsmith, Austen, Eliot, and Hemingway. Durham: Duke University Press, 1992.

Breit, Harvey. “Success, It's Wonderful.” The New York Times Book Review (3 Dec. 1950): 58. Bruccoli, Conversations 65-67.

Brenner, Gerry. Concealments in Hemingway's Works. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1983.

———. “To Have and Have Not as Classical Tragedy: Reconsidering Hemingway's Neglected Novel.” Hemingway: In Our Time. Eds. Richard Astro and Jackson J. Benson, 1974.

Broer, Lawrence R. Hemingway's Spanish Tragedy. University, Alabama: The University of Alabama Press, 1973.

Brogan, Jacqueline Vaught. “Cubism.” [electronic listserv] [15 May 1995]. Available from heming-l


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1125

The Influence of Ernest Hemingway

See also, A Farewell to Arms Criticism.

The 1999 centennial of Hemingway's birth was celebrated in Florida, Idaho, Michigan, Arkansas, Massachusetts, and Illinois, as well as Cuba, Italy, France, Spain, China, and Japan. The event was commemorated with literary conferences devoted to his life and work, with public festivities, with the posthumous publication of an unfinished manuscript, True at First Light (1999), and with a great deal of media attention that focused as much on his iconic persona as on his contributions to American literature. Biographer Michael Reynolds has noted that although “Hemingway's short fiction is what changed American fiction,” particularly in the way subsequent authors wrote dialogue, “there are people who venerate Hemingway who have never read Hemingway.” Despite his reputation as a serious artist—he received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1954, and his novels The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell to Arms (1929) were included on a 1998 list of the top one hundred novels of the twentieth century—Hemingway has been commodified, or, in author Justin Kaplan's words, “Elvisized.” Hemingway's emblematic American masculinity is used to market everything from tourism to cookbooks to a line of furniture, and his minimalist writing style has been the subject of a yearly “International Imitation Hemingway Competition,” with the winners published in a book series entitled Best of Bad Hemingway.

Although Hemingway's larger-than-life presence—both in life and after his dramatic suicide in 1961—has often threatened to overshadow his work, it is generally agreed that Hemingway is, in James Nagel's words, “one of the finest prose stylists in English,” an author whose work “gave rise to the minimalist movement in American fiction, to the work of Raymond Carver and Susan Minot,” as well as many others, including Richard Ford. The presenter of the 1954 Nobel Prize in literature said: “With masterly skill [Hemingway] reproduces all the nuances of the spoken word, as well as those pauses in which thought stands still and the nervous mechanism is thrown out of gear. It may sometimes sound like small talk, but it is not trivial when one gets to know his method. He prefers to leave the work of psychological reflection to his readers and this freedom is of great benefit to him in spontaneous observation.” In his book, Genius, Harold Bloom pronounced Hemingway a “minor novelist with a major style”; in The Columbia Companion to the Twentieth-Century American Short Story, Peter Mascuch called him “one of the great innovators of twentieth-century form.” At the Hemingway Centennial celebration at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, essayist Joan Didion declared, “This was a writer who had in his time made the English language new, changed the rhythms of the way both his own and the next few generations would speak and write and think.” At the same conference, poet Derek Walcott called the best of Hemingway's prose “an achievement superior to anything in poetry.” In a centennial article by Steve Paul, a journalist with the Kansas City Star (where Hemingway was a cub reporter from 1917-1918), author Russell Banks praised “the sheer beauty of [Hemingway's] sentences.” Charles Johnson told Paul, “I think it is impossible not to work in Hemingway's shadow, either as an imitator of his approach to prose writing or in strong reaction against it.” In a keynote address at the Seventh International Hemingway Conference, Terry Tempest Williams stated: “Hemingway has been a powerful mentor, in terms of what it means to create a landscape impressionistically on the page, to make it come alive, pulse, breathe, to ‘make the country so that you could walk into it.’” Novelist E. Annie Proulx, who confesses she is not a fan, nevertheless called Hemingway's work “important”: “It cast a shadow over nearly forty years of American literary history and set countless imitators a-scribbling, liberated writers from nineteenth-century sentence styles as tightly packed and convoluted as intestines in a hog.”

Although recognized primarily as a stylist and innovator of form, Hemingway also embraced a distinctly modern, existentialist worldview that influenced twentieth-century literature. Novels such as The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms are populated by men who are, in Hemingway's words, “hurt very badly; in the body, mind, and spirit, and also morally.” In these works, World War I casts a shadow over characters who, no longer believing in the traditions and values of the nineteenth century or in the goodness of government, are disillusioned idealists who reject nationalist propaganda and easy sentimentality. Nevertheless, the Hemingway hero struggles to make his own meaning in a world filled with cynicism and war. According to Philip Young, the “Hemingway code”—exemplified by Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises, Frederic Henry in A Farewell to Arms, Robert Jordan in For Whom The Bell Tolls (1940), and the fisherman Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea (1952)—involves qualities of stoicism, courage, honor, endurance, and self-control. In his interview with the Kansas City Star, Banks described the Hemingway hero as a “sort of existential hero” who reflects the “romantic alienation that [Hemingway himself] seemed to be emblematic of and that he manifested in his style as well.” Critics have also remarked upon the psychological effects of violence depicted in Hemingway's novels and short fiction, which is ever-present in his descriptions of war, bullfighting, big-game hunting, and surviving in the wilderness. Hemingway's fiction is at its strongest in its portraits of male characters struggling to define their identities and find honor in a chaotic world. For half a century, critics have generally agreed with Leslie Fielder's 1955 contention that “Hemingway is always less embarrassing when he is not attempting to deal with women.”

At the centennial of Hemingway's birth, noted Linda Wagner-Martin, the editor Ernest Hemingway: Seven Decades of Criticism, the question was “why his writings last so well. … [What] else besides nostalgia does it provide the reader here at the very end of that twentieth century?” She noted that over the past seventy years, as views of heroism have changed, so too have critics' views of Hemingway. Rather than writing about “the code hero” much celebrated in the 1950s and 1960s, critics have become interested in the full variety of characters portrayed by Hemingway, including in his female characters. Contemporary critics are now exploring Hemingway's representation of nature, identity, and sense of place, as well as his handling of issues of race, gender, and sexual identity. With the posthumous release of The Garden of Eden (1987) and True at First Light, Hemingway's literary legacy promises to last as long as and run more deeply than his cult of personality. As Jim Windolf in the New York Observer concluded, Hemingway the icon has “very little to do with the perfect first paragraph of A Farewell to Arms and a number of indestructible short stories.”

Russell Banks, Charles Johnson, Michael Ondaatje, E. Annie Proulx, Bob Shacochis, Robert Stone, Terry Tempest Williams, and Steve Paul (interview date spring 1999)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7405

SOURCE: Banks, Russell, Charles Johnson, Michael Ondaatje, E. Annie Proulx, Bob Shacochis, Robert Stone, Terry Tempest Williams, and Steve Paul. “On Hemingway and His Influence: Conversations with Writers.” The Hemingway Review 18, no. 2 (spring 1999): 115-32.

[In the following article, Paul interviews several well-known and highly respected writers concerning Hemingway's influence on their own work and what they find most compelling about Hemingway.]

Is it possible for an American writer, on the eve of the 21st century, to write outside the shadow of Ernest Hemingway?

Well, yes and no. For some the shadow receded long ago; for others it was never there. But for many American writers of the generations since Hemingway, the shadow dapples the landscape. It's there in fragments, in memory. It's ephemeral. Sometimes it looms large. And just as Hemingway can suggest different meanings to different readers, he speaks differently to each writer: He can teach one to see, another to hear. He carries the weight of history or the weight of his own appetites.

In order to find out how present Hemingway was in the lives and minds of contemporary writers, we talked to a few of them, interviewing them by phone, e-mail, fax and in person. Participating were Russell Banks, Charles Johnson, Michael Ondaatje, E. Annie Proulx, Bob Shacochis, Robert Stone, and Terry Tempest Williams. Their words have been edited for length and clarity.

What emerges from these discussions is something far from a monolithic portrait. Cubism is more like it. There is no denying, as Russell Banks points out, that a generation of white-male writers carried the Hemingway torch. Yet, in the jargon of literary criticism of recent decades the cheap adjective “Hemingwayesque” was rarely applied with approval. There is a sense among several of these writers that the Hemingway centennial is not a time for nostalgia, but more an opportunity to set aside the myth and myth-making and return instead to the rich possibilities of the work.

Russell Banks tells a story of his traveling youth when he was trying to “invent myself as a writer.” Banks had made his way to Key West, where he was scratching out stories and living in a rooming house of questionable repute. He remembers looking through the locked gate of the Hemingway house, its famous occupant no longer living there but not yet a ghost either. It would be some thirty-five years later when Banks got to stand on the veranda of the house as the recipient of the Hemingway Prize at the Hemingway Days Literary Festival. Banks is the author of the celebrated novels Continental Drift, Affliction, Rule of the Bone and, most recently, Cloudsplitter, which is based on the life of the abolitionist John Brown. He recently retired from teaching at Princeton.

[Paul]: What about that Hemingway shadow?

[Banks]: An American writer beginning to write now might be free of that shadow, most especially if that writer is a woman or a non-white author. But there's really no getting away from it. Even they in turn were profoundly influenced by writers who were profoundly influenced by Hemingway. It's the trickle down theory of influence.

My generation of white-male writers had an influence on those who have taken graduate writing programs. You can see the influence of writers like Ray Carver and Richard Ford. I don't care if you're male or female, white or black, he's there still, more than Faulkner and Fitzgerald, because of his impact on the post-war generation of writers.

Part of it is the persona he created in his work and in his life—that sort of stoic existential hero; the romantic alienation that he seemed to be emblematic of and that he manifested in his style as well, sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph. There was a tone and a stance toward the world that is inextricably bound up with the work.

And then, too, there's the simple sheer beauty of his sentences and the relationship that he bore to American vernacular English. I remember when I first began reading him in my late teens and early twenties. He was able to make a jewel hard, a diamond hard. I had never seen that before.

You don't see it in Twain. That's American vernacular English, but it doesn't have Hemingway's kind of precision and clarity and sheen. You don't see it in Stephen Crane. You really don't see it in any other writer until you get to Hemingway. And it's exhilarating.

If you want to write in American vernacular English—and most of us do—then you have to turn to Hemingway. It was his invention. He admired in his own ambivalent way Sherwood Anderson, but you really don't see it there either. There's a certain kind of structure to the stories and certain kind of attention that he shares with Anderson, but the prose is really different. The prose in Anderson is softer, much softer.

Are there writing moments when Hemingway becomes more conscious to you, when, say, you're aiming for the true sentence?

There are certain things Hemingway mastered that I'm conscious of referring to. For instance—and this is the simple thing, but if you're a writer it's not a simple thing if you're going to do it—he said he learned how to describe scenery by studying Cézanne. I learned how to describe scenery from reading Hemingway.

Look at “Hills Like White Elephants,” or almost anything. Look at the physical description, how he moves from background to foreground. It's the logic of the eye. It's not the logic of the paragraph. And it's not the logic of exposition. It's the logic of the eye. The eye moves from distance to middle ground to foreground. And he will describe a scene in exactly the same way. Or it moves from foreground to middle distance to background. It doesn't swirl around. Or follow any other logic. It's a very physical way of setting a scene.

And that was because the logic of a Cézanne painting is the logic of an eye. It's top to bottom and the action is in the bottom foreground. Hemingway would organize a scene that way. I'm quite conscious when I'm sitting down of that process.

One of the things I'm realizing, when I reread those stories and read those descriptions, I'm wondering, what did I pay attention to the first time around? I mean really, it's tragic. That's the way we're taught in school: When we read Hemingway we tend to look for the symbols, we tend to look for the codes. So we decode him instead of remembering he was following some rudimentary, essential, fundamental thinking in his writing.

Joseph Conrad said, before all else I want to make my readers see. He meant literally to visualize. I think Hemingway, too, wrote with that in mind. I think he visualized as he wrote, because, when I read Hemingway I visualize. I literally see what's going on. I hallucinate whatever it is he's setting up. Naturally I inject my own imaginings into it, but he orchestrates and controls how you see to an extraordinary degree.

Which work stands out for you and keeps you going back?

I keep going back to the stories. I can't resist them. Even now after I don't know how many times over the years I've read them and taught them. They still are great. They'll stand forever, I think. Or a dozen at least will stand forever. And that's a dozen more than anybody else's.

And then, of course, the early novels. The later novels seem to me more mannered and have less of an impact on me. But in some ways his later prose invited me into more complex relationships with his characters and their worlds. They were more conflicted and were acting out in sometimes melodramatic ways their pain and disillusionment, and, more explicitly, trying to work out a moral ethic for life in a world in which there appeared to be no morality. In some ways he's the ultimate secular writer. There's the ancient and ongoing spiritual need, and the essential conflict in his life and in his work is how to find the ethical and spiritual center in a world in which one is totally disillusioned.

Your newest book, Cloudsplitter, is historical fiction, in which you imagined a life from the nineteenth century. Hemingway never did that. He wrote from experience.

His own direct experience, yeah. To my knowledge he never moved outside his own immediate or recent experience. He didn't influence me in that regard. His relation to his own personal experience and his dependence on it and the need to constantly replenish it in order to continue to write was the part I never was interested in particularly.

I think we're temperamentally so different. That has something do with my sense of the significance of my own personal experience, which wasn't much worth writing a book about. Hemingway was always convinced that his was.

Perhaps if I had gone to war at eighteen or nineteen years of age, or had the kind of life-defining experiences as his, which were historical really and international. Mine were quite different.

That is a fascinating moment in a writer's life when you leave the family and enter the larger social world. That moment often can define you for the rest of your life. The Lost Generation—they were nineteen or twenty when they went off to war. They left their homes in small-town America and went to a war that threw them into the international arena and blew away any lingering illusions they had about the goodness of man and the permanence of certain social institutions. You can look at World War II writers in the same way or the writers who left home at the time of the Depression—the Chicago writers, Richard Wright. That shaped their vision for the rest of their lives.

My generation, it was really the '60s. We left the family and found ourselves in a world that was very American. It was social, it wasn't inward particularly. I suppose that's one thing that distinguishes my generation of writers from the next older one, the Updikes, writers in their sixties and seventies. They came of age as writers in the '50s and were very much domestic writers. They were much more concerned with sexuality and repression, family, relationships between men and women on the domestic front. And if they talked about class at all it was the middle class.

Whereas my generation was talking about race, class (in terms of power), justice. It was much more politically oriented, I think. You can see it in the writers who are now in their fifties, across the board, like Robert Stone, Don DeLillo, John Wideman, Joyce Carol Oates when she's not writing Gothics. Her realistic work is wonderful in that regard.

It's an interesting shift. And I have a feeling that it's shaped back in those early years when you're nineteen to twenty-five and you've left the womb and you're out there in the world looking around. That first social world that you engage is the one that shapes you. That's an elaborate explanation for why I don't have a connection to my own private life.

E. Annie Proulx achieved wide attention (and a Pulitzer Prize) with her darkly comic novel The Shipping News (1993). She has a distinctive, American voice that can also be found in a story collection, Heart Songs, and the novels Postcards and Accordion Crimes. She lives in Wyoming.

[Proulx]: I first read Hemingway when I was a child, about ten years old, one or two of the short stories, one of them probably “Up in Michigan.” Of course I did not understand them but the short, tight sentences made it seem that I could and I certainly got the sense of male anger and the smell of water, some stony ambiance. A few years later I read “The Killers,” which I loved and I thought it very funny. It never occurred to me that Hemingway was going for bleak realism through corner-of-the-mouth dialogue. Somewhere along the way I read The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms, but these seemed to me to have been written for another kind of reader; both left me feeling outside the pages. In 1952, when I was seventeen, along with roughly five million other people, I read The Old Man and the Sea in the special edition of Life. I read it absorbedly but the after-feeling was one of an odd discomfort, a sense of pious bloat as I was too inexperienced in subtleties to distinguish between simplistic reductionism and complex silence. I voyaged through more Hemingway in later years but what I took in my ignorance as a reductionist chop seemed always to swamp the boat. In short, I was a poor reader of his work. I still believe it is difficult to read Hemingway well. His style promises easy understanding at the same time it annoys and baffles.

Although I never felt comfortable (in a readerly way) with Hemingway's novels I did recognize flashing power and beauty in much of the writing. In a way I think those strong, hard sentences have stayed inside me as a writerly example to trim the sentence down, though not to the irreducible minimum as Hemingway often did.

Now I do not read Hemingway much if at all—rather, Hemingway, for me, is a Literary Presence, a writer figure who seemed peculiarly American in his hungry need for constant praise and attention, his egoistic construction of himself along larger-than-life lines. The rise of the Writer as a cultural icon may not have begun with Hemingway but certainly he fixed the writer's position. He was terrific copy, handsome, frequenter of exotic places, satisfied the taste for adventure that characterized the early part of this century—Byrd in the Arctic and Antarctic, the stories of Jack London, the archaeological expeditions of Roy Chapman, the jungle trips of Martin and Osa Johnson make a frame for Hemingway's work. But the intensely personal aura of the Hemingway oeuvre, the “write about what you know” school carried to absurd lows, I think rather stilted his imagination and put him, as Byrd, in the position of having to top himself with every page written or day lived. His squalls and squabbles with other writers, his misplaced belief in his own profundity, his serial marriages and love affairs—in short, his life—seemed to get in the way of his writing. I suppose he might have had an atrophied imagination, that he might have had to substitute the lived event for the imagined.

Do the aesthetic qualities of Hemingway's work still have importance for us today?

Of course his work is important; it casts its shadow over nearly forty years of American literary history and set countless imitators a-scribbling, liberated writers from nineteenth century sentence styles as tightly packed and convoluted as the intestines in a hog. There is a great deal the writer can learn from Hemingway though of course few do as he is rather unfashionable, his work the butt of annual parody by people who have read little and understand nothing.

Charles Johnson's inventive fiction has impressed readers since his first novel, Faith and the Good Thing, was published in 1974. His much-admired Middle Passage won the National Book Award in 1990. In 1998 he published Dreamer, a historical novel that imagines the last years of Martin Luther King Jr. Also a prolific critic and essayist, he is the Pollock Professor of English at the University of Washington in Seattle.

[Johnson]: It is impossible not to work in Hemingway's shadow, either as an imitator of his approach to prose writing or in strong reaction against it. He is one of the few twentieth century American writers (along with Faulkner) who has given literature a unique narrative style—the stripped-down sentence, very journalistic, that is charged with meaning because of its compression. It is utilitarian, very serviceable whether one is writing the newspaper article or a short fiction. That approach is evident everywhere in fiction of the 1950s, even in science fiction. It is a major style that we inherit from Hemingway. The French have a word for literary padding in a story—le remplissage. You find, clearly, none of that in Hemingway's novels and stories.

If Hemingway had any bearing on my own writing it was negative. He is surely responsible for the brand of fiction known as “minimalism” in the 1970s and early '80s. But I prefer to write “maximalist” fiction, prose that is highly imagistic, tight and poetic, but rich in language and ideas.

Still you recognize how Hemingway can influence. Can you describe that?

For twenty-three years I've taught creative writing at the University of Washington. During those two decades I always include a Hemingway quote, one very meaningful to me, as an epigraph on the handout materials I distribute. The quote is: “What a writer in our time has to do is write what hasn't been written before or beat dead men at what they have done.” That, I daresay, succinctly defines how we should see our goal as writers, and during any era. I also tell my students to seriously consider his basic principles for writing. These are:

  • Study the best literary models.
  • Master your subject through experience and reading.
  • Work in disciplined isolation.
  • Begin early in the morning and concentrate for several hours each day.
  • Begin by reading everything you have written from the start or, if engaged on a long book, from the last chapter.
  • Write slowly and deliberately.
  • Stop writing when things are going well and you know what will happen next so that you have sufficient momentum to continue the next day.
  • Do not discuss the material while writing about it.
  • Do not think about writing when you are finished for the day but allow your subconscious mind to ponder on it.
  • Work continuously on a project once you start it.
  • Keep a record of your daily progress.
  • Make a list of titles after you have completed the work.

I've told my students again and yet again that a short story or a novel is a gift to a reader, that it should be a generous gift. If they can just remember this statement, “Specificity is Generosity,” then they will have caught the gist of Hemingway's advice that detail in writing is crucial if that prose is to be convincing and compelling.

Regarding political and social hot buttons, is it safe to read Hemingway today? How should we read him? How should we interpret his character's attitudes on racial matters, for instance?

As a black author, I don't trust Hemingway's observations on race. Not at all. And I get a bit nervous when he thumps his chest to show his masculinity. Having said all that, I must confess that I appreciate his attempts, flawed as they may be, to deliver the culture of men in literature—specifically the culture of the sportsman, and I'm sure I felt confident about publishing three stories that explore the world of the Asian martial-arts (“China,” “Kwoon,” and “The Green Belt”) precisely because Hemingway made it okay for a male writer to address, without apology, those time-honored male activities that give men a “rite of passage.” Still, I must qualify this praise by adding that sometimes I feel there is an adolescent understanding of the world in Hemingway's works.

Bob Shacochis won the 1985 National Book Award for first fiction (then it was called the American Book Award) for his story collection, Easy in the Islands. Much of his fiction in that book and since has been concerned with Caribbean island life and politics, especially as shaped by the presence of Americans in other cultures. His novel Swimming in the Volcano (1993) is the first volume of a projected Caribbean trilogy. Also a journalist (contributing editor to Harper's and Outside magazines), Shacochis this year published The Immaculate Invasion, an account of the American invasion of Haiti in 1994. He lives in Tallahassee, Florida, and northern New Mexico.

[Shacochis]: It's impossible to get away from the moral choices Hemingway focused on and the larger issues that the seemingly straight realism of his work delivered—all that honing in on the spirit of man in the twentieth century, a man's dignity, the violence of the twentieth century. The next century is just going to have to become entirely unrecognizable from this one for writing, or fiction writing, somehow to be relieved of those concerns. Hemingway seems to have been not just the master of those issues, but the most eloquent visionary.

More than any other American writer of the twentieth century? Did anyone else have his kind of influence?

Well. If you talk about sensibilities it would be T. S. Eliot, who for me had the full sense of the scope of human experience. Then it starts getting parceled out into areas of expertise. Like the aristocracy or the upper classes of Fitzgerald, or things like that.

Is there somebody else? No. Somebody like Robert Stone is just updating that tradition and I think all of us working in that tradition or on the periphery of that tradition understand that, just like Hemingway himself was updating other traditions. But Hemingway's sensibilities seem to represent it most as we package up the century.

Those themes—violence, human dignity—also run through your work. Do you think about Hemingway when you write? Is his influence on you a conscious one or subconscious?

Well, I first read Hemingway in high school, in junior high school, before I could ever have the luxury of thinking of myself as a writer. And then he disappeared off the screen and was replaced by more contemporary influences for me, like J. P. Donleavy. People who were much more stylistically pyrotechnic than Hemingway was or wanted to be. And then Thomas Pynchon. There was the sense that realism wasn't adequate enough to hold the full human experience. There was something a bit more as life became stranger, less traditional.

That brings me up to 1989 and living in Rome and working on my novel Swimming in the Volcano and for whatever reason deciding I'd better go back and look at Hemingway. So I bought the whole canon, and I reread Hemingway for basically the first time since I was a child. I think it had a conscious influence on the center section of my book, which is sort of a novella about a young black kid who grows up and the tragedy of his life. That novella itself becomes sort of a symbolic narrative of the middle passage for blacks from Africa to the New World. It's probably some of the best writing I've ever done. Certainly critics have thought so. There has to be some sort of cause and effect there: I'm completely immersed in Hemingway and I'm doing some of my best writing. Consciously there's just that on the surface. Subconsciously I don't know exactly what went on. But I can tip my hat to the old man, I guess.

You write both fiction and non-fiction, and in each case there is a sense of realism founded in close observation and detail. Is that the Hemingway influence at work?

It would be nice to say I got it from Hemingway. But I don't know. Maybe there's some osmotic dynamic at work there. Influences are not often apparent to the person who's being influenced. And there is a parallel issue: sometimes when you are most wanting to be influenced or most trying to be influenced you're in danger of simply losing your own originality.

But things like graphic descriptions or the sense of place. Whether Hemingway influenced me on that or not, or whether it's just a common goal we were both born with, I don't know. But what I'm most influenced by are Hemingway's sensibilities to these larger things and deeper things. And once you share those sensibilities, you want to share in as accurate a detail as you can bring to the page the marvelous or hideous or cruel or beautiful things you've seen with your own eyes.

I guess only God can tell if it was Hemingway who was the father of those sensibilities in me. Certainly he was one of the sponsors or co-sponsors.

You've traveled in his tracks in the Caribbean and in Europe.

It's just coincidence, but I guess we share the same sort of restlessness. After his youth, when he hit the road, just as I hit the road after my education, it was very hard to come back to America. He always lived on the periphery of it, whether he was living around the world or living in Key West or down in Cuba or boating around. Or he'd simply bail out altogether to the wilds of Idaho.

I really have the restlessness in me that he seems to have had. I guess that marks me as one type of man and not the other. I can't stay too long in America before too many bad things start happening. One is I start disliking the country that I know I love. And I start feeling complacent about things that I know I can't afford to—spiritually. Those two forces pushed him around as they seem to be pushing me around, which is a disease common to guys who can't sit still.

He certainly had something like that in him and he plugged it into the larger world and into the forces he found sweeping randomly across the world. And I certainly recognize that behavior in myself.

Would you ever write anything in homage to Hemingway?

Well, I've got nothing against it, but I have my own projects, and they seem to me to be rather big ones. It's going to take at least ten years to get done what I want to get done. I'd have to have more time and more carefree time to do something as calculated as to write something in homage to Hemingway. On the other hand, and I don't want it too sound pretentious or too inauthentic either, but a life like the one I'm leading isn't too far away from a salute to the life like Hemingway led. Although I've got to get out of the fucking suburbs.

Michael Ondaatje grew up in Ceylon and moved to Canada in 1962. He long taught at York University in Toronto. He is a poet, essayist and writer of such inspired fictions as The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (a novel composed largely of poetry), Coming Through Slaughter and The English Patient, which found a wide audience not only as a novel but in its movie adaptation. Many people compared The English Patient with A Farewell to Arms, which they pointed to as an obvious influence. Ondaatje, speaking from his home in Toronto, said he hadn't yet read it.That's the one in the hospital, right?”

Your experience and writing sensibilities seem far different from Hemingway's, so I am interested to know how he showed up on your radar screen, if at all?

[Ondaatje]: At university I read some of him, but I wasn't a great fan. The one I loved was Faulkner, who seemed at the other end of the spectrum. Faulkner for me was the writer who allowed me to feel like one could write a different kind of prose that was more intimate and that was closer to poetry in some ways.

But I love the Nick Adams stories. I think in some ways Hemingway suffered from the public image of him, which is the jerk out there shooting everything in sight. I find that at his best he's a wonderfully sensitive prose writer, who can suggest remarkable things with very few words. The Nick Adams stories and something like Death in the Afternoon—these are remarkable books.

Even a really bad book like To Have and Have Not has got some remarkable pieces of writing. And he didn't lock himself into one kind of novel. He was trying various points of view and voices. They don't all work. But I like that aspect of Hemingway. He's very ambitious in trying out different forms. Some don't work.

Emotionally, I'm pretty much closer to Faulkner or Fitzgerald anyway. But there is something about Hemingway we have forgotten how to respect. He is too easily marked and parodied, I suppose.

Not being a U.S. citizen, do you think there are issues about Hemingway that are problematic or need to be explained?

In a book like For Whom the Bell Tolls, you get the American who goes abroad and seems to understand everything a bit too quickly. There is that kind of desire to be a part of that foreign place. It's understandable that he wants to be a part of it, whether it's Cuba or Spain. There is an assumption that he can articulate that place that doesn't work for me, that comes a bit too easily perhaps.

Terry Tempest Williams writes about loss, longing, and discovery in the American West. Her books include Pieces of White Shell: A Journey to Navajoland (1984) and Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place (1991). She lives in southern Utah, where she's working on projects related to her travels in Spain, including one about the Hieronymous Bosch paintingThe Garden of Earthly Delights,which she references here. She also references research she conducted in the Hemingway archives in preparation for a paper she delivered at the International Hemingway Conference in 1996. She teaches once a year at the University of Utah.

You were not the first person I thought of in making these connections to Hemingway and his influence. How did you arrive at your deep interest in him? And did you trip over Hemingway in Spain?

[Williams]: That assignment [the research and lecture], alongside traveling in Spain, where you do bump into Hemingway everywhere you go, created a strange confluence of perception and person to the point I felt I was walking alongside Hemingway. This became further complicated by my obsession with Bosch.

As I started getting into his letters, it became clear to me that Hemingway was absolutely in love with the Prado. And with a book like The Garden of Eden, which has to do with the ambiguous nature of gender, I thought surely he must have fallen in love with El Bosco, too.

In going back to the Garden of Eden manuscript, I found that Bosch was referenced all throughout that novel. References to El Bosco and “The Garden of Earthly Delights” had been edited out by Tom Jenks and Scribner's, and that in my mind was the heart of the whole story.

A second confluence really was serendipitous. I became really intrigued with bullfights. Because of the experiences that I had gone through with my own family, with death and dying, there was some truth that I could feel inside the bullfight that I had no language for. So I had to keep going back to the bullfights. It was a tug of conscience, because, as a staunch conservationist, the cruelty is obvious. But to me that was the politically correct stance. There was something much deeper to be found in the texture of that ritual.

There was also an echo or some semblance of correspondence between the bullfights and what I was feeling about the ravaged landscape of the American West. And again I couldn't put my finger on it. I didn't have the language. But those were the yearnings, the longings that I was attracted to in this ritual. And so I read Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon. And that feeling of longing in the West for what once was, or the intense feeling of loss in this landscape, came out even stronger in my reading of that book.

When I was reading Death in the Afternoon, I wrote in my notebook at one point that there's something missing. There's something Hemingway's not telling us. Again, intuitively, I felt it was tied to the land. And, sure enough, in going back over the manuscript, there was a chapter that had been pulled from that book, which was all about Hemingway's longing for the West and the demise of what he knew in Michigan. It was at that point, I think, that I felt this kinship with Hemingway.

So whatever earlier perceptions you had of Hemingway fell away?

It was a myth. Just like the myth of the bullfight, which is so easily read as cruelty and brutality and part of the Spanish black myth as they say. I saw Hemingway strapped to the same mythology, the rugged hunter machismo. I thought, no, there is something much deeper and more tender, if you will, and human about Hemingway that has been lost in the caricature.

Did that feeling stay with you as you went back into the fiction?

Absolutely. I started looking at his ethic of place, his sense of place, in his short stories. And it's everywhere. It's absolutely everywhere. I mean how is it we have misread him so thoroughly?

Blame it on the media?

We always opt for the symbolic, the romantic, the superficial. That's not to say that Hemingway didn't have a large part in creating the mythology that circled him. Maybe that was part of the conflict that resonated in him.

But what I have found in reading and rereading his fiction and non-fiction is a man deeply tied to the land. He was desperate to find a sense of wildness, not only in the environment he chose to inhabit but in himself. There was a passage, I believe it's in the removed chapter from Death in the Afternoon, that he says, when one chooses to live in young country, one's heart will be continually broken. When one lived in old country the damage has been rendered. That's a paraphrase. But why was he attracted to Spain? Why was he attracted to Paris? He didn't have to see the losses that he was seeing in Wyoming, in Idaho, in Michigan, in the places that really were wild when he knew them.

There's no question that each reader comes to Hemingway out of his own bias. But when you read his correspondence, when you see the choices he made as to where he traveled and where he chose to live, you can't avoid reflecting on his exploration of wildness.

I also think his view of women and gender is much more complicated than we are led to believe in the popular culture. Again, when you go back to the original manuscript of The Garden of Eden, when you look at “Hills Like White Elephants,” those are really powerful perspective changes. This is a male writer: How could Hemingway know the outrage that a woman feels when a man dictates the actions she would choose on behalf of her body? And the kind of gender confusion that's played between the characters in Garden of Eden? Again, to me, this walks parallel to his views of landscape, the conflicts as well as the conciliations with his relationship with women, his relationship to his own sexuality, his relationship to the land.

Because you are not a fiction writer, I wonder how you also deal with Hemingway's technique? Does that mean as much to you as the vision, the content that you are finding?

I don't think you can separate it, because that's his voice. In “A Natural History of the Dead,” there's a quote I love: “Can any branch of Natural History be studied without increasing that faith, love and hope which we also, every one of us, need in our journey through the wilderness of life?” Would you ever expect that from Ernest Hemingway?

The stereotype is curt sentences, less is more. Yet, there are times when he just lets loose in terms of his questions. And that's what I love so much about Hemingway. You look at “The Big Two-Hearted River,” yes, but what about this big-hearted man, who was so sensitive and, dare I even say, embodied the wild feminine. He had to continually keep that hidden under this guise of machismo. What price did he pay? I think we know the answer.

Williams searches for a paragraph that she had found in the deleted last chapter of Death in the Afternoon. When she retrieves it she reads it to me over the phone. “If you care about an old country, that is one where the physical changes have mostly been made, you do it for security, but that is the second illusion that an intelligent man should lose. There is no security in any life that death is the end of, nor has economic security ever existed, nor is it possible. There can only be an intelligent acceptance or refusal of chances.”

I just love that. There you find that beautiful paradox of Hemingway's soul and Hemingway's writing. Is life an intelligent acceptance or is it a refusal? It's that tension. And my relationship, if we can be so presumptuous, with Hemingway probably began in that paragraph. A piece that was never published. The unknown Hemingway. The Hemingway that has been silent, because it asks us to consider him from a much deeper place.

Robert Stone is one of the leading voices of contemporary American fiction. In his short stories (collected in Bear and His Daughter) and novels such as Dog Soldiers, A Flag for Sunrise, Outerbridge Reach, and, most recently, Damascus Gate, Stone reaches outward to explore the dangers of the world and inward to plumb the depths of late-century American anxieties. He divides his time between Connecticut, where he teaches at Yale University, and Key West.

You have written novels of civil war in a Spanish-speaking country, of a man against the sea, of beautiful people in beautiful places with danger in their lives, and I can think of a short story of yours about abortion. One could conclude that Hemingway has had some influence in your writing life.

[Stone]: I don't think any of those things really have their origin in Hemingway. That isn't the way that Hemingway influences. And, in a way, that is gratuitous.

How is it, then, that Hemingway influences?

Hemingway's influence was broadcast. It didn't affect everyone the same way. One of the ways in which he was influential was in creating out of a style a kind of morality, a kind of ethos. It was the one that prevailed during the second world war. A good example of that would be just about every heroic role that Humphrey Bogart ever played. You can't have “Casablanca” without Hemingway.

But that's Hemingway's influence on the popular culture. That's not his influence as a writer. That I write something about abortion has a whole lot more to do with living in the '90s than it has do with Hemingway. That's true about Central America. That's true about the ocean. None of those things would I ascribe to Hemingway. I consider myself having been influenced by Hemingway, but certainly not in terms of choice of subject.

On the other hand, Hemingway made what are almost technical discoveries about the beauty of the simple sentence and the way in which dialogue can be made to play on the page, the way in which dialogue can be made to carry the essence of spoken language. These are almost musical things. This is Hemingway as a stylist in influencing other writers in the way that musicians influence other musicians.

In “Hills Like White Elephants,” there aren't any adverbs; there isn't any identification for the most part as to the speakers, other than their dialogue. It's dialogue as a vehicle of characterization entirely. There is no physical description of the characters and yet they're extremely vivid, why? They're extremely vivid, because of the dialogue. And it's also extremely stripped. There're no adverbs in the description, and yet description accompanies and complements the dialogue in the most exact way. This is technique that amounts to technical innovation. Once you see how that is done, it's very hard to go back beyond it.

And his ability to use the white space, to hold a pedal down, to really make the rhythm of a juxtaposition of words echo in the space that follows it immediately; his paragraphing, his arrangement of sentences; it all creates sound. Sound in turn creates a kind of morality, a kind of stoic endurance, an ethos.

This discussion of technique brings to mind Wallace Stevens's suggestion that Hemingway was a great poet. Do you agree?

I think there's very little difference between poetry and prose. Prose is sound. Punctuation is the sonic key. The length of sentences, the sound of words, word choices, it's all sound. It all happens in the mind's ear. And Hemingway was a master controller of the mind's ear. He could make in the mind's ear a kind of solemn incantation that had a moral valence to it. In the way that Gregorian chant or chanted Tibetan mantras have their sound, Hemingway has a kind of moral resonance.

Is that something that you as a writer aspire to? To have a sound that has a moral resonance?

Yes, because in a novel of any seriousness, your characters have interior lives and consequently they have a moral dimension and you make their interior lives out of the way they sound. It's a question of leitmotif. Characters in novels or stories have a leitmotif, just like characters in operas. It's really done with sound.

That's something that Hemingway knew very well. He probably used it more immediately and more dramatically than any writer before him.

Hemingway was still alive when you began writing. What kind of presence do you remember of him at that time?

It's hard to remember the degree to which he bestrode the world. Hemingway was famous in a way writers are no longer famous. First of all, in the first half of the century writers enjoyed an esteem that they don't in the second half of the century. There's no equivalent today for Gide and Mann and Hemingway. The novelist was a more important figure culturally years ago, for whatever reason. This not to say that the best novelists then were better than the best novelists now. They were just more important.

I don't know if Hemingway was an avid self-promoter or not, perhaps he was, but he certainly was good copy and everybody was interested in him. Everybody, including people who didn't know much about writing, knew who Ernest Hemingway was. He was famous for being famous, an international celebrity.

About the time I was beginning to write, Hemingway was becoming a fairly ridiculous figure. Of course he didn't have long to live and what wasn't understood was that he was going to pieces. But as would happen to anybody that famous, that prominent, he was being parodied. He was being laughed at by younger people, as institutions inevitably are.

Stone and I digressed a few moments to talk about other influences of his. He named, for instance, Conrad, Hardy and Dos Passos.

I love USA [the Dos Passos trilogy]. He's a very underrated writer. USA: that will last. It doesn't have the beautiful style of Hemingway, but it's a great panoramic vision of America at that time.

One thing that's extraordinary is how Hemingway holds up. You pick up A Farewell to Arms and it's just as vibrant as it must have been to its first readers.

Do you think Hemingway will still be read 100 years from now?

I think so. I would put my money on Hemingway.

Would you put your money on anybody else?

I don't know about Faulkner. Faulkner seems strangely forgotten here for the moment, which always amazes the Europeans. So it's kind of hard to tell. But I feel strongly that Hemingway's work will last.

Anybody else in the twentieth century is up for grabs. But you know who else? I just did an introduction to Day of the Locust. I think Nathanael West has survived really well. Of course, there isn't a lot of work. But I think Day of the Locust is quite present.

And, as one always does, I'm probably leaving somebody out. There's work that will be rediscovered, you know, bones that will rattle again.

Erik Nakjavani (essay date spring-summer 2001)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 14262

SOURCE: Nakjavani, Erik. “Hemingway on War and Peace.” North Dakota Quarterly 68, nos. 2-3 (spring-summer 2001): 245-73.

[In the following essay, Nakjavani draws upon philosophy, military history, psychoanalysis, and literary theory to consider Hemingway's treatment of the metaphysics and psychology of war in A Farewell to Arms and other works.]

You had read on and studied the art of war ever since you were a boy and your grandfather had started you on the American Civil War.

—Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls (335)


We know that Ernest Hemingway considered the Prussian warrior-philosopher General Karl von Clausewitz the “old Einstein of battles” (By-Line 291). From Hemingway's perspective Clausewitz, the author of On War (1832), a treatise on the theoretics and pragmatics of war, was “the most intelligent writer on the metaphysics of war that ever lived” (Men at War xiv). That is high praise, couched in simple, confident, and knowledgeable language. What we do not know is the basis of Hemingway's superlative comparison and his judgment. In his personal library at his home La Finca Vigía in San Francisco de Paula near Havana, Cuba, the wide array of books on the American Civil War, military history, strategy, and war narratives in several languages attests to his own considerable intellectual and theoretical investment in the subject.1 An examination, subsequent analysis, and critical assessment of Hemingway's own contribution to the 20th-century metaphysics of war constitute my intention in this essay. I shall mainly concentrate on Hemingway's reflections on war as we find them in his preface to A Farewell to Arms (1949) and in introductions to Men at War: The Best War Stories of All Time (1942) and Treasury for the Free World (1946). It is our common knowledge that Hemingway gave the subject of war a privileged metaphorical position in the general thematics of his fiction. My concentration on these three prefaces would make it possible to deal with his own articulation and imbrication of metaphysical, psychological, and literary aspects of war, on the one hand, and the ethics of national and individual behavior in wartime, on the other. It leaves out his fictional concerns with such matters, which have already been extensively dealt with in Hemingway scholarship.


No catalogue of horrors ever kept men from war.

—Ernest Hemingway, By-Line: Ernest Hemingway (210)

We know war is bad. Yet sometimes it is necessary to fight. But still war is bad and any man who says it is not is a liar.

—Ernest Hemingway, Selected Letters (480)

Hemingway's 1949 preface to the illustrated edition of A Farewell to Arms (1929) gives him the opportunity to express his views on the topic of war as a persistent dimension of the human condition. “The title of this book is A Farewell to Arms,” he writes, “and except for three years there has been war of some kind almost ever since it has been written” (x). Considering the enormity of the subject, Hemingway's tone is relatively disillusioned, reticent, and almost detached, without heat or hope, but authoritative. He makes a simple statement that may be boiled down to stating that the lived history of our time is experiential proof of the inevitability of war. He only intimates that the title refers to his World War I (1914-1918) novel, a war of unprecedented mechanized violence and brutality, which was naively hailed by some as the war to end all wars. The intervening years, before and after the publication of A Farewell to Arms, were to belie that claim. Wars and other conflicts betrayed even the most modest measure of hope the title in one of its multiple significations might have implied—both on the planes of the individual and the particular and the national and the universal. The three years of uneasy peace to which Hemingway refers could have only been the gift of the total European war weariness and exhaustion, not at all a reassuring reason for the absence of war. After this minimal and highly compressed but essential account of two decades of European history, he then gently makes fun of the critics who irked him by regarding his interest in war as obsessive, even pathological. “Some people used to say,” he chides, “why is the man so preoccupied and obsessed with war, and now, since 1933 perhaps it is clear why a writer should be interested in the constant bullying, murderous, slovenly crime of war” (x).

Thus, writing in 1949, for Hemingway nearly the whole first half of the 20th century stands accused of the “murderous, slovenly crime of war,” going all the way back to the European 1908-1914 arms race, which he characteristically leaves out. What he does include is the mere mention of the virulent form of the “constant bullying” and the quasi-mystical glorification of murderous impulses in the 1933 rise of Nazi ideology. It is an ideology that regards violence as sacred within the putative prerogatives of the Aryan “master race.” Hemingway might have added other bloody events he knew so much about, mainly the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, as an armed struggle for a classless society that was to sweep away what Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in The Communist Manifesto decried as “All fixed and fast-frozen [human] relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions” (12); the surge of Italian Fascism (1922) as the resurgence of the Roman Empire; and the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). The bipolarity of these two ideologies, Communism and Fascism, found their common ground in totalitarian attitudes, but the Nazi and Fascist ideologies appeared more inclined to acclaim unbound violence as a value in itself. Violence appeared to them to yield a panacea to individual and national powerlessness. In 1935, in “Notes on the Next War,” Hemingway warns:

In a modern war there is no Victory. The allies won the war but the regiments that marched in triumph were not the men who fought the war. The men who fought the war were dead. More than seven million of them were dead and it is the murder of over seven million more that an ex-corporal in the German army [Hitler] and an ex-aviator and former morphine addict [Mussolini] drunk with personal and military ambition and fogged in a blood-stained murk of misty patriotism look forward hysterically to today.

(By-Line 211)

Hemingway's interest as a writer in all the blood-lust and bloodletting in the 20th century is also augmented by the omnipresence of their analogues throughout human history. He reminds us that “Europe has always fought, the intervals of peace are only Armistices” (By-Line 212). For him, the historical background is a melancholy reminder of our foreground, a gloomy story elaborately and intricately foretold. It is the continual preparation for and perpetual occurrence of war that force Hemingway to consider war as a subject of primary interest for a writer. Persuaded that the foretold are at least forewarned, he sounds an alarm. War, as an atavistic concern, fascinates him and compels him to reflect. He would have agreed with the Chinese warrior-philosopher Sun Tzu who holds that “Military action is … the ground of death and life, the path of survival and destruction, so it is important to examine it” (x).

However, I find no reason to suggest that war and its metaphors and metonymies heard as echoes in Hemingway's writing are in any way an advocacy of war. It is tempting to establish a connection between intellectual, literary, and personal interests and advocacy in his case, but I believe it will prove to be wading in the shallows and ultimately a spurious undertaking. It will be so regardless of the occasions for bravery and nobility, which Hemingway greatly admired, that war provides for men. There is too much evidence to the contrary. In his introduction to Treasury for the Free World, he is unmistakably direct about the criminality of war:

An aggressive war is the great crime against everything good in the world. A defensive war, which must necessarily turn to aggressive at the earliest moment, is the necessary great counter-crime. But never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.


In “Wings over Africa,” he instructs us that “war has the essence of all of these [tyranny, injustice, murder, brutality, and the corruption of the soul] blended together and is strengthened by its various parts until it is stronger than any of the evils it is composed of can ever be” (By-Line 234). Thus he does not condone war as admissible or excusable—even though often war may be defensive, unavoidable, and inevitable. For him, as we have just seen, war always conjugates all manifestations of evil in such a way as to make them more effective in their combined demonic violence.

“War is always wrong,” Karl Jaspers categorically proclaims—plain and simple (115). No casuistry of just war for Jaspers. It would seem to me Hemingway would have no quarrel with such a straightforward ethical statement. Yet, from a writer's point of view, he considers war to be a significant experience. The experience of war is consequential to him even if a writer peripherally participates in it, as Hemingway did by serving with the Red Cross on the Italian front where he was gravely wounded on July 8, 1918. Accordingly, his understanding of war—as being at once unavoidable and unacceptable, even when it places itself under the sign of counter-violence—deepens and becomes exceedingly nuanced. His fictional references to matters of war testify to the scope and complexity of his comprehension of the subject, even though his own direct war experience was limited. As an exigent life-and-death experience—a veritable extremis or “limit-situation,” as Jasper calls it—war is no doubt for many an unsurpassable and often epiphanic experience.

I would say that the dualities of Hemingway's attitude toward war and the conduct of men at war simultaneously bear marks of the antithetical Freudian and the early Christian thinking on the subject. I will go so far as to suggest that the dualities of his thought on war signal an effort to reconcile these two seemingly irreconcilable modes of thought: Christian dogmatics and Freudian psychoanalysis. The former commands: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” and “Love thine enemies”—which, combined, speak the essence of the mysteries of the concepts of Christian love and charity. Freudian psychoanalysis considers the “neighbor” as the “stranger,” the Other, and therefore as either a real or potential enemy. This dialectical shift from the thesis of Christian love to its Freudian antithesis of skepticism seems so knotty as to make a reconciliation between the two and a potential synthesis appear impossible. However, is this synthesis entirely outside the realm of at least conceptual possibility? The answer does not fall easily within our grasp. Thus it requires closer examination, analysis, and interpretation of the concepts of the Other, both as an object of our love and of our hostility or hatred, before we can conceive of a synthesis.


Homo homini lupus. [Man is a wolf to man.] Who, in the face of all his experience of life and of history, will have the courage to dispute this assertion?

—Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents (58)

Iris Murdoch pointedly remarks that “The paradox of our situation is that we must have theories about human nature, no theory explains everything, yet it is just the desire to explain everything that is the spur of theory” (190). In relation to the concepts of war and peace, Hemingway too, feels the tug and pull of this desire—albeit that for him, as a novelist, “the spur of theory” is dominated by the density of the particular and the experiential. These characteristic polarities of his thought, his general belief in the inevitability of war, and his reluctant acceptance of it as an undeniable reality puts him in the proximity if not indeed within the parameters of Freudian psychoanalytic theory. To probe somewhat deeper into Hemingway's thought on war and to situate it within the larger context of 20th-century thought I find it helpful to review briefly its shared concerns with Sigmund Freud's similar psychoanalytic interests.

In 1909, Freud is already aware that the “aggressive instinct” needs to be included in his general theory of instincts. By 1930, he accords it a significant conceptual place as the “death instinct” in Civilization and Its Discontents. We find him to be initially hesitant to provide a thorough formulation of what he terms “aggressive instinct.” While giving it a prominent place in animal biology, he is inclined at this time to attenuate its biological and therefore prelinguistic role in the human psyche. For “to include it in the human constitution appears sacrilegious; it contradicts too many religious presumptions and social conventions” (“Anxiety” 129). Since he was no stranger to defiance of received notions, his hesitation may have even had a more poignant source than the religious and social disapprobation: Freud was a humanist. Exposed as we have been to the thoroughgoing structuralism of the 20th century, we understand his sensitivity, ambivalence, and reserve about this subject, which is uncharacteristic of him and his courageous stance in matters clinical, theoretical, and speculative. In 1909, in the “Little Hans” case history “Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-Year-Old Boy,” Freud elaborates further on his reluctance: “I cannot bring myself to assume the existence of a special aggressive instinct alongside of the familiar instinct of self-preservation and sex, and on an equal footing with them” (143). Nevertheless, during and after World War I, his reticence gradually is attenuated and then disappears altogether. By 1930, with the rise of German Nazism looming over the horizon, he is ready to proclaim:

Starting from speculations on the beginning of life and from biological parallels, I drew the conclusion that, besides the instinct to preserve living substance and to join it into ever larger units, there must exist another, contrary instinct seeking to dissolve those units and to bring them back to their primaeval, inorganic state. That is to say, as well as Eros there was an instinct of death.

(Civilization 65-66)

For Freud, this is a decisive moment when historical reality affirms theoretical findings. He was no doubt witnessing, reflecting on, and being influenced by powerful German ideological, political, social, and cultural upheavals in the making. Coincidentally, Hemingway too discerned these disturbing convulsions in Germany, worrying that

those [in Germany] who had never accepted a military defeat hated those who had and started to do away with the ablest of them by the vilest program of assassination the world has ever known. They started, immediately after the war, by killing Karl Liebknecht [a founder of the German Social Democratic party] and Rosa Luxemburg [economist and revolutionary], and they killed on, steadily eliminating revolutionary and liberal alike by an unvarying process of intelligent assassination.

(By-Line 182)

Intelligent assassination efficiently produces dead bodies; but, above all, what it kills so well and so often is intelligence itself. Completely disillusioned, Freud, too, now advances the idea that all human relations are based on irremediable aggression that, if frustrated, turns into uncontrolled and uncontrollable violent explosions. Therefore, peaceful coexistence and cooperation will forever elude civilized human beings who aspire to it.

Freud theoretically defies and finally negates the two Christian commandments, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” and “Love thine enemies” on experiential, personal, collective, and historical bases. For Freud, my neighbor is “in general unworthy of my love” and “has more claim to my hostility and even my hatred.” This is so because my neighbor “seems not to have the least trace of love for me and shows me not the slightest consideration” (Civilization 57). As such, my neighbor shall always be a stranger to me and I to him. Here the logic of aggression reigns supreme, and, ultimately, the reason of the strongest proves to be the best. Freud, like Hemingway, disillusioned by increasing Nazi and Fascist strength, finds not superior intelligence but superior force to have been the final arbiter of all matters in human history. Within this vicious circle of alterity and alienation, the “I-thou” relationship in caritas is then entirely replaced by the hostile “I-it” encounter in which I deny the subjective autonomy of my neighbor and reduce him to an object of my aggression.

Freud seems to be generally answering Schopenhauer's old philosophical question: Is man not the “beast of prey which will pounce upon a weaker neighbor as soon as he notices his existence? And is this fact not confirmed everyday in ordinary life?” Freud's answer is an unsparing, Yes! Schopenhauer further elaborates that “No animal ever torments another for the sake of tormenting: but man does so, and it is this that constitutes the diabolical nature which is worse than the merely bestial” (Essays 139). In Schopenhauer's philosophy Christian love (caritas) is perverted into Schadenfreude, the sadistic pleasure in someone's discomfiture or misfortune. Schadenfreude reveals itself in life as the malevolent “laughter of Hell” (Essays 140). Nietzsche later sadly claimed that “The whole life of the Christian is at last exactly the life from which Christ preached deliverance” (Will to Power 125).

Hemingway, too, knew much about Schadenfreude as the drunkards' behavior in the massacre of Fascists in For Whom the Bell Tolls (99-129) makes abundantly clear. His voice on these matters as a whole is in remarkable harmony with the chorus of European disillusionment and disenchantment with the human condition. In the essay “On the Blue River,” Hemingway wryly observes, “Certainly there is no hunting like the hunting of man and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never really care for anything else thereafter” (By-Line 236). The certainty of the thrill of one man hunting another provides a striking psychological and ethical admission. It indicates a far-reaching discovery for Hemingway and a fearsome and consequential revelation for the reader. To the extent that the hunting of one man by another ushers us into an endless sadomasochistic dialectic, it clearly includes a psychical space in which the hunter and the hunted can easily metamorphose into one another. Hemingway's view of human aggressive instinct coincides with the more general psychoanalytic and philosophical theories of Freud and his philosopher predecessors Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Human aggression merely gets stated differently by Hemingway in his own direct style of thinking and writing drawn from lived experience and imagination.

In this context, one may consider Hemingway's so-called “obsession” with war not as a symptom of his neurosis but, more accurately, as a concern with a fundamental dimension of lived history and, by extension, of all human history. He wants us to be aware that “All of history is of one piece and it is ourselves …” (Men at War xxiii). Thus if there be a neurosis, its origin must be primarily sought not in Hemingway but, above all, in the lived human history itself. Hemingway's beloved predecessors in art and literature such as Stendhal, Tolstoy, Goya, and Stephen Crane faced the same historical phenomenon: history as the long sad narratives of the collective neurosis of aggression and the psychosis of war.


Regardless of how this war [WW II] was brought on … there is only one thing now to do. We must win it. We must win it at all costs and as soon as possible.

—Ernest Hemingway, Men at War (xi)

Hemingway appears to have considered the concept of jus ad bellum or “just war” as no more than a sophistical theory at best and a mendacious one at worst. It survives to our day as the Catholic Church's desire to reconcile war and Christ's commandment, “Love thine enemies,” under certain conditions or circumstances (Council of Arles 314). It was a modality of realpolitik which later became a part of the Church's doctrine. We have already seen that Hemingway unreservedly believes war to be criminal in all its various manifestations. He finds no conditions or circumstances in which war could be sanctioned as good or legitimized as “just” as, say, Gratian and Saint Augustine did. Correlatively, for him, the only mode of jus in bello or just conduct in war is to win it quickly by any means possible, regardless of who or what has initially caused it. He develops a “realistic” argument to support his negation of jus in bello. In his introduction to the anthology of war narrative, Men at War, he tells us that

The editor of this anthology, who took part and was wounded in the last war to end war [WW I], hates war and hates all the politicians whose mismanagement, gullibility, cupidity, selfishness and ambition brought on this present war [WW II] and made it inevitable. But once we have a war there is only one thing to do. It must be won. For defeat brings worse things than any that can ever happen in a war.

(xi, my emphasis)

For me, this paragraph makes intelligible the crux of Hemingway's thought on the conduct of war: war is irrecusably evil, always and everywhere, but worse is yet the evil of defeat. Tactically, he advises, “when the moment arrives, whether it is in a barroom fight or in a war, the thing to do is to hit your opponent the first punch and hit him as hard as possible” (Men at War xxi). This statement has a Machiavellian cast to it; and yet it simply makes its way beyond expediency to another sphere of significant considerations. I discern in it Hemingway's absolute dread of defeat, which borders on a Hegelian master-slave dialectic. Winning a war bestows the rights of the master on the winner and ushers in a period of slavery for the loser. For Hemingway, nothing less than the essence of our humanity, that is, our freedom is at stake in losing a war. The horrific upshot of losing a war makes itself manifest in the unavoidable loss of freedom and the consequent enslavement suffered by an individual, group, tribe, race, or nation. That is precisely why Hemingway can write an unthinkable sentence such as: “The answer to the Nazi claim that Germans are a superior race and other races shall be slaves is to say, and mean it, ‘We will take your race and wipe it out’” (Men at War xxix). And mean it? The ferocity of the sentence derives from the equally unimaginable horror of slavery for Hemingway. Thus he puts forward a subcategory of the Hegelian idea of the fight to the death, which naturally issues from the master-slave conflict, its consequent dialectic, and acquires the dimension of an imperative. Hemingway can only respond to the possibility of defeat with fury and utter contempt. A human being is always better dead than enslaved. As a consequence, he simply insists that “We must win it [this war]” (Men at War xi), which becomes for him incantatory in its necessity, intensity, and repetition.

After all is said, it is still in the name of freedom, or the negation of slavery as a mode of human existence in its totality, that he adds: “We must win it never forgetting what we are fighting for, in order that while we are fighting Fascism we do not slip into the ideas and ideals of Fascism” (Men at War xii). For Fascism absolute power denies, violates, obliterates, and eventually even surpasses freedom as a constituent of the human condition. I would suggest that one may interpret Hemingway's startling proposal to wipe out the German race as “We will take your Nazi ideology and we will wipe it out. We mean this.” In the same mode of thinking, admitting that Germans are “practical professionals in war,” he counsels:

We can learn all their lessons without being Fascists if we keep our minds open. All we need is common sense, a quality which is often conspicuously lacking in generalship but which our own Civil War produced the great masters of. We can beat the Germans without becoming Fascists. We can fight a total war without becoming totalitarians if we do not stand on our mistakes and try to cover them. …

(Men at War xiii)

This passage makes sufficiently evident the radical complexity of Hemingway's metaphysics of war, which reformulates the concept of jus ad bellum by removing from war the possibility of enslaving the defeated. Hemingway's reference to the American Civil War in the passage becomes noteworthy in this new reformation. In his 1946 introduction to Treasury for the Free World, he refers to peacetime as “a more difficult time when it is a man's duty to understand his world rather than simply fight for it” (xiii). He considers the understanding of one's world “to be hard work [that] will involve reading much that is unpleasant to accept. But it is one of man's first duties now” (xiii). And, among other things, this unpleasant reading will make it clear to us that

We have waged war in the most ferocious and ruthless way that it has ever been waged. We waged it against fierce and ruthless enemies that it was necessary to destroy. … For the moment we are the strongest power in the world. It is very important that we do not become the most hated.

(Treasury xiii)

Again, Hemingway turns the Fascist ideology upside down by privileging freedom over absolute power. In “On the American Dead in Spain,” he writes:

The fascists may spread over the land, blasting their way with weight of metal brought from other countries. They may advance aided by traitors and by cowards. They may destroy cities and villages and try to hold people in slavery. But you cannot hold any people in slavery.

(37, my emphasis)

What enslaving power seeks is temporary because freedom endures. “Just as the earth can never die, neither those who have been free return to slavery” (“American Dead” 37). For Hemingway, Fascism is a hating, hateful, and hated ideology, in the fullest sense of those adjectives, and doomed to failure everywhere. It is also the most pernicious because it is as contagious as a plague disguised as privilege. So “we,” too, can become hated to the extent that we are vulnerable to its contagion, which can easily contaminate and corrupt a “super-power.” He warns that it would “be easy for us, if we do not learn to understand the world and appreciate the rights, privileges, and duties of all other countries and peoples, to represent in our power the same danger to the world that Fascism did” (Treasury xiii-xiv). A terrible and terrifying possibility. He seems to agree with the ancient Taoist Chinese warrior Sun Tzu that it is best not to “celebrate victory,” that “Those who celebrate victory are bloodthirsty, and the bloodthirsty cannot have their way with the world” (x). Hemingway is intensely passionate about making the conditions for a genuinely human world free from oppression a reality. He strongly admonishes that

This is no time for any nation to have any trace of the mentality of the bully. It is no time for any nation to become hated. It is no time for any nation to even swagger. Certainly it is no time for any nation to jostle. It is no time for any nation to be anything but just.

(Treasury xiv)

However, the just peace he proposes is as hard to attain as fighting a war and winning it, perhaps even more so in a particular sense. One may say that just peace is the Tao of overcoming without fighting—which, above all, affirms a certain existential freedom, of refusing to subject significant human activities to determinism of any kind, be it biological, instinctual, economic, or otherwise. Just peace is, then, a matter of profundities of a specific kind of education and re-education. From a psychoanalytic perspective, it is tantamount to the constructive sublimation of the “destructive instinct.” Nevertheless, it must be clearly taken into account that such a sublimation, as education or re-education, is a multidimensional and difficult process. It demands that creative forces substitute freely chosen sublimates for the objects of the “destructive instinct” with which they appear to be inextricably interwoven. The determinism of the concept of “destructive instinct” opposes or modifies the fulfillment of freedom's call. Just the same, Hemingway insists upon this fulfillment. Like Plato's charioteer, Phaedrus, he intends to control two horses of great power—one dark and implacable and the other more placable and pliant—by guiding them wisely. Let us read him:

We have fought this war and won it. Now let us not be sanctimonious; nor hypocritical; nor vengeful nor stupid. Let us make our enemies incapable of ever making war again, let us re-educate them, and let us learn to live in peace and justice with all the countries and all peoples in this world. To do this we must educate and re-educate. But first we must educate ourselves.

(Treasury xv)

At the time (1946), this re-education was also a call to confront any victorious nation's permanent dominion over the conquered nations.

In this new world all of the partners will have to relinquish. It will be as necessary to relinquish as it was necessary to fight. No nation who holds land or dominion over people where it has no just right to it can continue to do so if there is to be enduring peace. …

(Treasury xiv)

He further warns, “There will be no lasting peace, nor any possibility of a just peace, until all lands where the people are ruled, exploited, and governed by any government whatsoever against their consent are given their freedom” (Men at War xxix). For Hemingway, among others, added to this complex of reasons is the emergence of the immense problematics of the atomic bomb:

We need to study and understand certain basic problems of our world as they were before Hiroshima to be able to continue, intelligently, to discover how some of them have changed and how they can be settled justly now that a new weapon has become a property of a part of the world. We must study them more carefully than ever now and remember that no weapon has ever settled a moral problem. It can impose a solution but it cannot guarantee a just one. You can wipe out your opponents. But if you do it unjustly you become eligible for being wiped out yourself.

(Treasury xiv)

A nagging question still persists: are we educable or re-educable in this exigent and drastic way that Hemingway suggests? Can we—either as individuals, groups, or nations—overcome sanctimoniousness, hypocrisy, vengefulness, incomprehension, even just plain stupidity? Were we capable of such rational transcendence of instinctual forces, were we able to challenge the sovereignties of major or “minor differences” (Freud, Civilization 61) and their attendant narcissism, were we strong enough to overcome the notion that whoever is wholly or partially not me deserves my transgression and violence, we would have never needed to resort to violence and war as a means of settling our problems in the first place. In any case, Hemingway the humanist did cherish such a hope on a good sunny day in Cuba, as did Bertrand Russell in his essay Has Man a Future? Perhaps he believed so in contradistinction to his own experiential knowledge—thinking against himself, as it were. Or he may have considered the refusal not to have hope a sin, regardless of the paralyzing evidence to the contrary at the time. And why not? After all, faith and hope, anticipating the nascent mystery's predawn hour, bypass the circuits of conceptual and often experiential knowledge. Even Nietzsche's Zarathustra advises: “Let work be a struggle, your peace a victory. … Let your love for life be your highest hope. And let your highest hope be the highest thought of life” (Thus Spoke 49-50). It may have indeed been so with Hemingway. In my view, work as struggle against impossible odds is constantly infused with intensities of love and life in the entirely of Hemingway's writing. As an observer (and occasionally as a peripheral participant) in different capacities in various wars and as a student of war he might have arrived at the contrary conclusion. But his hope for victory and just peace does highlight a certain hard-earned, admirable optimism in him.

One may summarily say, as far as Hemingway is concerned, once we are at war we have no other alternative but to win at any price. But once we have won a war and have peace, we cannot be anything but just. If Hemingway refuses to accept the conceptual and practical speciousness of “just war,” he offers us a different notion as replacement: just peace. I consider it as his contribution to the Kantian philosophical ideal of perpetual peace. His optimism merits serious consideration, equally serious experiential and psychoanalytic arguments against it notwithstanding. I would lay it down then this way: with the notion of just peace Hemingway enters, at least provisionally, a zone of pure hope and freedom.


They wrote in the old days that it is sweet and fitting to die for one's country [Horace]. But in modern war there is nothing sweet nor fitting in your dying. You will die like a dog for no good reason.

—Ernest Hemingway, By-Line: Ernest Hemingway (209)

My brothers in war! I love you with all my heart; I am and was of your sort. And I am also your best enemy. Then let me tell you the truth!

—Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (48)

As we have already seen, there exists a sufficient body of evidence in Hemingway's meditations on war to make a simple, straightforward statement: Hemingway hated war. His hatred of war, however, makes a highly intricate and multi-faceted mosaic of concerns. His hatred of war should be particularly extended to the judgment he brings to men at war and those he primarily holds responsible for instigating war for ambition, venality, and sheer love of brutality. Let us begin with the judgment he renders on war profiteers. In “Wings over Africa,” he expresses the conviction that “The only people who ever loved war for long were profiteers, generals, staff officers, and whores. They all had the best and finest time of their lives and most of them made the most money they had ever made” (By-Line 234). One may assume that for him all manner of profiteering from war is a kind of whoring. It is not too difficult, however, to imagine the real whore was the most honorable, the most honest in her intention, the least harmful to others, and the least offensive to Hemingway in his roster of the whoring profiteers and professional mercenaries. Elsewhere he writes: “I believe that all the people who stand to profit by a war and who help provoke it should be shot on the first day it starts by accredited representatives of the loyal citizens of their country who will fight it” (Farewell x). In mock-seriousness, he adds he would be “very glad to be in charge of this shooting, if legally delegated by those who will fight. …” In these reflections, he makes a clear distinction between anyone who in any way stands to profit from the war and the combatants. It is the latter whom he sees as being “amongst the finest people that there are, or just say people, although, the closer you are to where they are fighting, the finer people you meet …” (Farewell x). It is the courage and resourcefulness, the toughness and resilience—in short, the nobility and heroism of the ordinary soldier in the face of death that he so utterly admires. The soldier becomes a veritable warrior in extremis, a man whose life will forever be transformed by his martial experience if he survives and conducts himself well and with grace. It is “the human heart and the human mind in war” that he finds praiseworthy and instructive (Men at War xx). The baptism of fire will either wholly engulf the warrior or shall earn him the mantle of authenticity, in its Heideggerian sense and implications, as only the warrior elite has always come to know and to incarnate. It is all a matter of combatants facing death intelligently, bravely, even exuberantly in a war not of their own making. When slain in battle, these warriors are heroes that the Norse mythology assigns to Valhalla, the paradise of heroes. It is exactly to such potential warriors that Hemingway addresses himself—if not as a former brother-in-arms at least as a participant in war and then as an older, wiser commentator. In a paragraph in Men at War, Hemingway offers to the book's potential World War II warrior-readers a lyrical narrative of being wounded in World War I:

When you go to war as a boy you have a great illusion of immortality. Other people get killed; not you. It can happen to other people; but not to you. Then when you are badly wounded the first time you lose that illusion and you know it can happen to you. After being severely wounded two weeks before my nineteenth birthday I had a bad time until I figured it out that nothing could happen to me that had not happened to all men before me. Whatever I had to do men had always done. If they had done it then I could do it too and the best thing was not to worry about it.


This is a multi-layered narrative of elegiac elegance and depth. The illusion of immortality partakes of a deep-running narcissism, which, incidentally, markedly influences Hemingway's writing as a whole. It signals a regression to “The fantasy from childhood of a secret valley of no death, like beliefs in the Elysian Fields, or joining our ancestors or the company of immortals, is eloquent testimony to the strength and influence of our striving toward narcissism which eludes the real impairment or injury” (Rochlin 216). The soldier all too quickly wakes up from this dream of immortality and has to face the verities of combat. What awaits him is the nightmarish reality of history's “killing fields” and the warrior's stoic acceptance of it and willing participation in it. As William James has put it: “Ancestral evolution has made us all potential warriors; so the most insignificant individual, when thrown into an army in the field, is weaned from whatever excess of tenderness towards his precious person he may bring with him …” (283). For both Hemingway and James, war signifies a process of divestment of narcissism, whose virulent outbursts our history has continually recorded and has mostly rationalized and glorified. It is the acceptance of war and its vicissitudes as an inextricable part of human existence that eventually dissipates the quasi-hallucinatory narcissism and gives birth to the true warrior within whose ranks Hemingway aspired to inscribe his own name. The warrior loses the illusion of immortality to the extent that his narcissistic fantasy of a precious and immortal self commences to lose its grip on his psyche. From a Nietzschean vantage point, it is at this very juncture that Hemingway appears as both “brother” and “enemy” to would-be warriors he counsels. His kinship is with the disillusioned, mortal warrior against the naive, narcissistic, immortal soldier. To the World War II potential warrior- readers of Men at War, he points out:

This book will not tell you how to die. This book will tell you, though, how all men from the earliest times we know have fought and died. So when you have read it you will know that there are no worse things to be gone through than men have been through before.


He speaks directly from experiential knowledge and his words carry a considerable existential and psychological insight. There is a strange and striking fraternity among warriors of all time who stoically endure the unendurable, which the act of reading can evoke and affirm. Hemingway speaks from the depth of this fraternal feeling. Trusting these fraternal bonds and understandings, he recommends as profoundly enlightening, helpful, and healing the narratives of men at war bearing away the unspeakable violence, from the earliest time in history to our own. He regrets that he was

very ignorant at nineteen and had read little and I remember the sudden happiness and the feeling of having a permanent protecting talisman when a young British officer [E. E. “Chink” Dorman-Smith] I met when in the hospital first wrote out for me, so I could remember them, these lines:

By my troth, I care not: a man can die but once; we owe God a death … and let it go which way it will, he that dies this year is quit for the next” [from Shakespeare's Henry IV].

That is probably the best thing that is written in this book and, with nothing else, a man can get along all right on that.

Hemingway regrets that “there was no really good true war book during the entire four years of the war [1914-1918]” except in poetry (Men at War xiv). A really good book might have revealed how in a war

worrying does no good … A good soldier does not worry. He knows that nothing happens until it actually happens and you live your life up until then. Danger only exists at the moment of danger. To live properly in war, the individual eliminates all such things as potential danger. Then a thing is only bad when it is bad. It is neither bad before nor after. Cowardice, as distinguished from panic, is almost always simply a lack of ability to suspend the functioning of the imagination.

(Men at War xxvii)

Perhaps one can equate “worrying” in this passage with anxiety in its clinical, definitional sense; that is to say, as catastrophic anticipation of the deeply suppressed annihilative threat to the self that, with the help of a highly sensitized imagination, is aroused from its slumber, exceeds itself and subsequently operates as an autonomous unconscious force within consciousness. As such, it makes itself known as a psychic state beyond conscious control. Freud connects it with the castration complex. For Melanie Klein, it has its origin in the ruthlessness of the death instinct and is thereby experienced as an intimation of death itself. Both theories indicate a fantasy of aggression that has risen to a way of being replete with intimations of nonbeing, an ontological state and its antithesis, turning inward now rather than outward in its multiplicity of forms. In yet another register, Jacques Lacan properly categorizes it as “aggression suicidaire narcissique” (Écrits 187).

Along with psychoanalyst Rollo May, I would go a step further and place Hemingway's notion of a soldier's “worrying” or anxiety under the overall umbrella of existential experience of “the threat of imminent nonbeing,” which “is always a threat to the foundation, the center of my existence” (50). As such it is a specific “ontological” concern that differentiates it from mere “panic” or fear:

Fear … is a threat to the periphery [of one's] existence; it can be objectivated and the person can stand outside and look at it … Fear can be studied as an affect among other affects, a reaction among other reactions. But anxiety can only be understood as a threat to Dasein [existence].

(May 51)

And for men at war, it is the temporal element of anxiety, as a break in the continuity of everyday life, which Ludwig Binswanger recognizes and designates as “suddenness,” that is most salient. In this context, Binswanger tells us that “It is this type of temporal orientation that permits the element of suddenness to assume such enormous significance; because suddenness is the time quality that explodes continuity, hacks it and chops it to pieces, throws the earlier existence out of its course and exposes it to the Dreadful, to the naked horror” (204). War is preponderantly the realm of “suddenness,” that is, the unpredictable and therefore of the dreadful and the horrific. Unpredictability surging up from nowhere, so to speak, makes war at once inordinately simple and terrifyingly complex. As a result, the difficulty of the simple things in war and their attendant anxiety are their particular temporal dimension, that is, suddenness and its consequent tearing apart of the fabric of human life.

Clearly, Hemingway is experientially, emotionally, and intellectually fully cognizant of the psychological ramifications of the triad of fear, catastrophic anticipation, and anxiety. His recommendation to the intelligent and imaginative warrior is the willed and willing suspension of that highly prized capacity: imagination. Now imagination is constituted by and is constitutive of a certain mode of psychic wholeness that comprises a lived space and time. Let us call it an imaginal spatio-temporal continuum. It is within this continuum that intelligence, sensitivity, sensibility, emotional empathy, connectedness, and psychical cohesiveness dwell. In short: imagination, perpetually unfolding within its own continuum as it does, is what properly renders us human. The suspension of our imagination demands a restructuring of the imaginal spatio-temporal continuum—a task so exigent as to seem impossible without negating one's own lived or ego identity. But then the strength to will the suspension of imagination is tantamount to preternatural bravery of the warrior elite, which simultaneously enriches and impoverishes the warrior as a human being. Hemingway's thinking here is not too far from James's, who argues: “Far better it is for an army to be too savage, too cruel, too barbarous, than to possess too much sentimentality and human reasonableness. If the soldier is to be good for anything as a soldier, he must be exactly the opposite of a reasoning and thinking man” (283). A reasoning and thinking man is by definition an imaginative man as well. Such a man will find it considerably troublesome believing that “Any act that helps my side win the war is right and good, and any act that hinders it is wrong and bad” (Gray 132). Yet a true warrior needs to act spontaneously on that basis under extreme circumstances—an operation that, as we have already seen, requires at least a provisional shutting down of the imaginative processes. When the warrior has acquired the “ability to suspend the functioning of the imagination,” he may then discover that

To win a war you have to do things that are inconceivable in peace and that are often hateful to those who do them. Afterwards some people get used to them. Some get to like them. Every one wants to do everything, no matter what, to get it [war] over with.

(Treasury xv)

As James puts it, “the immediate aim of a soldier's life is … destruction and nothing but destruction; and whatever constructions wars result in are remote and non-military” (83-84). James and Hemingway appear then to be establishing a new pragmatic vocabulary for reflection on the metaphysics of war and the conduct of men at war. Hemingway's military pedagogy intentionally remains mostly at the level of the experiential and the pragmatic. It provides the basis for a theory of combat that one may refer to as conceiving the inconceivable by suspending the imagination. It becomes a matter of accepting the fantasy of annihilation as a real possibility. A warrior, as a “fighting man or Homo furens,” still needs to manage to belong to the genus Homo sapiens and not be degraded to “something less than a man” (Gray 26-27). Ultimately, great warriors are capable of fully reconciling themselves with Dylan Thomas' well known line: “After the first death, there is no other” (197). Thomas' poetic logic brings to mind the passage about dying in Shakespeare's Henry IV—bearing witness at once to total rebellion and total stoicism, to oblivion and immortality. From this specific angle, a warrior's profession is not only “le métier triste” but also, to a large extent, le métier mystique as well.


No one has more right to write of these actions that saved Madrid than Gustav Regler. He fought in all of them.

—Ernest Hemingway, preface to Gustav Regler's The Great Crusade (vii)

War is the father of all good things [Heraclitus]. War is also the father of good prose.

—Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (145)

Hemingway considered war a significant experience for a writer. In Green Hills of Africa, thinking of Tolstoy, he acknowledges “what a great advantage an experience of war was to a writer.” Further magnifying the scope of this advantage, he pronounces war “as one of the major subjects and certainly one of the hardest to write truly of.” He resents that “those writers who had not seen it were always very jealous and tried to make it seem unimportant, or abnormal, or a disease as a subject, while, really, it was just something quite irreplaceable that they had missed” (Green Hills 70). In a long passage in Men at War, he pays homage to Stendhal as a writer who begins with this irreplaceable experience and then invents a “true” and unforgettable account from it:

The best account of actual human beings behaving during a world shaking event is Stendhal's picture of young Fabrizio at the battle of Waterloo. That account is more like war and less like the nonsense written about it than any other writing could possibly be. Once you have read it you will have been at the battle of Waterloo and nothing can take that experience away from you. You will have to read Victor Hugo's account of the same battle, which is a fine, bold, majestic painting of the whole tragedy, to find out what you saw there as you rode with the boy [Fabrizio]; but you will have actually seen the field of Waterloo already whether you understood it or not. You will have seen a small piece of war as closely and clearly with Stendhal as any man has ever written of it. It is the classic account of a routed army and beside it all of Zola's piled on detail in his “Debacle” is dead and unconvincing as a steel engraving. Stendhal served with Napoleon and saw some of the greatest battles of the world. But all he ever wrote about war is the one long passage from “Le [sic] Chartreuse de Parme.” …


Needless to say, what Hemingway admires in Stendhal is the latter's having seen “a war in serving with Napoleon,” who “taught him to write.” According to Hemingway, Napoleon “was teaching everybody then; but no one else learned” (Green Hills 7). Stendhal learned because, as Nietzsche has remarked, Stendhal “may well have had more thoughtful eyes and ears than any other Frenchman of this century” (Gay Science 149)—a keen observation wonderfully put. It may be reasonably inferred that Hemingway put Stendhal's meiotic account of the battle of Waterloo in the exclusive category of “good and true books” because it issues from the experience of war and is no mere propaganda of one kind or another. These “true books” are written by writers who are of such “great probity and honesty as a priest of God” (Men at War xv). It is this rare combination of experience of seeing a war and absolute artistic integrity and honesty that allows Stendhal to reduce the details of what he observed to their absolute necessary minimum, but no further. The rigorous pressures of Napoleonic wars teach Stendhal to produce an imaginative iconic compression of the essence and truth of the battle of Waterloo as, say, only Goya could have done. For, above all,

A writer's job is to tell the truth. His standard of fidelity to the truth should be so high that his invention, out of his experience, should produce a truer account than anything factual can be. For facts can be observed badly; but when a good writer is creating something, he has time and scope to make it of an absolute truth.

(Men at War xv)

I should add here that Hemingway's appreciation of Stendahl's prowess as a writer, which can create artistic absolute truth, is almost a direct endorsement of his own aesthetics and stylistics—albeit in an encapsulated form—as he at least partially practiced it, for example, in A Farewell to Arms. On a certain mythological plane, the war here serves the warrior-writer at once as Hermes Trismegistus and Niké.

At first glance, this juxtaposition, of writing as an individual creative act and war as a collective, destructive enterprise, may prompt some readers to dismiss it as contrived, unconvincing, and morally suspect—if not altogether an appalling boast unworthy of a great writer. The immediate contemporary temptation will be to disregard Hemingway's seemingly idiosyncratic view of the literary history of war as so much sadomasochistic bombast and relegate it to the long regrettable list of crypto-Fascist justifications of blood lust. Immediately and in the abstract, this deceptive and dismissive attitude may be justified. Further reflection, however, militates against this well meaning but misleading initial reaction to a seemingly fundamental contradiction. Today, psychoanalysis alone seems to be able to shed some light on the crepuscular psychic place where this contradiction dwells in Hemingway and to offer an analysis of its structures that makes it visible and intelligible. Freud boldly assures us that Eros and the death instinct “seldom—perhaps never—appear in isolation from each other, but are alloyed with each other in varying and very different proportions and so become unrecognizable to our judgment” (Civilization 66). Later he comments, “It must be confessed that we have much greater difficulty in grasping that [death] instinct, we can only suspect it, as it were, as something in the background behind Eros, and it escapes detection unless its presence is betrayed by its being alloyed with Eros” (Civilization 68). Thus we are dealing with psychic structures that contain alternative antagonistic but complementary movements; thereby we do not simply love or hate but “love-hate” or “hate-love,” as it were, at the same time. Similarly, we do not simply create but simultaneously create and destroy or destroy and create. In other words, the Mephistophelean destructive impulse to reverse the process of creation in all things created also calls forth its constructive opposite. Each of these antithetical impulses calls the other forth and allies itself with it or they already coexist.

For my part, I will say that the most instructive aspect of Hemingway's metaphysics of war and Freud's psychoanalytic insights that one may acquire here is to consider war largely as a secondary process. This insight allows the death instinct to be apprehended as an unconscious primary process to be experienced and sublimated in wars that are always consciously legitimized in one way or another. War makes the unacceptable “world destructive instinct” often acceptable, even highly desirable, to the superego through the agency of state and social sanction. A given group, state, society, or culture may condone and encourage supreme violence as a legitimate praxis in wars and conflicts to such an extent that the individual becomes a member of a “group in fusion” through violence, to use the Sartrean terminology. Individual and group violence sublimate the ever present destructive instinct as the love of one's people, country, and state, dragging in their wake destruction and self-destruction as well as the latent libidinal creative and reparative forces. The latter makes the continuation and often, curiously enough, the prosperity of human life, even for the vanquished, in post-war periods viable. The post-World War II economic recovery and expansion of Germany and Japan bear witness to the truth of this contradiction.

Now, if we return to the province of the arts, we also become aware, as did Hemingway, that similar processes are at work in them. As psychoanalyst Anthony Storr brings to our attention, “This same aggressive impulse which can lead to strife and violence also underlies man's urge to independence and achievement” (78). In an extraordinary way, much like the aggressive pursuit and consummation of sexual love, each artistic achievement demands that artists aggress to some degree against the very sources that nourish their art. This creative aggression is much more discernible in plastic arts such as sculpture and painting in which the natural order of matter undergoes the violence of artistic transformation and manifests the ubiquitous inscription of human “work” upon it as its ontological signature. It is less detectable in the art of writing or music in which creative violence makes itself known respectively as an act of aggression against the immense powers of language and of absolute silence or relative silences. The nature of the writer's violence against the real or adopted “mother tongue” by violating its phonological, lexical, syntactic, and semantic structures and norms in the name of a new linguistic creation is shrouded in all the ambiguities of love and aggression the adult shows toward the lost mother of infancy. The innovative writer's aggression against language falls into the category of what Lacan properly calls “aggressivitié” in contradistinction to pure violence and destruction. Even the James Joyce of Finnegans Wake does not seek to destroy the English language as such. Nonetheless, it is still a mode of warfare in which he engages. In “The Origin of the Work of Art,” referring to Heraclitus' thought on war as the father and king of all, Martin Heidegger writes:

In the tragedy nothing is staged and displayed theatrically, but the battle of the new gods against the old is being fought. The linguistic work, originating in the speech of people, does not refer to this battle; it transforms the people's saying so that now every living word fights the battle and puts up for decision what is holy and what unholy, what great and what small, what brave and what cowardly, what lofty and what flighty, what master and what slave.


What Heidegger discloses in the preceding passage is this: the infinite spider's web of psychic forces that we call the human mind is all of the same piece. Each part of it is intricately interwoven with the rest, and touching it at any given point affects the whole and puts us concurrently in contact with all the rest. Touch the unholy and you are defiantly brushing against the holy; speak of the Devil and the Good Lord is within hearing distance. That is why Claude Lévi-Strauss can claim that “there is no incompatibility between artistic refinement and extremely cruel manners,” which “profoundly disturbs” him (182). It is indeed disturbing because it is true.

I would propose, then, that Hemingway's belief in the “great advantage an experience of war” offers writers indicates his intuitive grasp of the dynamics of this complex synthesis of libidinal creation, sadistic destruction, and masochistic self-destruction—and how, oddly, one always calls the others forth. As an extreme situation, war reveals something of the nature of the writers' own imaginary work as a secondary process which is thoroughly permeated by sadomasochistic elements. So for writers, war generally synthesizes the unconscious, preconscious, and conscious states and the immensities of the eventual effects of their synthesis in intersubjective and intrasubjective life. One may assign to them a place within the Jungian archetypal patterns because this synthesis of war and writing (and before writing, between war and oral tradition), has a recurrent history. The Freudian and Jungian views of individual and collective unconscious satisfactorily become connected here in Hemingway's views on writing and war and lay claim to vaster domains of experience. In this light, the commonalities between the origin and history of development of the arts and creative writing and the metaphysics and psychoanalytics of war become more discernible and comprehensible.

Despite such comprehension, it does not directly follow that war experience makes it easier for a writer to write. For Hemingway, quite the opposite seems to have been the case. In a plaintive tone, he tells the Russian critic Ivan Kashkin that war is “complicated and hard to write about truly.” He then adds:

For your information in stories about the war I try to show all the different sides of it, taking it slowly and honestly and examining it from many ways. So never think one story represents my viewpoint because it is much too complicated for that.

(Letters 480)

This shifting viewpoint, representing war as a kind of Hegelian truth-in-becoming, whose aim is to surpass the circuits of received ideas and the logic of the predictable, needs to realize and expand itself in the imaginal continuum. The upshot of it is that the writer does not merely catch a glimpse of war as history's truth within the boundaries of a certain culture imposed upon it. What is even more important is the writer's refusal to consider the truth of the individual participation in war as solely predetermined by cultural prejudices and their supporting ideologies. Hemingway writes: “I would like to be able to write understandingly about both deserters and heroes, cowards and brave men, traitors and men who are not capable of being traitors. We learned a lot about all such people [in the Spanish Civil War]” (Letters 480). Such opposite qualities in the extreme belong to the province of war, and a great writer draws lessons of immense value from them about the human mind and the human heart, that is to say, the human condition. These lessons do not lend themselves to sheer reportage. They can only be expressed through the alchemy of literary invention that draws upon the primal war experience and not its doxa.

Beyond these primary considerations of the relation between war and writing, there is another equally prominent one for Hemingway: justice. As in the case of loving one's enemies as oneself, everything dismayingly appears to conspire against the ideal of justice—equally in peacetime as in wartime. There are those among us whose yearning for justice is as strong as our yearning for love and peace. Perhaps it is even much stronger because we subconsciously ask, if we cannot have love and peace, can we at least have justice? We long for justice, not in the abstract or as a part of ethics that psychoanalysis places in the realm of the superego, but as an abiding principle of life. The fact that it is rarely so does not deter us at all. We may speculate that our longing for justice has its roots in the vicissitudes of the infant-mother relationship, with the infant experiencing anything less than the complete oneness with the mother, no matter how brief, as an unending injustice. The more unjust and regressive the society we live in, the more we regress to the infantile and the more acute our desire for justice becomes. It may indeed end up to be our ruling passion, which is tantamount to an obsessional fantasy. In any case, Hemingway believes that the artist of language, the writer, feels injustice more strongly than others and is more vulnerable to it. He, too, clearly connects this sense of injustice with the writer's infancy and childhood. When asked, “What is the best early training for a writer?” he unhesitatingly answers, “An unhappy childhood” (By-Line 219). It is no doubt an extraordinary statement which requires the space of a book to explore. When the writer subconsciously has an intimation of childhood as a time of loss of the mother of infancy, and this loss is later experienced as a generalized sense of injustice, writing no doubt expresses a process of unbroken mourning. Correspondingly, Hemingway asserts with conviction that “Dostoevsky was made by being sent to Siberia. Writers are forged in injustice as a sword is forged.” In a psychoanalytic sense, it is Mother Russia that unjustly banishes one of her sons to live separately from her. Unlike Stendhal, Flaubert “had not seen war but he had seen a revolution and the Commune and a revolution is much the best if you do not become bigoted because every one speaks the same language.” We know, of course, that Flaubert was bigoted and politically reactionary by being against the working classes. One might say: what does that exactly prove? Nothing more than the fact that he profoundly experienced the sense of injustice, but differently as we all do. And, somewhat unkindly, Hemingway fantasizes: “I wondered if it would make a writer of him, give him the necessary shock to cut the over-flow of words and give him a sense of proportion, if they sent Tom Wolfe to Siberia or to the Dry Tortugas” (Green Hills 71). Perhaps, because, much like Hemingway himself, Wolfe also had a troubled relationship with his mother.2

Finally, I would reiterate that for writers the aggressive-regressive and libidinal aspects of war are repeated every time they attempt to write. As we have seen, the battle is waged on every page against the unyielding nature of language as an all-engulfing and transcendent reality wholly beyond total appropriation. Language presents itself to the writer as the mother of all desires and as an implacable enemy of unlimited conscious and unconscious resources; in other words, an analogue of the mother of infancy. No doubt in this context Hemingway's multi-planar reference to James Joyce as “a great writer of our time,” who keeps “quoting from Edgar Quinet, ‘Fraîche et rose comme au jour de la bataille,’” makes remarkable sense (Green Hills 71). There is at once the sense of beauty, ecstasy, and the strange excitement of the pending bloody battle. Since a total victory against the language by the writer is out of the question, justice—at least in an abstract sense—demands that the writer not be entirely vanquished in this battle. So the most decisive battle, even for the warrior-writer, is with the language itself, which prompts Hemingway to declare, “I want to run as a writer; not as a man who had been to the wars …” (Letters 712). Or as a disciplined writer, in the manner of a Samurai warrior, he might have added, “My daily routine is now my field of battle” (King 128). No serious writer is likely to challenge this assertion. One may say that writing is a constant struggle against the irreducible resistance of language, a resistance that issues from the alliance of language with the unconscious primary process and demands a conscious secondary process of expression in writing—most often involving a hugely difficult task.


To sue to live, I find I seek to die;
And, seeking death, find life.

—William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure (3. 1. 42-43)

This is the world. Have faith.

—Dylan Thomas, The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas (84)

For a considerably long time, I have been inclined to think that what partakes of the magical in the best of Hemingway's work is its synthesis of the primeval and the modern, the archaic and the contemporary, the simple and the complex. Putting it more technically: the Hemingway brand of stylistic sorcery captures traces of the unconscious primary-process as preconscious intimations and, subsequently, transmutes them into the highly evolved secondary-process of writing that subsumes the archaic and the archetypal. Where this synthesis works well, the paleologic experiences of earth, air, water, fire, animals, plants, sexuality, birth, and death flow in confluence with the modalities of their 20th-century lived experiences. To me, this vast mysterious synthesis, combined with a highly tragic sense of life—which consistently augments the irreparable sense of loss and its attendant mourning—is the signal trait of the Hemingway style.

In turn, I have also believed that one of the elements that constitutes the generative matrix of Hemingway's stylistic synthesis and the elegiac dimension in his work is a new epistemology: the general field of experiential knowledge—with all the energies, intricacies, and ultimate melancholy ambiguities that are inherent in it as its basic constituents. In this new epistemology, among all primal experiences, Hemingway admittedly privileges violent death. Elaborating on writing about the twin themes of violence and death, he explains in Death in the Afternoon:

I was trying to learn to write, commencing with the simplest things, and one of the simplest things of all and the most fundamental is violent death. It has none of the complications of death by disease, or so-called natural death, or the death of a friend or some one you have loved or have hated, it is death nevertheless, one of the subjects that a man may write of.


The two attentively articulated sentences combine the “simplest” with the “most fundamental.” The simplest and the most fundamental, two seemingly contradictory elements, preoccupy Hemingway not only initially but throughout all his writing life. On the one hand, violent death is one of the simplest things because it makes manifest the inordinate vulnerability of the individual human to death, annihilation, and eventual oblivion. The injection of a bubble of air into the human circulatory system nulls and voids its integrity as an organic and biological unit—instantly and irreversibly. On the other hand, violent death intervenes at the juncture where the enormities of human existence and nonexistence are still proximal as Being is ushered into Nothingness. So the dialectical opposition between the “simplest” and the “most fundamental” in violent death has observable if mysterious conjunctive consequences. It is precisely “one of the subjects that a man may write of.” And it is an essential and perhaps potentially impossible task to attempt.

Furthermore, Hemingway tells us that “The only place where you could see life and death, i.e., violent death now that the wars were over was in the bull ring and I wanted very much to go to Spain where I could study it” (Death 2). But, after all, why study violent death, anyway? Wouldn't life, in and of itself, be a large enough subject that a writer may legitimately study and write of? What is exactly this close connection between life and death beyond what might be given over to morbid and even sadistic curiosity or ghoulish fascination? In other words, theoretically, how can we make the life-death problematics in Hemingway's thought comprehensible? As one might easily imagine, psychoanalytic answers to this question abound, some of which I have already briefly discussed. A more instructive answer may come to us from a sub-field of psychoanalysis, existential psychoanalysis, or at any rate that segment of it which believes in the omnipresent reality of the unconscious life. Rollo May, for instance, explains that “Death in any of its aspects is the fact which makes of the present hour something of absolute value” (90). Within the relativity and contingency of human life, all human thought and action of necessity remain relative and contingent. The very concept of time, as chronos or “operational time” rather than lived time or kairos, with the “hour” as one of its many subcategories, is a human construct and takes up an originary place in theory of relativity. So how are we to understand the “hour” as an absolute value; that is to say, an absolute present at the intersection of chronos and kairos? Seen from the perspective of our present discussion, and to speak Heidegger's language, the relativity and subjectivity of this hour lays claim to the absolute moment that my consciousness as an individual embraces the absolute certainty of my death. Heidegger might have called it the hour of my authenticity. It is in the consciousness of the ever presence and the absolute certainty of my death that my thought and action partake of the dimension of the absolute and the immortal. This absolute hour envelops me as I lay claim to the proximity of my death as a supreme integrative moment of my life. My death coincides then with my life and becomes a part of my flesh and blood. Viewed as absolutely proximal, life and death merge and death incontrovertibly vivifies rather than mortifies life. Making my death an inextricable part of my life unites the finite and the infinite in me. In a letter to Charles Scribner, Hemingway reflects that “there is no future in anything. I hope you agree. That is why I like it at a war. Every day and every night there is a strong possibility that you will get killed …” (Letters 503). At first, there being no future in anything appears to be an unnecessarily dramatic statement in an hour of despair, both noncommonsensical and counterintuitive. To the contrary, however, in the absolute presence or the proximity of death, it makes a telling point: our certainty of the omnipresence of death confers immortality upon the present and renders it absolute. To use the language of an invocation of the Lakota, and perhaps the Northern Plains warriors generally, in a war one may perpetually say: “For those that this day belongs to, it is a good day to die” (Le ampetu kin t'ab kin wastekte).3 Again, here is Hemingway meditating further on the same subject in a letter:

I think there is a steady renewal of immortality through storms, attacks, landings on beaches where landing is opposed, flying, when there are problems and many other things which are all awful and horrible and hateful to those who are not suited to them. … These things make a katharsis [sic] which is not a pathological thing, nor seeking after thrills, but it is an ennobling thing to those who are suited for them and have the luck so that they survive them.

(Quoted by Meyers 400-01)

If not the tone, certainly the intent of Hemingway's remarks is Hegelian: facing the possibility of death and surviving it signifies a negation of negation; which in turn, elicits a feeling of immortality when what is negated is death. These are lived experiences that concurrently bestow on us mortals feelings of our “unbearable lightness of being,” as Milan Kundera might have put it, and its very opposite, a feeling of the unbearable heaviness of immortality, rendering us fleetingly godlike. They generate a transcendental and regenerative passion for Hemingway, generally approximating the sense of Christ's passion, a deliberately and freely chosen mode of being in suffering and self-sacrifice in the name of experiencing a fundamental truth. Such lived experiences at once represent the summation of one's individual life and its conjunction with what incomprehensibly lies forever beyond it. Thus they primarily represent in Hemingway's writings the principium individutionis rather than another symptom of masochism. In other registers, one may refer to these experiences as moments of pure sublimation which infuse them with the sublime and the mystical. Such experiences are sublime to the extent that they combine horror and beauty; they are mystical because, as Hemingway reminds us, those who are suited for them risk their lives in searching for them. They do so to have a palpable feeling of the mystery of being at its very point of contact with potential harm or eventual annihilation. Put differently: whoever is ready to lose all is also and at the same time ready to gain immeasurably in transcendental experiences, a notion that gives “Winner Take Nothing” a new dimension. It would seem logical to conclude that for Hemingway the sublime pushes itself beyond Freudian reality and the pleasure principle toward what Lacan calls the “Death Drive,” approximating the unbearably ecstatic “jouissance” state. Furthermore: the experience of the sublime involves vaguely known and dimly understood masochistic desires augmenting its unconscious side, increasing its affective appeal and its appearance of grandeur. If Hemingway properly considers them as cathartic, it is because they are at once so fearsome and ecstatic as to create a blissful trance, much in the manner of a breakthrough in the analytic situation. Such experiences release all the pent-up masochistic yearnings, making manifest an occult truth of their own without which a crucial part of the existential perspective of human life would be lost. From a dual phenomenological and psychoanalytic viewpoint, Ludwig Binswanger relatedly also observes that

life and death are not opposites, that death too must be lived, and that life is “encompassed” by death, so that both from a biological and a historical point of view the saying holds true that the human being dies in every moment of his existence—this insight was in a certain sense familiar even to Heraclitus. Indeed, for Heraclitus Hades, the god of the Underworld, and Dionysus, the God of the wildest intoxication of Life, “for whom everyone rages and raves,” are the same.

(294 emphasis added)

Returning to tauromaquia, the crucial point to grasp here is Hemingway's insistence in seeing “life and death” in the bull rings of Spain in a new light. For me, it is clearly not cruelty as such that he wants to see. Initially he expects not to like bullfights “because of the poor horses.” He relates that “I had just come from the Near East, where the Greeks broke the legs of their baggage and transport animals and drove and shoved them off the quay into the shallow water when they abandoned the city of Smyrna …” (Death 2). The juxtaposition of images of drowning horses with broken legs in the Near East and their evisceration in the bull ring is evidently not what he seeks. What he does wish to find, to experience, to study, to learn from is that dark and mysterious point where the finite and relative open onto the infinite and the absolute; that is, where human life asymptomatically touches the environing mysteries. Hemingway is very emphatic on the necessity of learning, informing Malcolm Cowley:

Every year [I] keep on studying, keep on reading and every year study something new to keep head learning. Learning is a hell of a lot of fun. Don't see why can't keep it up all my life. Certainly plenty to learn.

(Letters 604)

Bullfights are exciting to Hemingway because while they are going on they represent a way of learning, with “life as means to knowledge”—or, more accurately, in Miguel de Unamuno's words, with the “tragic sense of life” as a medium of access to knowledge. This “tragic” knowledge is highlighted in violent death in war and in the ritual violence of the bullfight. In a confessional tone, he tells us that

So far, about morals, I only know that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after and judged by these moral standards, which I do not defend, the bullfight is very moral to me because I feel very fine while it is going on and have a feeling of life and death and mortality and immortality, and after it is over I feel very sad but very fine.

(Death 4)

Now one may better apprehend how the love of the bullfight lends itself to this admixture of Eros and Thanatos—so bewildering to so many readers and critics—which is the guiding principle of Hemingway's observations on war and violent death.

After what has been said, I hope the preceding sections come into better focus and Hemingway's interest in war and peace in their multiplicity of forms becomes more accessible and understandable. This interest goes far beyond the superficial and excessively simple-minded comments such as Charles Whiting's that Hemingway is only “a writer who glorified action, violence and war” (83). After all due consideration, Hemingway may be said to be more on the side of Raymond Aron, who against all odds argues for “the hope of a gradual, ultimate reconciliation of the human race” (143). Or one may cautiously associate him with William Faulkner's reassuring vision that “man will not merely endure, he will prevail” (8). Faulkner's vision is one of thorough humanism, unaware of the coming of the structuralist anti-humanism and the nostalgia for a return to new modes of 19th century scientism and determinism in the twilight years of our 20th century and its humanist failures.


“There's no one thing that's true. It is all true.”

—Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls (467)

As I see it, essentially, Hemingway's vision reveals itself not so much as war against peace; or life against death; or creation against destruction; or self-generation against self-destruction but as a hint of a mystical vision of the interconnectedness of all things harmonious and disharmonious, reconcilable and irreconcilable, and, yes, fraternal and fratricidal in lived human experience. I would say that there is an integrative wholeness in this vision that is much vaster and exceedingly more complex than what one might technically refer to as a “compromise formation.” Consciousness of it allows us to make forays into that “undiscover'd country” which, following Freud, we have come to call the unconscious, a country whose borders are closed to intrusions of time and space, as we understand and experience them in our conscious life, and death and oblivion as we imagine them.

I have tried to place Hemingway's views on war and peace in an intertextual, philosophical, psychoanalytic, ethical, aesthetic, and literary context. To push this effort infinitesimally further and to provide an ending, or at least a “sense of an ending,” I will simply say that this “undiscover'd,” and perhaps undiscoverable, country is no more than a horizon. It stretches ahead of us beyond Faulkner's the “last red dying evening.” At this receding twilit horizon, all light is but a mere gradation of the light of a human day which stubbornly refuses to die and the penumbra of the ambient ancient night, unseeing and unhearing. After all, Hegel counseled us that “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling dusk” (13). Perhaps in our struggle for preserving what is left of our humanity against the coming of a post-human world, it will not be merely a twilight of the gods that we shall encounter but the predawn of an all-encompassing human consciousness, anticipating the mystic's dark sun, awaiting the awakening of new integrative myths up to now slumbering in our unconscious and as yet unknown to us and our history.


  1. I visited La Finca Vigía several times while attending the First International Hemingway Conference in Havana, Cuba (July 16-23, 1995).

  2. For an account of the vicissitudes of Wolfe's early relationship with his mother see John S. Terry's interview with Julia Wolfe in Elizabeth Nowell's Thomas Wolfe: A Biography (23).

  3. I am grateful to Robert W. Lewis for providing me with this information, quotation, and translation.

Works Cited

Aron, Raymond. On War. Trans. Terence Kilmartin. New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1959.

Baker, Carlos. Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story. New York: Scribner, 1969.

Binswanger, Ludwig. “The Existential Analysis School of Thought.” In Existence: A New Dimension in Psychiatry and Psychology. Eds. Rollo May, Ernest Angel, and Henri F. Ellenberger. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1958.

———. “The Case of Ellen West.” In Existence: A New Dimension in Psychiatry and Psychology. Eds. Rollo May, Ernest Angel, and Henri F. Ellenberger. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1958.

Clausewitz, Karl von. On War. Trans. Anatol Rapoport. London: Penguin, 1982.

Faulkner, William. “Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech.” In Nobel Prize Library. New York: Helvetica, 1971.

Freud, Sigmund. “Anxiety and Instinctual Life.” In New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis. Trans. James Strachey. New York: W. W. Norton, 1989.

———. “A Phobia in a Five-Year-Old Boy.” In Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 10. Trans. James Strachey. London: Hogarth, 1957.

———. Civilization and Its Discontents. Trans. James Strachey. New York: W. W. Norton, 1962.

Gray, J. Glenn. The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle. 1959. New York: Harper & Row, 1970.

Hegel, G. W. F. Hegel's Philosophy of Right. Trans. T. M. Knox. Oxford: Clarendon, 1942.

Heidegger, Martin. “The Origin of the Work of Art.” In Poetry, Language, Thought. Trans. Albert Hofstadter. New York: Harper and Row, 1971.

Hemingway, Ernest. Death in the Afternoon. New York: Scribner, 1932.

———. A Farewell to Arms. 1929. New York: Scribner, 1949.

———. For Whom the Bell Tolls. New York: Scribner, 1940.

———. Green Hills of Africa. New York: Scribner, 1935.

———. Introduction. Men at War. New York: Crown, 1942.

———. Introduction. Treasury for the Free World. Ed. Ben Raeburn. New York: Arco, 1946.

———. “Notes on the Next War: A Serious Topical Letter.” In By-Line: Ernest Hemingway. Ed. William White. New York: Scribner, 1967. 205-12.

———. Selected Letters 1917-1961. Ed. Carlos Baker. New York: Scribner, 1981.

———. “On the American Dead in Spain.” In Remembering Spain: Hemingway's Civil War Eulogy and the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Ed. Cary Nelson. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1994.

———. “On the Blue River: A Gulf Stream Letter.” In By-Line: Ernest Hemingway. Ed. William White. New York: Scribner, 1967. 237-46.

———. “Monologue to the Maestro: A High Seas Letter.” In By-Line: Ernest Hemingway. Ed. William White. New York: Scribner, 1967. 213-20.

James, William. Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. 1902. New York: New American Library, 1958.

Jaspers, Karl. Philosophy and the World: Philosophical Essays. New York: Regnery, 1989.

King, Winston L. Zen and the Way of the Sword. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993.

Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Conversations with Claude Lévi-Strauss: Claude Lévi-Strauss and Didier Eribon. Trans. Paula Wissing. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. 1848. New York: International Publishers, 1971.

May, Rollo. “Contributions of Existential Psychiatry.” In Existence: A New Dimension in Psychiatry and Psychology. Eds. Rollo May, Ernest Angel, and Henri F. Ellenberger. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1958.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Hemingway: A Biography. New York: Harper and Row, 1985.

Murdoch, Iris. “Mass, Might, and Myth.” In Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature. New York: Penguin, 1998.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage, 1974.

———. The Will to Power. Trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale. New York: Vintage, 1968.

———. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Trans. Marianne Cowan. New York: Gateway, 1957.

Nowell, Elizabeth. Thomas Wolfe: A Biography. Garden City: Doubleday, 1960.

Regler, Gustav. The Great Crusade. Pref. by Ernest Hemingway. Trans. Whittaker Chambers. New York: Longmans, Green, 1940.

Rochlin, Gregory. Man's Aggression: The Defense of Self. Boston: Gambit, 1973.

Schopenhauer, Arthur. Essays and Aphorisms. London: Penguin, 1970.

Shakespeare, William. Measure for Measure. In The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Ed. David Bevington. Glenview: Scott, Foresman, 1983.

Storr, Anthony. Human Aggression. London: Penguin, 1968.

Thomas, Dylan. The Poems of Dylan Thomas. New York: New Directions, 1971. 196-97.

Tzu, Sun. The Art of War. Trans. Thomas Cleary. Boston: Shambhala, 1998.

Whiting, Charles. Hemingway Goes to War. Gloucestershire: Sutton, 1999.

H. R. Stoneback (essay date 1999)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7759

SOURCE: Stoneback, H. R. “Freedom and Motion, Place and Placelessness: On the Road in Hemingway's America.” In Hemingway and the Natural World, edited by Robert E. Fleming, pp. 203-19. Moscow: University of Idaho Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Stoneback meditates upon Hemingway's use of geography and myth in his short fiction.]


The center line of highways was the boundary line of home.

Ernest Hemingway, “The Strange Country”

This essay is concerned with Hemingway's American landscape, actual and symbolic, natural landscape and paysage moralise, and with the roads that wind through it, the roads he figures in his fiction, the roads he follows in fact. One striking pattern in Hemingway's fiction, rarely if ever mentioned in critical commentary, is that so many of his stories begin on the road. For example, the first sentences of “Fathers and Sons” and “Wine of Wyoming” evoke roads and cars, and the first paragraphs foreground the road-and-car imagery. Other stories begin with roads and cars (e.g., “Che Ti Dice La Patria”) and at least one story, “The Strange Country,” is centrally concerned with the road, the act of driving, and the symbolic significance of roads and cars.

All too often, it seems, the Hemingway stories we remember best, those which are somehow sharpest in memory, are those which begin on the road—but on carless roads. We recall woods roads, logging traces, gravel roads, orchard lanes: young Nick Adams walking the logging road in “Indian Camp,” the hemlock-woods path in “The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife,” the orchard road in “The Three-Day Blow.” We see Nick riding on the horse and wagon down the road in “Ten Indians,” or walking “down the gravel road” and drinking from the roadside spring in “Summer People,” or skiing down the mountain road in “Cross-Country Snow,” or walking along the railroad tracks and the deserted road in “Big Two-Hearted River,” or bicycling along the road in “A Way You'll Never Be.” Or maybe we remember the American couple and Peduzzi walking down the road at the beginning of “Out of Season,” or John and the narrator walking down the mountain road in the opening sentences of “Alpine Idyll.” If these roads opening into Hemingway's narratives are the ones we remember best, then we should recognize them for what they are: pastoral roads, roads free from cars and mechanization, roads with no machine-in-the-garden, roads that lead to and from real places with a living numinous Deus Loci, an authentic sense of place—not the car-ravished and ravaged roads of placelessness.

On the other hand, there are Hemingway stories—more of them than we might at first recall—in which roads and cars, road-and-car imagery, and the act of driving figure importantly. Consider the last five stories of the “first forty-nine” (i.e., those which conclude The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway), all of which involve cars and roads either through rendered action or through metaphor and image: “Fathers and Sons,” where the road and the car figure importantly to define place and placelessness, freedom and motion, and the act of driving is a kind of meditative state; “The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio,” where Frazer, accident victim in his hospital bed, imagines himself riding every night in “the big white cabs (each cab equipped with radio …)” of Seattle; “Wine of Wyoming,” where the car functions as implicit machine-in-the-garden, emblematic of the condition of displacement so central to the identity of the Fontans and the narrator, and to the curious placelessness or inauthenticity of Hemingway's landscape: “It looked like Spain, but it was Wyoming”; “A Natural History of the Dead,” where heavy trucks raise “great clouds of dust” on the disaster-strewn wartime roads; “A Day's Wait,” where car imagery carries the burden of explanation of the difference between Fahrenheit and Celsius to the fevered young Schatz: “It's like miles and kilometers. You know, like how many kilometers we make when we do seventy miles in the car.”1

Since the first five stories of In Our Time have no references to cars and since they date from the early 1920s, and since the last five stories of the “first forty-nine” contain multiple references to cars and date from the 1930s, it is tempting to explain this pattern as a mere function of chronology, of historical “progress” or increasing mechanization. Indeed, since Hemingway's fiction written in the late 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s (e.g., “The Strange Country,” Across the River and into the Trees,The Garden of Eden) is even more car-centered, the chronological explanation, the progressive mechanization argument seems obvious. All too obvious, however, if we consider carefully the early fiction, with its exquisitely crafted pastoral design and its primary concern with authentic place (e.g., northern Michigan). And if we recall that even in the earliest fiction cars occasionally figure significantly—for example, in “Soldier's Home” from 1924, where the car is associated with freedom (and motion away from home), where Krebs's mother tells him, “Your father does not want to hamper your freedom. He thinks you should be allowed to drive the car” (115). All of this taken together will lead to the recognition that the steadily increasing importance of road-and-car symbolism in Hemingway's fiction is not just a naturally occurring chrono-phenomenon fundamentally extrinsic to his fiction. It is also, far more importantly, deliberate aesthetic design and an index to his increasing concern with motifs of freedom and motion, identity through place, and placelessness. Jake Barnes, in The Sun Also Rises, knows that “You can't get away from yourself by moving from one place to another.”2 Many years later, in “The Strange Country,” Roger, behind the wheel of his Buick, rolling west at seventy miles per hour, has forgotten—or not yet discovered—this knowledge.

In one sense, then, Hemingway's meditations on the road confirm the theories of place posited by practitioners of topistics and chorology, the conclusions of modern and postmodern geographers regarding the role of roads and cars in stripping America of a sense of place. Not the old roads, which connected authentic places, which were themselves imbued with place (as are the carless country roads of much Hemingway narrative), but, in E. Relph's words, “the New Road … an essentially twentieth century creation and an extension of man's vehicle; it does not connect places nor does it link with the surrounding landscape.” This “New Road,” one of the creators of and manifestations of “placelessness,” “starts everywhere and leads nowhere.”3 This is the “New Road” of Hemingway's later fiction, the road of “The Strange Country,” for example, where Roger thinks: “The center line of highways was the boundary line of home” (621). Displaced, disconnected from authentic place, Roger's driving and drivenness are a primary manifestation of the curse of American mobility which most writers of topistics view as the great destroyer of place.

Yet, in another sense, it could be argued that many of Hemingway's displaced characters are in motion in quest of authentic place. With the possible exception of Nick Adams in northern Michigan, there are no examples in Hemingway of the sense of place that informs, say, Faulkner's fiction. The deeply invested sense of “locality,” fundamental to regionalism for two centuries, and essential to such a writer as Faulkner, has largely disappeared from the American landscape because, as J. Nicholas Entrikin puts it, “necessary connections between people and places have been replaced by contingent connections.”4 If Hemingway's fiction operates in this “betweenness” of “contingent place,” if none of his characters are regionalist or Faulknerian autochthons, nevertheless many are—if I may coin a useful term—anachthons, seeking reconnection with authentic place.

In still another sense, the basic problems and paradoxes of freedom and motion, of place and placelessness, of the anachthon seeking to reconnect with place, are embodied in the American Romance of the Road. Hemingway's fictions (as well as his life) provide compelling evidence of his deep engagement with that irreducible and quintessential American mystery—the Romance of the Road, the Car, the Highway. Let us consider more closely some of that evidence.


… inside an automobile dealer's show window, lighted against the early dark, there was a racing motor car finished entirely in silver with Dans Argent lettered on the hood. This I believed to mean the silver dance or the silver dancer. …

Ernest Hemingway, “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen”

That Great American Dream of the Road, that love affair with the automobile, resonates in the opening paragraph of “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen.” After the story's first striking sentence—“In those days the distances were all different”—which I propose as a touchstone for our time-space/motion-place meditations on the road, the narrator looks in the window of an automobile showroom. A pilgrim at the shrine of the iconic car, he stares at “a racing motor car finished entirely in silver with Dans Argent lettered on the hood.” He thinks this means “the silver dance or the silver dancer,” a perfect metaphor for the romance of cars and roads. “Slightly puzzled which it meant but happy in the sight of the car and pleased by [his] knowledge of a foreign language,” he walks on down the street (298). The reader, of course, recognizes that it means neither “silver dance” nor “silver dancer,” sees that this mistranslation reflects the young man's romantic infatuation, his almost religious veneration and spiritual lust for this shining car and its road-promise. Perhaps, too, in the full context of the story, there is a suggestion of the dehumanizing, unmanning, castrating “eunuchhood” of the road and the machine, but this is not the place to consider in detail the many ironic variations on “rest” and “ride” which reverberate throughout the story. It must suffice to note this quintessential image of the car as romantic icon, and to observe that the text obliquely tells us that this distance-transforming “silver dancer,” this fabulous car, really signifies money, that the driver of such a car must be “in the money”—Dans Argent. Of course, speaking grammatically, dans argent refers primarily to color—“in silver”—but the glamorous car in the showroom window also conveys this message: The very rich are different from you and me.5 The car-rapt narrator does not know enough to respond that they are dull and play too much backgammon on the road, or to say: “Yes, they have shinier, faster cars.”

This early instance in Hemingway's fiction of the familiar American obsession with the fabulous automobile provides a telling rubric for consideration of Hemingway's engagement with the road, the car: the “silver dance,” the “silver dancer.” And how can we, at 70 mph, know the dancer from the dance? In his life, Hemingway was particular about the cars he owned or rented—all shiny Buicks and Lincolns and Packards, all fast luxurious convertibles. (Perhaps I am not the only reader of biographies who is still waiting for some biographer to provide that crucial index of taste—a detailed list of all the cars Hemingway drove in his lifetime, and how many miles he put on them. You are what you drive, advertisements tell us. You are also where and how you drive, I would add.) Hemingway's fascination with cars, however, is rarely manifest in his fiction. One notable exception occurs in Across the River and into the Trees, where Colonel Cantwell is proud of his Buick, its speed and solidity. Cantwell has interesting things to say, too, about roads and motion, about the way speed blends and blurs things, and how—in a direct echo of the opening line of “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen”—from the car, the country is different: “the distances are all changed.” And he leaves us with these last words at the moment of his death in the Buick: “I'm now going to get into the large back seat of this god-damned over-sized luxurious automobile.”6

It is also a Buick that provides the primary setting for Hemingway's most intensely car-and-road-centered fiction, “The Strange Country.” This story, or posthumously published mutant manuscript, or discarded portion of early Islands in the Stream material, or intended but unfinished Great American Road Novel (whose manuscript, we note, bears the title “A Motor Trip” and indicates some intention of expansion, of extending the trip to the West), takes place, for the most part, on the road and in the car. It also provides Hemingway's most extensive and intensive meditation on roads and cars, their space and time and memory functions, their relation to place and placelessness, and to landscapes, actual and symbolic.

Almost every page of the story presents details regarding the road, the car, and the act of driving, with the exception of those passages dealing with the lost manuscript tale and intervals of eating and sex while the travelers pause on the road. The narrative begins with the act of acquiring the correct car. “Do you know anything about cars?” Roger asks Helena at the start. They each take one Miami newspaper and study the “classifieds on motorcars for sale.” Roger tells her they're looking for a “convertible with good rubber. The best one we can get” (605). A few hours later they have purchased a Buick convertible, used, with six thousand miles on it. Hemingway describes the car and its accessories precisely: “It had two good spares, set-in well fenders, a radio, a big spotlight, plenty of luggage space in the rear and it was sand colored” (606). They head west on the “straight and heat-welted” highway across the development of “what had once been the Everglades.” Roger drives fast and the car's motion through the “heavy air made the air cool as it came in through the scoop in the dash and the slanted glass of the ventilators” (607). Feeling the car, already beginning to feel deeply centered in and at home in the car, Helena says: “She's a lovely car. … Weren't we lucky to get her?” “Very,” Roger says (607).

In the first few pages the car is established as a major presence in the story, as is the road. Roger looks down the road he has so often driven before, “seeing it stretch ahead, knowing it was the same road … knowing that only the car was different, that only who was with him was different” (607-8). Three pages of details about the road follow, demonstrating Roger's precise knowledge of this particular road and relating exact details of the road to specific events in his past. These passages, and others in “The Strange Country,” define the act of driving as a meditative state, a kind of Composition of Place and Memory, much in the manner of “Fathers and Sons.”

One feature of Hemingway's car-road Composition of Place is the observation of wildlife, of the natural landscape that the comminatory road slashes through. For example, Roger remembers a rattlesnake, a wild turkey, and a buck deer seen on this road. And he knows the exact place in the road where they will see a “big osprey's nest in the dead cypress tree” (608). (As an interesting aside, I note that when I retraced the route of “The Strange Country” a few years ago I saw the osprey's nest in the dead cypress, still there in the precise spot indicated by Hemingway.) More crucial to the Composition of Place are the spiritual components. Helena asks Roger, for example, if “it's possible to be happy” and urges him to “say it is anyway.” Roger says he thinks it is and then thinks: “He'd always said it was. Not in this car though. In other cars in other countries. … Everything was possible once. It was possible on this road” (609-10). And the reader thinks: Ah but that was in another car, and besides … the battery's dead.

As they ride down the road, Roger thinks and Helena talks about the past. The past leans in on them, gnaws at the present, and Roger declares: “Look … We'll throw it all away. All of it. We'll throw it all away now right here beside the road … we've thrown it all away now and we've really thrown it away” (611). The “it” that is emphatically discarded is the past. Thus the memory-laden road functions here in its familiar mythic character as a place of disburdenment, flight, and freedom from the past. With the past discarded, they concentrate on another kind of flight, the flight of birds. They watch “the way they brake with their wings and the long legs slant forward to land”; then they watch “the wood ibis crossing the sky with their pulsing flight to wheel and light” in an island of trees (612). In the past, Roger notes, they roosted much closer to the road. Thus Hemingway's road-rhythms and car-counterpoint play variations on past and future, on natural landscape and the inner spiritual landscape, on the road as flight and freedom and the road as depredation.

Timing their driving by the number of drinks, they drive on into the night “with the swamp dark and high on both sides of the road and the good headlights lighting far ahead. The drinks drove the past away the way the headlights cut through the dark” (613). The forward motion of the car and the straight-ahead focus of the “good headlights” provide the tunnel-visioned illusion of tomorrow, of the future, and freedom from the dark threatening swamp of memory. They check into a roadside cabin and immediately take their dose of another sovereign road-anodyne against the past—sex: “In the dark he went into the strange country … taking away all things before … bringing the beginning of bright happiness in darkness … to drive toward happiness suddenly, scaldingly achieved” (615). Even the notation of sex is grounded in car-road imagery, in road-past-driving resonances, with sex rendered here as another kind of bright “headlight,” a “drive” through pastless darkness toward “happiness.”

After sex they drive to a restaurant, aptly named the Green Lantern (green light for “go”). After dinner, accompanied with barefoot foreplay under the table, they drive back to the tourist cabins; the car enters its place between cabins, and as they go inside for more sex, Helena says:

“The car knows about us already. … I was sort of shy with him at the start but now I feel like he's our partner.”

“He's a good car. …”

“The car will protect us. He's our good friend already. Did you see how friendly he was coming back. …”

“I saw the difference.”


Surely this is one of the most extraordinary descriptions of a car in American literature. The car has been elevated from a major narrative presence to major character, protagonist, exemplar—“partner,” “friend,” protector. Also we note that the Buick has undergone a gender-change; even cars, it appears, may be androgynous in Hemingway's fiction.

With the car firmly established as a friendly character, an enabling conspirator and accomplice in all the actions of the road, the motif expands to include the car as a place, the car as home. “Home,” Roger thinks. “That's a laugh. There isn't any home. Sure there is. This is home. All this. This cabin. This car. … The center line of the highways was the boundary line of home” (621). Roger checks himself in this meditation, wary of beginning to think “like one of those Vast-Spaces-of-America writers” (621). Roger, the displaced man, feels his placelessness, and, as displaced writer, renders the car and the highway as place, as home. At the same time, he cautions himself against any simplistic mythicizing about the American Road, and Whitmanesque-Kerouacesque-Steinbeckian-Wolfean “Vast-Spaces-of-America” Romance of the Open Road.

On the road again, they continue on their ultimately westerly route, through the Peace River Valley and Arcadia. Hemingway continues to render the natural landscape with precision even as symbolic landscape—paysage moralise—shapes and informs the narrative more and more. The route they follow—through the Valley of the Peace to Arcadia, through springs country where numerous springs are claimed to be the Fountain of Youth, through a “wicked stretch of country” to the symbolic Suwanee-crossing and Cross City—is profoundly charged with symbolic landscape reverberations.7 For example, the crossing of the Suwanee—“like a river in a dream” (631)—underlines the motif of displacement, of roaming “all up and down the whole creation,” yearning for home. Or, as they drive at a “steady seventy,” “making their own breeze … and feeling the country being put behind them,” as they approach the country of springs, Helena declares that it's fun to drive fast because it's “like making your own youth … sort of foreshortening and telescoping the world the way youth does” (629). Although there is no direct allusion to the various Fountains of Youth, they do discuss spring water, and the Fountain of Youth metaphor does resonate as the deepest layer of the textual iceberg, as geomoral landscape. This youth passage further develops the motifs of freedom and motion, of putting country “behind” and speeding forward toward the illusion of renewal, toward a remade pastless “youth.”

Increasingly, narrative emphasis falls on the act of driving, of “making time,” speeding west. Even the instrumentation of the car figures in image-patterns that serve the themes of time and space, past and future, the cycle—or wheel—of youth and age, experience and memory. After Roger and Helena discuss the age difference between them, Roger looks “through the wheel at the clock on the dashboard” (630). The car radio brings the news of the world—and the Spanish Civil War—into the car-home between installments of soap operas. Roger becomes somewhat obsessed with the speedometer, with “making fast time,” with holding it at seventy, with clocking as much over sixty miles in each hour as he possibly can. The road becomes “monotonous”; Roger doesn't like to “waste country but on a long trip you had to” and he drives now “only to put it behind him” (633). In this final passage concerning the act of driving, Hemingway plays new variations on the freedom-motion and place-placelessness motifs. Roger is bored now with the no-longer-new strange country, feels guilty about wasting country yet concentrates on speed as he labors to put country behind him. Put another way, he is trapped in the riddle of the road, caught in the anxiety, the tension between the speedometer and the odometer.

In his long interior monologue following this final driving reference, Roger tries to convince himself that he “really can start it all over now,” that this journey west is a new beginning (635). After the gap in the story, the non-rendered driving omitting all the country between Tallahassee and New Orleans, there are no more driving or road allusions. But in the New Orleans sequence, as Roger gets “scared” about his new relationship, his future with Helena, as things begin to go wrong, the final car image occurs: “What woman in the world did you think could be as sound as a good secondhand Buick car? You've only known two sound women in your life and you lost them both” (643). So the road West through the “strange country” ends in New Orleans, in the actual and symbolic French Quarter, not in some visionary liberating “Vast-Spaces-of-America” West, not in renewal and freedom from the past, but in the strangest country of all—darkest memory—as Roger closes the narrative with his anguished memories of his first wife and the lost manuscripts.

One conclusion a reader may draw might go something like this: Roger has gone across the road and into the Buick one too many times. Another conclusion might be that Roger's burden, his fundamental dilemma, is rather like Jack Burden's in Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men. Jack Burden's story is, for me, the richest tale of the road and flight, of the confusion of motion with freedom, of place and displacement in American literature. We read Jack and we hear Roger: “That was why I had got into my car and headed west, because when you don't like it where you are you always go west. We have always gone west. That was why I drowned in West and relived my life like a home movie.”8 We flee West, like Roger, trying to believe we “really can start it all over.” And Jack Burden's words reverberate: “So there is innocence and a new start in the West, after all. If you believe the dream you dream when you go there” (311). Jack Burden comes to understand this at last, in Burden's Landing, Louisiana, and his final vision is crystalline, redemptive. It is doubtful that Roger, whose story also ends in Louisiana, understands much of it, and his final vision is murky, absinthe-cloudy.

That may, in part, be a function of this so-called short story's identity as manuscript fragment, unfinished tale, or discarded material from a novel which, in the view of many, should never have been published. Manuscript evidence does clearly indicate that Hemingway intended to expand this road narrative, to put in, for example, all the country between Tallahassee and New Orleans that the published version lacks. Hemingway made specific notes to himself to add Wakulla, Carrabelle, Apalachicola, Panama City, Fort Walton, Pensacola, and Mobile. In the same manuscript note he reminds himself to get exactly the way the country feels, to make it as compelling as the road trip from France into Spain in The Sun Also Rises. His intention is to write it with such precision and design that the rendered country will produce the desired emotion in the reader. He must be mindful, his notes continue, that he has driven through that country many times and that he has always been profoundly moved by it, without observing exactly the details that created the emotion. This entire remarkable passage throws another light on Roger's regrets over his “waste” of country, in his westward haste. Hemingway admonishes himself to get precisely all the details of the landscape he passes through, the natural world, as well as the details of the act of driving, all the sensory qualities that make the intense physicality, the good feeling of driving. He is well aware that he usually drives this stretch in an almost anesthetized condition because of the need to cover long distances, that he absorbs his delight in the landscape unconsciously, without registering the details that produce the feeling, which moves him deeply.9

These revealing and illuminating manuscript notes serve to reinforce several of my conclusions about “The Strange Country.” First, Hemingway's actual title, “A Motor Trip,” is a better and more precisely descriptive title than the editorially-created title which has the unfortunate effect of centering attention on the obvious sexual metaphor. Second, Hemingway's central concern was the delight and good emotion of the road, of the act of driving, of the car, of the connection with the passing country, and all the symbolic undertones and mythic overtones that accompany that catalogue of delight. Third, he did indeed intend this narrative to be a kind of Romance of the Road, regardless of whatever other themes figured in his physical and spiritual Composition of Place. And he does use the country to produce the emotion. But then he had always done that, from the very beginning.

I nominate “The Strange Country,” then, as Hemingway's On the Road, his contribution to a great American genre. He writes from deeply within the knowledge that every American is, at least in part, as Wallace Stegner puts it, “the displaced person … always in motion.” Hemingway writes from the center-line of the American “tradition of restlessness,” as Stegner has it, that distinctly American vision that urges “motion … as a form of virtue.”10 That the American Road promises renewal, that motion promises freedom, that car and road together simultaneously figure place and placelessness—all this constitutes the triumph and the tragedy of what we might still be permitted to call The American Dream. The problems and paradoxes of the Song of the American Road may not be resolved, may be immune to resolution, closure. Yet still Merle Haggard sings it, calls it “White Line Fever”; Hemingway sings it, calls it “the boundary line of home.” Hank and Merle and Willie and all the others sing it, with Hemingway, the delight and feeling of being “on the road again.”


[Ernest] bought a beautiful Buick Roadmaster convertible, royal blue with bright red leather lining and seats … he flew to Miami to join Toby and the car for a leisurely detoured voyage to Sun Valley via his childhood haunts in northern Michigan.

Mary Hemingway, How It Was11

Papa loved being on the road. He liked to see every detail, every bird and animal … it was amazing the things he saw and pointed out to me. Sometimes he took notes. And he knew the history of places we drove through, too, and he'd make weird connections. … He liked convertibles because you could see more, you were closer to the country you went through, “more inside” it, Papa said. … He loved to drive, too, even if maybe he wasn't a very good driver—he liked looking too much. … No, he wasn't a very good driver but he was one hellacious looker and seer. And we'd take our own sweet time. If he wanted to see something close up or more exactly, we'd stop, or we'd make a detour to see something he wanted to see. Or somebody. There was this one cross-country trip that was mostly detours. We went to Oxford to see Faulkner. …

Toby Bruce, Interviews with H. R. Stoneback12

Before we conclude we might note, as a small service to biographers and students of Hemingway's life, to biographically-oriented readers and critics, a few hitherto unpromulgated facts and an engaging anecdote or two regarding Hemingway on the American Road. For example, it seems to be widely (and incorrectly) assumed that “The Strange Country” is a thinly veiled account of a road trip Hemingway made with Martha Gellhorn, and Helena is assumed to be modeled on Martha. Clearly, as much internal and external evidence argues, this is not the case. Helena is, in fact, much more closely a portrait of Jane Mason. There is far too much evidence to go into here, and, to be sure, it is of little critical interest. Yet we might note that since many details in the story are straight from life, are directly based on Hemingway's relationship with Jane Mason, and since the omitted part of the drive, the road west through Apalachicola which Hemingway intended to add, is probably based on a trip to Apalachicola he made with Jane, perhaps that is one reason he discarded this manuscript, left it unfinished. Because he knew that he was not making it true and “made up,” not creating character, not inventing story, not transmuting fact into fiction.13

What was it like to drive down the road and cross-country with Ernest Hemingway? In How It Was, Mary Hemingway describes Ernest's “beautiful Buick Roadmaster convertible, royal blue with bright red-leather” seats and upholstery in which he made a “leisurely detoured” maiden voyage in 1947 with Toby Bruce (208). In conversation, Mary told me that Ernest “especially loved Buicks, all the details about them,” and that he loved “convertibles above all.” Mary allowed that she did not share his passion for cars, nor his “passion for driving”: “he loved to drive, to ride, to be in a car and look at passing country and talk about it,” while observing precisely all the “natural and historical facts” of the landscape.14

My conversations with Toby Bruce, who was often with Hemingway on long road trips, marked the turning point in my view of Hemingway as a train and ship person, a man who did not care much for cars and roads. Toby told me that “Papa loved being on the road,” and added that “he was a lot of fun to ride with, always cheerful, always looking, and he saw everything.” He said the best trips were the ones when they were not in a hurry, and could make unscheduled stops and detours. And then he told what is, for me, by far the most remarkable and revealing Hemingway on-the-road anecdote, which has escaped the notice of all biographers and commentators and is here revealed for the first time. Driving crosscountry in that shiny new Buick convertible, on one of his “leisurely detoured” pilgrimages on the American Road, en route to Sun Valley with a planned detour to northern Michigan, Hemingway directed a sudden and substantial and profoundly symbolic detour: “We went to Oxford,” Toby said, “to see Faulkner.”

When they got to Oxford they drove by Faulkner's place, but nobody was home. There was “a lot of commotion in town that day,” Toby said: “There was some kind of celebration honoring Faulkner. … I think we saw a sign or banner or something saying it was ‘William Faulkner Day’ in Oxford. So we left, and didn't get to see Faulkner.” I asked Toby when this trip occurred: “Let's see, it was after the war. We were in that new blue Buick Roadmaster so it must have been '47 or '48. And it was after Papa had that blowup with Faulkner—you know about that?” Yes, I said. “Actually,” Toby continued, “there were two or three different trips when he talked about making a detour to see Faulkner; one other time we got pretty close to Oxford but Papa changed his mind. As far as I know, this is the only time Papa actually went to Oxford looking for Faulkner.”15 Clearly, from Toby's description, the Oxford pilgrimage must have occurred in September 1947, when Bruce and Hemingway drove from Miami to Sun Valley via Walloon Lake.

Since it sheds significant light on Hemingway's Oxford trip, let us rehearse briefly the well-documented facts referred to by Toby Bruce as “that blowup with Faulkner.” On 14 April 1947, Faulkner suggested to a class of students at the University of Mississippi, among other things, that Hemingway didn't take enough risks in his writing. On May 11 the New York Herald Tribune printed an account of Faulkner's remarks, Hemingway read them, thought Faulkner had called him a coward, and feverish letters ensued: Hemingway to his World War II comrade-in-arms “Buck” Lanham, Lanham to Faulkner, Faulkner to Lanham and Hemingway.16 On June 28 Faulkner wrote briefly to Hemingway, saying he was “sorry” about this “damn stupid thing,” it was just a misconstrual of informal remarks not made for publication and he hoped it would not “matter a damn” to Hemingway.17 On July 23 Hemingway wrote a long and revealing letter to Faulkner which is a crucial document, indispensable for any consideration of Hemingway's personal sense of place and placelessness. Hemingway tells Faulkner: the “difference with us guys is I always lived out of country … since kid. My own country gone. Trees cut down. Nothing left but gas stations, sub-divisions. … Found good country outside [i. e., abroad] … and lost it the same way.” And here is the phrase that reverberates: “Been chickenshit dis-placed person since can remember.” Sharply to the point, then, Hemingway acknowledges Faulkner as a man and writer with place, who is deeply placed; and he laments his own lack of place, his displacedness. After some praise of Faulkner's writing, Hemingway ends this July 23 letter by telling Faulkner that he would like to keep up the correspondence: “I am your Bro. if you want one that writes and I'd like us to keep in touch.”18 There is no record of Faulkner's response. But we now know that a few weeks later Hemingway, self-styled “chickenshit dis-placed person,” made his pilgrimage to the Capitol of Place in American literature to see Faulkner. But Faulkner was not at home, because he was being honored by his place. Then Hemingway leaves Oxford, goes on up the long road to the only location where he ever felt truly placed, to northern Michigan. There is no more poignant moment in American literary history.

This sequence of events, to be sure, serves as profound commentary on the haunting paradigm of place and placelessness in Hemingway's life and work. Was he really a “chickenshit dis-placed person,” always in motion on a road that started every place, led to no place, started everywhere, ended nowhere? What do all those miles, burning up the road in Buick Roadmasters and all the other cars, add up to? Was Hemingway Master of the Road? Perhaps we can agree with Michael Reynolds: “What we see is a man more comfortable on the road than at any place called home.”19 Or perhaps we can write much of it off to Tax Strategy. Or perhaps we had better rethink the paradigm, recognize that Hemingway, after his fashion, had many places—Paris, Roncevaux and the country around, the pilgrimage of St.-Jacques/Santiago (the ultimate example of a road that is placed), or corrida-country, or Key West in the old days, or Wyoming, Idaho, the Finca, the Pilar, the Sea, the Gulf Stream and all the Big Two-Hearted Rivers where he could feel authentically “there,” in the “good place.” Hemingway was never a mere “tourist” in place (as he said in his letter to Faulkner that Dos Passos “always” was). If Hemingway was never a rooted autochthon like Faulkner, he was—and so were many of his created characters—an anachthonous pilgrim.

The design of Hemingway's life and work, then, reveals a pattern of freedom and motion, place and placelessness, or deracination and the lost authentic place, of the constant quest for and pilgrimage to the hoped-for numinous place. The quest is always in the optative mood, often goes through strange country and Arcadian landscapes, is frequently conducted in the shadow of a Poussinesque landscape, under the rubric: “Et in Arcadia Ego.” Sometimes this famous motif in literary and art history is understood as a configuration of melancholy place and displacement. Sometimes it is read as romantic yearning, sometimes as death-haunted brooding. Yet the common romantic mistranslation—“I too have been in Arcadia”—does not preclude or contradict the actual signification: “Even in Arcadia, there am I” (i.e., death). Hemingway has it both ways, all ways; his complex vision of place simultaneously evokes all of these readings, as he and his created characters go down the road in their Roadmasters, chanting: Et in America Ego.


  1. Ernest Hemingway, The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway (New York: Scribner's, 1987), 363, 353, 336, 334. Subsequent references will be given as page numbers in the text.

  2. Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises (New York: Scribner's, 1926), 11.

  3. E. Relph, Place and Placelessness (London: Pion Limited, 1976), 90.

  4. J. Nicholas Entrikin, The Betweenness of Place: Towards a Geography of Modernity (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), 11.

  5. Dans argent” is not a familiar idiom or equivalent of “in the money,” which should take the form “dans l'argent.” Yet it is possible that a car manufacturer or customizer would omit the “l” and apostrophe through ignorance, as wordplay, or to avoid clutter in a logo or emblem. I should also note here that my efforts to locate references to an actual car of the period which had “Dans Argent lettered on the hood” have thus far yielded no result. My first hunch was that this might have been a Rolls Royce model name, given the Rolls proclivity toward names “in silver.” But a Rolls enthusiast and amateur of automotive history could not confirm the existence of a “Dans Argent” Rolls model. Perhaps, since Hemingway's car is a “racing motor car,” it is customized, one-of-a-kind.

  6. Ernest Hemingway, Across the River and into the Trees (New York: Scribner's, 1950), 12-14, 307.

  7. I have treated this matter in more detail in a forthcoming essay, “‘Et in Arcadia Ego’: Deep Structure, Paysage Moralise, Geomoral and Symbolic Landscape in Hemingway,” a version of which was presented at the Conference on American Literature of the American Literature Association, Baltimore, Md., May 1995.

  8. Robert Penn Warren, All the King's Men (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982), 309. Subsequent references will be given as page numbers in the text.

  9. Ernest Hemingway, “The Strange Country”/“A Motor Trip” manuscript. Hemingway Collection: John F. Kennedy Library, Item 102B.

  10. Wallace Stegner, “A Sense of Place” The Hudson Valley Regional Review 11.2 (September 1994): 47-48, 52.

  11. Mary Hemingway, How It Was (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976), 208.

  12. Otto (Toby) Bruce, interview by author, Key West, Fla., 9-13 January 1978. When I recently relocated my original notes from my earliest conversations with Toby Bruce, I was struck all over again by the amount of time we spent talking about those cross-country drives Hemingway and Bruce made together. These road anecdotes seemed to be Toby's most vivid and compelling memories of Hemingway; or perhaps they seemed so to me because he was telling me things I had not heard or read elsewhere. In later conversations Toby also talked a good deal about being on the road with Papa, cars, trips made together. When I wrote the original draft of this essay, I had not consulted my notes on these conversations for over a decade; thus they played no conscious role in the formation of my critical views regarding roads and cars in Hemingway's fiction. Yet I have from time to time referred in class to a few of Toby's road remarks that I had partially transcribed on the flyleaf of a Hemingway volume that I have taught from hundreds of times since 1978; so perhaps a touch of what some may be pleased to regard as the biographical fallacy may have crept in at the edges of my explication de texte.

  13. The assumptions regarding Martha as Helena which I cite here are both conversational and from conference panel discussions; I have not seen any published material dealing with this matter. The mass of details regarding Helena-Jane, internal narrative evidence and external biographical evidence, will appear in a forthcoming essay primarily concerned with the Hemingway-Mason relationship. It must suffice here to note that Jane Mason had relatives in Apalachicola and that Hemingway seems to have made just such a road trip with her as “The Strange Country” describes. Eyewitnesses and Mason family connections place Hemingway in Apalachicola a number of times, at least once with Jane.

  14. Mary Hemingway, conversations with author, New York, N.Y., 1977-85. I cite Mary's mention of Ernest's “passion for driving” because until this and other conversational references from Mary and those who knew best changed my view I had a picture—gathered from multifarious biographical sources—of Hemingway as someone who did not like to drive, who liked to be driven. The first time Mary told me of Ernest's “passion for driving” I was driving her from New York City to my home in the country; she said she had not been in a car (except for cabs) for some time and she didn't like to drive, but it was pleasant riding. I asked if it wasn't that way with Ernest, too, but she insisted that no, he loved to drive. The driving details of “The Strange Country” (and, of course, The Garden of Eden), both of which appeared years after these conversations regarding cars, confirmed Hemingway's passion for the act of driving.

  15. Bruce, interview. Toby repeated the story of this Oxford trip to see Faulkner several times in later conversations with me, with no substantial variation, after our original 1978 interviews. I told him it was an extraordinary story and tried to get him to write it all down—with no result. For decades, in every possible source, published and unpublished, and with every possible resource (e.g., persons who knew Hemingway well in this period), I have sought secondary confirmation of Toby's story of the Oxford visit. I asked Mary Hemingway repeatedly if she knew anything about this trip—had Ernest called her from Oxford, maybe, or had he made some remark about it? She said she thought Ernest had gone through Oxford hoping to see Faulkner once, but she was not with him, and she had no idea he had done it on the 1947 Miami-Sun Valley drive. She thought it “quite possible.” Bill Walton said he had some vague notion Hemingway might have gone to Oxford to see Faulkner—“didn't they know each other?” (he also said)—but he had “no earthly idea when.” (He and Ernest had, “of course,” talked about Faulkner, his art, his writing, and about Faulkner as the “prime example of a writer who had place”: Conversations 1988-94). As far as the precise dates of the trip, it is difficult to pinpoint. Toby Bruce did not remember the dates, or the routes they followed. The most reliable biographers do not agree on the general dates of the Miami-Sun Valley excursion during which the Oxford detour (of which they are not aware) occurred. Carlos Baker has Hemingway setting off “in September in a new Buick Roadmaster with Otto Bruce as driver. They varied the usual itinerary in order to pay a call at Windemere on Walloon Lake. … Late in the evening of the 29th they reached Sun Valley” (Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story [New York: Scribner's, 1969], 462). Michael Reynolds has them leaving in late August “for Idaho via Walloon Lake,” arriving at Sun Valley on September 29 (Hemingway: An Annotated Chronology [Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1991], 111). Mary Hemingway has Ernest and Toby leaving Miami in “mid-September” (How It Was, 208). My efforts to fix a precise date for the event from the Faulkner-Oxford perspective have thus far yielded no firm result. Faulkner's biographers provide no information pertinent to the matter. In the late 1970s and early 1980s my conversations with Faulkner family members (e.g. Jimmy Faulkner) and friends (e.g. Mac Reed) produced anecdotal evidence of several events that might fit Toby Bruce's description of a celebration of “Faulkner Day” in Oxford, but no hard data. In my perusal of the files of the Oxford Eagle I was only able to find the account of the Faulkner celebration in Oxford in December, 1950, when Faulkner returned from the Nobel Prize ceremonies in Stockholm: the high school band, cheerleaders, and majorettes gave Faulkner a rousing homecoming. But in December 1950 Hemingway was in Cuba. In September 1947, then, Hemingway was in Oxford, Mississippi; so was Faulkner, but they did not meet. This seems the appropriate place to record my view, after decades of interviews and conversations with scores of persons who knew Hemingway, that Toby Bruce was the most reliable, most consistent witness in matters of fact. Others may tell better stories, but they don't always check out. Toby's always did, especially stories of this kind, where he was a central actor, where he was behind the wheel.

  16. For biographical overviews of this situation, see Joseph Blotner, Faulkner, A Biography (New York: Random House, 1974), 1230-35; and Baker, Life, 461.

  17. Joseph Blotner, ed., Selected Letters of William Faulkner (London: The Scholar Press, 1977), 251-52.

  18. Carlos Baker, ed., Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters 1917-1961 (New York: Scribner's, 1981), 623-25.

  19. Michael Reynolds, Hemingway: An Annotated Chronology (Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1991), 8.

Ronald Berman (essay date 2001)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7271

SOURCE: Berman, Ronald. “Hemingway's Questions.” In Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and The Twenties, pp. 132-48. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2001.

[In the following excerpt, Berman considers Hemingway's interest in and relationship to religion and philosophy, with particular attention to his novel A Farewell to Arms.]

Throughout Hemingway's work is the evidence of his interest in both religious and secular dogma. “Soldier's Home” is about the social gospel of the early twenties; The Sun Also Rises deals not only with Catholicism but also with Robert Cohn's vague and wistful philosophy of self-change; A Farewell to Arms begins with the advice of a priest to Frederic Henry on the good life and ends with the denial of existential meanings. A Farewell to Arms may be said to debate the conflicted nature of things, raising questions that do not have answers.

By 1929, a matrix had been constructed for such questions. Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Alfred North Whitehead had begun to rethink the idea of conventional systematic explanation. They had been preceded by William James, whose Pragmatism undercut the inherently religious impulse to unify ideas, provide causes, unify social life. Hemingway's work is in some ways a mirror of this kind of thought. If the following had been asked of Hemingway, it might have made perfect critical sense: Why did he “find it necessary, in his writings between 1925 and 1933, to rethink the whole problem of religion and God, and why was he able to do so?”1 His probable answer also would have made critical sense: to rethink the idea of intelligibility and order in life and in fiction. The question was directed to Alfred North Whitehead, and the period corresponds to that between The Sun Also Rises and “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”

Whitehead's Lowell Institute Lectures for 1925 and 1926 became Science and the Modern World and Religion in the Making, essential parts of our intellectual tradition. One subject was the loss of both religious and secular conviction. Whitehead expressed the hope that we lived in a universe of “intelligible relations,” but it might be a succession of “bare facts” irreducible to meanings.2 He echoed William James and Josiah Royce, both of whom had written on the will to believe, which found itself in conflict with a new “radical skepticism” to which they sometimes found themselves sympathetic.3 As Royce put it, uneasily, certain aspects of religious tradition were clearly “unessential accidents.” But the rest mattered, and the public philosophers from the beginning of the century to the end of the twenties attempted, pessimistically, to bridge the material and the spiritual.

One great motive was to provide an underpinning for social order. As Whitehead put it, however, any theory of an understandable life collided with our raw experience of “the facts of the world.” Those facts that he named (“physical suffering, mental suffering”) are novelistic as well as philosophical subjects.4 Whitehead's bias was to interpret the “pain” of life (a term he invoked repeatedly) as a form of evil; yet a novelist might react to its cause differently, seeing that cause, not as malign fate but as naturalistic probability—a characteristic of human life rather than an exception to it.

In any case, the path taken by Whitehead was representative of his generation of philosophers: he identified the problems of a world without a convincing moral order—a world of pain and human degradation, a world without explanation. Explanatory systems do not in fact explain “the nature of things as disclosed in our own immediate present experience.” We need what Whitehead called faith in reason to interpret such experience. He agreed with William James that few “general principles” could be applied to the “irreducible and stubborn facts” of our lives. Whitehead, like Dewey, hoped that “fragmentary” human experience could be related to something outside itself and also that science would be the vehicle for that. We cannot, however, easily identify any “harmony of logical rationality” governing our acts and ideas.5 That, Whitehead suggested, was a central issue for “modern minds” in the mid-twenties. Clearly, religious thought had been first and most severely affected. Traditional explanation had gone the way of all flesh: “‘My generation,’ wrote Dewey's colleague, James H. Tufts, ‘has seen the passing of systems of thought which had reigned since Augustus. The conception of the world as a kingdom ruled by God, subject to his laws and their penalties, which had been undisturbed by the Protestant Reformation, has dissolved.’”6

The dissolution of orthodoxy, however, was by no means a simple process. By the end of the twenties, many of the systems replacing it were themselves replaced. Religion may have lost to Darwin, Marx, Comte, and Spencer, but the successor beliefs in turn also became lost orthodoxies. That is part of the context of A Farewell to Arms, and it accounts for much of Hemingway's suspicion of revolutionary dogmas.

As a writer and in propria persona Hemingway had a fine eye for intellectual innocence. Jake Barnes and Frederic Henry have much to say about the varieties of idealist explanation. In Hemingway, religious idealism is no more a fiction than socialism, anarchism, or the Wellsian “science” of progress. The intersection of Victorianism and modernism can be seen in the following from Eric Hobsbawm: Having assumed that “the study of human society was a positive science like any other evolutionary discipline from geology to biology,” it might well appear “perfectly natural for an author to write a study of the conditions of progress under the title Physics and Politics, Or thoughts on the application of the principles of ‘natural selection’ and ‘inheritance’ to political society.7 That title represents a contradiction to cosmology, but perhaps not a difference.

My own sense of Hemingway's dilemma, caught between equally fallacious interpretations of human character and fate, has been provided by Isaiah Berlin who has especially in his essay on “Vico's Concept of Knowledge” articulated the impossibility of systematically accounting for experience. That last, I think, matters greatly in A Farewell to Arms, in which an enormous amount of intellectual energy is expended on what Berlin calls explaining the world to oneself. Here is Berlin on the manifold impositions of the idea of order:

Conscious effort, deliberate attempts to explain the world to oneself, to discover oneself in it, to obtain from it what one needs and wants, to adapt means to ends, to express one's vision or describe what one sees or feels or thinks, individually or collectively … omits too much: unconscious and irrational ‘drives,’ which even the most developed and trained psychological methods cannot guarantee to lay bare; the unintended and unforeseen consequences of our acts, which we cannot be said to have ‘made’ if making entails intention; the play of accident; the entire natural world by interaction with which we live and function, which remains opaque inasmuch as it is not, ex hypothesi, the work of our hands or mind; since we do not ‘make’ this, how can anything it possesses be grasped as verum? How can there be a scienza of such an amalgam?8

And, Berlin asks, what can the relationship possibly be between Vico's Catholic orthodoxy and his “anthropological, linguistic, historical naturalism?”9 That may be a useful question for Hemingway.

The Oxford English Dictionary states that “dialogue” is, as we might expect, dramatic speech, and it also notes that dialogue is an essential form for the interchange of thought. Hemingway used the form in both senses, and especially in the sense of one of its submeanings, as a mode of philosophical inquiry. The dialogue of questioning begins with Plato, continues through Hume—with many stops in between—and survives as the rhetorical questioning of reader by writer in the Public Philosophy. It resurfaces in the work of Hemingway, who uses the mode with great precision and with considerable fidelity to the patterns established by philosophy. His interlocutors ask questions that seem to be as ordinary as those of Socrates, but they demand answers that baffled James, Dewey, and Whitehead. As I have suggested in writing about “The Killers,” Hemingway's questions move quickly from the ordinary circumstances of daily life to much larger issues behind them. Nick and George want to know what “it's all about,” that is, what is happening, while the real issue is why is it happening—and what does it mean?

There is a group of such questions in “Indian Camp,” ranging from things that can be stipulated or even quantified (“Where are we going?” [92]) to things so far from definition (“Is dying hard?” [95]) that it is difficult even to frame a rational response.10 There are over fifty questions in “The Killers” whose essential task is, I think, unsentimentally to deny Dewey's supposition (and that of many others) that “we live in a world replete with meaning, a world with an organic unity of some kind.”11 “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” has harder questions and a number of complex inferences about them. For example, the terminology it uses—“nothing,” “despair”—conjoins disparate meanings in no less a way than metaphysical poetry. These terms may be used by two waiters unaware of philosophical allusiveness, but they refer themselves to much larger forms of themselves.

A Farewell to Arms is a special case because it has in its stichomythic dialogues more questions than can be easily formulated or even tabulated. Its characters insistently question each other, and some of their questions may not have determinant limits. Many of the questions invite answers in addition to and different from those stipulated. That is part of the novel's strategy. The idea of “questioning” itself becomes a paradigm. Here is one of the central episodes on the bank of the Tagliamento:

“If you are going to shoot me,” the lieutenant-colonel said, “please shoot me at once without further questioning. The questioning is stupid. …”

I heard the shots. They were questioning some one else. This officer. … cried when they read the sentence from the pad of paper, and they were questioning another when they shot him. They made a point of being intent on questioning the next man while the man who had been questioned before was being shot. … I did not know whether I should wait to be questioned.12


A first response to this concludes, probably rightly, that the end of the procedure has the same relationship to justice that the experience of the procedure has to meaning. One will be drawn instinctively to Kafka and his nameless interlocutors. But Hemingway has his own interrogative mode, and when his prose economy is interrupted by so many repetitions of “questioning,” we may be intended to see the term in a more than cognitive way. There is in fact a thirteen-term sequence in this episode of “questioning,” “questioned,” and “questioners” (the cited passage contains only half of them). We hear many of the questions and also answers to them. The page of text is of course punctuated with question marks, which has its own effect. Some of the questions—“Regiment?”—can be answered with the kind of linguistic precision that even Wittgenstein might accept. That particular question suggests limits of interpretation. It also implies that other questions have the same kinds of precise answers; however, other questions, such as, “Why are you not with your regiment?” (223), suggest an impossible compression of experience into language. Only a Hemingway or Tolstoy could provide the answer, and one of them has just tried. To hear that question after experiencing the retreat from Caporetto is to understand not only the beginnings of fascism but also the mindset that made fascism possible. Clearly, the issue involves much more than pedantic brutality. By the time we have gone through interrogation with the lieutenant-colonel and Frederic Henry, we understand that there is no answer that will satisfy the questions. Reasoning itself is undesired, inferior to political mythology. We are meant to extrapolate.

Questioning is a paradigm in this novel, but its questions have different orders of magnitude. Some are about ultimate meanings: what life is, how and why it ends, whether it has a discernible plot. These are the famous questions of the ending, of the multiple unused endings. They are expressed through monologues. Others, more mundane but not less interesting, are expressed through dialogues. When Hemingway considers and rejects traditional idealist and new materialist solutions, he relies necessarily on a context. And the great context of his time was the problem of accounting for our experience of the world by means of religious, materialist, or positivist explanation of that experience. As far as that range of explanation was concerned, Bertrand Russell, in a book also published in 1929, argued for “logical atomism” or “verifiable results” instead of for exploded generalizations. He wanted a descriptive and mathematical model of reality, and he did not believe that such was possible in a world deluded by religious dogma.13

Hemingway had a good deal of company in his own concern for “abstract words” (185) with exploded meanings. Some of those words trailed clouds of metaphysical glory, claiming an answer for everything personal or political. But they did not come close to having answers to his particular questions, or to those of contemporary philosophy. William James had already dismissed “all the great single-word answers to the world's riddle, such as God, the One, Reason, Law, Spirit, Matter, Nature, Polarity, the Dialectic Process, the Idea, the Self, the Oversoul,” and he was to be followed by Lippmann in the next generation.14 Dewey was to lecture in 1925 and 1926 about the gilding of politics with religious values, anticipating Hemingway's coverage of the subject: “the words ‘sacred’ and ‘sanctity’. … testify to the religious aureole which protects … institutions. If ‘holy’ means that which is not to be approached nor touched, save with ceremonial precautions and by specially anointed officials, then such things are holy in contemporary political life. As supernatural matters have progressively been left high and dry upon a secluded beach, the actuality of religious taboos has more and more gathered about secular institutions, especially those connected with the nationalistic state.”15A Farewell to Arms records that false effect or “aureole” designed to impose political upon existential meanings. The “sacred” is the subject of a number of dialogues in Hemingway's novel, as when Frederic Henry states that he “had seen nothing sacred” (185) about dying in the war, or at least nothing that could adequately be explained by its apologists. There is a moment of deconstructive comedy in the episode I have cited, when the battle police on the Tagliamento accuse him of betraying “the sacred soil of the fatherland” (223). The point is, we have until this invocation experienced “the sacred soil”—in the form of mud and dirt—intensively: Our milieu has been trench mud, wet dirt, ambulance-swallowing quicksand, “brush and mud” (205), and an infinite amount of potentially sacred dust on the roads leading to the battlefield. We have choked in that soil, been drowned in it by explosives; and so much of it has blown into Henry's wound that it has prevented hemorrhage. You cannot escape the soft and muddy sacred soil, which is why the ambulance has finally to be abandoned on the retreat from Caporetto and why life of one kind has to end and another begin. Terminology is often false, whereas the relationship of false ideals to actuality is implied by Gino's observation (deadpan comedy is the right mode) that “the soil is sacred. … But I wish it grew more potatoes” (184).

Russell wrote about the falsified relationships of a highly significant moment: “there was another problem which began to interest me at about the same time—that is to say, about 1917. This was the problem of the relation of language to facts.” It was “the essential function of words to have a connection of one sort or another with facts.” But “the superstitious view of language” insists on endowing facts with “awe” and mystery. Russell argued at length that although it was impossible for language ever to be universally true, it should aim for precision, and it should be descriptive toward that end.16

In 1922, in the introduction to Wittgenstein's Tractatus, Russell had this to say not only of the idea of accurate statement but of the philosophical trend of the decade: “The essential business of language is to assert or deny facts. … In order that a certain sentence should assert a certain fact there must, however the language may be constructed, be something in common between the structure of the sentence and the structure of the fact. This is perhaps the most fundamental thesis of Mr. Wittgenstein's theory.”17 Substantially more is involved, however: Marjorie Perloff writes of the conclusion of the Tractatus (“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”) that it “is no more than the commonsense recognition that there are metaphysical and ethical aporias that no discussion, explication, rationale, or well-constructed argument can fully rationalize.”18 This puts another slant on Frederic Henry's impatience with the language of assertion.

The language given to Frederic Henry by Hemingway would if possible confine itself to number, date, and place: “There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates” (185). To say more of these things, as politicians or generals do, is to aggrandize one's self by corrupting meanings. In this novel and at that moment, language itself is a field of contention. Political and religious dogma now define meanings, and no explanation can itself be exempt from questioning. In discussing Wittgenstein, Marjorie Perloff states the vital importance of description. The refusal to explain is, I think, an echo of Wittgenstein's refusal to accept imposed meanings or to invent new ones too easily: “one can only describe and say: this is what human life is like.”19 Throughout A Farewell to Arms is a consistent refusal to endow fact with meaning, expressed either by Frederic Henry's not resonating emotionally to accepted meanings, ignoring them, or exploding certainties through strategic questioning. The priest tries to elicit some emotional commitment from Henry, but the answer is simply, “If I ever get it I will tell you” (72). Catherine understands the meanings of her dreams about the rain but refuses (126) to discuss them because knowledge cannot do anything about them; Count Greffi says about his explanation of the war that he may as well quote “the examples on the other side” (262) of the case. As in the famous passage on the language of the “sacred” and “glorious” (184-85), this attitude can become explicit, otherwise the text itself denies amplification. Silence is the ultimate answer to fake explanation and to the assumption that reason prevails.

A long dialogue between Rinaldi and Frederic Henry conveys a good deal more than narrative information; it makes certain points about experience as against the consciousness and restatement of experience. The polarities are conventional idealism and, against that, the modernist attitude formulated by Wittgenstein. Neither man's experience is reified by dialogue. In fact, the opposite is true, because there must be resistance to what can be stated about what can be known or felt. First, explanation is itself futile as an intellectual enterprise. According to Rinaldi, “I know many things I can't say” (170). He means, I think, not that the decencies of conversation impose limits on discourse but that statement about knowledge, feeling, or experience is necessarily dishonest as compared with experience itself. What Dewey found uplifting, Wittgenstein found embarrassing. It is at least cautionary for the present, in which our own confidence in the therapeutic revelation of self is intellectually embarrassing—and also useless.

Rinaldi states that “we all start complete” and “never get anything new” (171) and that there is no use whatever in “thinking so much” about ultimate meanings. Facts impose meanings. Rinaldi in 1917 seems to have been reading Wittgenstein in 1929. Existence “cannot be expressed in the form of a question, nor is there any answer to it.” The attempt to frame questions and answers may simply be a “running up against the limits of language.” Moreover, what we do know, “we know a priori,” without the mediation of systems. There is only “the totality of facts” in the experienced world, a fact that in itself presupposes Frederic Henry's dispassionate connection to his world. Wittgenstein scholars draw a particularly clear distinction between “representational description,” which is inherently suited for facts, and the more difficult and unclear language of values.20

The assertion of empirical truth (so far as it can go) over systematic falsehood is characteristic of A Farewell to Arms. Michael Reynolds draws a distinction between “the life of the spirit” and the opposed “life of the flesh” in the novel, and clearly the former has failed.21 In his unwillingness to accept providential explanation, Hemingway shares the empiricism newly enforced on philosophies. But the same skepticism applies to secular answers for disputed questions. A Farewell to Arms may break as many secular as religious icons.

Hemingway placed some of the most disturbing moments in the novel in identifiably secular contexts. They involve politics and ideology. There are, for example, few lines more graphic than Bonello's “all my life I've wanted to kill a sergeant” (207). Not an unknown response for those in the military—but strange to have that wish before serving. Bonello does not mind admitting this in confession, because that is in another realm and politically unserious. But he and the others from Imola reserve their own beliefs:

“Are you all socialists?”


“Is it a fine town?”

“Wonderful. You never saw a town like that.”

“How did you get to be socialists?”

“We're all socialists. Everybody is a socialist. We've always been socialists.”

“You come, Tenente, We'll make you a socialist too.”


It is not strange to find socialists in 1917 in Imola or anywhere else. The strangeness, and it is considerable, comes from the contrast between two phrases, “all my life” and “we've always been.”

The core doctrine of socialism was, of course, even by 1917—especially in 1917—the secularized version of brotherhood. In that year, H. G. Wells, whom Hemingway has planted in A Farewell to Arms, sent his letter of “fraternal support” to Maxim Gorky for “this struggle to liberate mankind … and to establish international goodwill on the basis of international justice and respect.”22 In Hemingway, the idea provides a backboard for skepticism. Revolution and reform interest him because of their internal orthodoxies and contradictions. For example, Bonello runs away like the sergeant he has executed for running away—although Piani stays, because, as he says to Henry, “I did not want to leave you” (217). The events of the retreat tend to invalidate not only hopes but ideas. There is a deep resistance of facts to their ordering, as in “The Capital of the World” in which a parlor revolutionary states that “only through the individual can you attack the class. It is necessary to kill the individual bull and the individual priest. All of them. Then there are no more.” But he is told to shut up and “save it for the meeting” (42). Work is, after all, better than canned politics. The revolutionist accuses his friend of being fatally lukewarm, but in Hemingway, to say that “you lack all ideology” is no insult but high praise: “Mejor si me falta eso que el otro.

The Bonello dialogue is a reprise of one earlier with Manera, Gavuzzi, and Passini. Frederic Henry's brutal political wisdom is set against their socialist idealism. That idealism has its religious equivalents in more than one sense of the term, as when Passini says unhopefully, “We will convert him” (51). These men still believe that soldier-workers should stop fighting for merely national interests; that “there is a class that controls a country” whose members “make money” out of the war; and that “war is not won by victory.”23 These are words unrelated to facts. Frederic Henry tells Passini “you're an orator”—but that is definitely not praise. We will later be told of Henry's contempt for all those “shouted words … proclamations. … abstract words” (185) that are political lies. The significance of the Minnenwerfer that arrives to end this discussion has often been argued, but I think it causes more of a philosophical than a psychological trauma. Theory is interrupted by fact. The first words that Henry hears after the explosion are from Passini: “Oh mama mia, mama Mia. … Dio te salve, Maria. Dio te salve, Maria. Oh Jesus shoot me Christ shoot me mama mia mama Mia” (55). It is possible to be both Catholic and socialist, but we are intended here to see one dogma alternate with another. Dogma and reversion—neither has the slightest effect on reality. Hemingway was a few years later to return to the subject and emphatically to rephrase its language, Passini's prayer to the Madonna being recycled in a scathing essay about the tenuousness of political beliefs in Mussolini's Italy.24

H. G. Wells—necessarily, I think—himself became the subject of Hemingway's questions. He appears in the long discussion (chapter 35) between Frederic Henry and Count Greffi. This dialogue is a disguise for literary criticism and also a way of allowing Hemingway to construct a certain argument. Ostensibly about Wells and the literature of 1916 and 1917, this dialogue leads us through its format of questioning to a set of implications:

“What is there written in war-time?”

“There is ‘Le Feu’ by a Frenchman, Barbusse. There is ‘Mr. Britling Sees Through It.’”

“No, he doesn't.”


“He doesn't see through it. Those books were at the hospital.”

“Then you have been reading?”

“Yes, but nothing any good.”

“I thought ‘Mr. Britling’ a very good study of the English middle-class soul.”

“I don't know about the soul.”


The stated questions are important enough, but the implied questions are even more so: (1) Has any fiction yet explained the war's causes, experience, and effect? (2) Have the ideas of H. G. Wells in particular survived their moment? (3) Do those ideas—in many respects the governing ideas of the intelligentsia—actually have any explanatory power? (4) Does the empiricism of Frederic Henry have more to say than the system-making of secular religions? (5) Is his skepticism a kind of moral contaminant or, as I think it is, an intellectual virtue? These questions are, I think, the context for the last part of our own great war novel.

Mr. Britling Sees It Through was printed in many editions, earned large royalties, and early on convinced the critics that Wells's ideas were, after all, the right ideas. Most important for Hemingway's invocation of Wells, it masqueraded as the great novel of the Great War: “The Times announced that, ‘For the first time we have a novel which touches the life of the last two years. … This is a really remarkable event … [with] nothing whatever to compare.’” According to the Chicago Tribune, also in 1917, it was “the best book so far published concerning the war.”25 In dismissing it, Hemingway shows more than retroactive rivalry. His own particular anxiety is to reject that influence.

Frederic Henry states that Mr. Britling sees “through” nothing. That is because Wells had superficial answers for the war, for its effects on the mind, and for human probabilities in general. He thought that character was malleable, that evil had specific social causes, and that evil was preventable if we had the right public policy. We could be educated into or out of anything. Most of all, if we are to judge from the specific language of the Hemingway dialogue, we can see through the way that history works and adjust its movement. Count Greffi's unconscious pun, picked up by Henry, becomes an argument that none of this is true.

Wells's text reminds the reader of those patriotic billposters that have been on Frederic Henry's mind. Mr. Britling Sees It Through is not only fiction but moral-political exhortation. The war's damage, never to be repaired and scarcely to be prevented, is viewed in a culminating passage by Wells in terms of Socialist uplift: “Let us set ourselves with all our minds and all our hearts to the perfecting and working out of the methods of democracy and the ending forever of the kings and emperors and priestcrafts … the traders and owners … who have betrayed mankind.”26 But Hemingway mistrusted that kind of theory, and he later directed readers to “read … War and Peace by Tolstoi and see how you will have to skip the big Political Thought passages, that he undoubtedly thought were the best things in the book when he wrote it, because they are no longer true or important, if they ever were more than topical.” Politics in the novel, he adds, is a sure sign that a writer has given up on his talent and is hiding behind ideas.27 Furthermore, he wants us to remember that the commentary of history is always far less honest than fiction.

Wells's kind of explanation abstracts experience; it needs Bertrand Russell's “logical atomism” or specific explanation of causes and effects to undo its harm. And it betrays, of course, the “superstitious” quality that Russell thought characteristic of politicized discourse. In Wells, we have all the usual class suspects, but Hemingway's tragic view of life does not assign tactical guilt for the way things are. The burden of A Farewell to Arms is in fact that the new “social and political institutions” praised by Wells are hallucinations. Wells has a great many one-word answers for questions about the inequitable nature of life, but blaming “competition” or “aggression” (favorite culprits of his) for the unsatisfactory and even tragic nature of things does not begin to answer them.28 For Hemingway, there is no reason in history.

The dialogue with Count Greffi is precisely not about progress. It rejects conventional political reasoning, refusing to assign certain norms of causation. We have already been reminded of what Mr. Britling thinks about the causes and cures of war; we are then invited to hear from a more authentic source:

“What do you think of the war really?” I asked.

“I think it is stupid.”

“Who will win it?”



“They are a younger nation.”

“Do younger nations always win wars?”

“They are apt to for a time.”

“Then what happens?”

“They become older nations.”


First, what is not mentioned: Wellsian secular ideology named the Hun, the ruling classes, capitalism, greed, and insufficient education as prime causes of the war. War was aberrant, and what Wells called “the programme of Socialism” was a plan for offsetting such causes by changing human institutions, even human nature, in order to change history. Frederic Henry dismisses that kind of discourse because it has little descriptive and no explanatory power. In Hemingway's novel, arguments are settled existentially, by shells and bullets and monumentally irrational decisions. His characters do not adjourn into the application of theory to event. They evade, avoid, become irrational and silent, and leave discourse to the morally and politically convinced. It is not admirable but real: war does that. We want especially to recall that this is a postwar book that shares an overwhelming argument against the praise of political morality.29 In any case, the attempt to please the “politically enlightened” is, Hemingway wrote, bound to fail since they invariably change theories, come to believe in “something else.”30

The Count Greffi dialogue rejects conventional causes and effects, and these are visibly absent. What it does mention is equally disturbing: the causes of this war are those of other wars that have come and are to come. They are cyclical, organic to history. Although anathema to Wells (as the idea might have been to Woodrow Wilson or possibly to conventional political reasoning itself), this view carries a certain historical weight. I do not mean to imply that it is particularly dialectical, although a certain amount of theory about Western decline has been absorbed; but from the viewpoint of 1939-45, it is prescient.

It had become prescient, actually, by 1929. By then, Hemingway knew that Wells's utopian future had become the dystopian past. Hemingway's historical attitude and that of his novel were formed by events after 1917: “the rise of fascism in Italy, the effects of runaway inflation in Germany, Mustapha Kemal and the evacuation of Constantinople and Thrace, Franco-German tension in the Ruhr.”31 Hemingway was enormously well-informed about political movements, especially in Italy and Germany. These were prime examples of “younger” nations, i.e., nations consciously making the analogy between youth and political energy. “Young” is by no means an innocent phrase in the twenties and thirties, if we recall the sinister connotations of Giovanezza and Jugend. By 1929, this kind of terminology connotes healthy barbarism that renders nugatory ordinary moral judgment. Early on in 1922, Hemingway had already written that the fascisti who can be seen everywhere singing the hymn “Giovanezza” are “young, tough, ardent, intensely patriotic, generally good looking with the youthful beauty of the southern races, and firmly convinced that they are in the right. They have an abundance of the valor and intolerance of youth.”32 When we hear Count Greffi, we hear what is essentially the history of the future.

There are many questions in A Farewell to Arms, but few imply determinant answers. Both questions and answers undermine certainty. The questions that I have identified are hostile not only to religion but also to the secular systems replacing it—sometimes sequentially. Clearly, the incipient fascism of Italy comes in for a thorough examination. It is completely brutal and mindless. Other kinds of systems are not exempt: Although Hemingway may well have been on the left in the thirties, I think that he resisted its determinism in the twenties.33A Farewell to Arms takes the view that the imposition of dogma upon experience invariably falsifies.

The passage I have cited, the dialogue with Count Greffi, has the disclaimer, “I don't know about the soul.” What can't be known can't be discussed—it is a restatement of the ending of Wittgenstein's Tractatus, which seems as useful for politics and literature as for metaphysics.

No one dances the Charleston in The Great Gatsby, but when the meaning of the twenties is shown on video, that is what the viewer gets. Our newspapers and magazines contain a surprising amount of reference to the twenties; it may be handy to invoke as a hallowed predecessor of ourselves. Novels, however, tend to resist generalities accounting for the way we are. Moreover, we need to resist the notion that life in the twenties was simply a kind of escape from Victorianism into materialism.

It was a complex decade whose fiction was faithful to its experience. Fitzgerald and Hemingway worked within an intellectual marketplace rich in the kind of conflict that has always been a central concern for writers. Their short fiction explores ideas taken up more fully in the novels, and I have tried to examine especially their language of inquiry. In the case of Hemingway, I have been especially concerned by the failure of explanation. His novels have a great many questions to ask, and it might reasonably be said that they are stated in the interrogative mode.

The characters of Fitzgerald and Hemingway will frequently—incessantly—ask each other questions that we know we have seen before, although not necessarily in literature. They might be called shadow questions: as stated they seem only to refer to issues in the dialogue, but they refer to large ideas beyond the dialogue. We are expected to understand the body of inference behind each statement, to read lines not as if each conveyed a finite amount of information, rather to read them for their implied connections. Questions that seem to be material and discrete—why does Jake betray himself and lose Montoya's trust? does Frederic Henry have a persuasive view of either the war or of human fate? are Tom and Daisy Buchanan simply heroically selfish?—resonate beyond the moment.

They refer themselves, I think, to the inadequacy of explanations in the life of moderns. Such questions about lives and meanings are to be read as part of the wave of philosophical inquiry about meanings that washed over the decade. The questions involve a good deal more than ethics (which are definitively unambiguous about things that demand ambiguity and because of that are unhelpful). The questions I have had in mind are about the meanings—if there are any—inhering in acts and ideas.

The twenties were disintegrative, and the search for adequate explanation was one of its great concerns, expressed over and over again by Dewey, Lippmann, Russell, Santayana, Whitehead, and Wittgenstein. All went over issues outlined by William James, and all provided for the intellectuals of the period a very difficult map to follow. The fiction of Hemingway especially is informed by such contemporary ideas. His novels are not tragic because unpleasant things happen but because (as in Whitehead's 1925 formulation) pain and suffering in a world of supposed order need to be understood, explained, and accepted. That proving impossible, Hemingway's work constitutes a view of life inexplicably endured, tragedy without tragic meaning.


  1. Kuntz, Alfred North Whitehead, 127.

  2. Alfred North Whitehead: An Anthology, ed. Northrop and Gross, 497.

  3. Josiah Royce, “Religious Questions,” in The Basic Writings of Josiah Royce, 2 vols., ed. John J. McDermott (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), 1:384.

  4. Alfred North Whitehead: An Anthology, 502.

  5. Ibid., 364, 379-80.

  6. Cited in Commager, The American Mind, 106. See the discussion of the decline of religion in America by Fry and Jessup, “Changes in Religious Organizations,” 2:1019.

  7. Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire (Vintage: New York, 1989), 269.

  8. Berlin, Against the Current, 115.

  9. Ibid., 116.

  10. All citations are to The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway (New York: Scribner, 1995). Questions of two kinds structure this story. There are determinate questions, like those Nick asks his father: “can't you give her something to make her stop screaming?” (92). These kinds of questions have real answers, so the illusion is created that circumstances (including those of life itself) are explicable. But the indeterminate questions—“Why did he kill himself. … Do many men kill themselves. … Do many women. … Don't they ever?” (95)—have no specific answers. Nick's father has situational difficulties addressing these questions because of the limits of his life, his experience, and his knowledge. But the problem of answering such questions transcends these limits: the issue is not that he cannot find answers but that reason and faith between them cannot find answers.

  11. Ryan, John Dewey and the High Tide, 127.

  12. All citations are to A Farewell to Arms (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1957).

  13. Bertrand Russell, Our Knowledge of the External World (New York: W. W. Norton, 1929), 4. However, Russell's famous essay, “Why I am not a Christian” (1927) stated the naive belief that life's injustice could be fully solved and “universal happiness” attained. See this essay and “What I Believe” (1925) in Why I Am Not a Christian (New York: Touchstone, 1957).

  14. William James, “Pragmatism,” in William James: Writings, 1902-1910, 591.

  15. Dewey, “Search for the Great Community,” 2:341.

  16. Russell, My Philosophical Development, 13-14. Russell has a relevant passage on the economy of prose: “I began to be puzzled about sentences when I was writing The Principles of Mathematics, and it was at that time particularly the function of verbs that interested me. What struck me as important then was that the verb confers unity upon the sentence” (ibid., 148-50).

  17. See Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 8.

  18. Perloff, Wittgenstein's Ladder, 12.

  19. Cited in ibid., 63; this brief passage, “one can only describe …,” is from Wittgenstein's Philosophical Occasions, 1912-1951.

  20. These citations from Ludwig Wittgenstein's Lecture on Ethics are from Janik and Toulmin, Wittgenstein's Vienna, 194-95, 243.

  21. Michael S. Reynolds, Hemingway's First War: The Making of A Farewell to Arms. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), 250.

  22. Michael Coren, The Invisible Man: The Life and Liberties of H. G. Wells (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 1993), 142.

  23. According to Geoffrey Perrett in America in the Twenties (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982), 51, Rose Pastor Stokes, a feminist and Socialist, received a ten-year sentence in 1918 for writing in the Kansas City Star, “I am for the people and the government is for the profiteers.” President Wilson tried to jail the editor for running her piece.

  24. See the account of death and ideology in Ernest Hemingway, “Wings Always over Africa: An Ornithological Letter,” in By-Line: Ernest Hemingway, 229-30, originally published in Esquire, January 1936: “The principal expression that one recalls as hearing from the lips, mouths, or throats of wounded Italians was the words, ‘Mamma mia! Oh mamma mia!’ The lightly wounded are more apt to say, “Duce! I salute you Duce! I am happy to die for you, Oh Duce!” But when a soldier is badly wounded and says, “Oh Mamma mia … the Duce will be far from his thoughts.”

  25. Cited in Coren, The Invisible Man, 141.

  26. Cited in David C. Smith, H. G. Wells: Desperately Mortal (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), 222.

  27. Ernest Hemingway, “Old Newsman Writes: A Letter from Cuba,” in By-Line: Ernest Hemingway, 184, originally published in Esquire, December 1934.

  28. David C. Smith, H. G. Wells: Desperately Mortal, 223; ibid., 223-24.

  29. Pre-war writing deserves attention as well: see Niall Ferguson's essay on literature and war, “The Mythos of Militarism,” in The Pity of War (New York: Basic Books, 1999), 1-30.

  30. Ernest Hemingway, “Old Newsman Writes: A Letter from Cuba” in By-Line: Ernest Hemingway, 184.

  31. Kenneth Kinnamon, “Hemingway and Politics,” in The Cambridge Companion to Ernest Hemingway, ed. Scott Donaldson (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 150.

  32. Ernest Hemingway, “Genoa Conference,” in By-Line: Ernest Hemingway, 28, originally published in the Toronto Daily Star, April 13, 1922.

  33. See Kinnamon, “Hemingway and Politics,” 157-59.

Select Bibliography

Berlin, Isaiah. Against the Current. New York: Viking, 1980.

Commager, Henry Steele. The American Mind: An Interpretation of American Thought and Character Since the 1880's New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950.

Dewey, John. The Later Works, 1925-1953. Edited by Jo Ann Boydston. Vol. 1 (1925) and vol. 2 (1925 1927). Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1981, 1984.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli. 1925. Reprint. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Fry, C. Luther, and Mary Frost Jessup. “Changes in Religious Organizations.” In Recent Social Trends in the United States. The Report of the President's Research Committee on Social Trends. 2 vols. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1933.

Hemingway, Ernest. By-Line: Ernest Hemingway. New York: Touchstone, 1998.

———. Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters, 1917-1961. Edited by Carlos Baker. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1981.

———. Ernest Hemingway: The Short Stories. New York: Scribner, 1995.

———. A Farewell to Arms. 1929. Reprint. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1957.

———. The Only Thing that Counts: The Ernest Hemingway/Maxwell Perkins Correspondence, 1925-1947. Edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996.

———. The Sun Also Rises. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1970.

Herberg, Will. Protestant-Catholic-Jew. Garden City: Doubleday, 1955.

James, William. Essays in Psychology. Edited by Frederick H. Burkhardt. Cambridge, Mass.: 1983.

———. The Principles of Psychology. Edited by Frederick H. Burkhardt. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981.

———. William James: Writings, 1902-1910. Edited by Bruce Kuklick. New York: Library of America, 1987.

———. The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy. Edited by Frederick H. Burkhardt. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979.

Janik, Allan, and Stephen Toulmin, Wittgenstein's Vienna Chicago: I. R. Dee, 1996.

Kuntz, Paul Grimley.Alfred North Whitehead Boston: Twayne, 1984.

Lippmann, Walter. Drift and Mastery: An Attempt To Diagnose The Current Unrest. New York: Mitchell Kennerly, 1914.

Perloff, Marjorie. Wittgenstein's Ladder. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Reynolds, Michael. Hemingway: The Paris Years. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989.

———. Hemingway's First War. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987.

———. Hemingway's Reading, 1910-1940: An Inventory. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981.

———. “The Sun Also Rises”: A Novel of the Twenties. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1988.

Royce, Josiah. The Basic Writings of Josiah Royce. Edited by John J. McDermott. 2 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969.

Russell, Bertrand. My Philosophical Development. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1959.

Ryan, Alan. John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997.

Wells, H. G. The Outline of History. 1920. Revised. New York: MacMillan, 1921.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Alfred North Whitehead: An Anthology, ed. F. S. C. Northrop and Mason W. Gross. New York: MacMillan, 1953.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Culture and Value. Edited by G. H. Von Wright. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

———. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Mineola: Dover, 1999.

Edward Whitley (essay date 2002)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6743

SOURCE: Whitley, Edward. “Race and Modernity in Theodore Roosevelt's and Ernest Hemingway's African Travel Writing.” In Issues in Travel Writing: Empire, Spectacle, and Displacement, edited by Kristi Siegel, pp. 13-29. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 2002.

[In the following essay, Whitley suggests that Hemingway's depiction of Africa and Africans in The Green Hills of Africa was informed by the travel writing of the adventurer Theodore Roosevelt, who promulgated the legend of the great white hunter in Africa.]

Coming on the heels of Theodore Roosevelt's return from his 1909 East African hunting safari, the Pittsburgh Gazette-Times ran an editorial cartoon showing how both the people and animals of Africa had been forever changed by their encounter with the former president. Lions, snakes, birds, tigers, monkeys, and Africans in caricature all wear wire-rim glasses and big, toothy, Rooseveltian grins. “Gone, but not forgotten,” reads the caption, while a bow-tied raccoon in the lower corner—spokesman for Gazette-Times cartoonist “Ole May”—says respectfully of T. R.'s influence, “Some men always leave their impress” (Gros 307). The impression this American cartoonist depicts Roosevelt as leaving on Africa is nothing compared to the impression Africa made on American readers in African Game Trails, Roosevelt's two-volume travel/hunting narrative depicting an exotic Africa full of primitive people and animals. By reading African Game Trails, Americans saw more than T. R.'s famous grin in the faces of Africa's prehistoric people and animals; they saw the negative reflection of their own modernity, a reflection that formed a stunning chiaroscuro of perceived black primitivism and white so-called modernity, color-coded in the racialized language of early twentieth-century America. As Roosevelt writes primitivism onto Africa in African Game Trails, he impresses on Americans the notion that if Africa is to come out of the past and into the modern world, it will be through the intervention of whites. This racialized and temporalized image of Africa aligns itself well with the imperial expectations of a self-defined “modern” nation eager not only to justify claims in Africa, but also to find a rationale for further expansion across the globe.

African Game Trails by Theodore Roosevelt was released in 1909 to huge commercial success. It was so popular among adult readers that it went through several editions and was quickly adapted by Marsall Everett into a juvenile picture-book, Roosevelt's Thrilling Experiences in the Wilds of Africa. While immensely popular, neither Roosevelt's African Game Trails nor the juvenile adaptation was anything new to the American reading public. That very lack of originality is probably what made the books so popular, however. Both texts fit into the well-established genre that Richard Phillips calls “adventure stories,” defined as “the narratives of explorers, surveyors, geographers, [hunters] and other storytellers who describe journeys ‘into the unknown’” (1). The popularity of Roosevelt's narrative was not out of the ordinary. Phillips says, “Adventure was perhaps the most popular literature … of the modern period. … [A]dventures were printed in large quantities and read by mass audiences … around the world” (10, 46). The “plots and characters” of these adventure stories—both fictional and nonfictional—were “so formulaic and familiar” that audiences demanded conformity, not creativity, in the tales (46). Roosevelt's book, true to its genre, plods through a predictable narrative strain of hunting, avoiding danger, succeeding under great odds, and so on. The publisher's preface to the juvenile adaptation reads,

[In this book you will read of] the thrilling incidents and narrow escapes [Roosevelt] passes through, the tropical natural scenery in which he dwells, the many unknown and strange quadrupeds, bipeds and quadrumana he meets, the fabulous wealth of the African fauna and flora, which baffles the eyes, and you will see enacted before your wondering and admiring eyes a drama so unique, so exceptional and so extraordinary as to surpass anything you have either seen or heard of before.

(Everett 33)

Despite claims to uniqueness (“drama so unique … as to surpass anything you have either seen or heard of before”), the Roosevelt texts were very much like other adventure stories of the day. In fact, it would be no stretch of the imagination to assume that J. H. Moss, the publishing company, used this as the preface to all of its adventure stories, modifying only the name of the particular hero to fit the particular text. Underneath this veneer of conformity in adventure stories, however, is a subtext that, Phillips tells us, was “motivated by a clear political agenda: broadly speaking, imperialism” (12). Indeed, the imperial rhetoric in Roosevelt's narratives can hardly even be called subtextual. The publisher's preface to the adolescent adaptation of Roosevelt's narrative begins by telling young boys that they should learn from the ex-president all the manly virtues embodied by hunting, and then goes on to say,

But our book will not only serve as an entertainment on leisure hours or an instruction for the young. … Might it not even be possible, Mr. Businessman, that you will discover in these fascinating pages new fields for your enterprising mind, new fields for American trade and industry? The old world is soon covered by competing concerns. … But Africa's virgin soil and barbarian population will for decades and perhaps centuries to come be in need of our products and our commerce.

(Everett 34)

This open invitation to the “Mr. Businessman” of early twentieth-century America to make Africa an easy commodity for consumption establishes both Roosevelt texts as stories of American imperialism. As stories of imperialism, Roosevelt's texts, like most travel writing, “affirm a particular vision of reality for a community of readers” (Kaplan 42). As Phillips says, “the world of adventure” is a space for readers to “find their world views reaffirmed in its bold images and uncomplicated terms” (89). The “particular vision of reality” found in “the world of adventure”—that America was an imperial power in Africa—fed the imagination of millions of Americans.

One particular American imagination that these Roosevelt narratives fed was that of a young Midwesterner named Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway, biographer John Raeburn tells us, was so taken with Roosevelt's tales of imperial adventure that he “modeled himself on the hero of San Juan Hill” (3). From the day Hemingway, as a young boy, met Roosevelt—“who greeted [him] with a hearty handclasp and a high squeaky voice” (3)—to the day in 1933 when he arrived in Kenya for his own African safari, recorded in his 1935 Green Hills of Africa, he longed to be like the great T. R. Raeburn writes of Hemingway's success in becoming his boyhood hero:

Both men had tremendous energy, personal magnetism, boastful self-confidence and a boyish joy in ordinary experience. Both advocated the strenuous life, and placed great emphasis on bodily fitness and physical strength. Both were pugnacious and belligerent, and became experienced boxers. Both were keen naturalists who hunted big game in the American West and in East Africa. Both were men of letters who became men of action, and heroes who generated considerable publicity.


As public heroes, what Hemingway and Roosevelt most had in common was that both believed the myths the public constructed around them. Raeburn continues, “If Mark Twain was the Lincoln of American literature, … then Hemingway was the Theodore Roosevelt … [People] loved them more for the legend of their lives than for their objective achievements” (11). Indeed, in one of his few poetic endeavors, Hemingway wrote a homage to Roosevelt in which he praised that “all the legends that he started in his life / Live on and prosper, / Unhampered now by his existence” (Three Stories and Ten Poems 52). One of the Rooseveltian legends that loomed largest in Hemingway's mind, both as a boy and as a man, was the image of Roosevelt as the great white hunter in Africa. Biographer Michael Reynolds concurs that “[it was] Theodore Roosevelt's epic 1909 safari, which young Hemingway followed in magazines, and in Oak Park watched the jerky moving pictures of the Colonel's expedition on the silent screen [which] more than any[thing] else … was responsible for opening East Africa to Hemingway's imagination” (Hemingway: The 1930s 156).

It was Roosevelt and the legend of the great white hunter in Africa that he had come to represent that ultimately led Hemingway to Africa from 1933 to 1934, the scene for his nonfiction novel, Green Hills of Africa. While Hemingway had ostensibly set out to write Green Hills of Africa as a new kind of nonfiction novel—“an absolutely true book to see whether the shape of a country and the pattern of a month's action can, if truly presented, compete with a work of the imagination,” as he states in the foreword of the book—his influences for writing about Africa were firmly set in the genre of the adventure story. Despite his desire to capture “the shape of a country,” Hemingway did not actually write Green Hills while in Africa; he wrote it after the trip while living in Key West (Meyers 264). What informed his writing about Africa, then, was not the continent itself, but the pages and pages he read from adventure narratives about Africa while in America. During his stay in Key West, Hemingway compiled a list of all the books in his personal library. The list is very telling in the large number of books—forty-one, to be precise—devoted to hunting and adventure in Africa. His list includes such titles as African Adventures, Hunters' Wanderings in Africa, African Hunting, African Hunter, In Wildest Africa (two volumes), Game Ranger on Safari (written by Philip Percival, the British hunting guide who accompanied first Roosevelt, then Hemingway in Africa), Big Game Hunting and Adventure, In Brightest Africa, The Man-Eaters of Tsavo, Savage Sudan, and, of course, Theodore Roosevelt's African Game Trails (Reynolds, Hemingway's Reading 46-70). Only twenty-one of these African books from the Key West catalogue were recent purchases (bought in Paris after the trip to Africa [27]); the other twenty had been in Hemingway's possession for who knows how long—since boyhood, perhaps?

Apart from the Key West list, Reynolds, the compiler of an awesome list of what Hemingway probably read between 1910 and 1940, records that Hemingway had at least an additional twenty books about Africa at his disposal (Hemingway's Reading 205). A grand total of sixty books on Africa, fully three times as many books as he had on Italy (208), and an almost equal number of the books he had on bullfighting (206). Reynolds comments on Hemingway's reading of the Africa books: “Hemingway read the books, including, I'm sure, Theodore Roosevelt's African adventures. Look at the pictures: Ernest with his Teddy mustache posed next to the trophies. His guide is Percival, the hunter who had led Roosevelt on to the Serengeti Plain thirty years earlier. Hardly a coincidence” (27). The “hardly coincidental” thread connecting Roosevelt and Hemingway's travel/hunting writing that I would like to tug on is the image of a temporally primitive and racialized Africa that offers itself up for American consumption. The continuation of this image through the writing of two such prominent Americans—both of them Nobel Prize winners whose exploits fascinated the American public—suggests more than just a similarity in style and personality. It suggests a larger national consciousness, articulated through the boldness of a Roosevelt and the brashness of a Hemingway.

In order to depict Africa as temporally primitive, Roosevelt and Hemingway first must have a sense of themselves as temporally modern. To have a sense of oneself as “modern” implies that identity is not defined with regards to physical characteristic, but to a perceived sense of time. Matei Calinescu says, “The idea of modernity could be conceived only within a framework of a specific time awareness, namely, that of historical time, linear and irreversible, flowing irresistibly onwards” (13). To be modern is to imagine oneself within what Johannes Fabian calls “a scheme in terms of which not only past cultures, but all living societies were irrevocably placed on a temporal slope, a stream of Time—some upstream, others downstream” (17). To be modern is to imagine the world in terms of linear history with “modern” people at the most recent point and “primitive” people faltering far behind. Building upon Enlightenment theories of modernity and progress as far back as Rousseau—who, incidentally, defined human perfectibility in terms of the progress one had made from “a primitive state” (Montag 290)—Roosevelt and Hemingway define themselves as “modern,” and, as such, view themselves as having traversed further along the scale of history than the Africans they encounter.

Within this context of modern temporality, then, Roosevelt and Hemingway do not experience Africa as a place but as a time, a tendency common among modern travelers, who, Caren Kaplan says, “look for an escape from modernity” (78). Because modernity, as I am using the term here, is a sense of being at the forefront of, and saturated with, time, in order for Roosevelt and Hemingway to “escape from modernity,” they have to make the earth an ontological clock with America at the forefront of time and Africa in the distant past. Africa, then, becomes not a place on the map, but a moment in time—a moment in the static, primitive past to which these modern men can travel and write about for a modern audience at home. The travel to foreign places in modern adventure stories is not an experience with geographic spaces, but with moments in premodern history. Kaplan writes, “When the past is displaced, often to another location, the modern subject must travel to it … a ‘place on a map’ can be seen to be a ‘place in history’” (35, 25). Fabian concurs, writing that, “Travel itself … is instituted as a temporalizing practice” and through this temporalizing practice, “the philosophical traveler, sailing to the ends of the earth, is in fact traveling in time; he is exploring the past; every step he makes is the passage of an age” (7). Roosevelt himself says in African Game Trails, that riding through Africa is “like retracing the steps of time” (66). At one moment in the book, when Roosevelt and fellow hunting companion, son Kermit, come across a rhinoceros, they marvel at how such a “prehistoric” creature could exist in the modern world they inhabit. Roosevelt points out the animal to his son as he sees it “deep in prehistoric thought” (214). The temporarily displaced rhinoceros, for Roosevelt, stands as “the survival from the elder world that has vanished: … he would have been out of place in the miocene; but nowadays he can only exist at all in regions that have lagged behind” (214).

From the outset of African Game Trails, Roosevelt's description of Africa—the “region that [has] lagged behind”—is in decidedly temporal terms. The name of the opening chapter of the narrative, “A Railroad through the Pleistocene,” shows Roosevelt's vision of Africa as a space better described by its relationship to history than to geography. He says in the opening paragraph that Africa is a “phase of the world's life history,” not a place on a map (1). He then goes on to say that the manner in which a place in history can become a space of modernity, without having to wade through “centuries of slow development” (1), is through the intervention of whites, the first hint he gives of temporality providing a way for Africa to become a commodity for American imperialism: “Again and again, in the continents new to peoples of European stock, we have seen … high civilization all at once thrust into and superimposed upon a wilderness of savage men and savage beasts” (1).

The continent of “savage men and savage beasts” to which Roosevelt refers in the opening paragraph of his narrative is not a place on a geographic map, but a “phase of the world's life history.” Africa, for Roosevelt, will remain a moment in time, not a place on a map, until “peoples of European stock”—not necessarily Europeans themselves, he makes sure to clarify, but “peoples of European stock,” allowing for the imperial intervention of white Americans—make it a place by “thrusting civilization” onto it. It takes a “person of European stock,” invested with modernity, to create a “high civilization” of a moment in the world's life history. The image of the railroad as an authenticating force for whites in Africa, then, is startling. Roosevelt says, “This railroad [is] the embodiment of the eager, masterful … civilization of today” (3). As such, the railroad cuts through time, not geographic space. It is “A Railroad through the Pleistocene,” not “A Railroad through Africa.” Right from the outset Roosevelt temporally codes Africa and then provides the means by which primitive Africa can become modern—namely, through white intervention. The railroad, emblematic of whiteness and modernity, injects history into timeless Africa.

In the narratives of both Roosevelt and Hemingway, whiteness and modernity are inseparably connected. This is nothing new in American discourse; as Toni Morrison asserts, white American writers have consistently used temporally coded figures of blackness to establish their identity as (white) Americans. She says that Americans use temporally coded figures of blackness as “the vehicle by which the American self knows itself as … not history-less, but historical; … not a blind accident of evolution, but a progressive fulfillment of destiny” (52). A sense of being “white” in America is intimately tied to notions of progress and history. Because, as Morrison argues, whiteness is inextricable from a presence of blackness, whiteness-as-modern can only arise within the context of blackness-as-primitive. As “an Africanist idiom is used to establish difference or … signal modernity,” she writes, images of blackness “are appropriated for the associative value they lend to modernism” (52). Thomas G. Dyer, in a comprehensive study of Roosevelt's ideas on race, found a fascinating link in Roosevelt's thought between the notion of modern progress and race, similar to what Morrison says about whiteness equating modernity and blackness equating primitivism. Roosevelt, a Lamarckian, followed the belief that evolution was the result of one generation acquiring the characteristics which would make their species more likely to survive—French evolutionist Jean Lamarck's classic example is that of the giraffes who passed on the trait of long necks to their posterity by earning those necks through the hard labor of stretching towards edible leaves. Roosevelt believed that only those “races” or “species” (terms ambiguously related for Roosevelt and other nineteenth-century race thinkers) which put forth the requisite effort would progress. Dyer writes, “Roosevelt took the general stand that evolution did not necessarily ensure steady progress … he adhered to the belief that progress was not foreordained and found it a ‘rather irritating delusion’ that ‘somehow or other we are all necessarily going to move forward in the long run.’ He admitted, however, a ‘very firm faith in this general forward movement, considering only men of our own race’” (33). Whereas Roosevelt doubts the universal progression of the entire human species, he is quite positive that whites (“men of our own race”) are progressing. In the temporally bankrupt land of Africa, that progression is through time as well as space.

Whiteness and modernity, linked in Roosevelt's narrative, move the former president to say that not only is Africa a phase in the “world's life history,” but that it is a phase in white racial history. Roosevelt says that Africa is “a region in which nature, both as regards wild man and wild beast, did not and does not differ materially from what it was in Europe in the late Pleistocene” and that the savagery of both the African animals and peoples “reproduces the conditions of life in Europe as it was led by our ancestors ages before the dawn of anything that could be called civilization. … African man, absolutely naked, and armed as our early ancestors were armed, lives … [as the prehistoric European] men to whom the cave lion was a nightmare of terror” (3). In several instances Roosevelt invokes the notion that Africans live as Europeans did centuries ago as a way to both differentiate himself (and his audience) from the primitive Africans and to be similar to them. James Clifford, paraphrasing Fabian, says, “there has been a pervasive tendency to prefigure others in a temporally distinct, but locatable, space (earlier) within an assumed progress of Western history” (101-2). In passing, Roosevelt says of a tribe of Africans he encounters, “they were living just as paleolithic man lived in Europe, ages ago” (442). When he encounters a group of Africans whom he describes as living in constant terror of being eaten by the wild animals which roam the plains, Roosevelt reflects on the relative safety of the modern world and the “intensity of terror felt by his ancestors” who, ages ago, experienced a similar time: “It is only in nightmares that the average dweller in civilized countries now undergoes the hideous horror which was the regular and frequent portion of his ages-vanished forefathers, and which is still an everyday incident in the lives of most wild creatures [and in Roosevelt's this would include Africans themselves]” (244-45). In this passage, Roosevelt makes the rhetorical double move of identifying himself with Africans who represent his past (“terror felt by his ancestors,” “hideous horror … of his ages-vanished forefathers”) while rushing to say that he is completely different from them (what is a “regular and frequent” occurrence in their lives could only possibly be a “nightmare” for him). Roosevelt's need to explain how whites and Africans are different, even though they share a similar temporal origin, is significant. It validates and reinforces his position at the forefront of human progress while at the same time claiming a historical right to own Africa. Nevertheless, he concedes, “The savage of today shows us what the … [age] of our ancestors was really like … [they are] the existing representatives of [our] ‘vigorous, primitive’ ancestors” (246). Roosevelt succeeds in highlighting his modernity while staking a claim to possessing the continent given his historical link to it. The common temporal origin of whites and Africans is balanced out by the racial differences, thus making temporality a rationale for claiming ownership of the African land and race a rationale for distancing oneself from African people.

Depicting Africa as a moment in the white racial past allows Roosevelt to create an image of Africa as primed for American consumption. This move to consume an exotic culture within a temporal and racial framework is part of what Kaplan calls “the conquering spirit of modernity” (35). Caren Kaplan writes, “Within the structure of imperialist nostalgia, then, the Euro-American past is most clearly perceived or narrativized as another country or culture” (34). Roosevelt is able to take possession of Africa after “narrativizing” it as part of his racial past. He deduces that by virtue of his modernity, which makes him possessor of the history of the world, he must also possess those global spaces stuck somewhere in the time that his race has already experienced. In other words, since he owns “primitive” time by virtue of having already experienced it in his racial past, he also owns the physical space on the globe that he defines as “primitive.” The capstone moment in this opening chapter is when Roosevelt says, “This region, this great fragment of the long-buried past of our race, is now accessible by railroad to all who care to go thither” (3-4). Here Roosevelt uses his sense of himself as white and modern to open the door for the American consumption of Africa. First, the African space is turned into a time: “This region” becomes a “fragment of the long buried past.” Second, that moment in time becomes a moment in white racial history: “the long buried past of our race.” Third, once it is established that the time which Africa represents belongs to white racial history, physical possession of Africa soon follows: “[Africa] is now accessible by railroad to all who care to go thither.” As the nineteenth century's preeminent metaphor for progress, the railroad possesses Africa for white America.

This racialized and temporalized image of Africans which Roosevelt presented to Americans was by no means new or original. What he did in African Game Trails was put his stamp of approval on it and preserve it for a future generation of readers. Hemingway, as part of that generation, continues to talk about Africa in terms of race and temporality where fellow Noble Prize winner Roosevelt leaves off. Despite their differing attitudes toward Africa, these two men use a surprisingly similar rhetoric. Whereas Roosevelt is overtly imperialistic, calling for the settlement of Africa as a “white man's country” and encouraging American businessmen to take advantage of African resources, Hemingway is less so. His desire is that Africa remain settled enough so that there would be somewhere he could stay when he came to hunt, but not so much so that all the good hunting grounds vanish. Hemingway's concern is more literary, to “see whether the shape of a country and the pattern of a month's action can, if truly presented, compete with a work of the imagination.” Though Hemingway is not overtly imperialistic, the genre he writes in is shot through with the traces of American imperialism. As Richard Phillips tells us, “some adventure writers and stories were directly and explicitly imperial, others indirectly and implicitly [imperial,]” and traces of imperial discourse are always present (68). Whereas Hemingway at moments expresses disgust at the fruits of African colonization, David Spurr locates in the language of Green Hills of Africa a longing to go back to the security of Rooseveltian, or even pre-Rooseveltian, imperial certainty: “There may be, for a man of Hemingway's sensibility, arriving late on the colonial scene, a nostalgia for the moral certainty of a Stanley” (24).

Roosevelt's picture of Africa as a primitive state is the language of imperial certainty permeating Hemingway's Green Hills of Africa. We see this, for example, when Hemingway, similar to Roosevelt, describes a rhinoceros as “prehistoric looking” (79), suggesting that the continent and its animals belong to another era in the world's history. In another instance, he notices “tracks graded down through the pleasant forest” and suggests that these are the tracks of woolly mammoths, a species which has been extinct for ages (250). It is possible to imagine, he seems to imply, that such ancient animals still exist in this primitive country. He then compares primitive Africa to modern America: “[W]e had the mammoths too, a long time ago … It was just that we were an older country” (250). America, a modern country saturated with history, differs from primitive Africa, which is still roamed by prehistoric (extinct) animals. Hemingway, like Roosevelt, articulates Africa as a temporal moment in white racial history. The entire quote, in context, is as follows:

I was thinking all the country in the world is the same country and all hunters are the same people. … Looking at the way the tracks graded down through the pleasant forest I thought that we had the mammoths too, a long time ago, and when they traveled through the hills in southern Illinois they made these same tracks. It was just that we were an older country in America and the biggest game was gone.


In this passage, Hemingway marks the sameness between Africa and America as continents, and the sameness between African and white American hunters. He then goes on to mark the difference between the two in terms of temporality. Africa and America may be the same (“all the country in the world is the same country”), but America is more saturated with time than Africa (“we were an older country in America”). America, an “older country,” no longer has the primitive animals (i.e., “mammoths”) of Africa. America is historical and progressive (the “biggest game was gone” possibly, though he doesn't say why specifically, because of the industrialization and progress which has taken place in modern America), but Africa is ahistorical and primitive, a place devoid of temporal substance. Fabian calls this move the tendency to “assign to the conquered populations a different Time” (30). In Hemingway's insistence that America is “an older country” than Africa he is not saying that America has been on the earth longer nor has it been inhabited by people longer than Africa has. What he insists on is that while Africa has remained primitive in the possession of Africans, America has aged in the possession of temporally saturated whites. From this perspective, then, America, as an older country, and Americans, as a people who possess history, have the right to own the past that is Africa.

Working within the modern framework where places on the globe become moments in time, the question arises, whose experience with time is made the reference point for the march of history? Who, in other words, really experiences time? Who carries with them, as an essence, almost, the experience of time? Kaplan answers this by arguing that “the tourist [or travel writer who can tell stories about the world from the vantage point of having been there] becomes the key to social structure in the modern era” (5). Hemingway marks the difference between African primitivism and modern white temporality through a bodily experience of time. On several occasions, he remarks that the continent is without history until he, a modern white man saturated with history, physically experiences it. Hemingway's modernity, then, his saturation with history, validates Africa as a geographic space. Hemingway, in viewing history and memory as essential to himself, comes to see history as an essence he carries in his body. The Africans who live there, however, do not experience time, so the ahistorical continent does not change in their presence. He writes in Green Hills, “A continent ages quickly when we come” (284), suggesting that the African country shapes itself in the presence of a modernized person just as nature shapes itself around Wallace Steven's jar. Hemingway's body, just like Roosevelt's railroad, paves the way for making Africa more than just a timeless matrix of human primitiveness.

Hemingway and his hunting party come across a “white rest house and a general store” in the little African village of Kibaya where “Dan [a friend of Hemingway's who had been in Africa years earlier] had sat on a haystack one time waiting for a kudu to feed out into the edge of a patch of mealy-corn and a lion had stalked Dan while he sat and nearly gotten him” (159). While sitting in this spot in Africa where their white friend had earlier had a hunting experience, Hemingway remarks, “this gave us a strong historical feeling for the village of Kibaya” (159). Nowhere else in the narrative does Hemingway remark on having a “historical feeling” for Africa because nowhere else (to his knowledge) had whites validated African space with their temporal presence. However, once Hemingway experiences a place in Africa which a white person has injected with temporality, he becomes “full of historical admiration” for the place (159). As soon as Hemingway leaves this temporally validated place, however, the rest of the continent reverts to blankness. In the following paragraph, right after they leave the village of Kibaya, he describes the country in less flattering terms: “[We headed out through] a million miles of bloody Africa, brush close to the road that was impenetrable, solid, scrubby-looking undergrowth” (160). Hemingway sees that part of Africa which has not been injected with history at the hand of whites, what he calls in the next paragraph “the million-mile country,” as an endless, ahistorical spot of land which looks the same for millions of miles and has been the same for millions of years.

For Hemingway, African bodies contrast with his own temporally saturated body in that they experience time in an animal-like fashion, understanding only the immediate world around them. Hemingway says of his guide M'Cola, “I believe his working estimations were only from day to day and required an unbroken series of events to have any meaning” (44). In another instance he says, “M'Cola was an old man asleep, without history and without mystery” (73). The depiction of M'Cola as a man in perpetual slumber resonates with the rhetoric of race and temporality. His sleepy state, for Hemingway, becomes a timeless state—he is “without history”—and his lack of temporality becomes ontological, when Hemingway defines the African as “without mystery,” without thoughts, without secrets, without being. The African body's lack of any internal sense of history, for Hemingway, defines African primitivism and reinforces white modernity. As Spurr says, “The body, rather than speech, law, or history, is the essential defining characteristic of primitive peoples. They live, according to this view, in their bodies and in natural space, but not in a body politic worthy of the name nor in meaningful historical time” (22). Even though the African country itself might resemble modern countries, as Hemingway remarks on certain occasions, it is the lack of history in the bodies of African people which makes the country primitive. He writes on one occasion, “The country was so much like Aragon that I could not believe that we were not in Spain until, instead of mules with saddle bags, we met a dozen natives bare-legged and bare-headed dressed in white cotton cloth they wore gathered over the shoulder like a toga; but when they were past, the high trees beside the track over those rocks was Spain” (146). Just as the white body possesses history such that “a continent ages quickly when we arrive,” so does the African body's lack of history revert the African space to a primitive time. Without Africans on it, the land begins to modernize, to look like modern Europe to white eyes (“The country was so much like Aragon that I could not believe that we were not in Spain”). When Africans come onto the scene, though, the continent reverts back to its primitive state (“until … we met a dozen natives”). When the African bodies leave, Hemingway reports that the continent modernizes (“but when they were past, the high trees beside the track over those rocks was Spain”). Note also that it is the bareness of the African body which most signals primitivism: “[W]e met a dozen natives bare-legged and bare-headed.” The African body, with nakedness as the telltale sign of primitivism, is so void of history that it has the power to extract modernity (Spain-the-place articulated as Spain-the-moment-in-modern-times from the landscape.

Roosevelt also remarks on the Africans' nakedness as an indicator of their primitive state. He writes, “They are in most ways primitive savages, with an imperfect and feeble social, and therefore military organization” (as compared to the thriving military of turn-of-the-century America); “they live in small communities under their local chiefs” (as compared to the huge metropolises of America and Europe); “they file their teeth, and though they wear blankets in the neighborhood of the whites, these blankets are often cast aside; even when the blanket is worn, it is often in such fashion as merely to accentuate the otherwise absolute nakedness of both sexes” (in the manner of animals with sharp teeth and no need for clothing) (44). Despite the “primitive” economic and social order of the Africans, it is their “absolute nakedness” which reifies their primitivism. He writes that the Kikuyu were “real savages, naked save for a dingy blanket. … [When it rained] they had to be driven to make bough shelters for themselves. Once these shelters were up, and a little fire kindled at the entrance of each, the moping, spiritless wretches would speedily become transformed into beings who had lost all remembrance of ever having been wet or cold” (330). What first defines the Kikuyu as primitive “savages” is their nakedness, but what supports that claim to primitivism is their inability to experience time (at one moment they are cold and wet, at the next, they lose “all remembrance of even having been wet or cold”). In one very telling moment in African Game Trails, Roosevelt's description of the nakedness of a group of Africans betrays his belief that nudity equals primitive savagery. He says that the Kavirondo people, “both men and women, as a rule go absolutely naked, although they are peaceable and industrious” (451). Roosevelt's “although” signals his belief that naked bodies are inherently primitive and that those Africans who walk around naked and are also “peaceable and industrious” are the exception to the rule.

Temporality and a bodily sense of history are defined by the naked baring of African skin, but more than anything else it is the color of that naked skin which signals primitivism as primitive temporality is color-coded as black. At one point in African Game Trails, Roosevelt encounters what he describes as the remnants of an “advanced” tribe of Africans, but he quickly covers their “progressive” attributes by hinting that the blackness of the continent itself dragged them back to a primitive state. He opines that this tribe must have been “in some respects more advanced than the savage tribes who now dwell in the land. … Barbarians they doubtless were; but they have been engulfed in the black oblivion of a lower barbarism” (429). The continent itself, marked as “black,” is so primitive that it can destroy any possible attempts at progress; it can literally engulf progress into a “black oblivion.” This depiction of Africa not only reinforces that the continent is a space of primitive time, but also that “blackness” is a color-coded shorthand for a primitive temporality. The primitive oblivion that this progressive race vanished into is a “black oblivion.” Blackness and temporality, Roosevelt indicates, are always interrelated. Marshall Everett, the author of the juvenile adaptation of Roosevelt's African Game Trails, writes in his preface to Roosevelt's Thrilling Experiences in the Wilds of Africa a startling depiction of the African indigenes which also links temporality with skin color:

[This book] introduces you to the primitive inhabitants of this mysterious continent, the brown and black savages, to whom civilization is a question mark and culture is as little known as snow in August. It makes you acquainted with the strange habits, superstitious rites and religious ceremonies of these darkened cousins of the apes and monkeys, whose only right to bear the human name seems to be their poor and infantile jabbering.

(Everett 36)

The Africans are “primitive,” their continent “mysterious,” their relationship with civilization “questionable,” and their progressive distance from (white) humans so distant that they are best grouped with animals. African nakedness is not so much a sign of primitivism here as is African blackness (“brown and black savages”; “darkened cousins of the apes”). The most disturbing thing about race and temporality in the adaptation of Roosevelt's narrative is that the book was aimed at children. So profound was the impress that Roosevelt's image of Africa left on America that it not only affected Hemingway, one of the major authors of the twentieth century, but it also presented to young Americans a basis for imperialism which lasted long into his and the next century.

Roosevelt and Hemingway write primitivism onto Africa for white Americans to read and feel assured that they are the people entitled to colonize the world, as imperialism becomes a mechanism not of a particular nation, but the historical march of time itself. From the perspective of Roosevelt's and Hemingway's white American modernism, images of a timeless Africa reinforce the exigence of American imperialism.

Works Cited

Calinescu, Matei. Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism. Durham: Duke UP, 1987.

Clifford, James. “On Ethnographic Allegory.” Ed. James Clifford and George E. Marcus Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: U of California P, 1986. 98-121.

Dyer, Thomas G. Theodore Roosevelt and the Idea of Race. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1980.

Everett, Marshall [pseudonym]. Neil, Henry. Roosevelt's Thrilling Experiences in the Wilds of Africa and Triumphal Tour of Europe. New York: J. H. Moss, 1909.

Fabian, Johannes. Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object. New York: Columbia UP, 1983.

Gros, Raymond. T. R. in Cartoon. New York: Saalfield, 1910.

Hemingway, Ernest. Green Hills of Africa. 1935. New York: Touchstone, 1996.

———. Three Stories and Ten Poems. Paris: Contact, 1923.

Kaplan, Caren. Questions of Travel: Postmodern Discourses of Displacement. Durham Duke UP, 1996.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Hemingway: A Biography. New York: Harper and Row, 1985.

Montag, Warren. “The Universalization of Whiteness: Racism and Enlightenment.” Ed Mike Hill. Whiteness: A Critical Reader. New York: New York UP, 1997. 281-93.

Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. New York Vintage Books, 1994.

Phillips, Richard. Mapping Men and Empire: Geography of Adventure. New York Routledge, 1997.

Raeburn, John. Fame Became of Him: Hemingway as Public Writer. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984.

Reynolds, Michael. Hemingway: The 1930s. New York: Norton, 1997.

———. Hemingway's Reading 1910-1940: An Inventory. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1981.

Roosevelt, Theodore. African Game Trails. Vols. I and II. New York: Scribner, 1909.

Spurr, David. The Rhetoric of Empire: Colonial Discourse in Journalism, Travel Writing, and Imperial Administration. Durham: Duke UP, 1993.

Susan F. Beegel (essay date 2002)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12144

SOURCE: Beegel, Susan F. “Santiago and the Eternal Feminine: Gendering La Mar in The Old Man and the Sea.” In Hemingway and Women: Female Critics and the Female Voice, edited by Lawrence R. Broer and Gloria Holland, pp. 131-156. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2002.

[In the following essay, Beegel draws upon Catholic iconography, the work of environmentalist Rachel Carson and others, and the writings of Herman Melville to consider the ways in which the sea takes on a complex, gendered persona in Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea.]

“Hemingway is always less embarrassing when he is not attempting to deal with women,” Leslie A. Fiedler writes, with some smugness, of The Old Man and the Sea, “and he returns with relief (with what we as readers at least feel as relief) to that ‘safe’ American Romance of the boy and the old man” (“Adolescence” 108). Like Fiedler, most critics of this novella overlook the fact that The Old Man and the Sea has a powerful feminine persona in a title role. Hemingway tells us that Santiago “always thought of the sea as la mar which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman” (29). If the novella is an “American Romance,” it is not the love story of Santiago and Manolin but of the old man and the sea, conjoined in the title like Hero and Leander, Troilus and Cressida, Antony and Cleopatra, Tristan and Isolde. Given the nature of the sea in Hemingway's novella, this is not a “safe” romance at all but a story about the tragic love of mortal man for capricious goddess.

I propose a reading of The Old Man and the Sea that abandons the anthropocentric critical practice of relegating nature to the role of setting—of thinking like the novella's young fishermen, who consider the sea to be “a place” rather than a living being (30). When we recognize that the sea, as the novella's title suggests, is a protagonist on an equal footing with Santiago, we see how Hemingway—using a rich tapestry of images drawn from mythology, folklore, religion, marine natural history, and literature—genders the sea as feminine throughout the text, thereby raising key questions about the right relationship of man and nature.1 Although one strand of ecofeminist thought argues that men characteristically gender nature as female to justify treating the land in a dominating, exploitative way (virgin land), while expecting unending forgiveness (Mother Earth), Hemingway argues that the true sin is masculinizing nature, treating nature as an enemy or contestant to be met in combat. Examining the role played by the feminine sea in this story may reveal that The Old Man and the Sea has a stronger ecological ethic than previously supposed.

Santiago genders the sea early in the novella as he rows out to fish in the early morning darkness. He begins by “feeling sorry for the birds, especially the small delicate dark terns that were always flying and looking and almost never finding” (29). Then he wonders, “Why did they make birds so delicate and fine as those sea swallows when the ocean can be so cruel? She is kind and very beautiful. But she can be so cruel and it comes so suddenly.” This is the moment when we learn that Santiago “always thought of the sea as la mar, which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her.” We learn further that

[T]he old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things, it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought.


These few sentences propose a complex persona for the sea that resonates throughout the novella. I want to begin by examining how they suggest the sea's connection to a spiritual and biological principle of the Eternal Feminine. The sea's kindness, beauty, and generosity—the zenith of the natural cycle involving fecundity, copulation, birth, and nurture—offer important suggestions about right relationship to nature. Next, I want to look at the sin of masculinizing the sea instead of honoring her feminine nature, then examine the “bad things” said about the sea as though she were a woman—that she is cruel, wild, and wicked, and represents the nadir of the natural cycle—the inexorability of the death and decomposition that nourishes life. Throughout, I want to refer not only to published criticism on The Old Man and the Sea but also to the voices of those women students who seem less culturally conditioned than men to accept this as a story of contest and who are more likely to question the novella's violence. Finally, I will consider how gendering the sea relates to the tragedy of Santiago and its redemptive message.

Those, like Santiago, who gender what is supremely dangerous in nature as feminine (hurricanes, for instance, were traditionally called by women's names before the National Hurricane Center decided this folkloric practice was “sexist”) and especially as maternal (the Tibetan name for Everest is Jomolungma, Mother Goddess of the World) do so in part as a form of appeasement. They hope if they approach with love, understanding, and respect, nature will treat them with feminine gentleness and especially with the unconditional love of a mother. Walt Whitman provides an example in “As I Ebbed with the Ocean of Life” that illuminates Santiago's professions of love for la mar:

Ebb, ocean of life, (the flow will return,)
Cease not your moaning you fierce old mother,
Endlessly cry for your castaways, but fear not, deny not me,
Rustle not up so hoarse and angry against my feet as I touch you
or gather from you.
I mean tenderly by you and all,
I gather for myself.


Santiago's hope that the sea will not rise up angry against him as he gathers for himself explains in part his need to gender the “cruel” sea as feminine.

Santiago begins his consideration of la mar from a pagan or “primitive” viewpoint. The words “why did they make” imply his belief in a pantheon of gods responsible for natural creation. At once kind and beautiful, cruel and capricious, the sea is goddess and member of that pantheon—“they” know this “she”; “they” should have considered “her” cruelty when they made terns. Associated with the creative and destructive forces in nature, the sea in this novella represents the Eternal Feminine. She might remind us of a figure from Greek or Roman mythology—Tethys, wife of Oceanus and daughter of Uranus and Gaia, or Aphrodite, daughter of Zeus and Dione. Santiago, however, knows her as “la mar.

The novella also draws from Catholic imagery in representing the sea as the Eternal Feminine. A devotional picture of the Virgin of Cobre, the patroness of Cuba, hangs next to an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on the wall of Santiago's shack.2 The Virgin is a feminine icon, relic of his dead wife (16). During his agon at sea, he promises to make a pilgrimage to the Virgin of Cobre's shrine if he should catch his fish, and the prayers that he offers are “Hail Marys,” which he finds “easier to say” than “Our Fathers” (65). She too is a sea goddess. Santiago acknowledges this when he prays to her for a great favor—“the death of this fish” (65). Bickford Sylvester recounts the Cuban legend of how this small statue of the Virgin, now enshrined in a sanctuary at Cobre, arrived from the sea. She was “floating on a wooden board off the coast … in 1628, when … found by two Indians and a Creole in a rowboat” (“Cuban Context” 252).

The Virgin Mother of Christ is most familiar to us in her medieval roles as Mater Dolorosa and mediatrix: kind and beautiful, meek and mild, sorrowing for the suffering of man, compassionately interceding for him, offering clemency “at the hour of our death,” in the words of the Ave. But mariologists remind us that she is also the descendant of the pagan Magna Mater and Eternal Feminine (Katainen) and of Old Testament figures including Eve and the bride of the erotic “Song of Songs” (Johnson). Her biblical foremothers are tricksters Tamar and Ruth, the prostitute Rahab, and the adulteress Bathsheba—brave and holy women, to be sure, but scarcely meek and mild (Shroer). Mary functions “as a bridge between cultures and traditions” (Johnson), linking both paganism and Judaism to Christianity. Ben Stolzfus notes that “the effect of the christological imagery” in The Old Man and the Sea “is essentially non-Christian,” that the novel is less “Christian parable” than “pagan poem,” and this is certainly true of the Virgin of Cobre (42-43).

Insofar as she represents the Eternal Feminine and la mar, the Virgin of Cobre's origins reside deep in humanity's primitive past. In The Log from the Sea of Cortez,3 John Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts suggest how the Virgin may be more pagan than Christian as they describe the Virgin of Loreto. Patroness of a Mexican fishing village on the Sea of Cortez, she is a sister to Hemingway's Virgin of Cobre:

This Lady, of plaster and wood and paint, is one of the strong ecological factors of the town of Loreto, and not to know her and her strength is to fail to know Loreto. One could not ignore a granite monolith in the path of the waves. Such a rock, breaking the rushing waters, would have an effect on animal distribution radiating in circles like a dropped stone in a pool. So has this plaster Lady a powerful effect on the deep black water of the human spirit. She may disappear, and her name be lost, as the Magna Mater, as Isis have disappeared. But something very like her will take her place, and the longings which created her will find somewhere in the world a similar altar on which to pour their force. No matter what her name is, Artemis or Venus, or a girl behind a Woolworth counter dimly remembered, she is as eternal as our species, and we will continue to manufacture her as long as we survive.


In the la mar passage, Santiago continues to gender the sea in a pagan vein when he considers that “The moon affects her as it does a woman” (30). Now he invokes the ancient personification of the moon as a feminine principle in nature, the monthly lunar changes affecting both the tides of the sea and woman's cycle of ovulation and fecundity, her provision of “the nutriment, the catamenia, or menstrual blood” (Merchant 13, 18-19), the nourishing matrix from which life grows. “[M]oon and sea and tide are one,” write Steinbeck and Ricketts, and:

The imprint [of tidal forces] is in us and in Sparky and in the ship's master, in the palolo worm, in mussel worms, in chitons, and in the menstrual cycle of women. The imprint lies heavily on our dreams and on the delicate threads of our nerves. …

(37, 39)

The disciplines of oceanography and marine biology both supply a scientific basis for Santiago's mythologizing the sea-as-matrix, a Mother Goddess obeying the cycles of the moon, with “changing woman” her acolyte. In The Sea Around Us,4 Rachel Carson explains in a chapter titled “Mother Sea” how all life evolved from the sea and how the development of the human embryo recapitulates this evolutionary history.

Fish, amphibian, and reptile, warm-blooded bird and mammal—each of us carries in our veins a salty stream in which the elements sodium, potassium, and calcium are combined in almost the same proportions as sea water. … [O]ur lime-hardened skeletons are a heritage from the calcium-rich ocean of Cambrian time. Even the protoplasm that streams within each cell of our bodies has the chemical structure impressed upon all living matter when the first simple creatures were brought forth in the ancient sea. And as life itself began in the sea, so each of us begins his individual life within his mother's womb, and in the stages of his embryonic development repeats the steps by which his race evolved, from gill-breathing inhabitants of a water world to creatures able to live on land.

(The Sea Around Us 28-29)

Carson postulates that man's love for and desire to return to “mother sea,” his mythologizing and gendering of the sea as female, springs from his evolutionary history and longing for “a world that, in the deepest part of his subconscious mind, he ha[s] never wholly forgotten” (29).

Santiago knows the maternal, womblike space the fishermen call “the great well,” a sudden deep hole teeming with life, where the current stirs a nutrient upwelling and brings “all the wandering fish” to feed on “shrimp and bait fish and sometimes schools of squid” (28). He also experiences the sea-as-matrix when he looks at plankton and feels happy because it means fish:

The water was a dark blue now, so dark that it was almost purple. As he looked down into it he saw the red sifting of the plankton in the dark water and the strange light the sun made now. He watched his lines to see them go straight down out of sight into the water and he was happy to see so much plankton because it meant fish.


“Plankton,” Thor Heyerdahl explains in Kon-Tiki,5 “is a general name for thousands of species of visible and invisible small organisms which drift about near the surface of the sea. Some are plants (phyto-plankton), while others are loose fish ova and tiny living creatures (zoo-plankton)” (138). Where there is plankton, Steinbeck and Ricketts write, the sea “swarms with life.” Plankton water is “tuna water—life water. It is complete from plankton to gray porpoises” (54). “These little animals, in their incalculable numbers, are probably the base food supply of the world”—their disappearance would “eliminate every living thing in the sea” if not “all life on the globe” (256).

Hemingway's sparing lines hint at all of this when Santiago experiences the plankton as a “red sifting” in the water (35). It's a “strange light” that makes translucent zooplankton and greenish phytoplankton appear red. But this coloring aligns the plankton with all of the blood of life spilled in the sea throughout the novella, and especially with the nutritive blood of the womb. Heyerdahl calls it “plankton porridge … the squashy mess … magic gruel” (140). From it, Mother Sea brings forth life.

The sea, Herman Melville reminds us in Moby-Dick, has its “submarine bridal-chambers” as well as its nurseries (400), and of this, Santiago is well aware. To him, “a great island of Sargasso weed that heaved and swung in the light sea” looks “as though the ocean were making love with something under a blanket” (72). In the night, two porpoises come around his boat, and Santiago “could tell the difference between the blowing noise the male made and the sighing blow of the female.” He identifies with and values the porpoises for their mated love: “They are good. … They play and make jokes and love one another. They are our brothers …” (48). Later, he dreams of “a vast school of porpoises that stretched for eight or ten miles and it was in the time of their mating and they would leap high in the air and return into the same hole they had made when they had leaped” (81).

Asked in class how Hemingway's seemingly simple and objective prose could achieve such poetic quality in The Old Man and the Sea, a woman student gave this explanation: “It's the difference between a man taking a photograph of a woman and a man taking a photograph of a woman he loves.” Throughout the novella, the images selected to represent la mar establish that she is indeed “very beautiful,” and that Santiago is a lover, engaged in what Terry Tempest Williams has called an “erotics of place,” a “pagan” and “primal affair” (84). The sea itself is sublimely beautiful, with its deep blue waters and shafts of sunlight, as is the sky with its canyons of clouds. All of the sea's creatures except the galano sharks are beautiful, even the mako and the poisonous jelly fish, and some are exceptionally so, like the dorado that takes Santiago's bait from beneath the erotically heaving blanket of Sargasso weed: “He saw it first when it jumped in the air, true gold in the last of the sun and bending and flapping wildly in the air” (72).

Always the prose seeks what Hemingway called “the action that makes the emotion” (“Monologue” 219), and the emotion is love: “In the dark the old man could feel the morning coming and as he rowed he heard the trembling sound as the flying fish left the water and the hissing that their stiff wings made as they soared away in the darkness” (29). Or, “as the old man watched, a small tuna rose in the air, turned and dropped head first into the water. The tuna shone silver in the sun and after he had dropped back into the water another and another rose and they were jumping in all directions, churning the water and leaping in long jumps after the bait” (38). “Listen to Hemingway write!” responds another woman student. “Gorgeous!” (Gensler). Most “gorgeous” of all is the giant marlin that is the sea's great gift to Santiago:

The line rose slowly and steadily and then the surface of the ocean bulged ahead of the boat and the fish came out. He came out unendingly and water poured from his sides. He was bright in the sun and his head and back were dark purple and in the sun the stripes on his sides showed wide and a light lavender.


Although The Old Man and the Sea may seem to be about “men without women,” the figure of a man wedded to a feminine sea is omnipresent in our culture, from ancient myths of Venus rising from the foam of the sea to be given as bride to Vulcan, to a contemporary rock ballad such as E. Lurie's “Brandy,” where a sailor tells his human lover, “[Y]ou're a fine girl. What a good wife you would be. But my life, my lover, my lady is the sea.” Santiago is no exception. He is a widower and feels his loss—“[T]here had been a tinted photograph of his wife on the wall but he had taken it down because it made him too lonely to see it” (16)—and his loss gives him empathy and compassion for the marlin. “The saddest thing [he] ever saw with them” was the reaction of a male to the capture of his mate. “He was beautiful, the old man remembered, and he had stayed” (50). But now the beauty of the sea assuages Santiago's loneliness for his flesh-and-blood wife: “[H]e looked ahead and saw a flight of wild ducks etching themselves against the sky over the water, then etching again and he knew no man was ever alone on the sea” (61).

In the course of the story, Santiago becomes wedded to the marlin. His angling uses the language of seduction: “‘Yes’, he said. ‘Yes.’” (41). “Come on … Aren't they lovely? Eat them good now and then there is the tuna. Hard and cold and lovely. Don't be shy, fish” (42). “Then he felt the gentle touch on the line and he was happy” (43). Even after the marlin is firmly hooked and Santiago's ordeal begins, his developing sense of connectedness with the fish is expressed in language from the sacrament of marriage: “Now we are joined together” (50) and “Fish … I'll stay with you until I am dead” (52).

This sense of the sea-as-wife is not incompatible with Santiago's calling the marlin his “brother.” Porpoises and flying fish of both sexes are Santiago's “brothers,” too (48), and the word “brother” is neither gender-specific nor used only of humans in Hemingway's work. In “The Last Good Country,” Nick's sister Littless looks like a “small wild animal” (SS [The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway] 101), and wants to be both his “brother” (95) and his “wife” (104). In The Garden of Eden, Catherine Bourne tells David that he is “my good lovely husband and my brother too” (29), and David comes to understand that the elephant also is his “brother” (197).

Brothers are children of the same mother, living together in an implied state of equality and fraternity, depending on one another for mutual support. In To Have and Have Not Captain Willie says, of the human community at sea, “Most everybody goes in boats calls each other brother” (83). In The Old Man and the Sea, that marine community expands to include sea creatures. The man o' war bird is “a great help” to Santiago in locating fish (38), and Santiago in his turn aids the exhausted migrating warbler, “Take a good rest, small bird” (55). Hemingway's signature use of the word “brother” reflects longing for an Eden where men and women, husbands and wives, as well as birds, beasts, and fish might live together on such terms. Such an Eden would bring male and female principles, as well as man and nature, into harmony and balance.

How then may Santiago ethically “live on the sea and kill [his] true brothers” (75)? To render sea creatures as children of the same mother raises vital questions about right relationship to nature. Hunter-philosopher Ted Kerasote proposes some answers. “Hunting,” he writes, should be a “disciplined, mindful, sacred activity. … hav[ing] much to do with kindness, compassion, and sympathy for those other species with whom we share the web of life. … based on the pre-Christian belief that other life-forms, indeed the very plants and earth and air themselves, are invested with soul and spirit” (191). Here we recognize the “primitive” Santiago who fishes with unmatched physical and mental discipline and with prayers, the Santiago who hits the landed tuna on the head “for kindness” (42), who begs the female marlin's pardon and butchers her promptly (50), and who understands that the great marlin not only is his “brother,” but suffers as Santiago himself suffers (92). In his introduction to Atlantic Game Fishing, Hemingway writes that “Anglers have a way of … forgetting that the fish has a hook in his mouth, his gullet, or his belly, and is driven to the extremes of panic at which he runs, leaps, and pulls to get away until he dies” (qtd. in Farrington II). Santiago never forgets the “fish's agony” (93).

Ethical killing, Kerasote tells us, is not for “the cruel delight that comes at another's demise,” but for “the celebratory joy inherent in well-performed hunting that produces a gift of food” (190). The blood of life may only be spilled to nourish life. Here we recognize the Santiago who sacramentally partakes of the flesh of every fish he kills—dolphin, tuna, marlin, and even tiny shrimp from the floating blanket of Sargasso weed. This is the Santiago who seeks a fish to feed “many people,” and who hopes to repay his indebtedness to his human community with “the belly meat of a big fish” (20). He is drawn in part from Hemingway's Cuban boat-handler, Carlos Gutiérrez, who unlike the trophy-hunting sport fishermen always calls the marlin “the bread of my children,” relating it to the staff of life—and the continuity of life: “Oh look at the bread of my children! Joseph and Mary look at the bread of my children jump! There it goes the bread of my children! He'll never stop the bread the bread the bread of my children!” (Hemingway, “On the Blue Water” 242). “Everything kills everything else in some way” as Santiago observes (106), and is ethical so long as the killing is followed by eating, the act of communion, of sharing the blood of life.

Aldo Leopold writes that all ecological ethics “rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community with interdependent parts. His instincts prompt him to compete for his place in the community, but his ethics prompt him also to co-operate” (239). Glen A. Love feels that The Old Man and the Sea lacks a fully developed ecological ethic, because Santiago perceives some creatures of the sea, such as sharks and poisonous jellyfish, as “enemies.” Hemingway, Love argues, does not understand that all of the sea's creatures “are members of a community which man is not privileged to exterminate for real or assumed self-benefits” (208). Yet Love's is an environmental sensibility that places man outside of the food web, forgetting, as Leopold does not, that survival demands an ethic that includes the necessity of competition as well as of cooperation.

Santiago, as a subsistence fisherman, knows that he is part of the web of life. His community is truly “the great sea with our friends and our enemies” (120). He loves to see big sea turtles eating the jellyfish, and then he in turn eats the eggs of the turtles that eat the jellyfish in order to be strong “for the truly big fish” he himself hunts (36-37).6 Others do not like the taste, but Santiago drinks “a cup of shark liver oil each day from the big drum in the shack where the fishermen keep their gear” to sharpen his eyesight (37). Indeed, Santiago's eyes, “the same color as the sea … cheerful and undefeated” emblematize that the sea and its creatures are the well-spring of his own life—“with his eyes closed there was no life in his face” (10, 19). He understands that the lives of his “enemies” too are part of the “celebratory gift,” part of his fisherman's communion with life.

A woman student who does not accept the primitive hunter's communion of blood, the pagan appreciation of the intimate proximity of life and death, objects to Santiago's slaying of the marlin in gendered terms:

Ultimately, while I pity Santiago and mourn his defeat, I can't relate to his struggle. I do not share his need to defeat the marlin, or his desire for conquest. This type of battle is common to Hemingway, I've come across the same one in Islands in the Stream and I know he's restaged it with bulls and matadors in other books. What I wonder is what form these epic battles would take if Hemingway had been a woman. How would she describe childbirth? Imagine, these arduous, protracted ordeals produce nothing but dead fish, but what magic, what power would be imparted to a two-day struggle to produce a screaming new human being?


In one sense, The Old Man and the Sea may already fulfill this student's wish for a Hemingway who places the male values of strength and endurance in the service of the Eternal Feminine, of bringing forth rather than taking life. To la mar, Santiago owes his disciple, the boy Manolin who is more to him than a son. Santiago has no child by his mortal wife, but has delivered Manolin from the sea in a violent birthing. “How old was I when you first took me in a boat?” the boy asks Santiago, in the manner of a child asking a parent for the legend of his birth. “Five and you were nearly killed when I brought the fish in too green and he nearly tore the boat to pieces. Can you remember?” (12). Manolin responds:

I can remember the tail slapping and banging and the thwart breaking and the noise of clubbing. I can remember you throwing me into the bow where the wet coiled lines were and feeling the whole boat shiver and the noise of you clubbing him like chopping a tree down and the sweet blood smell all over me.


Fish and boy are elided here, as man-midwife Santiago forcibly extracts the flapping, struggling fish from the sea and throws the child slicked in “sweet blood” into the bow. “Can you really remember that or did I just tell you?” asks Santiago. Manolin insists that he can, but the scene is so primal that readers may share Santiago's doubt, wondering whether the boy remembers it any more than he would remember the scene of his birth.

In an essay titled “Forceps” that is in part a history of masculine involvement in obstetrics, Hemingway's doctor father writes that for centuries men were not permitted to attend or witness normal births. “Men midwives,” he mourns, “were not allowed at confinements … except in cases where an extraction by force [his emphasis] of a dead fetus was required.” He celebrates the eventual inclusion of men in the process of normal birthing: “to help and share the responsibility” of the “sacred trust” (C. Hemingway 3). In the “birthing” scene from The Old Man and the Sea, where Santiago acts as a man-midwife, we do see how his great strength and heroism might serve the cause of life.

On the positive side of the ledger, then, Santiago's gendering the sea as la mar underlies this novella's strong ecological ethic. To gender the sea as female or as a mother goddess implies reciprocal obligation. The man who approaches nature as his lover, wife, or mother, expecting “great favours” and kindness, must also, as Whitman phrases it, “mean tenderly” by her. The concept of the sea as a feminine, living being ought to serve, as Carolyn Merchant has pointed out on behalf of the earth, “as a cultural constraint restricting the actions of human beings. One does not readily slay a mother, dig into her entrails … or mutilate her body. … As long as the earth [is] considered to be alive and sensitive, it could be considered a breach of human ethical behavior to carry out destructive acts against it” (3).

There is no more potent example in American literature of a book that genders the sea as masculine than Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, celebrating its centennial the year Hemingway composed The Old Man and the Sea.7 “To and fro in the deeps, far down in the bottomless blue,” Melville writes, “rushed mighty leviathans, sword-fish, and sharks, and these were the strong, troubled, murderous thinkings of the masculine sea” (543). No character more obviously treats the sea as masculine contestant and enemy than Captain Ahab, or is more closely associated with man's self-destructive technological assault on nature: “Swerve me? The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run. Over unsounded gorges, through the rifled hearts of mountains, under torrents' beds, unerringly I rush! Naught's an obstacle, naught's an angle to the iron way!” (172)

Santiago seems to uphold an ecological ethic diametrically opposed to Ahab's “iron way” when he recognizes that those who gender the sea as masculine treat the sea more violently than those who think of her as la mar:

Some of the younger fishermen, those who used buoys as floats for their lines and had motorboats, bought when the shark livers had brought much money, spoke of her as el mar which is masculine. They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy.


These two sentences are dense with environmental history. Aligned with technology, Santiago's young fishermen are not only the workaday descendants of Captain Ahab, they are the ancestors of today's long-liners. Dr. Perry W. Gilbert, a shark expert familiar with the Cuban fishing village of Cojimar where Hemingway based The Old Man and the Sea, explains the fishing rig described above:

[F]ishermen put out from Cojimar in their small boats, only eighteen to twenty-four feet over all, and head for the deep water. … [T]wo men comprise the crew, and their boat carries ten to fifteen floating fishing rigs of three hooks each … The hooks of one set hang at different intervals in the water, usually at twenty, fifty, and eighty fathoms. … The wooden buoys, spaced forty to fifty feet apart, are joined to each other by a three-quarter inch manila rope, attached at one end to a square wooden float bearing the name of the boat … and a four foot mast carrying a lantern and flag. … After the sets are all placed and the lanterns lit, they are patrolled until dawn. At daybreak the catch of dolphin, marlin, broadbill, and sharks is removed, and if the weather is fair, a set may be rebaited. … The “Old Man,” of course, did not have this set. His lines were off his boat or in his hands.

(qtd. in Farrington 28-30)

The young fishermen fish not so much for the “celebratory gift of food,” Gilbert tells us, but for the “shark factory” mentioned at the beginning of The Old Man and the Sea (11), an industry processing their catch for the Oriental soup fin trade, for an Ocean Leather Company in New Jersey converting shark skin to wallets, belts, and shoes, and for the vitamin A in shark liver oil (in Farrington 30-31). Their motorboats are the fruits of war. “Shark livers had brought much money” during World War II, when German submarines in the North Atlantic cut off the Grand Banks and the world supply of cod liver oil for pharmaceuticals (R. Ellis 45); the Cojimar shark factory would remain profitable until 1958, when vitamin A was synthesized (Gilbert in Farrington 31).

Santiago sees in the young fishermen the death of his way of life, the end of putting to sea in small boats powered by oar and sail, of locating fish only with his own intimate knowledge of the sea and her creatures, and of catching them with the unaided strength of his body. In part, The Old Man and the Sea is Hemingway's elegy for the subsistence fisherman, and perhaps, as when Santiago wonders what it would be like to spot fish from airplanes (71), or to have a radio in the boat that would bring him the “baseball,” but distract him from “thinking much” about the sea (105), a prophesy of things to come. Mary Hemingway recalled:

Our habit was to anchor Pilar in the little bay of Cojimar. … The town's population was almost entirely fishermen who went out as Santiago did in those days with their skiffs and were carried by the Gulf Stream, which flows from west to east across the northern part of Cuba's coast. They would then put their baits down and drift. … When they had their fish, or when the day was finished … they'd stick up their sails and come sailing back against the Gulf Stream, the wind being stronger than the current. … [B]efore we left, the fishermen … were able to add outboard motors to their boats.

(qtd. in Bruccoli, “Interview” 193)

Neither Santiago nor Hemingway could predict the modern fleet of Atlantic swordboats—long-liners assisted by global positioning systems, weather fax, down temperature indicators, Doppler radar, color sounders, video plotters, radiofrequency beeper buoys, and hydraulic haulbacks for lines twenty-five to forty miles long, indiscriminately cleansing the sea of swordfish, sharks, sea turtles, tuna, and other deep oceanic fish (Greenlaw 137). Nor could they predict a generation whose most successful fishermen would be “fishing gear engineers and electronics wizards,” ignoring birds and clouds to “study data and base decisions on statistics” (Greenlaw 137-38).

But Santiago does know that the fishermen of the future will follow the “el mar” ethos of treating the sea as a masculine enemy or contestant. Contemporary swordboat captain Linda Greenlaw, ironically a woman, bears him out when she describes her work as “Man vs. Nature.” She uses words like “warrior,” “relentless beast,” “fight,” “monstrous sword,” “war,” “forces,” and “combat” to describe a losing contest with a commodified “$2,000 fish,” and then, when the line snaps and the swordfish gets loose, leaps to the rail with her men to give the animal, perceived as “gloating” in “victory,” the phallic upraised finger, and to scream “Fuck you” until her throat is raw (Greenlaw 173-75). If Carolyn Merchant is correct that gendering nature as female and as the mother-of-life acts as a cultural constraint against destructive acts, then the converse appears to be true, that gendering the sea as a masculine opponent enables destructive and violent behavior. Since the first swordfish took bait on an American longline in 1961, Santiago's “young fishermen” have swept the Atlantic of 75 percent of its bluefin tuna and 70 percent of its breeding-age swordfish (Safina, Chivers), carrying us ever closer to the “fishless desert” of Santiago's nightmare (2).

Santiago rejects those who masculinize the sea. But against his view of Mother Sea as a beautiful, kindly, and generous feminine provider—a belief that in many respects does temper his behavior toward her—he sets an opposing view of feminine nature as cruel and chaotic—spawning poisonous creatures, sudden storms, and hurricanes. Although early in the novella Hemingway tells us that Santiago “no longer dreamed of storms, nor of women, nor of great occurrences, nor of great fish, nor fights, nor contests of strength, nor of his wife,” The Old Man and the Sea is a dream of all such things, and here we learn that Santiago includes the feminine principles of “women” and “wife” with “storms” and “great fish,” natural things that might be fought or engaged in “contests of strength” (25). As Merchant points out, such views of nature as a disorderly female force call forth the male need for rationalistic or mechanistic power over her (127).

Critic Gerry Brenner labels the la mar passage “a litany of sexist aggressions” in part for Santiago's “metaphoric equation” of woman and the sea “as dependent on the moon or some power over which she has no control” (Story 84). However, the point of Santiago's “and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them,” may be that women and the sea are not under control, but beyond control. Carson writes that man may approach “mother sea only on her terms. … He cannot control or change the ocean as … he has subdued and plundered the continents” (Sea Around Us 29-30). When Santiago thinks “the moon affects her as it does a woman,” he betrays male fear of female power, of the menstruous or monstrous woman, whose wildness and wickedness challenges his rationalism and control, and whose cruelty provokes his attempts at dominance. In The Garden of Eden, Catherine Bourne (who needs to “go up to the room” because “I'm a god damned woman”), speaks for menstruous woman, and perhaps for la mar, when she overrides David's effort to silence and control her: “Why should I hold it down? You want a girl, don't you? Don't you want everything that goes with it? Scenes, hysteria, false accusations, temperament, isn't that it?” (70).

Santiago believes that, in his great love for and understanding of la mar, he has accepted “everything that goes with” her femininity. He knows the months of the “sudden bad weather,” and is not afraid to be out of sight of land in hurricane season, because he “can see the signs of [a hurricane] for days ahead” in the sky (61). He endures the painful sting of a ray hidden in the sand, and of the Portuguese man o' war jellyfish he genders as female and calls “Agua mala [evil water]” and “You whore.” Although the jellyfish strike “like a whiplash,” he loves to walk on them on the beach after a storm and “hear them pop when he step[s] on them with the horny soles of his feet” (82). While Brenner finds Santiago's “vilification of the jellyfish” the novella's most “blatant” example of “hostility or contempt towards things female” (82), Katharine T. Jobes believes the old man's epithet—“You whore”—is familiar, affectionate, a reflection of Santiago's “intimate at-homeness in nature” (16).

Yet despite Santiago's apparent acceptance of the sea's wild and wicked nature, ultimately he sins against her, and she bitches him. Gendering the sea as feminine does not resolve the problem of man's violence toward nature, but raises even more disturbing questions about right relationship than gendering the sea as el mar. Our culture generally accepts male-on-male violence—such as the cock-fighting and arm-wrestling in Old Man—provided it conforms to the rituals of warfare, chivalry, or sportsmanship. We perceive such violence as the “natural” outcome of male competition for territory and sexual prerogative, although neither instinct bodes well when directed against nature. Conversely, male-on-female violence is taboo, “unnatural” because the biological purpose of male-female relations is procreation, not competition.

As Melvin Backman has noted, Death in the Afternoon provides an interpretive key to the problem of sin in The Old Man and the Sea: “[W]hen a man is still in rebellion against death he has pleasure in taking to himself one of the Godlike attributes; that of giving it. … These things are done in pride and pride, of course, is a Christian sin and a pagan virtue …” (233). The old man is surely in rebellion against death. His eighty-four days without a fish, the mockery of the young fishermen, the pity of the older fishermen, the charity of his village, the role reversal that sees his much-loved apprentice Manolin taking care of him (“You'll not fish without eating while I'm alive” [19]), and perhaps most of all the loss of Manolin, forced by his parents into a “luckier” boat, conspire to make Santiago feel his proximity to death. These things send him out to sea, beyond all other fishermen, to seek “a big one” (30), and the struggle with the marlin becomes in part a struggle with the “treachery of one's own body” (62), with his spells of faintness and blurred vision, with his cramped hand: “Pull, hands. … Hold up, legs. Last for me, head. Last for me” (91). Santiago's rebellion against death draws him first into sin, and then into an orgy of violence against the sea he loves.

In Christian iconography, both the sea and the Eternal Feminine are associated with death and resurrection. The Book of Common Prayer makes of the ocean a vast graveyard, and, strangely for a Christian text, feminizes the sea: “We therefore commit his body to the deep, to be turned into corruption, looking for the resurrection of the body, when the Sea shall give up her dead” (my emphasis, 552). The Virgin of Cobre places Santiago in this cycle of death and resurrection. Opus Dei scholar Dwight Duncan opines: “Christianity is the celebration of Christ as a man, one of us. So it is natural to approach it through the perspective of the mother. Mary is the guarantor of Christ's manhood” (Kennelly). Phrased somewhat differently, this means that the Virgin is the guarantor of Christ's suffering and death—and Santiago's. As his mortal progenitor, the Mother makes Christ subject—as all humanity is subject—to the immutable laws of biological nature.

Santiago kills the marlin with the most masculine of weapons, the harpoon, driving it deep into the fish's heart, the organ of love and the seat of life:

The old man dropped the line and put his foot on it and lifted the harpoon as high as he could and drove it down with all his strength, and more strength he had just summoned, into the fish's side just behind the great chest fin that rose high in the air to the altitude of the man's chest. He felt the iron go in and he leaned on it and drove it further and then pushed all his weight after it.

Then the fish came alive, with his death in him, and rose high out of the water showing all his great length and width and all his power and his beauty.


Three times Hemingway tells us that the old man's target was the heart: “I must try for the heart” (91); “the sea was discoloring with the red of the blood from his heart” (94); “I think I felt his heart. … When I pushed on the harpoon shaft the second time” (95).

The heart of the marlin recalls the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the other devotional icon that hangs on the wall of Santiago's shack next to the Virgin of Cobre (16). That heart symbolizes the love and suffering of Christ, and his sacrifice—his death that man might live. By suggesting that the marlin too might have a sacred heart, Hemingway asks us to contemplate the passion of the natural cycle, or, as Kerasote puts it, to “fac[e] up to this basic and poignant condition of biological life on this planet—people, animals, and plants as fated cohorts, as both dependents and donors of life” (191). Hemingway invites us to understand that the marlin, in the words of Santiago's “Hail Mary,” is the “fruit of the womb” of the Eternal Feminine (65). Coming “alive with his death in him,” the marlin conjoins the principles of life and death implicit both in natural cycles and in the iconography of resurrection that arises from them. Santiago sees the eye of the dead fish looking “as detached as mirrors in a periscope or as a saint in a procession” (96), suggesting that the marlin should remind us of our own mortality, and our own mortality should remind us to have compassion for all living things.

Santiago's harpoon, probing the sacred heart, probes again the essential question of male-on-female violence, of right relationship of man and nature. When may man ethically kill the thing he loves? “If you love him, it is not a sin to kill him,” Santiago thinks of the great marlin. “Or is it more?” (105). Santiago cannot bear to pursue the question—“You think too much, old man”—he tells himself, but the text would seem to argue “more.” Too late, he recognizes that “You did not kill him to keep alive and to sell for food,” the only allowable answers, “You killed him for pride and because you are a fisherman” (105). Despite knowing that the marlin is “two feet longer than the skiff” and cannot be landed (63), despite believing that it is “unjust” and that he is doing it to show the marlin “what a man can do and what a man endures” (66), despite feeling that “there is no one worthy of eating him from the manner of his behaviour and his great dignity” (75), the old man proceeds to kill the marlin anyway. When sharks attack the fish, as Santiago knows they must, his tragedy will be to recognize that he was wrong: “‘Half fish,’ he said. ‘Fish that you were. I am sorry that I went out too far. I ruined us both’” (115).

Sylvester has argued that Santiago's “slaying of the marlin and his responsibility for its mutilation are sins,” but “tragic precisely because they are a necessary result of his behavior as a champion of his species” (“Extended Vision” 136). Sylvester sees “opposition to nature as paradoxically necessary to vitality in the natural field” (“Extended Vision” 132), and perhaps it's true that a man “born to be a fisherman as the fish was born to be a fish” (105) could not conceive, as Hemingway himself could conceive, of releasing a marlin and “giv[ing] him his life back” (G. Hemingway 73). Perhaps a man who fishes for his living cannot say, as young David Hudson says in Islands in the Stream about a marlin that escapes him after a gruelling fight: “I loved him so much when I saw him coming up that I couldn't stand it. … All I wanted was to see him closer. … Now I don't give a shit I lost him. … I don't care about records. I just thought I did. I'm glad that he's all right” (143). Yet if Sylvester's concept of “necessary sin” is correct, then the text violates Santiago's own philosophy—that it is wrong to gender the sea as el mar and to treat it as a contestant or enemy. A woman student proposes instead that Santiago's sin is both unnecessary and the direct result of the “masculine” thinking he himself has deplored:

The code of manhood that gives Santiago the strength for his battle and even the reason to begin it is completely foreign to me. He doesn't have to do this—a fisherman can make a living on the tuna and dolphin that Santiago uses only for bait and sustenance. … When Santiago says he has not caught a fish in eighty-seven [sic] days, he does not mean fish, he means Krakens, sea monsters. The bravery involved in just wresting a living from the sea is nothing … Santiago has to be a saint and fight dragons. … I guess what it comes down to is greatness. … Killing a 1500 lb. Marlin puts him on the same level with the magnificent fish, giving him a power as great as the ocean's. There is nothing about this that's hard to understand; a man wishes to be strong and so he tests himself against the strongest thing he can find.


Nature's punishment for the harpoon in the heart is swift and inexorable. The heart pumps the blood of the stricken fish into the sea—“First it was dark as a shoal in the blue water that was more than a mile deep. Then it spread like a cloud” (94). The heart's blood summons the first shark, a mako, and Santiago recognizes the consequences of his own actions: “The shark was not an accident. He had come up from deep down in the water as the dark cloud of blood had settled and dispersed in the mile deep sea” (100). Indeed, the mako almost seems like the marlin's avenging ghost: “His back was as blue as a sword fish's and his belly was silver and his hide was smooth and handsome. He was built like a sword fish except for his huge jaws” (100). Like the marlin too, the mako is “beautiful and noble” (106). His teeth “shaped like a man's fingers when they are crisped like claws” (100-101), recall Santiago's left hand cramped “tight as the gripped claws of an eagle” (63). The mako comes as a grim reminder that marlin, shark, and man—all predators—are brothers, children of the same mother.

Yet “the shadow of sharks is the shadow of death,” as Peter Matthiessen has observed (5), and when Santiago sees the mako, he curses the mother—“Dentuso, he thought, bad luck to your mother” (101)—and who is the Mother of Sharks if not la mar? Santiago assaults the shadow of death “without hope but with resolution and complete malignancy” (102). He harpoons the mako with a precision so reminiscent of the bullfight, one wonders whether Hemingway knew that the ancient Hawaiians built marine arenas in shallow water, where men armed with shark-tooth daggers fought sharks to honor Kama-Hoa-Lii, the shark god (Cousteau 205). Harpooning the mako, Santiago sins a second time, and explicitly partakes of the matador's sin from Death in the Afternoon. “You enjoyed killing the dentuso, he thought” (105), and this is both the Christian sin of pride in taking pleasure in the Godlike attribute of giving death, and the pagan sin identified by Kerasote, of taking “cruel delight” in another's demise (109). Again Santiago's sin sends a blood message of life wrongfully taken into the sea: “Now my fish bleeds again,” he thinks after the dead mako sinks with his harpoon, “and there will be others” (103). Santiago's rebellion against death, which has, from the start of the novella, underlain his quest for the marlin, now assumes crisis proportions.

Sharks begin to arrive in numbers, and they are a different species—not the “beautiful and noble” mako, Isurus oxyrinchus, that like the marlin preys on tuna and dolphin (Bigelow 23-25), but galanos, probably oceanic whitetip sharks, Carcharhinus longimanus, but certainly—and significantly—members of the family Carcharinidae,8 commonly known as the “Requiem sharks” (R. Ellis 130). These sharks are not only biologically apt (whitetips are well-known to whalemen and big game fishermen for feeding on their kills, and notorious for attacks on victims of shipwrecks and air disasters), but for a marine naturalist like Hemingway they also allude to the introit of the Roman Catholic mass for the dead. Santiago truly vilifies the galanos as

hateful sharks, bad smelling, scavengers as well as killers, and when they were hungry they would bite at an oar or the rudder of a boat. It was these sharks that would cut the turtles' legs and flippers off when the turtles were asleep on the surface, and they would hit a man in the water, if they were hungry, even if the man had no smell of fish blood nor of fish slime on him.


Rising from the sea as from the grave, their evil smell a reminder that the body is destined “to be turned into corruption,” the scavenging galanos are the ultimate reminder of death as the reabsorption of the individual into the matrix of life. When Santiago sees them, he makes “a noise such as a man might make, involuntarily, feeling the nail go through his hands and into the wood” (107). “Old men should burn and rave at close of day,” Dylan Thomas writes (942), and Santiago does indeed rage against the dying of the light, stabbing, hacking, and clubbing at the sharks with everything he has, although he knows that the fight is “useless” (118). “‘Fight them,’ he said. ‘I'll fight them until I die’” (115). Like the mako, the galanos too are sent by the mother, and Santiago seems to perceive himself as sending a message of defiance to her when he says to a shark he has killed: “Go on, galano. Slide down a mile deep. Go see your friend, or maybe it's your mother” (109).

The “evil” of the shark, emblematizing the inexorability of suffering and death in nature, has long constituted a theological problem, calling into question the benevolent intentions of God toward man, and suggesting instead cruelty and indifference. “Queequeg no care what god made him shark,” pronounces Melville's savage, “wedder Fejee god or Nantucket god; but de god wat made shark must be one dam Ingin” (310). Even a marine ecologist such as Philippe Cousteau, who recognizes that it is risible to “qualif[y] one animal as ‘good’ and another as ‘bad’” (133), can write of the same oceanic whitetip shark that Santiago finds hateful:

[O]ne of the most formidable of the deep-sea sharks, a great longimanus. … this species is absolutely hideous. His yellow-brown color is not uniform, but streaked with irregular markings resembling a bad job of military camouflage. … He swims in a jerky, irregular manner, swinging his shortened, broad snout from side to side. His tiny eyes are hard and cruel-looking.


Cousteau also recognizes that his fear of sharks is related to his fear of an indifferent, inhuman creator: “The shark moves through my universe like a marionette whose strings are controlled by someone other than the power manipulating mine” (70).

The Old Man and the Sea suggests, through its twice-repeated reference to the “mother” of sharks, that “de god wat made shark” must be one damn woman—cruel, wild, wicked, irrational, beyond control. Santiago's battle with the sharks, his rage and rebellion against la mar, is his most Melvillean moment. Like Ahab, Santiago seems to say:

I now know thee … and I now know thy right worship is defiance. To neither love nor reverence wilt thou be kind; and e'en for hate thou canst but kill; and all are killed. … I now own thy speechless, placeless power; but to the last gasp of my earthquake life will dispute its unconditional mastery in me. In the midst of the personified impersonal, a personality stands here.


Santiago puts it more simply, spitting blood coughed up from his chest into the sea when the last of the shark pack leaves the ruined marlin, saying “Eat that, galanos, and make a dream you've killed a man” (119). The life that burns in him, the will to survive, is the source of his proud individualism and refusal to submit tamely to annihilation. Ahab proclaims “[O]f thy fire thou madest me, and like a true child of fire, I breathe it back” (512).

Ahab's defiance of a masculine god places him outside of nature and against nature, a crime for which he will be executed with a hempen cord of whale line around the neck. Santiago's defiance of the feminine “mother of sharks” places him inside nature and outside of nature. Like the turtle whose heart beats “for hours after he has been cut up and butchered” (37), like the great marlin who comes “alive, with his death in him” (94), and especially like the shark who is dead but “would not accept it” (102), Santiago is a true child of la mar. Her law proclaims that “all are killed,” but her law also proclaims that all—turtle, marlin, shark, and man—will dispute their deaths. The sea punishes Santiago for the wrongful deaths of marlin and mako, but for the final battle with the sharks—for breathing back the fire of life—she forgives him.

When the battle with the sharks is finally and irretrievably lost, Santiago achieves a kind of serenity born of acceptance that Ahab never knows. Ahab neither repents nor relents—“for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee” (574-75). Santiago does both, apologizing to the marlin and acknowledging that he has been “beaten now finally” by the sharks (119). This the old man experiences as a lightening, a release from a great burden:

He settled the sack around his shoulders and put the skiff on her course. He sailed lightly now and he had no thoughts nor any feelings of any kind. He was past everything now. … In the night sharks hit the carcass. … The old man paid no attention to them and did not pay attention to anything except steering. He only noticed how lightly and how well the skiff sailed now there was no great weight beside her.


Eric Waggoner reads this passage as a restoration of harmony, citing the Tao-te Ching: “Return is the movement of the Way; / yielding is the function of the way” (102). Waggoner's Taoist perspective prompts us to understand that by yielding to the sea, by accepting his place in nature, “[Santiago] can re-place himself in the balance of his fishing life and sail his skiff ‘well’” (102). Still more important, however, is the end of Santiago's rebellion against death, and the beginning of his acquiescence.

Now Santiago is “inside the current,” and the text restores him to his original love and reverence for the sea with all her vagaries and caprices. In this key passage, la mar is aligned not with an enemy wind that sends great storms, but with the friendly wind that carries an exhausted fisherman lightly home. The sea is associated not with the cruelty of a watery grave and its scavenging sharks, but with bed, where a tired man may find rest:

The wind is our friend, anyway, he thought. Then he added, sometimes. And the great sea with our friends and enemies. And bed, he thought. Bed is my friend. Just bed, he thought. Bed will be a great thing. It is easy when you are beaten, he thought. I never knew how easy it was.


Now, in Whitmanian rather than Melvillean fashion, Santiago hears the word up from feminine rather than masculine waves, the word of “the sweetest song and all songs,” the word “out of the cradle endlessly rocking,” the word whispered by the sea—death (184).

Santiago's acquiescence is not Christian. Earlier, Santiago has confessed that he is “not religious” (64); there is no hint that he believes in resurrection. But if he believes in the sea as both friend and enemy, cradle and grave, life and death, and accepts her cycles, then he may partake in the “natural” consolation of Ecclesiastes slightly revised—“One generation passeth away and another generation cometh: but the [sea] abideth forever” (1.6). The pagan—and the naturalist—both draw spiritual comfort from material immortality in the Eternal Feminine. As Carson puts it in Under the Sea Wind: “[I]n the sea, nothing is lost. One dies, another lives, as the precious elements of life are passed on and on in endless chains” (105).9

A text that masculinized the sea might end with Santiago “destroyed but not defeated” (103), the existential hero with the trophy of his pyrrhic victory, “the great fish … now just garbage waiting to go out with the tide” (126). But The Old Man and the Sea ends instead not only with Santiago's acceptance of death as natural as sleep—but with the cycle of life turning upwards once more. Hemingway reunites Santiago with Manolin, the boy who is more-than-son to him, the child of Santiago's manmidwifery, delivered from the sea. Theirs is what Claire Rosenfeld calls a “spiritual kinship” (43); the sea as wife-and-mother joins them as father-and-son. Manolin cares tenderly for the old man, allowing him to sleep undisturbed, bringing him coffee, food, newspapers, and a clean shirt, and making cheerful talk about the future. When Santiago cannot see him, the boy weeps for the old man's ordeal and shows his understanding: he weeps for Santiago's suffering when he sees the bloody stigmata of the rope on the old man's hands (122), he weeps for the ruin of the great fish when he sees the skeleton lashed to the skiff (122), and he weeps for his mentor's heartbreak and imminent death after Santiago tells him that “something in his chest [feels] broken” (125).

Manolin will carry Santiago's legacy forward, insuring the continuity of life in the face of destruction. The boy asks for and receives the spear of the great marlin from his mentor (124), a gift that represents not only Santiago's greatness as a fisherman, but the dignity and courage and beauty of the fish himself and the lesson of his loss. The spear is also a gift from the sea that binds man and boy and fish together, a true family heirloom, and a pagan devotional icon. Having received the bequest of the spear, Manolin promises in his turn to leave the boats of the young fishermen where his other “family” has placed him, to follow Santiago for “I still have much to learn” (125). If Santiago is dying, then Manolin's discipleship may be more metaphorical than literal, but the passage of the marlin's spear to him affirms the continuation of Santiago's values, the perpetuation of a line of fishermen who gender the sea as la mar because they love her. That Manolin is a worthy heir, we know. From the beginning of the text, when he tells Santiago—“If I cannot fish with you, I would like to serve in some way” (12)—this filial boy has met the test of love as defined by the priest in A Farewell to Arms: “When you love you wish to do things for. You wish to sacrifice for. You wish to serve.” (72). We expect Manolin to honor both Santiago and the sea by fishing in the disciplined, mindful, sacred way.

Making his bequest, accomplishing this transition, brings Santiago final serenity and this text full circle. We leave him asleep, the boy keeping vigil beside him, dreaming the recurrent dream of lions that has been with him from the beginning of the story (25, 127). The dream lions, we know, come to a long yellow beach to play like young cats in the dusk, and Santiago “love[s] them as he love[s] the boy” (25). “Why are the lions the main thing that is left?” (66), Santiago has wondered, and we may wonder too. Perhaps his dream of innocent predators, allied with the boy and the continuity of life, carries him to a Peaceable Kingdom, an Eden unspoiled by sin where men no longer need to “live on the sea and kill our true brothers” (75), to a place where viewing nature as a contestant or an enemy is no longer possible, and love alone remains.


  1. This essay will refer to works Hemingway read (Moby-Dick, the poetry of Whitman, Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki) before composing The Old Man and the Sea, as well as books that he may have read during its composition (Carson's The Sea Around Us and Under the Sea Wind, Steinbeck and Ricketts's The Log from the Sea of Cortez). Hemingway drafted his novella in January and February 1951 (Baker, Life 489-90) but did not publish the story until 1 September 1952, in a single installment of Life magazine. The long lag between the initial composition of the story and its publication has interesting implications for understanding how Hemingway's reading might have influenced The Old Man and the Sea and its ecological ethics. During this period, Hemingway was reading Carson, Steinbeck, and Ricketts and was probably rereading Moby-Dick, celebrating its centennial year in 1951. The John F. Kennedy Library holds two typescripts of The Old Man and the Sea with corrections in ink; however, Mary Hemingway recalled that her husband “did the whole thing by hand and then I typed it” (qtd. in Bruccoli 191). No longhand draft of The Old Man and the Sea has yet been located, making a study of Hemingway's possible revisions based on his 1951 reading impossible.

  2. When Hemingway won the Nobel Prize, in part for his achievement in The Old Man and the Sea, he gave his medal to the Virgin of Cobre, to be kept in her sanctuary at Santiago de Cuba (Baker, Life 528).

  3. Originally published in 1941 as Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research, this book was reissued in 1951 as The Log from the Sea of Cortez, with its scientific apparatus (an appendix including a phyletic catalogue on the marine animals of the Panamic faunal province) removed.

  4. Hemingway owned a copy of the 1951 edition (Brasch and Sigman).

  5. Hemingway owned a copy of Kon-Tiki, a nonfiction bestseller of 1950, the year before he wrote The Old Man and the Sea (Brasch and Sigman).

  6. Santiago also admires the loggerheads because they are “strange in their lovemaking” (36), and in To Have and Have Not, Hemingway refers to the widely held belief that loggerheads copulate for three days—“Do they really do it three days? Coot for three days?” Marie asks Harry (113). For this reason, the loggerhead eggs that Santiago eats to “give himself strength” (37) are considered an aphrodisiac (Dennis), and some of this folklore may resonate in his three-day battle with the fish.

    Hemingway's description of the loggerhead turtle eating jellyfish with its eyes closed is probably drawn from Thomas Barbour's A Naturalist in Cuba, a book in Hemingway's library (Brasch and Sigman). Barbour writes:

    I saw an enormous loggerhead ease up to a Portuguese man-of-war, close its eyes, and nip at the beast. Physalia is well provided with stinging cells and its tentacles are dangerous things to touch. It was amusing to see the old turtle close his eyes as he made his dab at the jellyfish. I have no doubt that the membranes surrounding his eyeballs were the only place where the stinging cells of the siphonophore's arms would have been effective. All other regions were protected by heavy armor.


  7. Malcolm Cowley notes that when The Old Man and the Sea was published, it was widely referred to as “the poor man's Moby-Dick” (“Hemingway's Novel” 106).

  8. In Caribbean Spanish, the word galano, when applied to an animal, simply means having a dappled or mottled skin (Mandel, e-mail to Beegel). Hence, the Cuban common name for this shark helps with identification. Shark expert Dr. Perry Gilbert notes that near the village of Cojimar a “grande Galano” may be a bull shark (in Farrington 32), or Carcharhinus leucas. However, this species, which can inhabit fresh and brackish water as well as saltwater, is never found far from land (R. Ellis 139) and hence cannot be Santiago's deepwater galano. Miriam B. Mandel located among Hemingway's papers a 1936 list of commercially valuable fish published by the Cuban secretary of agriculture giving for a galano the scientific name of Charcharias limbatus (Reading Hemingway 352), probably an error for Carcharhinus limbatus. But the characteristic black-tipped fins of C. limbatus (R. Ellis 302) mean it cannot be Santiago's galano, which has “white-tipped wide pectoral fins” (107). Mandel's correspondence with Dr. José I. Castro, senior research scientist of the National Marine Fisheries Service, Miami Branch, identifies the galano as the oceanic whitetip, Carcharhinus longimanus (Reading Hemingway 352, 522). In my opinion, this is the only identification that satisfactorily covers the shark's deepwater habitat, mottled skin, white-tipped fins, aggressive scavenging behavior, and notoriety as a man-eater.

  9. Rachel Carson first published Under the Sea Wind in 1941. The book was republished in April 1952, when it joined The Sea Around Us on the New York Times bestseller list (Lear 226). Hemingway owned a copy of the 1952 edition (Brasch and Sigman).

Works Cited

Backman, Melvin. “Hemingway: The Matador and the Crucified.” Modern Fiction Studies 1 (1955): 2-11.

Baker, Carlos. Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story. New York: Scribner's, 1969.

Barbour, Thomas. A Naturalist in Cuba. Boston: Little, 1945.

Betancourt, Cecilia. “Reaction Paper: El Viejo y La Mar.” Unpublished essay, 1997.

Bigelow, Henry B., and William C. Schroeder. Fishes of the Gulf of Maine. Fishery Bulletin of the Fish and Wildlife Service. Washington DC: GPO, 1953.

The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments. 1662. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1968.

Brasch, James, and Joseph Sigman, comps. Hemingway's Library: A Composite Record. New York: Garland, 1981.

Brenner, Gerry. The Old Man and the Sea: Story of a Common Man. New York: Twayne, 1991.

Bruccoli, Matthew. “Interview with Mary Welsh Hemingway.” Conversations with Writers. Detroit: Gale, 1977. 180-91.

Carson, Rachel. The Sea Around Us. 1951. New York: Mentor, 1989.

Cousteau, Jacques-Yves, and Philippe Cousteau. The Shark: Splendid Savage of the Sea. Trans. Francis Price. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1970.

Cowley, Malcolm. “Hemingway's Novel Has the Rich Simplicity of a Classic.” Rev. of The Old Man and the Sea. New York Herald Tribune Book Review 7 Sept. 1952. Rpt. in Twentieth Century Interpretations ofThe Old Man and the Sea.” Ed. Katherine T. Jobes. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1968. 106-08.

Ellis, Richard. The Book of Sharks. New York: Grosset, 1975.

Farrington, S. Kip. Fishing with Hemingway and Glassell. New York: David McKay, 1971.

Fiedler, Leslie A. “Adolescence and Maturity in the American Novel.” An End to Innocence: Essays on Culture and Politics. Boston: Beacon, 1955. Rpt. in Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Old Man and the Sea. Ed. Katherine T. Jobes. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1968. 108.

———. Love and Death in the American Novel. New York: Stein, 1982.

Gensler, Mindy. “Response Paper: The Old Man and the Sea.” Unpublished essay, 1997.

Greenlaw, Linda. The Hungry Ocean: A Swordboat Captain's Journey. New York: Hyperion, 1999.

Hemingway, Clarence Edmonds. “Forceps.” Unpublished essay, 1913. Archives of the Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park, Illinois.

Hemingway, Ernest. Death in the Afternoon. 1932. New York: Scribner's, 1960.

———. A Farewell to Arms. 1929. New York: Scribner's, 1957.

———. The Garden of Eden. New York: Scribner's, 1986.

———. “Hemingway's Introduction to Atlantic Game Fishing.” Farrington. Fishing with Hemingway and Glassell. New York: David McKay, 1971. 9-14.

———. “Monologue to the Maestro: A High Seas Letter.” Esquire Oct. 1935. Rpt. in By-Line. Ed. William White. New York: Scribner's, 1967, 213-20.

———. “On the Blue Water: A Gulf Stream Letter.” Esquire Apr. 1936. Rpt. in By-Line. Ed. William White. New York: Scribner's, 1967, 236-44.

———. “On Writing.” The Nick Adams Stories. New York: Bantam, 1973, 213-20.

———. The Old Man and the Sea. New York: Scribner's, 1952.

———. The Old Man and the Sea. Mss. Hemingway Collection. John F. Kennedy Library, Boston.

———. To Have and Have Not. New York: Scribner's, 1937.

Heyerdahl, Thor. Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft. Trans. F. H. Lyon. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1950.

Johnson, Elizabeth A. Rev. of Mary Through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture. Theological Studies 58 (1997): 372-74. Infotrac Search Bank. Article A19540892. <

Katainen, V. Louise. Rev. of Mary Through the Centuries: Her Place in History. National Forum Winter 1998: 44-46. Infotrac Search Bank. Article A53644242. <

Kennedy, J. Gerald. Imagining Paris: Exile, Writing, and American Identity. New Haven: Yale UP, 1993.

Kennelly, Eleanor. “Rediscovering the Madonna: Virtue as an Icon for the Ages.” Insight on the News 23 Jan. 1995: 26-28. Infotrac Search Bank. Article A16679524. <

Kerasote, Ted. “A Talk about Ethics.” Heart of Home: People, Wildlife, Place. New York: Villard, 1997. 179-92.

Lear, Linda. Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature. New York: Holt, 1997.

Love, Glen A. “Hemingway's Indian Virtues: An Ecological Reconsideration.” Western American Literature 22 (1987): 202-13.

Lurie, E. “Brandy (You're a Fine Girl).” Perf. Looking Glass. Rec. Sony Music Entertainment, 1972.

Mandel, Miriam B. E-mail to Susan Beegel. 6 June 1999.

———. Reading Hemingway: The Facts in the Fictions. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1995.

Matthiessen, Peter. Blue Meridian: The Search for the Great White Shark. New York: Random, 1971.

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. 1851. Berkeley: U of California P, 1979.

Merchant, Carolyn. The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution. San Francisco: Harper, 1983.

Schroer, Silvia. “Mary's Foremothers.” National Catholic Reporter 25 Dec. 1992: 3. Infotrac Searchbank. Article A1332397. <

Steinbeck, John, and Edward F. Ricketts. The Log from the Sea of Cortez. 1951. New York: Penguin, 1986.

Stolzfus, Ben. Gide and Hemingway: Rebels Against God. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat, 1978.

Sylvester, Bickford. “The Cuban Context of The Old Man and the Sea.Cambridge Companion to Hemingway. Ed. Scott Donaldson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996. 243-68.

———. “Hemingway's Extended Vision: The Old Man and the Sea.PMLA (Mar. 1966): 130-38.

Thomas, Dylan. “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” The New Oxford Book of English Verse. Ed. Helen Gardner. New York: Oxford UP, 1972. 942.

Waggoner, Eric. “Inside the Current: A Taoist Reading of The Old Man and the Sea.Hemingway Review 17.2 (1998): 88-104.

Williams, Terry Tempest. An Unspoken Hunger: Stories from the Field. New York: Pantheon, 1994. 81-87.

Morris Freedman (essay date winter 2001)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2374

SOURCE: Freedman, Morris. “Disparaging Hemingway.” Virginia Quarterly Review 77, no. 1 (winter 2001): 76-82.

[In the essay below, Freedman speculates to what extent the media's fascination with and exploitation of the cult of personality in the case of Hemingway affects considerations of his writing and whether or not this may be justified.]

In introducing his less than admiring review of Ernest Hemingway's Across the River and Into the Trees, in The New York Times Book Review, John O'Hara referred to him as the greatest writer since Shakespeare. O'Hara wasn't simply being contrarian; I'm sure he could have reasonably justified the hyperbole. As a fellow professional writer, he understood that if Hemingway had not written much that was indifferent or inferior, like the book under scrutiny, as Shakespeare and O'Hara himself had done, Hemingway might not have written so much that was great.

O'Hara's intent was certainly not to set Hemingway up so as to level him in the rest of the review, in what seems to have become a Western tradition. Someone at some point thought it necessary to observe that even Homer nodded. Ben Jonson sniffed that Shakespeare had small Latin and less Greek; John Milton condescendingly spoke of him “warbl[ing] his native wood-notes wild” (my emphasis). The devaluation of Shakespeare reached lunatic proportions in later efforts to deny his authorship altogether.

We now have a library of books and articles, some speculative and dubious; some accurate or at least plausible; some disreputable; some casually, irresponsibly, and pointlessly libellous (the object of the calumny being dead); many distasteful and ill-advised; all in some measure intended to downgrade the writer: on Shakespeare's, Kipling's, and Hemingway's homosexuality; Milton's sexual naivety (one recent fiction depicted him also as a genocidal maniac); Carroll's and Barrie's pedophilia; James's impotence and asexuality; Shelley's domestic messiness; Byron's incest and bisexuality; Dickinson's abortions; Shaw's and Beerbohm's sexless marriages; Cather's lesbianism; Woolf's early rape and later mistreatment of her husband; Eliot's callousness toward his first wife; Trilling's Attention Deficit Disorder. The straining to pull down famed writers may well be a measure of the esteem in which society holds them.

Few of these debunking works illuminate the texts that established our interest in the writers in the first place. They find, exaggerate, even invent warts and other blemishes, which, while they should ideally contribute particularity, shading, and depth to a portrait, simply obscures it. They can be as hideous as Francis Bacon's paintings although he defines as he disfigures.

Modern instances remain especially vivid. The so-called “dirty letters” of Nora and James Joyce added little to what one may learn from Ulysses about them through the Blooms' marriage or from Richard Ellmann's biography. John Cheever's journals, which revealed his bisexual encounters, provided flashes of wry insight into his fiction. Their essential irrelevance became starkly clear in the farcical Seinfeld episode in which imagined love letters from Cheever to the father of one of the characters survived a fire: We didn't require Mencken's diaries, with their bits of vomitous hatred, to remind us of his quirkiness.

Does tabloid prurience become valid after a subject's death? Should we ever allow any important craftsman's personal idiosyncrasies and shortcomings, however ugly, bizarre, or “uncharacteristic,” however irrefutably documented, however disguised and hidden during a lifetime, diminish or alter our estimate of the work? Wagner? Dostoyevsky? Tolstoy? Wilde? Shakespeare himself (who may have been no better a husband and father than Hemingway)? Picasso? Mencken? Joyce? Yeats? Pound? Larkin? Salinger? Et al.

For all of the high-minded academic emphasis on the importance of the message over the messenger, on the song rather than the singer, literary study keeps descending to profitless, sensational biographical exposure. We leer at great writers the way groupies do at rock and media stars, coveting their refuse and records of their most ordinary activity. Hemingway once submitted shopping and laundry lists as part of his monthly contribution to Esquire magazine, almost contemptuously catering to this appetite. Like medieval peasants enthralled by saints, we are titillated by fetishistic bits of association, however spurious. But with our modern worship also come doubt and repudiation.

O'Hara aside, who did quite solemnly respect him, Hemingway has been the target of critical and academic discounting as perhaps no other writer in the English world since Shakespeare while simultaneously becoming a revered icon. My impression is that in the majority popular view Hemingway is more an object of ridicule than of regard. The centennial of his birth, 1999, loosed a torrent of disparagement plunging from grudging, carping concession of his merit to venomous insult and debasement. He was “accused” of having had too many marriages, divorces, and affairs; satyriasis; committing suicide; chronic alcoholism; anti-Semitism; being bisexual and antifeminist; machismo; careless writing; loving guns and war; killing animals for sport; hating his mother and father; abusing his wives and sons; etc., etc.

One might think our society had never come to the minimal enlightenment that holds some of these frailties and failings to be forms of sickness and inadequacy, their victims more to be pitied, treated, or forgiven than crudely condemned. We openly relish details of what we turn into case histories. “Such a sad, silly and troubled bastard,” one critic remarked of Hemingway, “is a biographer's dream.” Hemingway was also blamed during this celebratory stoning for somehow encouraging the cults and enterprises that have sprung up about his name, like the extremes Elvis Presley inspired, from bars in Paris and Key West advertising his alleged association with them to pens, furniture, clothing he supposedly favored, gatherings of look-alikes, big game hunting and fishing expeditions, periodic conventions of worshippers, many of whom hardly know his texts.

Putting down Hemingway, of course, had become a sport well before 1999. Lillian Ross's Profile in The New Yorker, in 1950, while Hemingway was still alive, early provided material for attacking him. In 1961, the year of his death, that Profile was republished as a book, Portrait of Hemingway. It depicted Hemingway in performance on a trip to New York, all in Ross's presence, most memorably for me, shopping for an elephant gun at Abercrombie and Fitch, aiming an imaginary one at the sky while walking on Madison Avenue, and meeting and talking with Marlene Dietrich, whom he called the “kraut” and who called him “Papa.” Hemingway came through to me in the Profile as extraordinarily, minutely alert to the figure he was cutting.

In 1999, The New Yorker ran in its May 24th issue Ross's reminiscence “Hemingway Told Me Things: Notes on a decade's correspondence” and a new, never published, “reconstructed” story by him, “Miss Mary's Sorrow.” The reminiscence appeared in good part as the Afterword to a new edition of her Portrait of Hemingway issued in that year. She wrote in the reminiscence that in her Profile she: “wanted to give a picture of this special man as he was, how he looked and sounded, with his vitality, his unique and fun-loaded conversation, and his enormous spirit of truthfulness intact. He had the nerve to be like nobody else on earth, stripping himself—like his writing—of all camouflage and ornament. To my surprise the piece was extremely controversial. Some readers objected strongly to Hemingway's personality and admired the piece for the wrong reasons. The Profile was called ‘devastating’ by some reviewers.”

Hemingway wrote to Lillian Ross that people told him she had with her Profile “made an effort to destroy me and nearly did.” Her report could only “destroy” him in that it did not satisfy the stereotype of a mythical Hemingway. Hemingway shrugged off the negative responses to him prompted by the Profile, implicitly acknowledging its accuracy. This episode illustrates the widespread common resentment and rejection of the man's blunt instinctual honesty, his compulsion and capacity to pose, the impress of his massive ego, qualities which emerge in the seeming offhand ease of his writing, its clean inevitability. As Ross indicated, the man and his work are one. Both demand respect when not distorted by expectation and both rouse similar conflicting reaction.

Hemingway too readily summons up the piquant mixture of envy and disapproval, contempt and adulation, provoked by strong, flamboyant, and, above all, successful creative personalities in our culture, those who display a consummate and easy control of their talent fused with a perhaps too comfortable sense of self: Mailer, Picasso, Ali, Sinatra, Piaf, Hitchcock, Colette, Dietrich, Gertrude Stein, Bacall, John Lennon, Mick Jagger, and before our immediate time: Byron, Wilde, Shaw, Jefferson, Lincoln, Disraeli, Pirandello, Freud, Einstein. All are “larger than life,” larger than the rest of us, that is, and, consequently, reminders of our limits. The original styles of powerful writers (Shakespeare, Milton, Faulkner, T. S. Eliot) have always inspired parody, a genre mixing admiration and derision. Burlesques of Hemingway's writing have become a ritual.

Culture heroes attract glib labels. Perhaps most outrageously, that of anti-Semitism has been applied casually and certainly superficially to Hemingway, as he himself light heartedly enough acknowledged. Robert Cohn, in The Sun Also Rises, has been the main basis for the charge. But Cohn is an unpleasant person, as anyone of any ethnic identity has a right to be, in fiction or out. He is a whiner and bully, a hanger on. Hemingway had no reason to apologize for his depiction of Cohn.

About Jews, Hemingway did write to Ross as follows, about a friend's wife: “There was always, with her, a lot of stuff about being Jewish and not being Jewish. This always bores the hell out of me because I would just as soon observe Yom Kippur as Easter, and I am really an Indian I guess anyway and we probably were as badly bitched as the Jews. I like Jews very much, but I always get bored with people making a career of their race, religion, or their noble families. Why can't we take the whole damned thing for granted?” He introduced himself as “Hemingstein” to persons he knew didn't like Jews; he liked to call himself “Huck Hemingstein.”

It is absurd; of course, to hold Hemingway responsible for the reshaping of his writing leftovers to make “new” works after his death. Much of the centennial drubbing of Hemingway had to do with the appearance of hitherto unpublished materials, some puzzlingly edited.

These baldly ballyhooed publications raised a pertinent, perhaps disturbing question. What are we to do with any writer's scribblings, doodlings, experiments, scraps, jeux d'esprit, drafts, notes, casual jottings, sketches that never get rewritten or incorporated into finished work, released by the writer while still in full control, but remain as part of an estate? The New Yorker reworked short story “never should have seen the light of day,” wrote Michiko Kukitani in The New York Times. But I do not think we should routinely hide or destroy everything not initialled by the creator.

I think the treatment of Hemingway's literary remains, and the response to them, argues that they should have been offered to the world in as close to their original form as possible, principally for their productive use by teachers, scholars, students, critics, editors, other specialists, and legitimate enthusiasts (a listing which would, of course, require careful sifting). We would have lost a valuable work of art and history if we did not have A Moveable Feast, which was published two years after Hemingway's death from a manuscript he did not edit for publication.

I recall viewing a selection of Alexander Pope's posthumous manuscripts at the New York Public Library. They consisted of dozens of pairs of rimed words running down the right side of several sheets of paper, the left sides left blank, indicating that Pope for this unfinished project composed the ending words before he did the lines preceding them. It would have been a desecration, I think, if anyone other than Pope had contributed the missing lines. I like to think that Pope did not write all his heroic verse like this, that these pages were exclusively early efforts, but it is bemusing—and informative—to wonder whether he may indeed have composed at times like this throughout his life. I was surprised, enlightened, and moderately disappointed to hear Stephen Sondheim confess that he used a riming dictionary.

Carving and trimming the short story for The New Yorker was certainly a noble exercise of some sort. If nothing else, the result suggests how much Hemingway may have admired his early masterpiece, “The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” which it evokes in characterization, plot, and setting. Reproducing a success is human, and it is satisfying to see Hemingway indulging a simple human impulse.

The new African book, True at First Light, from which the short story was taken and was itself roundly faulted, brought one positive comment. “Despite the repressed and narrowing solipsism of True at First Light,” Brenda Wineapple wrote in The Nation, “its evocation of the insomniac's terrified loneliness reminds us of Hemingway's writing at its most touching, acute and beautiful best, the prose, say, of his early stories. And as if he knew this, in his mythical Africa, he sleeps with his head cradled on a pillow that, filled with balsam needles, smells of his Michigan boyhood.”

As we know too little of Shakespeare the man, we know perhaps too much of Hemingway. What we do not need for either is the kind of ranking Hemingway despised, the assignment of place in an eternal judging contest. Shakespeare needs no numbering; neither does Hemingway. I think it unfortunate, although perhaps salutary, that O'Hara felt he had to make his tote of Hemingway, who belongs in Shakespeare's company (with or without O'Hara's placement), along with others, none needing numbers on their backs. Nor do we need prodigies of interpretation and mediation to argue Hemingway's achievement; at this point these approach patronizing him. O'Hara's striking hyperbole compels serious attention even while we feel its puffery.

We might get more out of Hemingway's posthumously gathered works, with all hemming and hawing, all false starts, all lapses from grace, left intact. We have long derived substantial reward from studying unfinished projects of important craftsmen. Works in progress of true artists are the raw materials of final beauty: diamonds in the rough, rich with the mystery of promise. Hemingway deserves no less homage than leaving the man, his life, his work less pawed over.

Principal Works

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 181

Three Stories & Ten Poems (short stories and poetry) 1923

in our time (short stories) 1924; revised edition published as In Our Time, 1925

The Sun Also Rises (novel) 1926; also published as Fiesta, 1927

The Torrents of Spring (novel) 1926

Men without Women (short stories) 1927

A Farewell to Arms (novel) 1929

Death in the Afternoon (nonfiction) 1932

Winner Take Nothing (short stories) 1933

Green Hills of Africa (nonfiction) 1935

To Have and Have Not (novel) 1937

The Fifth Column and the First Forty-nine Stories (play and short stories) 1939

For Whom the Bell Tolls (novel) 1940

Across the River and into the Trees (novel) 1950

The Old Man and the Sea (novel) 1952

The Snows of Kilimanjaro, and Other Stories (short stories) 1961

The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, and Other Stories (short stories) 1963

A Moveable Feast (memoir) 1964

By-Line: Ernest Hemingway: Selected Articles and Dispatches of Four Decades (journalism) 1968

Islands in the Stream (novel) 1970

The Nick Adams Stories (short stories) 1972

88 Poems (poetry) 1979

Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters, 1917-1961 [edited by Carlos Baker] (correspondence) 1981

The Complete Stories of Ernest Hemingway (short stories) 1987

The Garden of Eden (novel) 1987

True at First Light [edited by Patrick Hemingway] (fictionalized memoir) 1999

Derek Walcott (essay date 2000)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4237

SOURCE: Walcott, Derek. “Hemingway Now.” North Dakota Quarterly 68, nos. 2-3 (spring-summer 2001): 6-13.

[In the following essay, originally given as the keynote address for the Ninth International Hemingway Conference in 2000, Walcott, a Nobel Prize-winning poet, recounts how, as a young writer growing up on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, Hemingway's precise descriptions of geography and light were critical to his own development as a poet.]

As I write this in the Santa Cruz valley in northern Trinidad, I think I hear what sounds like the echo of collected rain on the thick, rich forests that cover the hills, the sounds of rain either going or coming, a sound that is like far traffic or the sea in the rainy weather that comes with the turn of the year. I have been reading the grateful and bountiful book by V. S. Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival, which catches his pain and marvel at the English countryside, and line by line along the progress of this passage on Hemingway, that sound and echo that I hear is the sound of great prose, as great in its prediction as in its echo, nourishing, real, cherished, and, to be deliberately archaic and provoke dismissal, sacred because there is very little left of that around us now, yet it is here in the rain-echo in the wet Santa Cruz hills. When a writer like Naipaul, archaic in his veneration of a fabled, faded England, brings his pages as close as the rain-drenched hills outside my window, he is doing what Hemingway always has done from his first work to the most recently published: made the weather more than geography in Spain, in Michigan, in Italy, in the green hills of Africa. They remain the same as his prose has remained the same, more than mere botany and light a dimension which he labored to find, and which in the end, and in the middle became too easy and for a long time, false. Well, not false, but treacherous, fighting to restore its freshness.

I came early to Hemingway as a young writer. I did not know there was prophecy in my appreciation and my apprenticeship to Hemingway, the Hemingway of The Sun Also Rises and of Death in the Afternoon and all the bullfight short stories set in Spain when I read them in the forever summer light of my Caribbean island, that without wanting to, and perhaps not even enjoying it completely as I fulfilled a prophecy that repeated and reshaped itself in the season of San Sebastian, the town hall and the loud square, the parade of huge mannequins and the slanted shadow and the huge heart-lifting roar for the galloping bull that silently thundered into the arena, every image confirming his sentences. I felt no reward. I was not on a literary pilgrimage, but the confirmation was sacred in its accuracy. This was nearly fifty years after I had felt the sunlight through print. I never hoped to say the word “Spain!” I was not that kind of aficionado. My respect was separate from travel, from personal endorsement. It was good that the Spain that we saw in San Sebastian confirmed the red-scarfed crowd of the novel, but I silently compared it to what was written, true in its light and astonishment because it was Hemingway. Because it was what had been in the early days, the reverential, ritualistic sharpening of pencils and the re-creation and recreation of nouns, even of articles. It was like Spanish painting of Spanish subjects, Goya in a festive sun.

I feel none of the estrangement that an almost seventy-year-old writer feels with the authors of his apprenticeship. I wrote a number of sonnets modeled on the italicized epiphanies of In Our Time, in their distance and terseness learning to subdue the instinctual lyricism of meter of poetic melody for the melody of the factual, and practiced a different sort of suppleness, not a predictable pliancy. They were essentialized fiction. They accommodated my island surroundings with delight. Nouns held echoes. Places rapidly replanted themselves in the primal clarity of his syntax. I knew quite early that imitation was the way to originality as he himself had learnt not only from his predecessors like the Jacobean poets and their St. James version, but from his contemporaries, Gertrude Stein and Sherwood Anderson. I also knew that the life of writing was a marathon, a long challenge that a young, measured, and studious racer needed, no matter how vain it sounded, great writers to pace him without collapse.

There were other influences, of course, but his was perhaps the most reassuring because of the light it contained, the light that played over the stones in the riverbed from the first page in A Farewell to Arms, its inexplicable technique so close to painting, so that when he wrote in the Caribbean, decades later, the skill of catching the hues of the sea, close to the shore or far out became even truer and more painterly, like the watercolors of Winslow Homer. Thomas Hudson in Islands in the Stream is a painter. My other influences were innumerable, they were an anthology, but nothing felt quite as close as that prose, that gift of intimacy that not many writers have, that is not there in his contemporaries, Fitzgerald and Faulkner, or even O'Hara.

And then it seemed that the light dimmed, that the meter, once so true in its conviction, dilated itself to include what it had once rejected, the adverbial, the adjectival, a parenthetical syntax and a broader vocabulary and worse, a tone that became pompous in its parody, its intimacies too arch and omniscient, a symmetry once lean and swift that had become sluggish and put on weight around the middle such as that parody of the expert in “A Natural History of the Dead,” too much so in the exchanges with the Old Lady in Death in the Afternoon, a style that had once kept its chivalric hermetic solitude now had other voices grown garrulous, a loquacity that turned his readers into members of a privileged club.

The tenacity of his example was now nearly derailed, a momentum fueled by vanity, by fame and alcohol, for there was one myth that I and other writer friends believed: that because the drinking heroes of his fiction never had alcoholic nausea or vomited or became impossible and incoherent, that we too were not on our way to being drunkards, losing control of all that knightly chivalry and terseness, until we began to suffer the agony of remorse and the stupidities of our boorishness. At least mine. I am not blaming Hemingway for my own misconduct. I am simply recording a clouding of a clarity that the code of his fiction was supposed to provide, the self-deceit of a lie which he himself excoriates in the italicized confessions in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” in Islands in the Stream, and even in True at First Light where he calls himself names with a harshness that his enemies and critics might envy, yet which I have never been able to do. One must understand the clouding doubt of the disciple. Of a discipline.

I have read the saddening, desolating biographies, I have eavesdropped, to me often obscenely, on the treacheries, the quarrels, and not because compassion is by nature stubborn, have not made them more important than the work (I may have no compassion at all and may be just as brutal as he could be about the pain of others), but because what accompanied his style what is, rather, inseparable from it is the compulsion to be good; not only good at his work but in his conduct. Moral severity comes with his sentences, a hope for innocence, a simplicity that sounds more than chivalrous: evangelical, for the prose has the rhythm of didactic simplification, but we know how long and how well it sustained him. His real conduct was often disgusting as is ours, his cruelty appealing as is ours, the graceful considerate marriage he describes in True at First Light is mawkish, even dishonest, as if truth were simply a matter of behavior: what is true as things are at dawn, with all beginnings when the world is Academic and waiting to be renamed is that we cannot live only by the accuracies of fiction, that there is an ideal conduct beyond the chaos and pain of the day and the fear and torment of our insomniac nights in which, despite our griefs, we keep vigil for the dawn however brief its glory, and that is why, unlike his critics, I cannot condemn him for his deterioration into madness and despair, and because what I cherish is this miraculous fusion of poetry and prose in the epilogue to Death in the Afternoon, that sound I mentioned that collected its echo of rain hidden in the Santa Cruz hills, a meter that moves into its own radiance, its blessing gratitude in our time also and beyond it.

So I have seen what was once unimaginable: the decline of Hemingway's reputation and the slow plummet of his fixity where what was upheld as unarguable, his style, by which I mean syntax and melody, is dismissed as artifice and posture, the clarity of the famous sentences clouded by contempt. Yet this is easy enough to understand because of the posthumous books, particularly now his latest and, allegedly, his last, True at First Light, none of them equal to his early and middle work all of which have also come into question, justifiably, perhaps, but the reek of malice that rises from the appraisal of a carcass is now, as I said, incredible.

Cycles, seasons, epochs are part of the climate of criticism. Literature succumbs to the measure of time and is part of the divisions of history into ages and schools. Ben Jonson knew this and said of his friend Shakespeare, “He was not for an age but for all time,” and Hemingway titled one of his collections, in our time, in lowercase originally.

More than for other writers whose fame has lapsed, I hold the critical disenchantment with Hemingway to be a betrayal not merely of responsibility but of my own ardor and devotion, a lie because they alter Hemingway's tone and because they take the depth and variety of his influence for granted, the degeneration of criticism in the degeneracy of our time. Hemingway did not write criticism. He saved his prose the way that poets hoard their verse against the corruptions of explication, of the didactic and authoritative, that is a cherishing of ignorance which, in art, is the same as innocence, against the conceit of criticism, its eventual omniscience.

What has become outdated in Hemingway is for these critics a moral conviction whose base is the Bible and certain Spanish writers, a code of sportsmanship and practiced courtesy that has made his fiction as archaic in its manners as ritual chivalric texts with their knights and damsels and the quest for grace. But more distance will confirm a perceptible symmetry.

In contemporary criticism, pallor is a quality, an aesthetic attribute; paleness, insipidity, a vulnerability to aggression, a defensive sense of injury against assault which is in their judgment a symptom for ambition, bloodless skill, and hypocritical modesty—these are today's critics, emasculated imaginations, and this is true of the concept of cojones, or writing as bravery, not only genitally male but androgynous, the courage that Annie Proulx has not only because she writes about Wyoming cowboys, but because the prose itself has symmetry as an exercise of proportion that is physical. Gertrude Stein passed it on to Hemingway not because she was a false man, a close-cropped Lesbian, but because she understood the urgency which demands grace of every gesture, every sentence.

Towards the inaudible applause of our approvers, our scholarship, our criticism still seems to want to please for its ingenuity; and Hemingway's example was to achieve a clarity that eliminated both the habit and the need for criticism for an alternative sound of pleasure, denying a syntax of contempt for the pure clean thing, the elemental simplicity of water of the clear running stream over stones; for what could that prose be but a replica of its source, its imitation of the very thing that it praised or condemned? Again Stein had preceded him with her paradox of deliberate anti-sense, anti-reflex, against the meter of prediction, or criticism. What do we mean by pure? Certainly a devotion that is religious in it monastic ritual, its exclusion of all that interrupts clear and ultimately elate meditation.

He wrote not only for reading but for rereading, for a different scansion of time that defied chronology like poetry, by its methods, mimetic incantation and contraction of phrase but all of this without metaphor or simile. This quickly congealed into formula by his imitators. Yet it was a principle based not on toughness but on fragility, not on aggression but in protection, on a cherishing of life. The braggart posturing was obviously an armor of protection, a fear of wounding of himself and the word.

How pseudo-chivalric that sounds! The limitations of virtue in literature as in theatre are a subdued ignorance of complexity: heroes are courageous, the maiden is, at least in spirit, virtuous; but these are the ideal, they are not endowed with such qualities at the beginning: they arrive at them through the ordeal of the quest even in the dragonish threat of the nada, of despair, pointlessness, how much the opposite of another monodist—Beckett—evidently is for our time. Hemingway apparently is for another time. A time when … A time when what? A time when war was not elsewhere, fought abroad and nothing threatened the centrally pastoral isolation of the farms and cities of the American plain, when soldiers did not go away to fight and when war did indeed sound chivalrous and distant, until Vietnam brought futility and defeat home and all those archaic homilies were trampled purposelessly by Frederic Henrys for no good reason except that they were sent.

The horrors of combat in Hemingway are as real in his fiction as they are in his reporting as a journalist for the Toronto Star. The horror of the mules' legs being broken so that they could drown quickly, the horror of lines of refugees, but their subject changes into epiphanies, condensations, crystallizations of experience that have the instinct of compression that exists in lyric poetry, not idealized by language but made as real as possible, and the two instincts are the same, they blend in their moral as well, as their aesthetic responsibilities, to tell things truly. The “trulyness” is Keats's “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” even in the humble reality of experience.

As Hemingway's reputation steadied itself like a star, the life beneath it became more boisterous and slovenly and the exaggerated devotion to the pardon and redemption of telling things truthfully and therefore beautifully became self-indulgent and then self-pardoning, yet there was also self-condemnation and mockery as in the self-abusive passages of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and a lot in Islands in the Stream. The public conduct kept up its façade of chivalry, but the pose was too exacting and collapsed often more and more, one over-easy cause being alcohol.

This assessment is too easy; what should be looked at is whether the degeneration of style became the corruption of truth.

A generous buffoon is a contradiction, including Falstaff, so braggart though he became, as his fame broadened, any display of his critical intelligence seemed the strategy of his enemies whom he called “the lice that crawl[ed] over literature.” His vanity was easily injured, to the point of violence, but this was the unembarassed anger that all writers, except those who are saints, feel against critics who they see as practicing civilized malice. The lyric gift can be both immortal and fragile, for example, Keats, Hart Crane, and when Hemingway sustained its injury he brought an actual brutality into the ring or arena to counter the snide and subtle jeering of those who practiced another prose, a prose of exposition, or argument, a high whoring that used the same words that he fought so hard to renew, the work of what I have called in a crass phrase “prose-ti-tutes.” We can understand the exasperation because it will lead to the disease of despair, but throughout his life until its last few months he fought that despair with what admiringly enough became a greater courage demanded of him than any war, to soldier on with language even with the forced march of a contradicting joy, even though the repetitive shambles of the last manuscripts, though they are not really shambles, they needed an energy of editing that was beyond his mental strength, but the writing, the power and grace of it through the oceanic mass of material that had accumulated around it, like one of his barrel-bellied and spear-driving wounded and bleeding fish held to the same horizon of his youth.

The language changed, even faded, and like a beached tarpon appeared to lose the hues of its scales and syllables, but it restored itself by an inner will. It even regained radiance in its dead weight, if it was dead.

What this resilience of language, even of style, proves is how firmly rooted even to its aging tree was the apprenticeship to Gertrude Stein, to what he appropriated from Sherwood Anderson, to the Bible, and prose Shakespeare, and the direct bareness of his cabled reportage. The freshness survives. Freshness of intellect while the body is disease-battered and decaying until it collapses into an insulting, obscene paranoia, that secular religion that like another madman and priest of nature, John Clare, which sustained him is what will keep Hemingway great. That gift of melting into what is being described is organic, seasonal in its fading, but self-renewing as spring. His death and the shock of his suicide will pass into chronology, but how strange and how redeeming that his delight in observation should shine with such health, the true spring of which is love. This is how he should be read and how his befouled reputation will be restored. After the hyenas have picked it clean, but they will eat anything, the hyenas, they will eat Shakespeare as they will any other dead writer without caring about the difference in the meat.

The Sun Also Rises is about conduct, about a code that, however muted, is chivalric, manners that in the most simple conversations require a performance as studied as the flourishes of a bullfighter's cape, done with the artifice of selective repetition, not really dialogue but meter, gently incantatory, ritualistic in a shared vocabulary more European than American. No one talks the way people do in Hemingway, but that is also true of Shakespeare and of Restoration comedy.

His principal characters, his knights, frequently enter chapels like Jake Barnes, pause in their pilgrimage, genuflect, and cross themselves even if the crucifixion means nada though it may mean everything to others. The romance of the Protestant for the Catholic is there even in the agnostic and sometimes blasphemous epiphanies of In Our Time. Including bullfights his tenderness towards animals is Franciscan. He slaughters doves, he is a hunter. A hunter who loves what he kills? This is Santiago's attitude to the huge fish, inexplicable to me or anyone not a sportsman but perhaps inseparable from the skill of the hunter, the accurately fatal grace of the bullfighter plunging the sword into the hump over the heart. Hemingway no more mythologized tauromachy than the crowd still does. It is the knight's love for the dragon.

This is what makes his characters emblems and what gives most of his work, especially A Farewell to Arms,The Sun Also Rises, even To Have and Have Not and The Old Man and the Sea, the echo of fable. Their heroes are knights, the plot is a quest, the loss and rescue of the fair lady contains the redemption of a clear courage even when the knight is maimed like Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises or dismembered like one-armed Harry Morgan in To Have and Have Not or challenged by an enormous monster whose domain is the sea like old Santiago and his oar lance in The Old Man and the Sea.

In In Our Time conspicuous virtue is out of fashion, what is preferred is a polysyllabic alleged complexity that believes it examines more than the monodic declarations of the early Hemingway. This is the meter, that of a school primer or a nursery rhyme: “The king was in the garden. …” Certain emotions are as simple as banners. In a well-known passage in A Farewell to Arms, Frederic Henry and his creator Hemingway disown those famous banners of words like sacrifice, comparing them to the stockyards of Chicago, yet for all his cynicism he knows that these emotions exist, that words like love and courage are just as easily corrupted and demeaned. That they are just as easily true and therefore immortal.

Combine that code of conduct with its moral severity whose reward is simply performing bravely as its Grail. Its punishment, which is the confirmation of nothing—nada—nada—with the solidity of detail endures its surroundings, houses, bridges, cities real and its landscapes clear in their weather, and you have this remarkable simultaneity which exists in a few great writers, nearly always poets, in Dante, in Chaucer, in the prose Shakespeare of Henry IV, Part Two, a gift that bequeaths even in tragedy. Enchantment.

In the epigraph of True at First Light, he has written for his detractors an epitaph for his rising reputation:

In Africa a thing is true at first light and a lie by noon and you have no more respect for it than for the lovely, perfect weed-fringed lake you see across the sun baked salt plain. You have walked across that plain in the morning and you know that no such lake is there. But now it is there absolutely true, beautiful and believable.

The truest more beautiful and believable time of Hemingway's work was not only at its sunrise; it reached its truest a little past its zenith in the early afternoon career—in the believable light of the epilogue to Death in the Afternoon:

And why should it not have the cavalry crossing another stream at a ford, the shadow of the leaves on the horses, if it is Spain, and why not have them marching out from the machine-gun school across the clay white ground, very small so far away, and looking beyond from Quintanilla's window were the mountains. Or waking in the morning, the streets empty on Sunday, and the shouting far away and then the firing. That happens many times if you live long enough and move around.

And if you ride and if your memory is good you may ride still through the forest of the Irati with trees like drawings in a child's fairy book. They cut those down. They ran logs down the river and they killed the fish, or in Galica they bombed and poisoned them; results the same; so in the end it's just like home except for yellow gorse on the high meadows and the thin rain. Clouds come across the mountains from the sea but when the wind is from the south Navarra is all the color of wheat except it does not grow on level plains but up and down the sides of hills and cut by roads with trees and many villages with bells, pelota courts, the smell of sheep manure and squares with standing horses.

If you could make the yellow flames of candles in the sun; that shines on steel of bayonets freshly oiled and yellow patent leather belts of those who guard the Host; or hunt in pairs through scrub oak in the mountains for the ones who fell into the trap at Deva (it was a bad long way to come from the Café Rotonde to be garrotted in a drafty room with consolation of the church at order of the state, acquitted once and held until the captain general of Burgos reversed the finding of the court) and in the same town where Loyola got his wound that made him think, the bravest of those who were betrayed that year dove from the balcony onto the paving of the court, head first, because he had sworn they would not kill him; (his mother tried to make him promise not to take his life because she worried most about his soul but he dived well and cleanly with his hands tied while they walked with him praying); if I could make him; make a bishop; make Candido Tiebas and Toron; make clouds come fast in shadows moving over wheat and the small, careful stepping horses; the smell of olive oil; the feel of leather; rope-soled shoes; the loops of twisted garlics; earthen pots; saddle bags carried across the shoulder; wine skins; the pitchforks made of natural wood (the tines were branches); the early morning smells; the cold mountain nights and long hot days of summer, with always trees and shade under the trees, then you would have a little of Navarra. But it's not in this book.

Harold Bloom (essay date 2002)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1814

SOURCE: Bloom, Harold. “Ernest Hemingway.” In Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds, pp. 569-574. New York: Warner Books, 2002.

[In the following essay, Bloom argues that although Hemingway is better known for his life and personality than for his literary production, Hemingway's novel The Sun Also Rises is an important contribution to literary and cultural history.]

They were seated in the boat, Nick in the stern, his father rowing. The sun was coming up over the hills. A bass jumped, making a circle in the water. Nick trailed his hand in the water. It felt warm in the sharp chill of the morning.

In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing, he felt quite sure that he would never die.

That is the conclusion of “Indian Camp,” one of the Nick Adams stories, in which Nick is a version of the young Hemingway. William Hazlitt, superb English critic, observed that no young man believes he will ever die. Hemingway possessed a particular poignance in the study of death; like his own father, he forestalled death by suicide.

Notoriously, we celebrate Hemingway for his stance and style, as manifested in his prose and his life. Like Byron, Whitman, and Wilde, Hemingway has become a mythical personage. His highly deliberate mythmaking is an aesthetic distraction when one reads his later novels. The short stories, with their remarkable economy, are armored against Hemingway's involuntary self-parodies, which mar Across the River and into the Trees and the very popular but inadequate The Old Man and the Sea.

Hemingway claimed Mark Twain as American ancestor, and Joseph Conrad as a more distant precursor. Nearly all post-Hemingway American writers have been contaminated by Hemingway, sometimes to their anguish. His stance was precarious, being just this side of sentimental. And yet he remains the unique American master of the short story, and enters that pantheon that includes Chekhov, Turgenev, and James Joyce.

Like Lord Byron and Oscar Wilde, Hemingway is more renowned for his life and personality than for his literary work. Though this palpably undervalues Don Juan, The Importance of Being Earnest, and a dozen superb short stories, no one need deplore the charisma of these authors. Goethe, after all, is an even grander example of the genius of personality obscuring (in his case) an enormous achievement. Since my text here is The Sun Also Rises (1926), which is not the equal of the best Hemingway stories, there is also the dilemma that what increasingly seems a period piece necessarily suffers by being considered in sequence with The Scarlet Letter, Moby-Dick, and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Still, better this than any other novel by Hemingway, since only here does he maintain, in certain episodes, a significant revelation of his genius, his capacity for inventing a new prose style and stance.

Hemingway asserted that Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was his model, and he mentioned also, as American precursors, Stephen Crane and Henry James. He acknowledged Joseph Conrad, who was the crucial forerunner, as he was for Scott Fitzgerald and for Faulkner. Hemingway's relation to Conrad is very subtle: his mode of heroism revises Conrad's without refuting it. It makes me uneasy when I juxtapose Hemingway's novels with Conrad's: The Secret Agent, Under Western Eyes, Nostromo, and Victory are aesthetic achievements beyond Hemingway's span. The author of For Whom the Bell Tolls boasted of taking on Tolstoy, which was unfortunate: Conrad at least was within range.

The Sun Also Rises was published in October 1926, and provides a perfect instance of the work influencing the life, more than the life the work. Like Lord Byron after Childe Harold, Hemingway woke up to find himself famous, the charismatic representative of the Lost Generation, forever to be identified with expatriate Paris and Madrid in the 1920s. Brett Ashley became an archetype for restless, destructive young women, and Hemingway became Hemingway, with his credo that only bullfighters, boxers, and big-game hunters lived their lives all the way up.

Of the importance of The Sun Also Rises for literary and cultural history, no one retains doubt. Whether the novel still sustains careful rereading is another matter, as is the question of Hemingway's genius, so strongly manifested in just the stories he liked the best: “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” “In Another Country,” “Hills Like White Elephants,” “A Way You'll Never Be,” “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” “A Clean Well-Lighted Place,” and “The Light of the World.” I would add to these seven “The End of Something,” “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen,” and “The Sea Change,” and other readers would have different choices. If you go back to any of these after some years away, they leap out at you: they are exemplary stories, in style and in imaginative vision.

Rereading The Sun Also Rises is a more complex experience: much of it begins to balance precariously at the verge of the period piece. Perhaps it has toppled over, and is now a period piece. One definition of literary genius has to be that its central works do not become period pieces, as Hemingway's best stories, despite parodies and self-parodies, do not. I find I am about to move into a digression on period pieces, and Swift warns against the dangers of digressions, but a book on geniuses of language cannot avoid a meditation upon period pieces, though it is a painful and vexed subject, particularly these crowded days, when so many—in my judgment—period pieces have been canonized by the media and the universities, or to be more accurate, the media-universities.

A period, in the sense relevant here, is an interval of time characterized by the prevalence of a specified culture, ideology, or technology: I quote definition 2 from the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fourth edition, 2000. In a literary context, a period piece is not timeless in its aesthetic and intellectual value, but merely reflects a particular moment (or span) when an ideology of culture was dominant. Works of genius of course are both timeless and reflective of an era: you can, if you wish, regard Hamlet as a reflection of London in 1601, but you don't need Hamlet for such a reflection, as there are plenty of alternatives. I have excluded living writers of genius (and we do have some) from this book, because the mediauniversities cannot tell them apart from the authors of our ocean of period pieces, and while I think I can, I am haunted always by my hero, Dr. Samuel Johnson, who once unfortunately remarked, “Tristram Shandy did not last.” If Johnson nods, shall not his belated disciple fall asleep?

What incontrovertibly has faded in The Sun Also Rises is Lady Brett Ashley, a New Woman perhaps in 1925, but only another destroyer of the self and of others in 2001 (when I write). What has not faded, paradoxically enough, is the period of this period piece (to call it that). The aesthetic Paris of the early and middle 1920s is one of the major centers in the Western movement once uselessly called “Modernism,” since every generation necessarily has its own modernism. Picasso, Stravinsky, Proust, Joyce are a matchless fourfold in twentieth-century culture, even if Gertrude Stein (like Ezra Pound a touch earlier) was more important for Hemingway as a catalyst. Though The Sun Also Rises has an autobiographical matrix, Hemingway worked hard to free his first major fiction from his life. Jake Barnes, Hemingway's surrogate, is unmarried; Hadley, the novelist's first wife, is removed from the story.

If Brett is now something of a period piece, what is the status of Jake Barnes? He saves the novel, insofar as it can be validated. The reader needs proportion: try rereading The Sun Also Rises after rereading Joyce's Ulysses. Hemingway cannot change the way you read: he raises your consciousness of style and of sensibility, but does not alter your entire relationship to language.

He is the first instance of a recurrent American phenomenon: a minor novelist with a major style. A genius of sensibility who cannot create deep inwardness in his characters is better suited to the short story, where lyric intensity can replace drama. The Sun Also Rises works best as an extended elegy for the self. This is not to make Jake Barnes/Hemingway into Walt Whitman, and yet there is something Whitmanian in Hemingway's stance and mode, the desire to say what cannot be said, the overtones of biblical style even where there are no relevant allusions. I mean a style in which Hemingway, like Whitman, evokes by parataxis, which is a structuring of sentences so that they convey no distinctions of a higher or a lower order. That gives the tone of a withdrawal from all affect, while actually investing affect in the consistency of the withdrawal:

I thought I had paid for everything. Not like the woman pays and pays and pays. No idea of retribution or punishment. Just exchange of values. You gave up something and got something else. Or you worked for something. You paid some way for everything that was any good. I paid my way into enough things that I liked, so that I had a good time. Either you paid by learning about them, or by experience, or by taking chances, or by money. Enjoying living was learning to get your money's worth and knowing when you had it. You could get your money's worth. The world was a good place to buy in. It seemed like a fine philosophy. In five years, I thought, it will seem just as silly as all the other fine philosophies I've had.

That is characteristic Jake Barnes, and is classic Hemingway. The style has been so influential, from John Steinbeck and John O'Hara through Nelson Algren and Norman Mailer, that we are in danger of taking it as a commonplace kind of understatement, but Hemingway perfected it. A great style became a period style, and lost some of its flavor.

Jake Barnes calls himself a bad Catholic, since his pragmatic religion is the bullfight, and he searches for Christ in the great bullfighters whose art of courage is one of Hemingway's favored images of “grace under pressure.” Reread in 2001, The Sun Also Rises can read like a companion to Eliot's The Waste Land, though Hemingway was not waiting for grace and did not undergo a conversion, as Eliot did. Clearly there is a nostalgia for a Catholic ordering of spirituality in Jake Barnes, but Hemingway never yielded to it, and, like his father, he ended by shooting himself.

The genius abides steadily in the short stories, some of which, like “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen,” and “The Light of the World,” seem to touch the limits of the art. There was a daemon in Hemingway, but he was a lyrical spirit, and was likely to wander away if a narrative became too extended.

Mario Vargas Llosa (essay date fall-winter 2000-01)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1718

SOURCE: Vargas Llosa, Mario. “Extemporaneities.” Salmagundi, nos. 128-129 (fall-winter 2000-01): 42-7.

[In the following essay, Vargas Llosa, one of Latin America's best-known writers, reflects on the archetypal qualities and origins of Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea.]

When his mediocre novel Across the River and into the Trees was savaged by critics, few would have predicted the comeback Hemingway would make with The Old Man and the Sea, an exemplary, concise modern classic about courage that may well have assured his reputation and won him the Nobel Prize. The plot of the 1952 novel is simple: an old fisherman, eighty-four days without a catch, captures a huge fish in a titanic two-and-a-half day struggle; he ties it to his small skiff, only to lose it again, after a second heroic fight, to the jaws of Caribbean sharks. It is a characteristic Hemingway fiction: a man's confrontation with an implacable adversary raises him, irrespective of triumph or defeat, to a higher plane of dignity and pride. In none of his previous novels or short stories does this recurring theme come through with such sharpness. Written in Cuba in 1951, stylistically diaphanous and impeccably structured, this work carries a load of allusions and meanings comparable to any of his longer novels. The book, for all of its richness, appears to be clean and clear, but, like some biblical parables or Arthurian legends, it conceals under its apparent simplicity complex ethical and religious allegories, psychological subtleties and transcendental postulates. Where critics like Edmund Wilson had seen in Across the River the symptoms of an ineluctable decadence, and others had noted stereotyping and a tendency to rhetorical posturing, the later, slighter book at once seemed a great writer's swan song. William Faulkner predicted that it would emerge, in spite of its brevity, as the most permanent of Hemingway's books, and he appears to have been right. Even brilliant earlier works like The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls now seem dated. Hemingway's elemental vision of maleness, like his sometimes superficial folklorism, no longer resonates with contemporary sensibilities less tolerant than earlier readers of his tendency to mythologizing.

But The Old Man and the Sea, like many of the great short stories, has sailed tersely across the shoals of time, and retains its power as a seductive modern myth. Reading the book today, we find it almost impossible to resist the suspicion that Santiago's fight against the gigantic marlin and, later, his struggle with Gulf water sharks, draw heavily upon the writer's own struggle against the entrenched devils, the alcoholism and fear of flagging vitality, that undermined first his intellectual acuity and then his physical constitution. In 1961 the fears and failures drove him, impotent, deprived of memory and courage, to blow his head off with one of the weapons that he loved so much.

Of course the story of a Cuban fisherman in tropical waters and his struggle against the silent enemies that will inevitably defeat him describes a more permanent and universal challenge, that of life itself to living beings. Here too there is the spartan suggestion that, by confronting their own trials with Santiago's courage and dignity, men can attain, in spite of defeat, moral stature and a justification for their existence. When Santiago returns exhausted to his little village with bloodied hands and the useless skeleton of his prey, we regard him not as defeated but as morally enlarged by his experience. A sad but not a pessimistic story, it shows that under the direst trials and tribulations, a man's behavior may transform defeat into triumph and add meaning to his life. Santiago, on the morning after his return, is more dignified than before he sailed. The boy Manolin cries in admiration of the unshattered old man, rather than in love and compassion. That is the meaning of the famous phrase that Santiago speaks in the middle of the ocean, which became Hemingway's anthropological motto: “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.” Not every man, of course, only those—the heroes of his fictions: the warriors, hunters, bullfighters, smugglers, all kinds of adventurers—gifted, like the fisherman, with Hemingway's emblematic virtue of courage.

Courage, however, is not always an admirable attribute; it can be the fruit of stupidity or unawareness, as in hitmen, or bullies for whom the exercise of violence is an affirmation of manhood, making them feel superior to the victims who are struck down by their fists or bullets. This depiction of courage, a part of an old tradition of “machismo,” is not alien to Hemingway, appearing sometimes in his stories, particularly in his African chronicles and in his particular vision of bullfighting. The other face of courage shows no exhibitionist physical prowess, is rather a stoical confrontation of adversity, without surrender or self-pity, as in the Jake Barnes who overcomes with sober elegance a physical disability that deprives him of love and sex, or the Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls, who confronts the imminence of death. These are Santiago's kin. He is a very humble and a very poor man—he lives in a miserable hut and warms his sleep with newspapers—and he is also very old, his village's object of derision. He is also lonely, having lost his wife many years before; his only companions are his memories of the lions that he had seen walking on African beaches from the turtle fishing boat in which he had sailed in his youth, or certain U.S. baseball stars like Joe DiMaggio, or Manolin, the boy who once fished with him, but now, to comply with his parents' wishes, sails with some other fisherman. For Santiago fishing is not, as it was for Hemingway and many of his protagonists, a sport or a diversion, a way to display prowess and win prizes, but a vital necessity, a craft that keeps him—barely and laboriously—from starvation. This context humanizes Santiago's epic struggle with the huge marlin, enhances the dignity and modesty of his achievement as a man who is merely doing his work.

There are many versions or sources for this story. According to Norberto Fuentes, the prolix chronicler of all of Hemingway's years in Cuba, one Gregorio Fuentes, for many year's Hemingway's skipper on his boat El Pilar, boasted of having supplied the raw facts for the story. Both would have witnessed such a struggle off the harbor of Cabañas, towards the end of the forties, between a big fish and an old mallorquin fisherman. But Fuentes also mentions that, according to fishermen in Cojimar, just such an adventure happened to Carlos Gutierrez, Hemingway's first skipper. Perhaps more to the point, Carlos Baker, in his biography of Hemingway, points out that the outline of the story appeared in April of 1936 in a chronicle Hemingway wrote for Esquire magazine. Invented or recreated, this tale was looking for its author from the time he wrote his first short stories, portraying the uncontaminated essence of a vision that he had been forging throughout his whole writing life. By 1952 he was able to bring to the story the stylistic and technical power that he had developed. For his setting, Hemingway used his passion for fishing as well as his familiarity with the little village of Cojimar: its fishermen, the factory, Perico's bar, and La Terraza, the local meeting and drinking place. The Old Man and the Sea exudes the love and identification that Hemingway felt for Cuba's marine landscape and its mariners.

The core of the story is a transfiguration, a qualitative upheaval, that transforms the story of old Santiago's fight into a Darwinian struggle for survival, which includes the human need to kill in order to live, and an emphasis on the unexpected reserves of endurance and pride, honor and will, sometimes summoned by human beings. An essentially chivalrous view of honor, an integrity and blind adherence to a self-imposed code of conduct—these compel Santiago to behave in a manner that takes him beyond the daily quest for sustenance and test him severely. He is very conscious of the ethical and metaphysical quality of his struggle, proclaiming: “But I will show him what a man can do and what a man endures.”

The remarkable mutation of the story—from individual anecdote to archetype—requires a gradual accumulation of emotions and sensations, allusions and conventions. This is achieved by Hemingway's mastery of structure and exposition. The omniscient narrator speaks from close proximity to the protagonist but often permits the narrative voice to be assumed by Santiago, at times completely vanishing while Santiago relieves anguish or monotony with thoughts, exclamations or monologues, waiting for the invisible fish towing his skiff to tire, surface, approach and allow him to kill it. The narrator's powers of persuasion are absolute when “he” is describing objectively, at arm's length, what is happening, or when he allows Santiago to assume the narrator's role, speaking in a sparse though effective language, befitting the old man's apparent lack of intellectuality, and his prodigious knowledge of the secrets of navigation and fishery in the Gulf. This knowledge is exhibited in the rich repertory of devices that Santiago brings to his struggle with the fish, so that the brute force of nature is finally overcome by ruse and craft.

The author's interest in technique may, like other elements of the fiction, suggest that Hemingway's is a realist fiction. Surely the references to lions on the beach, to baseball and the records of the great Dimaggio, may lure readers away from a mythic or symbolist reading of the novel. But neither the realistic detail, nor the narrow primitivism of Santiago's life, prevented Faulkner from noting, when first he read the newly published book, that Hemingway had “discovered God.” Faulkner also said that the underlying theme of the story was compassion, and in a sense he was right. This moving narrative is devoid of sentimentality; its universe is the spartan sobriety of Santiago's boat, floating over the fish's deep waters. From the story's first to the last line, a subterranean warmth and delicacy suffuse the narrative, which climaxes towards the end, when Santiago, stumbling with fatigue and pain, drags his boat's mast to his shack, tottering through the sleeping hamlet, and the reader feels an indescribable emotion: compassion, perhaps, or simply respect.

Robert E. Gajdusek (essay date 2002)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4305

SOURCE: Gajdusek, Robert E. “Harder on Himself Than Most: A Study of Hemingway's Self-Evaluation and Self-Projection in His Work.” In Hemingway in His Own Country, pp. 357-67. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002.

[In the essay below, Gajdusek explores how some of the characters in Hemingway's fiction represent a “self-projection” of the author's own history and background, asserting that Hemingway “lets himself … stand in for the failures and delinquencies of twentieth-century man,” and “descends into his own unconscious to gain what insight he has into and what evidence he has for the basic moral failure of his age.”]

It would be too great fortune to have the time here to go through a rereading of stories from In Our Time, one in which I would emphasize the ironies and judgmental overtones that go into the moral groundwork of a Hemingway portrait. I would like to do so to suggest the moral persuasion that a character in a Hemingway work bears and especially the way the moral energy of a Hemingway work derives from the character most invested with Hemingway's own background and history. Of course, any character in a literary work is fiction—art is not mirror—but some characters strongly gather to themselves significant aspects of the author and his or her story. I will call such a character a self-projection.

What is abundantly clear in Hemingway's early stories is that he does not hesitate to work extraordinarily close to reality; in some, like “The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife” and “Up in Michigan,” he uses the actual names or backgrounds and details of the lives of people he has known. In instances where he has created projections of his own family as well as of himself, he has been merciless in his moral judgment and accounting. Rigorous in self-examination, relentless in indictment, he pursues through his characters, especially those based on himself, his own moral failings. What becomes apparent as the reader goes further in In Our Time is that in most stories where the protagonist seems to be in many ways standing in for Hemingway as a young man, he is harshly treated.

In the early stories of Hemingway, what fascinates is the extent to which the Hemingway projections are singled out for excoriation, vilification, and scorn. A case in point would be “the young gentleman” of “Out of Season,” identified by Hemingway as a self-portrait: Hemingway admitted to Fitzgerald that this story was “an almost literal transcription of what happened” (Selected Letters 180) in Cortina d'Ampezzo, and this makes the fact that the young man is mocked as he is especially revealing: He is insincere, cowardly, ineffectual, imperceptive, ignorant of the language and customs of the country, and, at the end, too much of a coward to deal honestly with the corrupt gardener who cons and mockingly manipulates him. Yet he is but one of many Hemingway projections in In Our Time, and whether we are studying George in “Cat in the Rain,” Nick and Bill in “The Three-Day Blow,” or Nick and George in “Cross-Country Snow,” there is both pain and high humor in these portraits, the humor that goes with the exposure of the absurdities and lies and hypocrisies that they so thoroughly illustrate. Though Nick at the end, in “Big Two-Hearted River,” is indeed a young man gravely wounded who desperately is in search of amendment and health, these final stories leave us with the necessary paradigm, a Hemingway projection who is seriously injured where it does not show: that is, he carries within him the problem that is in search of resolution, the wound to be healed.

That these stories draw heavily on the author's self-examination, that they delineate moral and spiritual deficiency, and especially that, as organized, they suggest a larger historical and cultural statement means that Hemingway indeed does “lay it all on the line”—that he lets himself in this work, as also in all his subsequent works, stand in for the failures and delinquencies of twentieth-century man, that he descends into his own unconscious to gain what insight he has into and what evidence he has for the basic moral failure of his age.

Malcolm Cowley, speaking of such Hemingway stories as “A Way You'll Never Be” and “Now I Lay Me,” is quoted as saying, “Candor about his inner life is one of the great things about his early stories” (Brian 200). He goes on to say, “Part of Hemingway's do-it-yourself psychotherapy in controlling his fears of death and his nightmares of going insane was to put them down on paper, to write about them obliquely in his fiction” (Brian 200). Cowley here is merely verbalizing what Hemingway himself has told us many times: how necessary it was to write “things” to be rid of them, how thoroughly the telling or writing of a tale or even just writing must often have been a therapeutic acknowledgment of an otherwise seemingly hidden inner fault, as well as an exorcism and an amputation of a rotten part. Feeling corrupt in his relationship with Pauline because of his treachery to Hadley, Hemingway writes Pauline (on November 12, 1926), “I might as well write it out now and maybe get rid of it that way” (Brian 220). Arnold Gingrich noted the tendency and explained, “He wrote things out of his life, got rid of them by writing about them” (Brian 74). And Denis Brian, speaking of this technique of exorcism, writes, “He took his fears and weaknesses to the fire as if to cauterize them” (Brian 318). Writing, then, even before a plot was chosen or chose itself to illustrate or enact redemption or absolution, for Hemingway served a moral function of absolving, purging, amending, getting beyond, or putting to rest the sense of imperfection, sin, or personal failure that needed to be addressed—by the very act of moving into abstraction and aesthetic resolution what had been inner psychological problems. Hemingway exonerated himself from nothing. Critics who focus on his moral shortcomings, as many do, to the exclusion of the texts, are latecomers to his inner terrain. Hemingway has been there before them and far more thoroughly and with infinitely greater integrity overseen that psychic landscape.

“The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” is biographically based on Philip Percival (or Colonel Richard Cooper or Count Bror von Blixen), and Jane and Grant Mason, and, of course, himself; in it, as in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” moral delinquencies, such as cowardice and corruption, are studied, as are attempts at moral reconstitution. It is important to see how clearly Hemingway's African stories focus on the male's deficiencies or failures. This is especially true in “Snows,” where Harry is patently a Hemingway projection, but it is also important to note that in both stories the accomplished, purged, cleansed, or redeemed state seems to be purchased at the cost of death. Harry's merely imagined dream vision of his arrival at the summit of Kilimanjaro is, like the story itself, only a fictionalized realization and stands, I would say, as metaphor for Hemingway's process of using fiction itself as the mode of purgation and cleansing. To consider writing as almost an avenging angel that somehow exists to punish evil and redeem the bad or cleanse the psyche is to give it a strongly prominent role in life. Therefore, we are not surprised to discover Hemingway writing to Fitzgerald (on March 31, 1927) shortly after the publication of The Sun Also Rises, that “there was a story around that I had gone to switzerland [sic] to avoid being shot by demented characters out of my books” (Selected Letters 249). Here it is almost as though the author sees himself as pursued beyond the fiction and into life for further justice by the abstract Furies he has awakened.

Jake Barnes is a not only physically but morally flawed man who learns to acknowledge his moral failures and to find ways to rid himself of them. Frederic Henry is a corrupt young man, often callow, insensitive, cowardly, who only after the death of Catherine and his son has enough insight and overview to arrive at the exculpatory act of self-confession that is the story that he subsequently writes and that we read. The Hemingway of Green Hills of Africa is competitive, vain, argumentative, quick-tempered, and petulant, but he learns in time to amend his faults and be reconciled to humanity. Colonel Cantwell of Across the River and into the Trees is frequently a hard-nosed, vain and arrogant, loud-mouthed “sonofabitch,” as he in his amended nature would readily admit, but the entire novel exists, not as self-exoneration, but as a self-confession in a desperate attempt before his death to set himself morally right, through a self-inversion and a justice that demand nothing less than a psychic restructuring, an effeminization of the psyche, and an exchange of the sensibility of the warrior for that of the lover. These characters are all, as most critics agree, extremely close projections of Hemingway, and all are as Hemingway meant to make them: they are initially corrupt not because the mirror of art so exposes the reality of the instinctively projected psyche of the artist but because the work of art has structured them consciously to be exemplars of their vices, already severely judged and presented, long before we, the often officious and vain readers, intrude upon the scene to imply that we have discovered such deficiencies in the unconscious sensibility of their creator. Most Hemingway works examine and present moral failure and inadequacy, and also—and this is where Hemingway differs from Fitzgerald and why Hemingway finally realized that association with Fitzgerald was bad for him—study amendment of and victory over moral dereliction and vice. Fitzgerald exquisitely presents and recognizes moral failure; he presents uxoriousness in action and moral failures as victims. Hemingway, on the other hand, presents immorality in action and the stages of moral reconstitution and cleansing. His protagonists are never meant to be approved or heeded as presented, nor are their attitudes meant to be taken for those of their maker; rather, they are to be noted in their struggle to get beyond and master their deficiencies, deficiencies Hemingway in self-projection minutely studies. Santiago must get rid of the betraying part within himself, Cantwell must have feeling driven into his insensate side, and Robert Jordan must get “turned over” and must hold off the cowardly suicidal impulse within him that is his paternal inheritance.

To see how Hemingway used self-projection to arrive at the moral passion play that is his every novel, we can perhaps best look at To Have and Have Not. In that work, Harry Morgan seems a long way from Ernest Hemingway, but Harry gains exoneration from too great moral incrimination through his underdog ethics, which seem products of the very environment that makes him. Nevertheless, we finally see heroism and a deathbed conversion in his dying confession, in which he renounces the very isolating and isolated psychic dynamics that have led to his insensitivity, crimes, and death. It is in Richard Gordon in that novel, however, by too many readers too hastily read as a portrait of John Dos Passos, that the Hemingway projection superbly functions. Gordon is less a projection of Dos Passos than he is of Hemingway himself, and he is the character in the novel most set up for attack and vilification. His insensitivity toward his wife, Helen, is a close projection of Hemingway's guilt toward Hadley and Pauline for his dedication to his art—better studied in The Garden of Eden—and for his infidelities. Gordon's dismissal of Helen's needs for those of the story in his head—“Don't talk to me. … I'm going to work. I have it all in my head” (176)—literally reenacts Hemingway's own historically verified morning exchanges with Hadley, and Helen's references to swimming at Cap d'Antibes and skiing in Switzerland are from the Hemingways' own history. Therefore when, in probably the most vitriolic and damning speech in all Hemingway's work, Helen attacks him as lover and writer (concluding, “I'm through with you. … Your kind of picknose love. You writer” [186]), the attack is self-directed remorse and guilt-driven self-flagellation. Additionally, Gordon's relationship with Helene and Tommy Bradley is an acknowledged portrait of Hemingway's relationship with Jane and Grant Mason.

In the original holograph version of the novel,1 in passages deleted from the published work, Hemingway fascinatingly allowed his projection in Gordon to confront his own historical image:

“There's a writer lives here,” someone said. “Hemingway. You know him?”

“He's a big slob,” Richard Gordon said.

“I guess so,” the man said.

“You know him?” Freddy asked Richard Gordon.

“No. But I know he's a big slob.”

Somebody laughed.

(Folder 7, p. 59)

I think we can know who laughs, and why. Later, in the text:

“Hemingway makes money,” somebody said.

“That big bastard is shot in the ass with luck,” someone else said. “I've never seen him working yet.”

(Folder 8, p. 60)

Hemingway allows one of his characters to defend him: “He works. … He's a friend of mine,” says Freddy. When, still later in the novel, Richard Gordon passes what is clearly and carefully described as Hemingway's own house in Key West, he says to himself, “That's where the big slob lives, what did he ever write after that one novel, it was a tour de force, all he writes now is that tripe in Esquire, what did he quit for? He's let us all down, easy living softened him up, I guess” (Folder 9, p. 61). Evaluating Hemingway as “too drunk” to write anything worthwhile now, Gordon reflects, “Well that's the way they go when they get in the money. He stinks and his stuff stinks.”

What is fascinating about this are the split halves of the creative psyche of Hemingway, the fictive and the real, in antagonistic destructive interaction, as they were in Cohn and Jake in the first novel. The careful reader can see the outlines of Harry in “Snows” being formed just shortly before the actual composition of that story.

Hemingway has occasionally been described as a “counterpuncher,” one who, when struck, would instantly retaliate and flash back his own response to the received blow. There is some truth in this, but what has more seldom been noted is his own subsequent remorse and shame that he had to absorb for his often intemperate or hasty reaction. He was thin-skinned indeed, often as raw as one flayed, and criticism of his work readily drew blood, but he was especially morally hypersensitive, supremely alert to his own faults, which he understood far better and explored far more deeply than even the most vicious of his critics. We have ample biographical evidence of how readily he became the victim to the pleas of others once he felt that, in defending himself initially, he might have hurt them. He was therefore finally unable to remain steadfast in his opposition to the requests of Philip Young and James Fenton and others, largely out of guilt, guilt that less sensitive writers would not have felt. As Philip Young acknowledged to Brian, “He said I was still free to call him a son-of-a-bitch if I wanted to” (210). His remorse showed especially after acts of intemperance: The night after his verbal attack on Harold Loeb in Pamplona—the basis of an important scene between Jake and Robert Cohn in The Sun Also Rises—Loeb received the following note: “I was terribly tight and nasty to you last night and I don't want you to go away with that nasty insulting lousiness as the last thing of the fiesta. … I'm thoroughly ashamed of the way I acted and the stinking, unjust uncalled for things I said” (Selected Letters 166).

Hemingway in Paris, after a dinner table argument with Nathan Asch that ended with their exchanged blows in the street, appeared in the middle of the night at Asch's apartment door. By Asch's account in a letter to Cowley, “I couldn't sleep until you forgave me,” he said. “You know, of course, that I was wrong in the argument. You've got a lot of talent. You've got more of everything than any of us” (Brian 54). This fundamental decency, however delayed, is representative, and it emerges from an exquisitely alert conscience that cannot rest if in the sense of a state of wrong or error or sin. Speaking of Harold Stearns, Hemingway confessed to Fitzgerald (in a letter on December 24, 1925): “I couldn't sleep if I hurt his feelings. Christ nose [sic] that when I cant [sic] sleep I have enough sons of bitching things I've done to look back on without adding any ornamental gloss” (Selected Letters 181).

Hemingway's son Gregory said, “My father had a terribly powerful remorseful conscience. It would give him no rest when he made a mistake” (Meyers 345-46). His first son, John, remarked, “My father was a person of inner turmoil about anything he did to hurt anybody … he really suffered” (Brian 73). Denis Brian focuses on Hemingway's black moods of depression based on his remorse, and Jeffrey Meyers studies these. Peter Viertel, writing in Dangerous Friends, records Hemingway's pattern of instant “abject apologies” for intemperate moments (87), and Mike Reynolds, writing in Hemingway: The Paris Years, also records the frequently dropped “bitter remark to be regretted later” (303) and Hemingway's “keen and well-honed sense of remorse after behaving badly” (305). He also describes a pattern of apologies, retractions, and incredible unmailed letters. Archibald MacLeish paraphrases a letter he received from Hemingway in which he wrote that “he always beshat his friends. He suffered for it—knew he'd done it, and suffered” (qtd. in Brian 92). This temperamental inability to escape guilt and remorse persisted throughout his life, and, of course, one can see suicide as a final self-judgment. Biographical evidence readily reveals how desperately guilty Hemingway felt for his abandonment of Hadley, and then subsequently for his divorce from Pauline, but Meyers writes that “Hemingway … had a more tender conscience and was more sensitive to moral nuance than Pauline,” and therefore “suffered much more” (181). When asked by Bill Bird in Paris the reason for his divorce from Hadley, he responded, “Because I am a son of a bitch” (qtd. in Brian 79). In a letter to Pauline at the time, Hemingway speaks of his betrayals and killing and destroying (Selected Letters 220-25, November 12, 1926), and in a letter to Hadley he focuses on his cruelty and the “great hurt” (Selected Letters 228, November 18, 1926) he has given. He signs a letter to Scott in this year “Ernest M. Shit” (Selected Letters, to FSF, 20 May 1926, p. 205). This kind of self-judgment persists: in a letter as late as 1957, to Rupert Bellville, his signature is “Ernesto the super-shit” (December 7 [actually 26] 1957).2 Writing to Scott, he accepts everything as “completely my fault” and concludes, “As we make our hell we certainly should like it” (Selected Letters 217). Later, describing Pauline as having turned “mean,” he hastily concludes, “Although it is your own actions that turn her mean. Mine, I mean” (qtd. in Meyers 347), and in a deleted passage originally intended for A Moveable Feast, he speaks of how “where we went and what we did and the unbelievable wrenching, killing happiness, selfishness and treachery of everything we did” created in him “a terrible remorse.” In one letter to Pauline (November 12, 1926), he writes:

In the nights it is simply unbelievably terrible … all the world just being made into the figure representing sin and I get the horrors … so I know this is a lousy terribly self pitying letter just wallowing in bathos … and so it is … I'm not a saint, nor built like one. … I had to get this poison out and I've just been stewed in it. … Please forgive this letter. It is everything contemptible. But that is the way I get.

(Selected Letters 221-22)

Here again the letter, the writing, is given as the way to absolution or to at least release of the “poison.” November 1926 was the terrible month, and on the 24th, Ernest wrote to Fitzgerald:

Anyway I'm now all through with the general bumping off phase and will only bump off now under certain special circumstances which I don't think will arise. Have refrained from any half turnings on of the gas or slitting of the wrists with sterilized safety razor blades. Am continuing my life in original role of son of a bitch sans peur et sans rapproche. The only thing in life I've ever had any luck being decent about is money so am very splendid and punctilious about that. Also I have been sucked in by ambition.

(Selected Letters 232)

I am not describing a youthful hypersensitivity. It never abated. The letters he wrote to Adriana Ivancich between 1950 and 1954 are filled with his sense of self-condemnation and guilt: He acknowledges, “I have every fault that you know and probably others” (March 18, 1951), and in a letter on May 8, 1952, he confesses:

Since I started my campaign against being stupid, conceited, opinionated, bigotted and boreing [sic] we always get along wonderfully in dreams and you think I am as fine a man as I hope to be if this great campaign against my general worthlessness succeeds. Wish you were here to direct the campaign. It needs a director of higher moral qualities than me. Black Dog does his best. But he is too kind.3

It is entirely possible that had his relationship with Adriana not cast her into the role he here describes of confessor and leader of a campaign of absolution, Across the River and into the Trees might never have been written, recounting as it does almost this exact relationship between Renata and the corrupt Colonel who seeks his psychic and moral rebirth through her, a priestess who hears his confession, permits him purgation, and grants him his absolution. Quotations can be almost endlessly supplied to demonstrate Hemingway's hyperalertness to moral faults that most writers would neither consider faults nor suffer for.

Perhaps one last group of letters should be noted, those exchanged with Robert Morgan Brown in 1954 (now in the Harry Ransom manuscript collection at Texas University in Austin), offering answers to religious questions. In one letter dated July 14, 1954, he writes:

Human beings are not perfect and I have certainly lived more of my life in a state of sin than in a state of grace. I am living in the present time, in a state of sin, according to the church, but I have no feeling of sin.

Privately I could not make an act of contrition at the hour of my death since I know if I lived I would repeat the sin again. … If there is a hell I shall certainly go to it if the rules are applied like The Immigration Act. Might get to it anyway to see how my friends are doing. … I could possibly be weak enough to make a false confession. I hope not. But who knows?

… Please do not try to make me out a good man. I have tried to be and I have failed. But I try to be a good writer and it is difficult enough under the circumstances. … My last advice to you as of religion is to call me a son of a bitch.

In another letter, on May 25, 1956, he writes, “Let me know if there is anything I can do myself and if my low-grade conscience permits, it will comply.”

In still another letter (September 24, 1954), he writes,

But the toughest thing is to be any form of hero to anyone. I always try to make it believable and sure that I am not any form of hero, so that afterwards people do not have to decide that their hero was a bum. This sounds conceited but if you had to be the official hero of Archie MacLeish and poor Scott Fitzgerald over a period of years only for them to find that their hero was worthless, you would understand the obligations of being a non-hero of any type.

Finally, in a letter on July 22, 1956, he states, “Don't see how my prayers can help anybody because they must be canceled out by my blasphemies. I remember Joyce telling me, ‘But remember, Hemingway, blasphemy is not a sin. Heresy is the sin!’”

What is valuable here is Hemingway's compulsive necessity to face his own moral failures with extraordinary completeness and rigorous honesty, and the necessity to somehow gain absolution from or amendment of them. I really am suggesting that Hemingway's writing was his mode of moral purgation; that through it, in abstract projection, he did not exonerate but held his life morally accountable; and that, holding up to life a far more rigorous moral standard than most, he avoided absolution or forgiveness that was not based on his best efforts toward fundamental moral amendment or psychic reconstitution.


  1. The holograph version of To Have and Have Not is in the Hemingway Collection in the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston: THHN ms, item 212, folder 3 and folders 8 and 9, pp. 59-61.

  2. In the Harry Ransom MS Collection, Texas University, Austin, Texas.

  3. EH's letters to Adriana Ivancich are also in the Harry Ransom MS Collection.

Works Cited

Brian, Denis. The True Gen: An Intimate Portrait of Hemingway by Those Who Knew Him. New York: Grove Press, 1988.

Hemingway, Ernest. Across the River and into the Trees. 1950. New York: Scribners, 1970.

———. Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters, 1917-1961. Ed. Carlos Baker. New York: Scribners, 1981.

———. A Farewell to Arms. 1929. New York: Scribners, 1969.

———. Green Hills of Africa. 1935. New York: Scribners, 1963.

———. In Our Time. 1925. New York: Scribners, 1958.

———. The Old Man and the Sea. New York: Scribners, 1952.

———. The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. 1938. New York: Scribners, 1966.

———. The Sun Also Rises. 1926. New York: Scribners, 1954.

———. To Have and Have Not. 1937. New York: Scribners, 1965.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Hemingway: A Biography. New York: Harper and Row, 1985.

Reynolds, Michael S. Hemingway: The Paris Years. New York: Blackwell, 1989.

Viertel, Peter. Dangerous Friends: At Large with Huston and Hemingway in the Fifties. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Glen A. Love (essay date 2003)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9276

SOURCE: Love, Glen A. “Hemingway among the Animals.” In Practical Ecocriticism: Literature, Biology and the Environment, pp. 117-81. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2003.

[In the following excerpt, Love draws upon the diverse fields of evolutionary biology, ecology, psychology, and literary theory to explore the importance of humanity's relationship to the natural world in Hemingway's short novel, The Old Man and the Sea.]

Do you know the sin it would be to ruffle the arrangement of the feathers on a hawk's neck if they could never be replaced as they were?—

Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon

Watch how a man plays a game, says the regimental folklore, and you'll see what sort of man he is. For Ernest Hemingway, whose regimental credentials are second to none, the connection between sports and life has always been central to both the writer and the man. From even a cursory examination of the Hemingway canon and its critical commentary, one is sure to learn that Hemingway's fictional sports are stages for ritualized conflict wherein the hero is tested for his behaviour under extreme physical and psychological pressure.

The blood sports, such as hunting and fishing and boxing and bullfighting, are to be preferred. Their violence takes one to the confrontive edge. They resemble warfare rather than play and are, as such, fit metaphors for the ultimate warfare of life, whose purpose is, after all, to kill you. “They threw you in and told you the rules and the first time they caught you off base they killed you. … You could count on that. Stay around and they would kill you” (A Farewell to Arms 327). Sooner or later you lose, but what matters, as Philip Young first made clear to us, is how you play the game (Ernest Hemingway: A Reconsideration 55-78).

To invert a line by Robert Frost in “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” the play is work for mortal stakes in Hemingway. And if, as Frost's speaker claims, the object in living is to unite one's avocation and one's vocation, then Hemingway darkly succeeded where Frost's woodchopper did not, his code resolve wavering before the obligation to his fellow creatures, the two rough tramps who need the work of chopping that he merely loves.

Love and need for Hemingway are made of grimmer stuff. An early and justly famous Hemingway story, “Big Two-Hearted River,” illustrates not only the carefully prescribed code of streamside behavior, but also the peculiar drive toward conflict and deathful adventure in what most readers would surely, on the face of it, regard as a restorative pastoral experience—camping beside, and fishing, a lovingly remembered river. “God never did make a more calm, quiet, innocent recreation than angling,” said Isaac Walton in The Compleat Angler (262), but Hemingway's Nick Adams is looking for something more. At first the experience is restorative for Nick, back from the war and regaining his hold on his nerves. Still, there is only the barest mention of mental conflict in the story, and Nick is repeatedly described as cheerful and content.1 Near the end of his first day, he crawls into his little tent, happy, the form of the sentences themselves suggesting Nick's tired but satisfied sense of rightness and control over things: “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” (215).

In the second half of the story, Nick's fishing experiences the next day on the stream continue his pattern of deliberate and pleasurable behavior. Fishing intensifies the sense of simplicity and control that Nick seeks: he with his rod on one end; nature, alive, in the form of a fish, on the other; and a taut line joining the two. Thus far, the story has followed a simple pastoral line, the hero having withdrawn from some threatening scene on the horizon into the green world. Here the beauty and order of the setting permeate the young man's spirit and act to restore his inner equilibrium. The story might well end at this point, but it will not end until Hemingway has given it his inevitable twist toward darkness. The twist presents itself as a swamp that Nick approaches as he fishes his way down the river. It is a place where at first Nick does not want to go. “He felt a reaction against deep wading with the water deepening up under his armpits, to hook big trout in places impossible to land them. In the swamp the banks were bare, 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. In the swamp fishing was a tragic adventure. Nick did not want it” (231).

“So startling is the word ‘tragic’ here,” writes critic Richard Hovey, “that we wonder what must be the matter with Nick.”2 Exactly. This brown study astonishes us all. Even more startling is our realization, by the end of the story, that Nick does want to fish the swamp, and that Hemingway wants it for him. The river must be two-hearted, both healing and tragic.3 The story closes with Nick cleaning the two big trout he has caught and walking back to his camp. “He looked back. The river just showed through the trees. There were plenty of days coming when he could fish the swamp” (232). The shift from restoration to conflict, from fishing as Walton's calm and innocent recreation to a threatening test of the individual spirit, from pastoral to tragedy—this is the indispensable Hemingway note. It continues, in our own time, to yield up new meanings for our consideration.

It was in the writing of “Big Two-Hearted River” that Hemingway first felt he had it in him to become a great writer. Before the waters of the big two-hearted river deepened to the Gulf Stream and Hemingway's greatest fish story of all—perhaps his greatest book of all—The Old Man and the Sea, nearly thirty years passed. In order to treat that late Hemingway masterwork adequately, it is necessary to consider the direction of his life and work in those intervening years. During this time the Hemingway legend formed itself around his rejoinder, both personal and literary, to what he perceived as a chaotic and murderous world. He had good evidence for such a view. George Steiner, in his book In Bluebird's Castle, cites the annihilation of 70 million people in Europe and Russia between the start of the First World War and the end of the Second, roughly the years of Hemingway's development as a writer. Reminding us of myriad smaller wars, as well as the two World Wars and the new possibility of global nuclear annihilation, Philip Young writes that “we may argue against Hemingway's world, but we should not find it easy to prove that it is not the world we have been living in” (Ernest Hemingway 45).

The famous Hemingway response was a world-model, narrow but compelling, that was to enclose and direct his writing for the remainder of his career. Two essential elements of that unique Hemingway consciousness were, first, a primitivistic conception of the natural world and one's proper behavior within it, and, second, a theory of literary tragedy. What follows here is a questioning of whether these two concepts were reconcilable, codifiable, in Hemingway's work. My contention is that they proceed from fundamentally warring assumptions and that their mutual antipathy finds its most memorable—but deeply troubling—expression in the story of the battle between fisherman and fish in The Old Man and the Sea.


In his introduction to The Viking Portable Hemingway in 1944, Malcolm Cowley reminded his readers that Hemingway was often described as a primitive. But, wrote Cowley, the term needed to be shifted from its artistic to its anthropological sense. Hemingway created, Cowley maintained, Indian-like heroes who survive in a world of hostile forces by acts of propitiation and ritual, and—in the face of the failure of these acts—by stoic acceptance of what must come. Memories of Indians whom Hemingway had encountered during his boyhood summers up in Michigan are reworked, as Cowley claimed, in The Torrents of Spring, in several of the Nick Adams stories, and in Robert Jordan's behavior in For Whom the Bell Tolls (Cowley xviii-xx). Responding in kind, Hemingway referred to himself, in a letter to Cowley occasioned by the 1949 reprinting of The Portable Hemingway, as an old Cheyenne. He wrote Charles Scribner that he had “a Cheyenne great-great grandmother” and called attention in another letter to his father's “Indian blood.” Elsewhere, Hemingway proudly described his third son, Gregory, with his cool athletic prowess, as “a real Indian boy (Northern Cheyenne)” or as a “Northern Cheyenne Indian angel.”4 In essays published in the mid-1960s, Wallace Stegner reasserted Cowley's claim, concluding that Hemingway's were “essentially Indian virtues” (198, 184).

Recognizing that Cowley and Stegner were referring to the primitivism of Hemingway's fictional heroes and that the distinction between Hemingway the man and his literary creations must be acknowledged, it can nevertheless be maintained that the two are closely interconnected—Hemingway, for example, assuring Cowley and other recipients of his letters that he came by the Indianness of his fictional heroes honestly. More importantly, Hemingway's life and art share a paradoxical symbiosis with the natural world in which the author's primitivism is rooted. In this respect Hemingway's perceived Indian virtues deserve to be reexamined in a contemporary context for both their anthropological and their artistic significance.

In its broadest terms Hemingway's primitivism can be seen as a return to earth, Thoreau-like, to confront the essential facts of life and reduce life to its most elemental terms. Hemingway's primitivism found personal expression in his lifelong search for unspoiled natural settings and the elemental experiences that fed his appetite for conflict and violence: big-game hunting in Africa, bullfights and guerrilla warfare in Spain, World War I and II battle experiences, deep-sea fishing on the Gulf Stream, “high on the wild” in the mountains of Idaho, rejecting, as Richard Lehan notes, “all patterns of continuity—historical or literary—which took precedence over the self” (197). Hemingway put this rejection into a famous passage in Green Hills of Africa:

A continent ages quickly once we come. The natives live in harmony with it. But the foreigner destroys, cuts down the trees, drains the water, so that the water supply is altered and in a short time the soil, once the sod is turned under, is cropped out and, next, it starts to blow away as it has blown away in every old country and as I had seen it start to blow away in Canada. The earth gets tired of being exploited. A country wears out quickly unless man puts back in it all his residue and that of all his beasts. When he quits using beasts and uses machines, the earth defeats him quickly. The machine can't reproduce, nor does it fertilize the soil, and it eats what he cannot raise. A country was made to be as we found it. We are the intruders and after we are dead we may have ruined it but it will still be there and we don't know what the next changes are. I suppose they all end up like Mongolia.

… Our people went to America because that was the place to go then. It had been a good country and we had made a bloody mess of it and I would go, now, somewhere else as we had always had the right to go somewhere else and as we had always gone. … We always went in the old days and there were still good places to go.

I knew a good country when I saw one. Here there was game, plenty of birds, and I liked the natives. Here I could shoot and fish. That, and writing, and reading, and seeing pictures was all I cared about doing.


The characteristic objection of Lehan and other critics to Hemingway's primitivism is that it is a denial of contemporary society and an avoidance of the issues faced in modern lives. But a further concern needs exploring: not that Hemingway rejects intellect and society in favor of primitive values and “rhythms of life and death and the land” (Lehan 196), but rather that he often turns against the earth itself in his version of primitivism, adopting an aggressive and isolated individualism that wars against those natural manifestations he reveres. “In rebellion against death,” as Hemingway described himself, loving the sensations and pleasures of the natural world yet also hating its implacable cycle that denied him immortality, Hemingway seemed compelled to exact a retribution from nature before it could claim him. “I spend a hell of a lot of time killing animals and fish so I won't kill myself,” A. E. Hochner reports Hemingway saying. “When a man is in rebellion against death as I am in rebellion against death, he gets pleasure out of taking to himself one of the godlike attributes, that of giving it.”5

The Hemingway body count against the earth, both in fiction and in life, is startlingly high. The letters are particularly revealing on this score. When one attempts to derive a total from the photographs and letters and writing of a lifetime, the real-life Hemingway kill record is astonishing: not only big-game animals (lions, leopards, buffalo, rhinoceros, kudu, sable, bears, elk, and so forth) in Africa and the American West, including some of the last grizzly bears outside protected ares in America, but also shoals of marlin, tuna, dolphin, tarpon, kingfish, and sea turtles—and even a sixty-foot whale that he claimed to have harpooned and lost.6 To this can be added the shooting of sharks for sport with a Thompson submachine gun and the killing of such nongame species as a flying eagle, giant bustards, cranes, magpies, coyotes, porcupines, and snakes.7

Then there is the “dirty joke” of shooting hyenas for entertainment, watching their “highly humorous” antics, “racing the little nickelled death inside,” one circling madly, pulling out his own intestines and eating them as he died (Green Hills 37-38). Even when Hemingway is obviously fabricating, as when he claims, like his fictional Colonel Cantwell, to have killed 122 men “besides the possibles,” the need for such assertion is itself revealing.8 Thus Hemingway exacts a considerable price from the natural world. He overcomes his own sense of guilt saying, “I did nothing that had not been done to me” and “they all had to die” (Green Hills 148, 272).

The paradox of Hemingway's primitivism, then, arises from its countertendency to war against the earth, to exploit the natural world for self-aggrandizement. His unique brand of primitivism characteristically rejects those perceptions—the interconnectedness of all life, the harmonious sense of oneness with the world, the ability to understand and use complex natural processes without destroying them, the acceptance of death as part of an inevitable and nonthreatening flow of existence—that enable the actual indigenous people to exist in the sort of nondestructive relationship with their surroundings that Hemingway paradoxically admired, and that left the country as he liked to find it. True, Hemingway does not exclude himself from the pioneering exploiters of nature in the Green Hills of Africa passage. He says, “we are the intruders,” and he claims the privilege of ruining new lands just as his white forebears had ruined ours. He understood firsthand how places like the Michigan old-growth forests were destroyed, as he reveals in the story, “The Last Good Country.” But Hemingway also clearly considered himself a defender of and a spokesman for the natural world. We recall his claim to Maxwell Perkins that the point of The Sun Also Rises “was that the earth abideth forever—having a great deal of fondness for the earth and not a hell of a lot for my generation. … I didn't mean the book to be a hollow or a bitter satire but a damn tragedy with the earth abiding forever as the hero” (Selected Letters 229).

Can there can be fashioned a tragedy with the earth abiding forever as the hero? This becomes a crucial question in Hemingway, perhaps even more so for his readers today and in the future. Tragedy, Joseph Meeker has claimed, is in its essence a denial of the earth and its nobility or heroism in favor of a vaulting human protagonist who refuses to accept even the natural bounds placed upon all people (Comedy, 1974, 51-59). While this sense of defiant individualism warring against the natural order is not found in all tragedy, and Meeker's generalization must be qualified, it is evident that much of Hemingway's work reflects this aggressive assertion of human will over the abiding earth. Hemingway's stoicism, his deference to ritual and taboo—these may be primitivistic, but they are accompanied by little evidence of the autochthon's humility before the powers of the natural world and the inevitability of death. For Hemingway death was a cruel and hateful trick, malevolently claiming the best and bravest for its first victims. Hemingway's aim is always to control and manage what he conceives of as hostile forces.

The characteristic Hemingway ethic places heroic selfhood above the wider sense of obligation to the earth to which the author's avowed primitivism might be expected to bind him. In Hemingway's famous definition, “moral is what you feel good after.” This contrasts pointedly with an earth-centered ethic such as that expressed by Aldo Leopold, who wrote that “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.”9 Nature exists in Hemingway's work and life primarily as a backdrop for aggressive and destructive individualism, the same individualism which, written large, has authored ecological devastation and poisoned the organic origins of the contemporary society that Hemingway turned to nature to escape.

For Hemingway and the late nineteenth century into which he was born, the powerful evolutionary discoveries of the midcentury had been popularly distilled into Herbert Spencer's catchphrase “survival of the fittest,” a partially understood concept that seemed to characterize the natural world as only a vast killing ground. It was a perception that shared at least one misunderstanding with the earlier romanticism it replaced: that nature was simple. A fuller comprehension of evolutionary nature by Hemingway might have understood fitness to include those best equipped by evolution to survive not only through their killing ability but through other means of adaptation by way of other natural processes, such as cooperation, reciprocation, niche filling, or simply leaving more offspring. It might have demonstrated to him that patterns of interdependence within nature and between organisms and their natural environment are even more complex and more rigorously demanding than those on the human, societal level and are not subsumable into the one paradigm of dog eat dog.

Something of Hemingway's biological thinking is evident in his passage dealing with the great, indifferent power of the sea to cleanse itself, as he described the Gulf Stream, into which Havana dumps its daily bargeloads of garbage: “The stream, with no visible flow, takes five loads of this a day when things are going well in La Habana and in ten miles along the coast it is as clear and blue and unimpressed as it was ever before the tug hauled out the scow; and the palm fronds of our victories, the worn-out light bulbs of our discoveries, and the empty condoms of our great loves float with no significance against one single, lasting thing—the stream” (Green Hills 150).

Yet Hemingway might have come to realize by the end of his life that even the sea—a brilliantly stylized metaphor for time in this passage, but also, still, the sea—was not inexhaustible in its powers of renewal. Recalling his father's claim that there would not be a trace of the Havana garbage a few miles downstream, Hemingway's son, Gregory, child of a later age, wrote in his memoir that “even the sea can endure only so much,” as he described the degradation of the Gulf Stream waters in more recent times (25).

Hemingway, not as primitivist but as literary modern, had in an important sense left the world itself—the heroic, enduring earth—far behind. As a modern and as an artist, he was a maker of his world, and he found and refined his unique selfhood in repeated acts of will and creativity that shaped, over and over, world and event and character into the paradigm he perceived. But his making, his proclaiming of his own uniqueness, also necessitated a destruction or diminishment of the natural world that he loved and revered. The harmonious sense of self and world is not sufficient for the artist Hemingway. Instead, he turns—as had Nick Adams in the prophetic early story, “Big Two-Hearted River”—from the healing open river to the swamp, the stage setting of tragic adventure.

To summarize, those who find Hemingway engaged in returning us to our primitive origins may have so misunderstood primitivism as to assume that Hemingway's compulsive, ritualized repetition of the life-death confrontation was its central experience. Rather, it is the central experience of tragedy, an art form which, in its tradition in the literature of the Western world, is unique. Hemingway's imposition of a theory of literary tragedy upon his primitive settings and apparently primitivistic characters and value systems was not without its price.


Originated by the Greeks and shaped by Judeo-Christian beliefs, literary tragedy is exclusively a product of the Western and modern world, a distinctive creation arising from the same aggressive conquest of nature that Hemingway recounts in his Green Hills of Africa statement. For the essence of much tragedy is its focus upon hubris, the elevation of the individual will above all other considerations. The tragic hero, as Meeker writes,

demonstrates that unique human individuals are capable of experiences that go beyond the capacity of humanity in general. … Neither the laws of nature nor the laws of men are absolute boundaries to the tragic hero, but are rather challenges which he must test by attempting to transcend them. … The suffering which accompanies his struggle or results from it is merely a price that must be paid for his momentary freedom from the restraints accepted by all other creatures. … Personal greatness is achieved at the cost of great destruction … but … any price is justified for the fulfillment of the unique personality.

(Comedy, 1974, 50-51)

Meeker may slight the extent to which, in modern tragedy, world and protagonist must jointly be found guilty in the fall of the individual. In “Tragedy and the Common Man,” Arthur Miller, for example, argues both as critic and playwright that tragedy is born out of our sense of something wrongfully denied to the individual by society. But although a greater ambiguity may be present in the portrayal of outside forces and the individual in modern tragedy, Meeker's claim for the genre's insistence upon human uniqueness and self-fulfillment remains valid. That this central consideration is the unique product of Western thinking—and is thus not a human universal—is affirmed by several critics of tragedy and is underscored by the response of Asian scholar Naozo Ueno to The Old Man and the Sea. Of Santiago's defiant response that “man can be destroyed but not defeated,” Ueno writes that this same assertion “echoes over and over again in the literature of the West, from the pronouncement of Lucifer in Paradise Lost to the final passage of Tennyson's ‘Ulysses.’ Man becomes supreme and different from any other creature on earth through his assertion of will power. This is where the Orient cannot follow.”10

Biologist David Sloan Wilson claims, in this regard, that “[m]odern western thought is derived from the Greek system and is mistaken by western social scientists as universal human nature” (248). Tellingly, modern existential tragedy has claimed Hemingway as one of its primary exponents, as John Killinger's Hemingway and the Dead Gods reveals. Existential tragedy, Killinger argues, stresses even more strongly than its classical forebears the elevation of the individual as “separated from all other beings, human or nonhuman,” “the only vital entity of existence,” with all that such a concern implies as to the worth and relevance of all entities outside the self (2, 97).

Man's need to achieve on a grand scale, to realize himself without any limitation, to attack that which hedges and limits him, even if it means as assault upon nature itself—this defiance informs much of the tragic spirit. The tradition of tragedy appealed strongly to Hemingway on one level, because it fused his desire to assert the importance of the individual with his need to strike back at what he regarded as cruel and purposeless fate. But on another level, tragedy located the author of that fate in the same nature whose evidences of unquestionable nobility and beauty likewise compelled Hemingway's allegiance.11 Hemingway's aim, as much expressed by his last major novel as it was intended for his first—to write a tragedy with the earth abiding forever as the hero—was caught upon this dilemma: that tragedy depicts an earth which, although it may be present only metaphorically in the drama, must yield up its nobility to a human hero whose usurping of that nobility is accompanied by profound misgivings. For this vexation of the heart, the greatest primitivist Hemingway hero, Santiago, the fisherman of The Old Man and the Sea, gives evidence that tragedy is not something that one feels good after.

In The Old Man and the Sea the elements of primitivism and tragedy are given their most searching treatment, resulting in what has often been seen as the capstone of Hemingway's fictional achievement. Included in the high praise for the novel is the claim that it is Hemingway's final testament of acceptance, his coming to peaceful terms with the natural world.12 This assessment of the novel as an all-embracing affirmation of life is commonly found in criticism of the book, indicating a widely shared reader experience.

At the same time the central figure of the story, an old Cuban fisherman who catches an enormous marlin far out on the Gulf Stream and then loses it to sharks before he can return to land, represents the indisputable tragic hero, strongly affirming the spirit of man in conflict with natural laws. That Hemingway can successfully hold in tension these competing forces, the abiding sea and the tragic will of man, through so much of the novel is in no small measure attributable to his choice of hero. Santiago is a virtual Pleistocene archetype in his keen biophilial awareness and his store of skills, which seem to be the distilled accumulation of generations of tradition. With his crude skiff and his hand lines, he is as close as one could imagine to a virtual Stone Age fisherman living in the mid-twentieth century. Santiago is intended to be both the vessel of his author's conception of primitivist natural nobility and of tragic consciousness. But he becomes, by the end of the story, a tragic hero whose sense of the nobility of nature proves inadequate and unequal to his pride.

Among the most thorough of all the treatments of naturalistic and humanistic elements in the book is Bickford Sylvester's “Hemingway's Extended Vision: The Old Man and the Sea.” Sylvester argues for Hemingway's portrayal of “a fundamental natural principle of harmonious opposition,” “a natural law man is permitted to follow” (85, 94). Yet such a principle, though operative through much of the story, does not adequately explain Santiago's persistent sense of sin as he struggles to justify to himself his killing of the nobility of nature, the great marlin, much as he loves the bodies of the heavens and thinks of them as his friends and yet would be challenged to destroy them, given the opportunity: “‘The fish is my friend too,’ he said aloud. ‘I have never seen or heard of such a fish. But I must kill him. I am glad we do not have to try to kill the stars.’ Imagine if each day a man must try to kill the moon, he thought. The moon runs away. But imagine if a man each day should have to try to kill the sun? We were born lucky, he thought” (75).

It is man's nature to kill, and Santiago is a man—more properly still, for all of his natural associations, a Hemingway man—in whom there is such pride as to lead him to strike, Ahab-like, at the sun and the stars themselves, had he been given the opportunity. Indeed, Santiago's claim is more outrageous than that of Ahab, who at least posited a sun that had insulted him. It is as if, for the Hemingway man, the sun's existence itself is sufficient insult.

Man was born lucky, thinks Santiago, not to have to face this challenge, since—the implication seems clear—he would accept any challenge offered him even if, as in the killing of the sun, it meant his own destruction and that of all life. Reading this in our own time, it seems impossible not to find irony in Santiago's readiness to wreak cosmic annihilation by his own hand. “I do not understand these things, he thought. But it is good that we do not have to try to kill the sun or the moon or the stars. It is enough to live on the sea and kill our true brothers” (75). That is, it is good that we are spared the irresistible opportunity to make war on the universe. It is sufficient to be limited to killing the noble creatures of the earth, our own true brothers. The latent irony here becomes stronger in the hours following the marlin's death, when the arguments about the rightness of his act move back and forth in Santiago's mind between guilt and necessity, those two elements which, as Paul Tillich claims, are the essence of tragedy (see Sewell 178).

So the book takes us more deeply than any of Hemingway's other works into the conflict between tragic individualism and the magnificence of nature. Conscious of the defects of his own moral system, Santiago is both his own assertive hero and his own chastising chorus, alternately proclaiming and questioning his tragic pride.

“The truly great killer … must be a simple man,” Hemingway had once contended (Death in the Afternoon 232). Santiago reveals a compassion and a complexity in his repeated questioning of his killing of the marlin that makes him less than a good killer. A very special primitive, he has too much of the modern's—that is to say, Hemingway's—self-awareness for the naive, all-engrossing sense of simplicity that Hemingway saw in the great killers of the bullring. Santiago's failings as a killer are, at the same time, the reason for our interest in him and the mark of his advance over the assertive individualism of his predecessors in the Hemingway canon. Yet he is a killer, after all, and he goes down chanting, however uneasily, the old Hemingway verities.

One might posit, in Santiago's final dream of the lions at play on the beach, the image that closes the book, a new vision of a peaceable kingdom, an expiation of the sense of sinful killing with which Santiago has charged himself. Arvin Wells argues that the lions “have put aside their majesty and have grown domestic and familiar. It is as if they gave themselves up to the old man, to his love, without the necessity of further trial or guilt or suffering, and that they suggest a final harmony between the old man and the ‘fierce heart of nature’” (101). But this dream of the lions must be balanced against the rest of the book, against Santiago's climactic cry for destruction but never defeat and his reminder to the boy, Manolin, that they must fashion a new killing lance to replace the one he has lost in his epic battle.13

As great as it is, The Old Man and the Sea is no testament of acceptance. The self-exaltation of tragedy does not permit it to be. In Hemingway's fine but narrow world, there is no room to maneuver except at the edge of death, no arresting of the cycle in which one must go forth to kill one's brothers, turning to the natural world as the arena for human greatness but effecting thereby its further diminishment.

For Santiago nature is something other than a system in which “each thing has its place in a giant symbiosis” (Williams 178). Rather, it is a “great sea with our friends and our enemies,” creatures judged in Santiago's mind according to how they serve or hinder him (Old Man and Sea 120). The friends are those who promote Santiago's freedom and happiness, the enemies those who restrict that freedom and happiness. The two sides are clearly marked out in the narrative. The porpoises are good: “They play and make jokes and love one another. They are our brothers like the flying fish” (48). The Portuguese man-of-war is an enemy, agua mala, a “whore,” beautiful but with filaments poisonous to man (though not to the small fish who swim among these filaments). Santiago loves to see the turtles (friends) eat the men-of-war, and he likes to walk on them, popping them under his feet, when they are washed up on the beach (35-36). The sharks are bad because they prey upon the turtles and upon his catch, although he admires the Mako shark for its bravery and beauty. The rest of the sharks are despised as scavengers. We are told that Santiago eats the eggs of the benevolent turtle for strength and that he drinks a cup of shark-liver oil each day as a protection against colds and grippe and to help his eyes (37). Whether Santiago recognizes his obligations to both his sea friends and enemies for his good health is not revealed.

If The Old Man and the Sea approaches a humanistic ethic or a truce with nature that pleased many of Hemingway's critics, one finds no evidence that this testament of acceptance could transcend its anthropocentrism. It does not include a recognition that the villainous shark, for example, is no less necessary to the nobility of the sea than the marlin and the porpoise and the turtle; that the elimination of the shark would threaten the other species on whom it preys; that, by taking the wounded or the feeble or the slow or the old, the shark ensures the survival of the healthiest and strongest; that the shark, by trimming the numbers of fish, keeps their proportions appropriate to the food supply. Hence there is more at issue in Santiago's self-doubts than Greek hubris or Christian pride. Beyond these, there is the greater folly of his assumption that the only order to the biotic world is that which his limited understanding can provide.

Aldo Leopold once claimed that we need to learn to think like a mountain, which depends on its predators to keep its deer population from exploding and denuding its slopes of vegetation, eventually causing starvation and erosion and thus the death of deer and mountain alike (137-41). Thinking like a man may characterize the shark and the man-of-war as our enemies. But thinking like the sea—if Hemingway could at last have fully conceived that tragedy in which the earth endures as hero—requires a longer view, an awareness that these creatures, too, are members of an ecosystem that man is not privileged to exterminate for real or assumed self-benefits, nor to attempt to shape to his own often self-destructive purposes.

As Chaman Nahal observes, in Santiago's “‘They beat me, Manolin. They truly beat me,’” (124), “they” is “the plurality of life that surrounds the old man—the plurality that includes the old man, but also includes the gulf weed, the shrimp, the man-of-war bird, the delicate tern, the schools of bonito and albacore, the tuna and the flying fish, the dolphin, the turtle, the plankton, the warbler, the big marlin and all the sharks” (179). But this realization, the fullest implication of Santiago's “‘I went out too far,’” seems to elude Santiago, who still attributes his beating to the sharks. To Manolin's “‘He didn't beat you. Not the fish,’” Santiago replies, “‘No. Truly. It was afterwards’” (124).

If The Old Man and the Sea is, as Clinton Burhans, Jr., claims, the “culminating expression” of Hemingway's concern for “the relationship between individualism and interdependence,” it still falls short of considering that interdependence in its fullest sense (73). That conception could be realized only by integrating all parts of the world that the novel yearns to encompass into a perception larger than the transcendence or salvation of the individual human agent within it.


When Hollywood was filming The Old Man and the Sea off Cuba during the summer of 1955, Hemingway joined the film crew and led the hunt for a marlin of one thousand pounds or more to be used in the fish-fighting scenes. But although they caught four-hundred-pounders, the giant fish were not there that season and the filming had to be stopped. The following spring Hemingway and the film crew moved to Capo Blanco, Peru, reputed to have big marlin. After thirty-two days and only one suitable big fish—films of which were unusable because of bad light conditions—this expedition, too, was scrapped. The story was eventually filmed almost entirely in a tank on a Hollywood sound stage and featured a marlin made of foam rubber and plastic.14

Whether or not Hemingway might have seen some relationship between the scarcity of big fish in these later years and the general and unrestrained practice of hauling them in for photograph and market and freezer, we do not know. But Gregory Hemingway's account at this time of his father's returning a marlin to the sea (“something I'd never seen him do before” saying, “‘I'd rather release him and give him his life back and have him enjoy it, than immortalize him in a photograph’” [73]) is perhaps significant in view of continuing references in Hemingway's later letters and writings to the unresolved dilemma expressed by Santiago.

In a hunting article published in 1951, Hemingway announced that “the author of this article, after taking a long time to make up his mind, and admitting his guilt on all counts, believes that it is a sin to kill any non-dangerous game animal except for meat” (“The Shot” 369). A year later he wrote to Harvey Breit, in a reference to Faulkner's “The Bear,” that “I think it is a sin to kill a black bear, because he is a fine animal that likes to drink, that likes to dance, and that does no harm and that understands better than any other animal when you speak to him. … I have killed enough of them since I was a boy to know it is a sin. It isn't just a sin I invented.”15 During his 1953 African safari, Hemingway was more interested in watching animals than in killing them.16

These intimations of a change in sensibility, occurring at about the time of the writing of The Old Man and the Sea, suggest that Santiago's inner struggle between feelings of wrongdoing and necessity may be related to his creator's own questioning of long-held beliefs as he approached the end of his career. Hemingway's love for nature was a central and immutable tenet in his system of beliefs. Like some latter-day Antaeus, seemingly invincible so long as he remained in touch with his sustaining earth, Hemingway orchestrated his life and work to accommodate his need for that contact. Did he question at last whether the imposition of a tragic and aggressive individualism upon his loved earth had claimed too high a cost?

Certainly, up to the final stages of his career, Hemingway's was essentially not an Indian's but a mountain man's mentality in its relationship to the wild, an attitude that could assert that “a country was made to be as we found it” and yet could, in the name of defiant individualism, lead the assault by which it would be ruined. The next generation would find itself trying to make the best of a diminished thing. Hemingway's sons, whom he had carefully instructed in hunting and fishing, found, at last, that they could not follow these pursuits on their father's terms. Jack, the eldest, became a Fish and Game commissioner in his home state of Idaho, charged with enforcing the game laws for which his father, as a younger man, had had slight regard.17 Patrick, the second son, became a professional hunter and then a teacher at the College of African Wildlife Management in Tanzania, where African students learn principles of wildlife preservation and management (4). Gregory, the youngest, also attempted, then gave up, a career as a hunting guide in Africa: “I shot eighteen elephants one month, God save my soul” (10).18

Yet it is the father's aggressive and tragic individualism that has memorably defined an age. Art, Hemingway said in Green Hills of Africa, was what lasted. “A country, finally, erodes and the dust blows away, the people all die and none of them were of any importance except those who practiced the arts. … a work of art endures forever” (109). Art endures, but the earth endures also, and whether it endures as poisoned wasteland or nuclear cinder—an ironic tribute to the assertive will and its goads to fame or power—or as the last good country is now a question of more than speculative importance. The earth has become—even in the evolutionary eye blink since The Old Man and the Sea—more than a protean form for the artist. It exists now as a locus of profound human concern, threatened as never before. The private anxieties of Nick Adams, back on the Big Two-Hearted River, have expanded to encompass a universal dread. To the great power of Hemingway's best work to make us see and feel, to teach us how it was, we can also add that it has dramatized for us how we have reached our precarious present.

It is, of course, unfair to hold Hemingway accountable to the ecological standards of a later time. The issues raised here go beyond those of contemporary environmentalism, looking back with twenty-twenty hindsight, because they have always been Hemingway's concerns as well. Despite his fixation upon the dealing of death, any summing up of the ecological Hemingway must acknowledge that among the animals his insights are as unmatched as his conquests. What ties us to animals, in literature or in life, is our evolutionary heritage and the deep sense of interconnection between us and them. W. D. Hamilton voiced a common sociobiological view in his claim that “[p]ractically none of our basic behaviour, perhaps only our linguistic behaviour and even that uncertainly, is wholly unique to humans” (259). Darwin postulated in his works a psychological as well as a biological line of continuity between humans and nonhuman animals. Hemingway's artistic portrayals of such encounters seem a dramatization of the validity of Darwin's hypothesis. One thinks of Santiago's memory of the female marlin he had once hooked, whose mate stayed with her all through the fight, and when she was hauled into the boat, “the male fish jumped high into the air beside the boat to see where the female was and then went down deep” and stayed down. “That was the saddest thing I ever saw with them” (49-50).19 Similarly, the Hemingway reader may remember how, in “The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” Hemingway takes us into the consciousness of the wounded lion and the animal's sense of what he must do, thus expanding our circle of moral awareness and responsibility beyond that of only the human participants.20

The more we study ethology, the less “anthropomorphism” seems readily dismissable, the less a “fallacy.” As Reg Morrison points out in The Spirit in the Gene, anthropomorphism “used to be considered sloppy science,” as if such thinking might undermine the respect due us as the only species possessing consciousness. We hear less of that today, Morrison notes, as increasing evidence of our close linkage to other animals becomes known. Yet, in an ironic sense, the taboo against anthropomorphism is correct: “Indeed, no animal displays human behavior. Quite the reverse. Humans display only animal behavior. Watch the action without the sound track and this truth becomes obvious” (xiv). Further, such movingly authentic depictions as Hemingway gives us of contact between human and nonhuman animal minds seem to support Frederick Turner's hypothesis of a sensory language that preceded the development of spoken language. Within such a perspective our relationship with animals reacquaints us with “a larger kind of sensing,” an “urlanguage we share with other parts of nature than ourselves” (“An Ecopoetics” 135-36).

So the author's level of understanding of these connections—Hemingway among the animals—is deep and insightful, even if its implications could not overcome his drive toward tragic individualism. Still, I hope not to seem to claim that Hemingway would have been a greater author if he had reflected sound environmental values. The opposite is nearer the truth. The great power of much of his work arises from the tensions between the competing pulls of defiant individualism and the abiding earth. But part of the cost of that greatness is a diminished earth and a version of primitivism whose price was still being reckoned by Hemingway at the end of his career, as it is by his audience even today.

The right relationships between self and earth were of such crucial importance to Hemingway—and to those readers who, like me, have been deeply influenced by his depictions of the individual in nature—that it seems likely that they would have continued to engross him, had his life and career carried forward into the environmental awareness of the late 1960s and beyond. Intimations of a threatened nature, the necessity for self-restraint, for a sense of stewardship toward the earth, do emerge in his later writing. And his posthumous novel, The Garden of Eden, which Hemingway worked on from 1946 until his death in 1961, is notable for the narrator's expression of his deep disgust, as a boy, at the excesses of elephant killing in Africa by his father. Indeed, the boy's loyalty shifts from his father to the elephants. It is an echo, or perhaps a premonition, of Gregory Hemingway's own appalled confession.

As Hemingway, at the end of his career, may have been essaying new relationships—less destructive forms of human dignification—with an enduring earth, so also, to the credit of his genius, he had already anticipated that his followers would move beyond him in a continuing development of consciousness. “Every novel which is truly written,” he said in Death in the Afternoon, “contributes to the total of knowledge which is there at the disposal of the next writer who comes, but the next writer must pay, always, a certain nominal percentage in experience to be able to understand and assimilate what is available as his birthright and what he must, in turn, take his departure from” (192). In this account of the course of literary evolution, Hemingway has written his own best defense while also anticipating the necessary and inevitable departure from him of the next generation of writers, whose understanding of their own place in the natural world would be formed, in part, from Hemingway's tragic conflicts with the earth.


  1. As Keith Carabine points out, the story is “euphoric” despite the “nightmare at noontide” emphasis in most of the criticism (39-44). Philip Young's Preface to The Nick Adams Stories explains how the proper chronological placing of the story, after the World War I stories, makes its submerged anxieties more understandable.

  2. Hovey 33. See also Monk.

  3. The connections for Hemingway between fishing and tragedy are further revealed in his description to F. Scott Fitzgerald of his idea of heaven: “a big bull ring with me holding two barrera seats and a trout stream outside” (Selected Letters 165).

  4. Hemingway, Selected Letters 681, 659, 867, 679, 847.

  5. Hochner 152. Hemingway voices similar sentiments in Death in the Afternoon 233 and in Selected Letters 449. See also Drinnon 29.

  6. See Selected Letters 277, 370, 374, 416, 636, 644, 648, 729, 771-72. See also Plimpton 35.

  7. Selected Letters 416, 582. See also Leicester Hemingway 107, 120, and pictures between 224 and 225; Jack Hemingway 101.

  8. See Selected Letters 697 and Across the River 123.

  9. Death in the Afternoon 4; A Sand County Almanac 262. In his perceptive essay, “The Happiness of the Garden: Hemingway's Edenic Quest,” John Leland reaches a similar conclusion to that expressed here, saying that “no real land can sustain the demands of the Hemingway hero.”

  10. Ueno 74. Meeker also sees tragedy as a peculiarly Western cultural tradition (42).

  11. While Joseph Wood Krutch claimed in The Modern Temper in 1929 that tragedy was no longer possible in modern life because we have lost confidence in the nobility of humanity, tragedies, or some equivalent to them, continue to be written and critics to deal with them. Wirt Williams's The Tragic Art of Ernest Hemingway (1981) examines Hemingway's works from the perspective of the tragic condition, though not from the ecological viewpoint taken here. Major earlier critical books on Hemingway by Philip Young, Carlos Baker, and Jackson J. Benson all found tragedy to be central to Hemingway's art. In considering the possible endings of The Garden of Eden, Robert E. Fleming cites the pattern of tragedy running through all of Hemingway's work and thought as evidence that the optimistic ending of the Jenks edition of the novel is counter to Hemingway's probable intentions (“The Endings”).

  12. See, for example, Faulkner's tribute in Shenandoah and the essays by Gurko, Jobes, Burhans, and Sylvester in Jobes. Although he does not see the story as tragic, Earl Rovit perceptively links the novel to “Big Two-Hearted River,” a connection that I have followed here.

  13. Wolfgang Wittkowski underscores the combative fighter-in-the-ring quality of Santiago, and how this opposes and subsumes his Christian aspects.

  14. For details of the filming, see Laurence.

  15. Selected Letters 771-72. On Hemingway's verbal rapport with bears, see Hochner 32.

  16. See Burwell 77, 137, 208. See also Hemingway, True at First Light 98.

  17. See Donaldson 83-84. For a remembrance of Hemingway's positive fishing ethics and of the changes in his attitude toward “killing your limit” over his later years, see Jack Hemingway 18, 80.

  18. Gregory Hemingway's daughter, Lorian Hemingway, grew up rebellious and followed a chaotic existence as a drifter and alcoholic for many years. She broke free at last, through fishing and the help of fishing elders, and caught herself a life, as she records in her remarkable memoir, Walk on Water. Fishing in her life became the healing restorative, the redemption through water, that was never enough for her grandfather, whose legacy haunted her.

  19. The male fish may have jumped for other reasons, Harvard animal behaviorist Marc D. Hauser might caution. In his book Wild Minds, Hauser questions many interpretations of animal behavior but also finds that animals have core emotions, communicate, use tools, solve problems using symbols, learn by imitation, and so forth. See, for example, 4-10, xviii-xix. Generally, Hauser's judgments accord closely with Hemingway's observations.

  20. See Love, “The Ecological Short Story” 50-55. Further connections between Hemingway and animals are explored in several articles in Robert Fleming, ed., Hemingway and the Natural World.

Works Cited

Burhans, Jr., Clinton. “The Old Man and the Sea: Hemingway's Tragic Vision of Man.” Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Old Man and the Sea. Ed. Katharine T. Jobes. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice, 1968. 72-80.

Burwell, Rose Marie. Hemingway: The Postwar Years and the Posthumous Novels. New York: Cambridge UP, 1996.

Carabine, Keith. “‘Big-Two-Hearted River’: A Reinterpretation.” The Hemingway Review 1.2 (Spring 1982): 39-44.

Faulkner, William. “Review of The Old Man and the Sea.Shenandoah 3 (Autumn 1952): 55.

Fleming, Robert. “The Endings of Hemingway's Garden of Eden.American Literature 61 (1989): 261-70.

———, ed. Hemingway and the Natural World. Moscow: U of Idaho P, 1999.

Hamilton, W. D. Narrow Roads of Gene Land. Vol. I of Evolution of Social Behavior. New York: Freeman, 1996.

Hauser, Marc D. Wild Minds: What Animals Really Think. New York: Holt, 2000.

Hemingway, Ernest. Across the River and into the Trees. New York: Scribner's, 1950.

———. “Big Two-Hearted River.” The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. New York: Scribner's, 1953. 209-32.

———. Death in the Afternoon. New York: Scribner's, 1932.

———. Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters, 1917-1961. Ed. Carlos Baker. New York: Scribner's, 1981.

———. A Farewell to Arms. New York: Scribner's, 1929.

———. The Garden Of Eden. New York: Scribner's, 1986.

———. Green Hills of Africa. New York: Scribner's, 1935.

———. The Nick Adams Stories. New York: Scribner's 1972.

———. The Old Man and the Sea. New York: Scribner's, 1952.

———. “The Shot.” Repr. By Line: Ernest Hemingway. Ed. William White. New York: Bantam, 1968.

———. True at First Light. Ed. Patrick Hemingway. New York: Scribner's, 1999.

———. The Viking Portable Hemingway. Ed. Malcolm Cowley. New York: Viking, 1944.

Hemingway, Gregory. Papa: A Personal Memoir. Boston: Houghton, 1976.

Hemingway, Jack. Misadventures of a Fly Fisherman. Dallas: Taylor, 1986.

Hemingway, Leicester. My Brother, Ernest Hemingway. Cleveland: New World, 1962.

Hemingway, Lorian. Walk on Water: A Memoir. New York: Simon, 1998.

Hemingway, Patrick. “My Papa, Papa.” Playboy 15:2 (December 1968): 197-98, 200, 263-64. 268.

Hochner, A. E. Papa Hemingway. New York: Bantam, 1967.

Hovey, Richard. Hemingway: The Inward Terrain. Seattle: U of Washington P, 1968.

Jobes, Katharine T., ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Old Man and the Sea. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice, 1968.

Killinger, John. Hemingway and the Dead Gods. Lexington: U of Kentucky P, 1960.

Krutch, Joseph Wood. The Measure of Man. New York: Bobbs, 1954.

———. The Modern Temper. New York: Harcourt, 1929.

———. More Lives Than One. New York: Sloane, 1962.

Laurence, Frank M. Hemingway and the Movies. Jackson: U of Mississippi P, 1981.

Leland, John. “The Happiness of the Garden: Hemingway's Edenic Quest.” The Hemingway Review 3.1 (Fall 1983): 44-53.

Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac. 1949. San Francisco: Sierra Club/Balantine, 1966.

Love, Glen A. “The Ecological Short Story.” The Columbia Companion to the Twentieth-Century American Short Story. Ed. Blanche H. Gelfant. New York: Columbia UP, 2000. 50-55.

Meeker, Joseph. The Comedy of Survival: Studies in Literary Ecology. New York: Scribner's, 1974.

Miller, Arthur. “Tragedy and the Common Man.” Rpt. Tragedy: Plays, Theory, and Criticism. Ed. Richard Levin. New York: Harcourt, 1960.

Monk, Donald. “Hemingway's Territorial Imperatives.” Yearbook of English Studies 8 (1978): 125-40.

Morrison, Reg. The Spirit in the Gene: Humanity's Proud Illusion and the Laws of Nature. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1999.

Nahal, Chaman. The Narrative Pattern in Ernest Hemingway's Fiction. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1971.

Plimpton, George. “An Interview with Ernest Hemingway.” Hemingway and His Critics: An International Anthology. Ed. Carlos Baker. New York: Hill, 1961. 19-37.

Rovit, Earl. Ernest Hemingway. New York: Twayne, 1963.

Sewell, Richard. “The Tragic Form.” Tragedy: Plays, Theory, and Criticism. Ed. Richard Levin. New York: Harcourt, 1960.

Stegner, Wallace. The Sound of Mountain Water. New York: Dutton, 1980.

Steiner, George. In Bluebeard's Castle: Some Notes Toward the Definition of Culture. New Haven: Yale UP, 1971.

Sylvester, Bickford. “Hemingway's Extended Vision: The Old Man and the Sea.Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Old Man and the Sea. Ed. Katharine T. Jobes. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice, 1968. 81-96.

Turner, Frederick. “An Ecopoetics of Beauty and Meaning.” Biopoetics: Evolutionary Interpretations in the Arts. Lexington, KY: ICUS, 1999. 119-38.

Ueno, Naozo. “An Oriental View of The Old Man and the Sea.East-West Review 2 (Spring 1965): 67-76.

Walton, Isaac. The Compleat Angler: 1653-1736. Ed Jonquil Bevan. Oxford: Clarendon, 1983.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. 1855. Ed. Sculley Bradley and Harold W. Blodgett. New York: Norton, 1973.

Williams, Raymond. The Country and the City. London: Hogarth, 1973.

Williams, Terry Tempest. Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. New York: Pantheon, 1991.

Williams, Wirt. The Tragic Art of Ernest Hemingway. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1981.

Wilson, David Sloan. Rev. of Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind, by David M. Buss. Evolution and Human Behavior 20 (1999): 279-87.

Wittkowski, Wolfgang. “Crucified in the Ring: Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea.The Hemingway Review 3.1 (Fall 1983): 2-17.

Young, Philip. Ernest Hemingway. Minneapolis: U. of Minnesota P, 1965.

———. Ernest Hemingway: A Reconsideration. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1966.

Debra A. Moddelmog (essay date 2002)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8257

SOURCE: Moddelmog, Debra A. “Queer Families in Hemingway's Fiction.” In Hemingway and Women: Female Critics and the Female Voice, edited by Lawrence R. Broer and Gloria Holland, pp. 173-89. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2002.

[In the following essay, Moddelmog examines In Our Time, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Sun Also Rises, and The Garden of Eden through the lens of queer theory to argue that although Hemingway did not depict many stereotypical nuclear families, his fiction is nevertheless deeply concerned with kinship.]

… even when you have learned not to look at families nor listen to them and have learned not to answer letters, families have many ways of being dangerous.

Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

Over the years, a number of critics have noted the lack of traditional families and stable home life in Hemingway's fiction.1 As Frank Shelton put it as early as 1974, “Hemingway's books may seem to lack entirely that most primary group to which every individual belongs, at least initially, the family” (303). Two years later, Roger Whitlow wrote, “It is interesting to observe in the fiction of Ernest Hemingway the virtual absence of an organically successful family relationship” (“Family Relationship” 5). More recently, Michael Reynolds has taken up this same line of criticism, arguing that “With one exception, the characters [Hemingway] invented [are] essentially homeless men, not only without family but without a town to call home” (Young Hemingway 53).

I agree that Hemingway's stories and novels lack an extended portrayal of the procreative biological family and the establishment of a permanent home, which has such symbolic value for this family in the United States. However, in this essay I will argue that a portrayal—even, sometimes, a sympathetic portrayal—of the family is not missing from Hemingway's fiction but is present in a form different from the one readers expect to find. My argument hinges on the definition of family. It alleges that blood ties, marriage licenses, heterosexual sex, and children are not the only, or the definitive, indicators of family. In fact, if we view family as two or more people who share interests and ideas, who care for and support each other emotionally and materially, and who create a sense of belonging for those involved, then it becomes clear that biological families often fail the test. The individuals who have been the most outspoken about the frequent failures of these families are the survivors of incest or child abuse, children of an alcoholic parent or parents, and/or children who grow up to identify as gay or lesbian. For many of these individuals, the blood family is often not supportive, to put it mildly, nor does its household provide a haven of understanding and security. If family is to have positive meaning for these individuals, then it must be found elsewhere.

Hemingway's works are rife with alternative families, but this is not the ultimate point I want to make. Other critics have noticed the presence of such “substitute” families, proposing, for example, that the guerrilla group in For Whom the Bell Tolls serves as a family (Adair) or that The Sun Also Rises is structured around a family unit in which Jake is the father, Brett the matriarch, Bill the uncle, and Robert Cohn “an awkwardly immature son who spends too much of his time interrupting the grown-ups” (Whitlow 10). Conceding that substitute families exist in Hemingway's fiction, I believe that many of these families should be identified as “queer families.” What I mean by this is not only that such families stand in for the biological family, providing the community that it often fails to establish, but also that they often stand in opposition to this family, challenging in particular the ideal that has developed around it. In addition, these families are made queer not simply because they are chosen rather than inherited but also by virtue of their transience and the ways they blur the boundaries between non-erotic and erotic, sanctioned and taboo bonds.

Although I could make my case with a number of Hemingway's narratives, to meet the space restrictions of this collection, I will concentrate on three: “The Battler,” written early in Hemingway's career, and The Garden of Eden and “The Last Good Country,” both written late.2 I will argue that “The Battler” shows how family bonds can be forged outside the authority of both biology and the state. The Garden of Eden extends this exploration of family kinship and relations by demonstrating that the traditional family and the symbolic apparatus that gives it such powerful leverage in our nation—for example, biology, the natural, kinship, marriage, and the lawful—are socially constructed. Consequently, the lines between the queer family and the blood family can shift. The limits and ethics of this shifting are prominent in my third example, “The Last Good Country,” where Nick and Littless Adams separate themselves from the other members of their immediate family to form their own family, a queer family that is, simultaneously, inside and outside the biological family. The point I hope to make with these three analyses is that queer families in Hemingway's fiction denaturalize the traditional, biological family by exposing its shortcomings, revealing its perversions, and refuting its claim to primacy as the emotional center of its members' lives. Crucially, this process of denaturalization is not merely oppositional or denunciatory. Hemingway's queer families pose challenges more than threats. As they reconfigure the bonds of belonging and bring substance to relationships of care, particularly in fragile contexts, they challenge the traditional family to do the same. As they target various norms of that family—especially norms of sexuality and power—they challenge queer theorists to delineate the ethics of our paradigms.

“The Battler,” a story Hemingway wrote in 1925 for inclusion in his book In Our Time, presents one of Hemingway's most visibly queer families, Bugs and Ad Francis. The men are misfits among conventional society: they both served time in jail, Bugs for knifing a man, Ad for beating up people after his wife, whom many believed was his sister, left him. Ad and Bugs's coupling increases their difference from mainstream society. It joins two men, one white, one black, in a domestic situation that is, quite literally, transient: Ad and Bugs roam the country, setting up camp wherever they can. Also adding to the queerness of their family arrangement is the fact that Ad's wife continues to send Ad money, thereby serving as an in abstentia member of their family. From a conventional perspective, the union of Bugs, Ad, and Ad's wife calls up multiple meanings of queer: unconventional, eccentric, bizarre, strange, unusual, suspicious.

The queerness of the two men is marked physically as well as socially. We see them through the eyes of Nick Adams, who reflects a normative viewpoint, even though he too is a liminal character: thrown from a moving train into the sometimes dangerous woods, on the border between youth and adulthood, about to discover what it's like to be crazy, and, as we will discover in “The Last Good Country,” familiar with incestuous feelings. From Nick's perspective, Ad's beat-up prizefighter body is queer. His face is so “queerly formed” that Nick must study it to make sense of it: “In the firelight Nick saw that his face was misshapen. His nose was sunken, his eyes were slits, he had queer-shaped lips. Nick did not perceive all this at once; he only saw the man's face was queerly formed and mutilated. It was like putty in color. Dead looking in the firelight” (55). In addition to resembling the living dead, Ad has only one ear. Looking at the stump where his other ear used to be makes Nick a “little sick” (55). In contrast to the detail that Nick provides about Ad's battered face, he tells us nothing about the way Bugs looks, except that he is “Negro” and can be identified as such by his walk and his voice (57). Thus, the only feature that Nick registers about Bugs's face and body is that both are black. By collapsing Bugs's personal traits and humanity into the single marker of race, Nick reduces him to his racial identity. This point is driven home through repeated references to Bugs as “the Negro” and “the nigger.” Nick's reduction of Bugs to the racialized Other is a way of conventionally queering him, a pattern of dehumanization that Bugs seems used to by this point in his life. When Ad reports Nick has never been crazy, we can hear the experience in Bugs's voice as he announces, “He's got a lot coming to him” (57).

In telling his and Ad's stories to Nick, Bugs reveals how social displacement frequently ends in other kinds of displacement. Bugs claims that Ad's mental trouble has been caused by societal presumption more than by physical trauma. Ad may have taken too many beatings in and out of the ring, but he was finally driven crazy by the pressures that mounted over the relentless public speculation that his wife was also his sister. Individuals that the dominant society cannot control, accept, understand, embrace, stand to look at, or change are removed: to a prison, a mental asylum, the woods, the streets, or the constant punishment of their own internalized self-hatred. But while Bugs and Ad have been rejected by and excluded from mainstream society for many reasons, they have found comfort, support, and care in each other's company. Their treatment of each other makes us eventually question the judgment of a judgmental society, and it reverses the negative connotations of their “queerness,” implying that the queer overcomes conventional condemnation by revaluing what societal norms reject.

First and foremost, Bugs and Ad show genuine affection for each other. Bugs tells Nick that when they met in prison, he liked Ad right away—liked him enough, in fact, to look him up when Bugs was released. Bugs prepares their meals, prevents others from hurting Ad, and cares for Ad when he is unconscious. Unlike Nick, Bugs is not repulsed by Ad's face and body. After thumping Ad, Bugs pulls gently on his ears to make sure he is all right (60), thus touching tenderly the ear-stump that made Nick nauseous. He claims that Ad would not be bad looking if his face were not “all busted” (61). Bugs also discredits the story that Ad committed incest, asserting that although Ad and his wife looked enough alike to be twins, “they wasn't brother and sister no more than a rabbit” (61). Moreover, Ad likes Bugs too. As he tells Nick, “This is my pal Bugs” (57).

This is not to say that the relationship between Bugs and Ad is unproblematic and completely admirable. Most troubling are Bugs's methods for keeping Ad out of trouble and thus out of jail. Whenever Ad turns combative and seems about to start a fight, Bugs taps him at the base of the skull with a cloth-wrapped blackjack. Such methods are extreme, and for anyone who knows about the head trauma suffered by boxers, it appears that Bugs is actually adding to Ad's problems. Moreover, the implications of Hemingway's portrayal of a black man repeatedly knocking out a white man are complex and stereotypical at the same time. On the one hand, Bugs's violence could be regarded as perpetuating the racist-derived stereotype of black-on-white assault in America; on the other hand, it also suggests Bugs's underlying anger toward white men. But both of these suggestions are offset by the fact that Bugs works hard to prevent confrontations in the first place: “I hate to have to thump him,” he says, but “it's the only thing to do when he gets started. I have to sort of keep him away from people” (62). Bugs also knows exactly where and how hard to hit Ad to minimize his violence. After knocking out Ad to avert his growing hostility toward Nick, Bugs admits that this time he hit him a bit too hard, but with Bugs's aid, Ad will recover (60).3 In addition, were Bugs to allow Ad to act on his sudden hostility,4 the consequences could be serious. Ad might actually hurt someone. This result might return him to prison, which would expose him to further harm and leave Bugs on his own. But despite all these qualifications surrounding Bugs's assault of Ad, domestic violence of any kind should not be condoned, and I wish that Bugs might have found a more resourceful and less physically debilitating way to prevent Ad from hurting others.

Another potentially troubling aspect of Ad and Bugs's relationship is its financial foundation. Indeed, given that Ad's most noticeable contribution to their relationship is the money his wife sends, it might be argued that Bugs is simply Ad's salaried caretaker. This impression finds support in the way that Bugs refers to Ad as “Mister Francis,” a form of address that denotes a hierarchy in their relationship. But in many families, the responsibilities are delegated, with one partner taking charge of finances, another of the domestic duties. And, in contrast to many women who historically have been unhappy with or unfulfilled by their domestic responsibilities, Bugs seems satisfied with his role in the relationship. His formality with Ad might be a consequence of racial relations of the time, with the black man pressured to show his place by addressing white men as superiors rather than equals. After all, Bugs also refers to the youthful Nick as “Mister Adams.” Yet it also seems possible that Bugs's apparent deference to his white companions is one way that he lives out his imagined position as a gentleman or that it's part of how he makes the mentally fragile Ad feel important in a world that has too often made him feel less than human. In any case, I see no reason not to take Bugs at his word when he says, “I like to be with [Ad] and I like seeing the country and I don't have to commit no larceny to do it. I like living like a gentleman” (61). In fact, wherever Bugs and Ad camp is home, a metaphor made literal by the delicious food they cook and share with Nick and by Bugs's regret that they cannot extend their hospitality and ask Nick to stay the night (62). As Nick retreats from their camp, the last thing he hears is Bugs tending to the recovering Ad, protecting him in a harsh world in which they both have taken too many beatings.

The queer family presented in The Garden of Eden is quite different from the one found in “The Battler.” I employ this obvious transition not simply to move to the next text of my analysis but to underscore the fact that queer families frequently differ from one another. Were they identical, they would no longer be queer. By making difference and plurality a part of their character, I am suggesting that queer families implicitly critique the mythology surrounding the family in the United States, which has insisted for much of this century that all families are, relatively speaking, alike: headed by a bread-winning father, nurtured by a stay-at-home mother, and blessed with one or more children. The reality of this definition has crumbled in the last twenty years under the weight of statistics that demonstrate that very few American families (only 7 percent in 1986) fit that description (Thorne 9) and under the penetrating criticism of scholars who have argued that such a definition is based in white, middle-class desire rather than in the experiences of many Americans of color and/or of the working class.5

Although few readers of The Garden of Eden will resist my characterizing David and Catherine Bourne's family situation as queer, significantly the novel opens with the couple looking very much like the husband-wife duo that forms the nucleus of the nuclear family. Newly married, Catherine and David seem poised to take their place in this conventional family formation. For instance, as David aligns himself with the masculine role of writer, Catherine resigns herself to the feminine space of serving as his inspiration. Both partners are also aware that their active sex life may eventually result in pregnancy. Finally, they both seem equally fond of each other, their marriage based in affection and mutually satisfying sex, as was expected of the so-called companionate marriage of the time. Beginning in the 1920s, these bonds of affection were seen by many Americans as the core of the family relation.6 However, Catherine and David's story proves that appearances can be deceiving, that what looks like a so-called normal family arrangement might actually be queer, and vice versa.

Catherine's introduction of the sex-changing, identity-altering transformations sets in motion a series of deviations and deceptions. As Catherine changes into the boy “Peter” and David into the girl “Catherine,” they upset the dominant ideology that requires clear distinctions between men and women, male and female, an ideology central to the traditional family. But even before undertaking this change, Catherine and David's marriage threatens the ideology that surrounds this family. The narrator tells us early in the story that they look so much alike that most people mistake them for brother and sister until they say they are married. Even then, some people do not believe they are married (6). This situation resembles that of Ad and his wife in “The Battler,” and the repetition of the error suggests that it is fairly easy for outsiders to mistake a state-approved family for a queer one, to misconstrue lawful relations as taboo. Such confusion insinuates that family relations are socially constructed; the lines between normalcy and abnormalcy are contrived, capable of being redrawn. As we have seen, the redrawing of these lines by an unrelenting public ruined the marriage of Ad Francis and his wife. However, unlike the Francises, the Bournes thrive on the allegation that they are brother and sister. The narrator tells us that Catherine is pleased by the misidentification (6). In the manuscript located in the Kennedy Library, she elaborates, “It's fun without sin. … But sin does give it a certain quality.” “I like it either way,” David replies (ser. 422, folders 1-1, p. 4).7

After the change, in which they reverse sexes and roles in bed, Catherine and David call each other “brother” and further explore their theory that transgressing a taboo is sexually exciting (21-22). Catherine identifies this altered relationship when she says to David, “you're my good lovely husband and my brother too” (29). Lest we presume that Catherine is simply talking about brother in the sense of “comrade” or “close friend,” the manuscript reveals the complexity of her allusion. Here Catherine insists, “you're my good lovely husband … and I love you even if you are my brother too maybe more I guess” (ser. 422, folders 1-2, chap. 4, p. 1). By becoming the male sibling of her husband, Catherine engages in homosexual incest, an act that deepens her desire and her marital bond. To put this another way, Catherine's transgendered relations with David “refamiliarize” their relationship, symbolically imposing a tabooed homosexual incest onto their licensed marital union. This inscription of brotherly bonds onto their husband-wife connection queers the marriage, but at the same time, it highlights the repressed incestuous desires that circulate within the traditional family unit. The incestuous lines that run through David and Catherine's union are thus complex, but the net effect is that they challenge the distinction between the natural and the queer.8 In one instance, the public imposes brother-sister incest onto their relationship, and thereby queers a socially approved and state-mandated marriage. In the other instance, Catherine and David invoke brother-brother incest to heighten their pleasure, even though this act of incest goes unnoticed by the outside world. They have queered their union but can still present themselves to others as legitimate heterosexual spouses.

This game of appearances plays out in another crucial way. As I have argued elsewhere (Reading Desire), Catherine and David's transgendered role-switching is, in part, a way to explore same-sex desire within the context of a heterosexual marriage, even though they resist acknowledging that such desire is part of their pleasure. When Catherine first cuts her hair, the narrator reports that she has possibly crossed an important societal boundary: “No decent girls had ever had their hair cut short like that in this part of the country and even in Paris it was rare and strange and could be beautiful or could be very bad. It could mean too much or it could only mean showing the beautiful shape of a head that could never be shown as well” (16). What Catherine's haircut might mean—to society, to Catherine and David, or to the reader—is obscured by her formal identification as “wife,” an identity that entitles her to the presumption of decency, until proven otherwise. Catherine and David's marriage, then, serves as a kind of cover for queer activities, a function that hints at how the legitimate often conceals the transgressive, as when married couples bring their queer desires and fantasies to bed. However, in Catherine's case, the cover is completely blown with the arrival of Marita, who pushes the repressed homosexual desire into the open. As Catherine tells David after she kisses Marita, “It started with us and there'll only be us when I get this finished” (114). But when she makes love with Marita, she discovers that “this” is not finished, that making love with a woman is what Catherine wanted all her life (120).

When David, at Catherine's urging, also sleeps with Marita, the lawful twosome has willingly and visibly become a queer family. Catherine and Marita work out a time share plan, wherein each woman alternates every two days acting as David's wife: “We're going to take turns,” Catherine says. “You're mine today and tomorrow. And you're Marita's the next two days” (170). But as queer as this plan might seem to most Americans, Catherine and David point out that their situation would be normal and accepted were they living in Africa where David might register as “Mohammedan” and take three wives (144). Once again, we are reminded that families are socially constructed: the queer family in one culture is the norm in another.

Admittedly, the success of the husband-sharing plan is minimal, although all three characters accept it for a while.9 Further, the destructive end of Catherine and David's marriage as well as David's apparent reluctance to engage in Catherine's sexual surprises would seem to qualify the success of their queer family. I even suspect that some readers will argue that Catherine's queering of their marriage is responsible for destroying it. But I would challenge this objection on two grounds. First, I question the sincerity of David's reluctance to engage in Catherine's plans. After all, he does go along with everything she suggests, including a fairly hearty consent to making love with Marita. As Catherine frequently points out, David's resistance is often a posture (e.g., 196), and during one insightful and self-aware moment, David actually confesses to his willing participation: “All right. You like it [having his hair cut and bleached the same as Catherine's],” he says. “Now go through with the rest of it whatever it is and don't ever say anyone tempted you or that anyone bitched you” (84). If this transgendered, polygamous family fails, David, and Marita, must be held accountable as well. The second reason why I resist blaming Catherine for the failure of her and David's marriage is that it is difficult to make judgments based on the published text since the manuscripts provide much more detail about Catherine and David's relationship, motives, and consequences. I have outlined some of these crucial differences in print (see my Reading Desire), but here I simply note that in a chapter which Hemingway labeled “Provisional Ending,” Catherine and David stay together (ser. 422, folder 21). In this ending, David cares for Catherine after her return from a sanitarium in Switzerland, and both partners profess to love each other and actually contemplate a suicide pact should Catherine's mental state grow worse.10

If Catherine and David's relationship, and their attempt to enlarge their family with the inclusion of Marita, thrives only for a while, they nonetheless experience a happiness during that time that neither has felt previously. Significantly, both Catherine and David have conflicted relationships with their biological families. For instance, David seems obsessed with the urge to write autobiographically inspired stories about his cruel and wayward father. When Marita reads the story in which David's father slaughters African natives, she asks, “Was this when you stopped loving him?” to which David replies, “No. I always loved him. This was when I got to know him” (154). As Peter L. Hays remarks, David has affection but not respect for his father (“Nick Adams” 37). The published novel is cryptic about Catherine's biological family, with the most detailed information coming from Colonel John Boyle, who says Catherine's father was a very odd type and her mother very lonely (61). But in the manuscript, Catherine provides more significant background when she tells David, “If we'd had the damned baby I wouldn't want to have it around anymore than my parents wanted me around. They were honest enough about it” (ser. 422, folder 111, p. 12).

Catherine's criticism of her parents serves as a useful reminder that although Hemingway's fiction might lack an extended portrait of a successful biological family, the biological family is not completely absent from his writing. A few members of what I am calling Hemingway's queer families have retained loving connections to their blood relatives; many others reveal—through their energetic descriptions of tyrannical mothers, weak-willed fathers, or indifferent parents—that family ties have become a kind of psychic bondage.11 Still, the blood family is very much a factor in the estranged individual's psyche and life. Because the traditional family is often an absent presence in Hemingway's works, I am not suggesting that his fiction ignores it. Rather, as I stated earlier, his stories more often work to denaturalize this family. In “The Battler,” this process of denaturalization consists of portraying the queer family in a positive light. In The Garden of Eden, it takes the form of a series of reversals between the traditional and the queer family, revealing the instabilities of both and the perversions of the former. This process of denaturalization assumes yet another guise in “The Last Good Country.”

It might seem contradictory that I include Nick and Littless in my list of queer families in Hemingway's fiction since, unlike the other characters discussed in this essay, they are related by blood. Indeed, Nick Adams is the only male protagonist in Hemingway's fiction whose biological family and upbringing are sketched in some detail (through a series of stories, including “Indian Camp,” “The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife,” “Ten Indians,” “Now I Lay Me,” and “Fathers and Sons”). However, in “The Last Good Country,” Nick and Littless deliberately separate themselves from their other family members: “[Littless] and Nick loved each other and they did not love the others. They always thought of everyone else in the family as the others” (56-57).12 In essence, Nick and Littless form a family outside their family, although they need their immediate family to provide the negative example that defines their difference and delineates, by contrast, the contours of their own family unit. This separation creates paradoxes: Nick and Littless are a family that rejects the family; they are kin who choose each other. These paradoxes emphasize a point made earlier in regard to other Hemingway works: the most sustaining kinship is that which is chosen.

Littless maintains that she and Nick differ from their other family members, in part, because “crime comes easy” for them (99), a distinction that spotlights their status as outlaws. Obviously, Nick and Littless are outlaws in the sense that they are running from the law, as the warden and the “down-state man” attempt to “make an example” of Nick for killing a deer out of season and want to send him to reform school (57). But they are also outlaws of the family; that is, they are moving away, both literally and symbolically, from the traditional family and the space it occupies in society. As Mark Spilka puts it, “If the game wardens overtly threaten [Nick's] freedom, his mother and the ‘others’ are from the first the essential threat from which, along with Littless, he wishfully flees” (Quarrel 268). Nick and Littless are not, however, simply fugitives of the traditional family; they are also moving toward a new kind of family. When they begin to argue over whether Littless should have come along, she demands, “Are we going to be like the others and have fights? … I'll go back or I'll stay just as you want. I'll go back whenever you tell me to. But I won't have fights. Haven't we seen enough fights in families?” (70). Out there, in “the last good country,” one can create a new family, one that gets along and does not fight; back there, in their home in town, is the bickering, dysfunctional family.

We might regard Littless's dream of a fightless family as naive, but her determined idealism sets the stage for her and Nick's revision of family. As they move deeper into the wilderness, Littless and Nick continue to set the ground rules for their new family formation. Some of these rules consist of enacting the behavior that they expect, but fail to receive, from members of their traditional family. For example, although we never observe Mrs. Adams interacting with her children, the information we do receive points to her inadequacies as a mother. Not only does she feed the game wardens who are chasing her son and allow them to spend the night in the Adams's home, but she also tells them where they might find Nick. Littless wonders whether “our mother” intended to disclose Nick's whereabouts: “I don't think she meant to,” she says. “Anyway I hope not” (61). Whether Mrs. Adams's disclosure was deliberate or merely an indiscretion, she fails to do what mothers are supposed to do: protect her children. In fact, she fails to take responsibility for both her actions and her son's fate, breaking down in the middle of the family crisis with a “sick headache like always” and retiring to her bedroom (64, 90).

The failures of Mrs. Adams stand in stark contrast to the way Nick cares for Littless on their journey as he endeavors to meet her physical and emotional needs as well as to provide moral guidance. After they set up their lean-to in “Camp Number One,” Nick asks whether Littless finds her browse bed comfortable and offers to “feather in some more balsam” (91). He fixes them a tasty dinner of trout, rye bread, bacon sandwiches, and tea with condensed milk, then advises Littless to eat an apple (99). Later, when she is asleep, he spreads his Mackinaw coat over her and thinks, “I must take good care of her and keep her happy and get her back safely” (101). Nick's loving solicitousness contrasts with the way his mother has treated him. He has fed and sheltered his family; she has fed and sheltered her son's pursuers, and would even lead those men to her son. By conventional definitions of mothering, Nick is a better mother than his mother.

The thoughtful care that Nick gives Littless is fully reciprocated, suggesting that the primary rule guiding their family formation will be extending kindness and love to each other. Littless claims that she cannot rest, as Nick asked her to, because “all I could do was imagine things to do for you” (96). She also tells him amusing stories and offers to share her chocolate. Most important, she is determined to prevent Nick from killing the Evans's boy, who might be tailing them. She will be Nick's moral counsel and conscience, just as he will be hers. At one point, she declares that she is glad she is not ruined morally because then she could not “exercise a good influence” on him (97). A section of the story's manuscript that was omitted from the published version summarizes Littless's hope for their relationship. She states, “I thought we'd go away together and I'd take care of you and you'd take care of me and you know where I thought we'd go. I thought we'd hunt and fish and eat and read and sleep together and not worry and love each other and be kind and good” (qtd. in Comley and Scholes 72).

Thus far, my discussion of Nick and Littless's queer family has focused on the way that their break with their blood family enables them to pursue the ideals of reciprocal love, care, protection, and community, which the traditional family lays claim to, yet often falls short of achieving. But the relationship between Nick and Littless exhibits another characteristic of the traditional, biological family that this family does not advertise, indeed typically represses: incestuous desire. To put this another way, the incest that was imagined in “The Battler” and both imagined and symbolic in The Garden of Eden has the potential to become literal in “The Last Good Country.” The existence of this potential reinforces my observation that Nick and Littless are both inside and outside the family, which is also to say that although the traditional family might be socially constructed, as my reading of The Garden of Eden demonstrates, the lines forming that construction are not immaterial or infinitely flexible. Because Nick and Littless are brother and sister, and because Nick is sexually mature whereas Littless is not, the potential incest between them raises ethical considerations that the symbolic incest between consenting adults in The Garden of Eden does not. It emphasizes that neither queer nor normative families can ignore the ethics of power in relationships.

From one perspective, incestuous feelings queer the relationship between Littless and Nick, especially when Littless, in the same vein as Catherine Bourne, cuts her hair and announces her wish to be both Nick's sister and his brother (96). From another perspective, these feelings normalize their relationship, exposing the circuits of desire that flow among members of the nuclear family. Either way, I find myself unwilling to reconstruct the potential incest between the teenage Nick and the ten- or eleven-year-old Littless as ethical. Further, I believe that this refusal is compatible with the queer paradigm that motivates this paper. If that paradigm consists only of opposing and transgressing the normative, then not only does the normative continue to define the terms of our discussions but also we can actually abrogate responsibility for delineating the ethical grounds of our work. As Steven Seidman notes, queer theorists must be ready to identify the ethical guidelines that would permit sexual innovation “while being attentive to considerations of power and legitimate normative regulation” (136). To state this in terms relevant to the argument at hand, if queer ethics consists only of transgressions, then incest between a teenage brother and his preteen sister would become ethical because it transgresses the idealized norm of exogamous adult heterosexuality.

The queer project to which I subscribe focuses on redefining the quality of relationships that form the social. Sometimes this means challenging the normative; other times, it means accepting it; and many times, it means re-imagining relationships. As many feminist scholars have shown, incest usually involves an inequity of power and a breach of trust within a family relationship. In this context, a major problem with the traditional family is not its form; it's that relationships within this family are constituted inequitably.13 One of the most inequitable of these relationships is that between older male family members (fathers, uncles, and brothers) and younger female family members (daughters, nieces, and sisters). And one way in which this inequity is too often manifested is through the older male forcing or encouraging the younger female to submit sexually. As Rosaria Champagne observes, “When we understand the brother's power over his sisters as natural (including the power to ‘protect’ his sisters from other men), we have fallen prey to the complex ideologies of patriarchy, which represent male power as natural because it is institutionalized” (155).

Although I am not prepared to address the ethics of all forms of incest, I strongly resist any implication that incest between a sexually mature brother and his young sister would be acceptable in any current formation of the family. Given this view, I could approach the potential incest of “The Last Good Country” in two ways. I could argue that we should go only so far in approving the queer family that Hemingway depicts. We might admire the loving, reciprocal relationship that Nick and Littless cultivate, but we should pull back at the inference that incest between them might be an acceptable part of that new family arrangement. However, a number of elements in “The Last Good Country” and its manuscripts suggest that I might take a different path. Nick and Littless do seem to recognize that consummating their incestuous feelings would be a mistake. Littless might claim that she is going to be Nick's “commonlaw wife under the Unwritten Law,” that they will have a couple of children while she is still a minor, and that “[o]ur mother will think we're fugitives from justice steeped in sin and iniquity” (104-05), but this is clearly an embellished fantasy. In the manuscript, she distinguishes between the wrong she and Nick are doing and “that kind of wrong [sexual relations] like [he] and Trudy [did]” (qtd. in Comley and Scholes 70-71). Similarly, Nick realizes that he loves “his sister very much and she loved him too much. But, he thought, I guess those things straighten out. At least I hope so” (101). So the queerness that I find in their relationship centers not on the incestuous desire itself but on the fact that Nick and Littless admit to that desire and expect to avoid acting on it. Even more, Nick's inability to know how he will work out his incestuous feelings for his sister exposes another inadequacy of the nuclear family: its habitual repression that makes desire a dirty secret and thus provides its members with no clearer instruction about incest than to hope that “those things straighten out” (101).14 Similarly, Littless's wish to marry Nick points to the constricted imagination of the traditional family, which offers children only one model—heterosexual marriage—for the adult expression of love, care, and family.

Three narratives are surely not enough to make a compelling case that queer families appear throughout Hemingway's fiction. But other possibilities spring to mind: Brett Ashley and Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises; Robert Jordan, Maria, and Pilar in For Whom the Bell Tolls; Colonel Cantwell and Renata in Across the River and into the Trees; Thomas Hudson, Roger Davis, Eddy, and the Hudson sons in Islands in the Stream; Mr. and Mrs. Elliot and Mrs. Elliot's friend in “Mr. and Mrs. Elliot”; and Santiago and Manolin in The Old Man and the Sea. All these groupings consist of characters who support each other emotionally and sometimes materially. Further, the bond between characters of many of these groupings is sealed with some form of queer desire (the groupings of Islands and Old Man might stand as exceptions, although one could make a case for homoeroticism in both). Finally, these are all transient families. For the most part, they lack a permanent home, and their connections are temporary, lasting only so long as the love lasts or until one or more members dies.

One could surely propose psycho-biographical reasons for Hemingway's interest in redefining family. As my epigraph indicates and as scholars such as Michael Reynolds, Kenneth Lynn, Gerry Brenner, Bernice Kert, James Mellow, and Mark Spilka have shown, Hemingway had many difficulties, both real and imagined, with his biological family. As Earl Rovit puts it, “To the extent that it was possible, he … cut his ties to his family, his childhood religion, and his regional roots” (“American Family” 496). Nor did Hemingway create, in a sustained way, a traditional family with any of his wives or sons. It's not surprising, then, that he might explore alternative family formations in his fiction. Whatever its sources, through this recurrent interest in family and what it means, Hemingway's work engages in a timely debate over what—and who—constitutes a family and which families should be recognized as such by the state.

In the United States, many people still believe strongly that the biological family is the natural, the real, and the indispensable family, with all other family formations viewed as imperfect and fictive substitutes. This belief is not simply a cherished notion but has serious social and psychological implications for us all. Jane Collier, Michelle Rosaldo, and Sylvia Yanagisako point out that because we have typically interpreted the traditional family as a private, autonomous unit, “the punishments imposed on people who commit physical violence [has been] lighter when their victims are their own family members.” Consequently, “We are faced with the irony that in [American] society the place where nurturance and noncontingent affection are supposed to be located is simultaneously the place where violence [has been] most tolerated” (43-44). Another effect of naturalizing the family can be seen in the ways that families headed by gays and lesbians are regularly denied both recognition as families (for example, until recently they have not been counted as families on the census records) as well as privileges accorded to traditional families (such as adoption and marriage, and all the entitlements that come with these). Not incidentally, in Great Britain such families have been officially designated “pretended families,” implying that they are impersonations of the “real” family.15 But as Kath Weston notes, “The concept of fictive kin lost credibility with the advent of symbolic anthropology and the realization that all kinship is in some sense fictional—that is, meaningfully constituted rather than ‘out there’ in a positivist sense” (105). As I have argued in this essay, Hemingway's fiction views families in this same light, insisting that family can be formed outside the conventional lines of blood, breeding, and marriage. Some of his fiction even goes so far as to imply that the families we choose have greater success in caring for their members than do the families we are born into.


  1. I would like to thank Debian Marty for her perceptive comments on various drafts of this essay and especially for her help in working out some of the complexities of my argument.

  2. Both The Garden of Eden and “The Last Good Country” were unfinished at Hemingway's death and therefore published posthumously. In Hemingway's Quarrel with Androgyny, Mark Spilka notes that the last date on the unfinished manuscript for “The Last Good Country” is 20 July 1958, about the time Hemingway began revising earlier drafts of The Garden of Eden (277). Not incidentally, Hemingway's more explicit representations of transgressive behaviors and relationships are to be found in works not published in his time. However, I believe, as do many other Hemingway critics, that these works draw our attention to concerns and issues that have always been present in Hemingway's fiction.

  3. Several critics, including Toni Morrison, interpret Bugs's thumping of Ad more severely. Morrison points to Kenneth Lynn's claim that Bugs might be solicitous but he is also a sadist and a prophet, thus playing a dual role of nurturer and destroyer (Lynn 272). While I admit that Bugs's conduct has this element of ambiguity—an element that prevents the white men he encounters from knowing whether his gestures and comments are threats or kindhearted directions—I also believe that Bugs demonstrates true affection for Ad. In fact, his drama with Ad might be staged to keep Nick from hanging around too long, thus scaring off the white man who understimates his intelligence and fails to see his humanity. Reading Bugs's actions accurately is made difficult by the fact that we see him through Nick, who does not really see Bugs at all. As Morrison notes, the typical role of Hemingway's black men is to disturb the reality of the white male protagonist, not to set forth an agenda of their own: “No matter if [Hemingway's black male characters] are loyal or resistant nurses, nourishing and bashing the master's body, these black men articulate the narrator's doom and gainsay the protagonist-narrator's construction of himself” (83-84).

  4. Nick Adams will suffer a similar mental instability during his enlistment in World War I. In “A Way You'll Never Be,” he attempts to hold back hostile outbreaks during conversations with others but is often unable to keep “it” from coming on. For instance, while speaking to Captain Paravicini, Nick thinks, “He felt it coming on again” and tries to hold it in but finally knows “he could not stop it now” (NAS [Nick Adams Stories] 146).

  5. According to Barrie Thorne, in 1986, “nationally the most common household, nearly half of the total, now has an adult male and an adult female wage earner, with or without children; the next most common types of household are single-parent families and unmarried couples living together; then come individuals living alone. Gay and lesbian couples, some with children, are increasingly visible, although census takers do not count them as a separate category” (9).

  6. For a description of these changes in the family, see Fass, The Damned and the Beautiful and Hawley, The Great War and the Search for a Modern Order.

  7. References to The Garden of Eden manuscripts denote series, folder numbers, and pages as they were classified at the John F. Kennedy Library in the summer of 1993.

  8. Although David is more reticent about his feelings regarding the multiple implications of the change, in the manuscript we also see him expressing some openness to incest. When Marita tells him that her brother, who died in the war, was in love with her, David repeats the weak joke told to him once by “a girl” that he “never minded incest if it was in the same family” (ser. 422, folder 133, second p. 22).

  9. Consider David's musing after finishing his writing for the day: “His thoughts turned to the two girls and he wondered if he should go find them and see what they wanted to do or if they wanted to go off and swim. After all, it was Marita's and his day and she might be waiting” (211). Here it is clear that David has accepted Catherine and Marita's arrangement to share him.

  10. Robert E. Fleming explores this provisional ending in his essay “The Endings of Hemingway's Garden of Eden.” He is more cynical about the state of Catherine and David's marriage, claiming that David has basically become Catherine's caretaker: “David and Catherine's relationship has become a parody of the one they shared in the early pages of the novel, furthering the theme that the discovery of evil makes it impossible to dwell in the Garden of Eden” (268).

  11. Consider, for example, Robert Jordan's thoughts about his parents. His father, Jordan claims, was “just a coward. … Because if he wasn't a coward he would have stood up to that woman [Jordan's mother] and not let her bully him” (FWTBT 365).

  12. In “Fathers and Sons” we get another hint of the connection between Nick and Littless when an adult Nick thinks back on his childhood: “There was only one person in his family that he liked the smell of, one sister. All the others he avoided all contact with” (NAS 243). Although Nick does not identify the sister here, it makes sense, given what happens in “The Last Good Country,” to presume that he is referring to Littless.

  13. The inequities of the traditional (also called the patriarchal) family are delineated in much feminist scholarship on the family, including Thorne and Yalom's Rethinking the Family. More recently, Stuart Aitken proposes new forms of community that “justly reflect the diverse and continuously changing lives of men, women, and children” (196).

  14. Similarly, in “Fathers and Sons,” Nick recalls the insufficiency with which his father answered his questions about sexual matters: “His father had summed up the whole matter by stating that masturbation produced blindness, insanity, and death, while a man who went with prostitutes would contract hideous venereal diseases and that the thing to do was to keep your hands off of people” (NAS 237).

  15. As Kate Chedgzoy explains, “the Conservative Government's 1988 attack on lesbian and gay rights in Section 28 of the Local Government … stigmatised households headed by lesbians or gay men as ‘pretended family relationships.’”

Works Cited

Aitken, Stuart C. Family Fantasies and Community Space. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1998.

Chedgzoy, Kate. Shakespeare's Queer Children: Sexual Politics and Contemporary Culture. Manchester, Eng: Manchester UP, 1995.

Fass, Paula. The Damned and the Beautiful: American Youth in the 1920s. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.

Fleming, Robert E. “The Endings of Hemingway's The Garden of Eden.American Literature 61 (1989): 261-70.

Hawley, Ellis W. The Great War and the Search for a Modern Order: A History of the American People and Their Institutions, 1917-1933. New York: St. Martin's, 1979.

Hemingway, Ernest. “Fathers and Sons.” The Nick Adam Stories. New York: Bantam, 1973. 234-45.

———. For Whom the Bell Tolls. New York: Scribner's, 1940.

———. For Whom the Bell Tolls. Mss. Hemingway Collection. John F. Kennedy Library, Boston.

———. The Garden of Eden. New York: Scribner's, 1986.

———. The Garden of Eden. Mss. Hemingway Collection. John F. Kennedy Library, Boston.

———. “The Last Good Country.” The Nick Adams Stories. New York: Bantam, 1973. 56-114.

———. “A Way You'll Never Be.” The Nick Adams Stories. New York: Bantam, 1973. 135-48.

Lynn, Kenneth. Hemingway. New York: Fawcett, 1987.

Moddelmog, Debra A. Reading Desire: In Pursuit of Ernest Hemingway. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1999.

Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. 1992. New York: Vintage, 1993.

Spilka, Mark. Hemingway's Quarrel with Androgyny. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1990.

Thorne, Barrie, and Marilyn Yalom. Rethinking the Family: Some Feminist Questions. Boston: Northeastern UP, 1992.

Nancy R. Comley (essay date 2002)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5712

SOURCE: Comley, Nancy R. “The Light from Hemingway's Garden: Regendering Papa.” In Hemingway and Women: Female Critics and the Female Voice, edited by Lawrence R. Boer and Gloria Holland, pp. 204-17. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2002.

[In the following essay, Comley discusses how Hemingway's works, particularly their depiction of gender, contributed to her development as a teacher and scholar.]

The road to my present identity, a woman scholar writing on Hemingway, began with Brett Ashley. This is not surprising, of course, for Brett, until Catherine Bourne was unearthed, was the most interesting woman character in a Hemingway text. In addition, for me, Brett and the novel in which she figured were tinged with the glamor of the 1920s, and of the expatriate life in Paris. That's one of the reasons why, as a graduate student, I chose The Sun Also Rises as one of the key texts to be considered in my dissertation, which was also concerned with Henry Adams's legacy to American modernist writers. During the research and writing of this dissertation I began to define myself as a feminist critic, prompted in part by my reactions to the male writers I was dealing with (Adams, Anderson, Eliot, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Pynchon), but perhaps to an even greater extent by their (primarily male) critics.

At the time—the mid-1970s—Hemingway criticism was indeed predominantly male, and the prevailing view of Brett Ashley was that she was queen of Hemingway's stable of bitches. With this judgment I did not agree, as indeed, neither did Brett: a bitch was precisely what she refused to be (SAR [The Sun Also Rises] 243). I was then engaged in reading the presentation of women in my selected group of American modernist writers by the light of Adams's Virgin of Chartres. About one of the key scenes in The Sun Also Rises, I wrote: “Brett's importance as feminine center of the text is symbolized during the fiesta procession in Pamplona, when she is surrounded by riau-riau dancers. … Because the fiesta takes place just after midsummer's eve, it is likely that Brett has been set up as a fertility symbol, for she too is decked with garlic to ward off evil spirits” (“A Critical Guide” 197). I had agreed in part with Richard Lehan's assessment of Brett as “an inversion of Adams's Virgin since she fragments rather than coalesces the group” (198), but I pointed out that Lehan overlooks the fact that Adams's Virgin is herself an anarchic figure, a descendant of Venus and other pagan goddesses. As a construct of Adams's modernist mind, she is the none-too-stable center of Mont Saint Michel and Chartres. I had noted that “Brett is always at the center of all groups, and if at times she's none too stable a center, the fragmentation of the group is largely caused by men's reactions to her rather than her actions working upon them” (197). In particular, Robert Cohn projects his fantasies about romantic love onto Brett, and it is her assessment of their liaison as a merely sexual, hence transitory, experience that he cannot accept, and that makes him behave badly.

I had also noted at the time that Carlos Baker, in Hemingway: The Writer as Artist, saw Brett as a “witch,” but for reasons I cannot recall, I chose not to respond to such criticism. However, in rereading Baker recently, I was more forcibly struck by his vituperative treatment of Brett. After proclaiming Brett's “witch-hood,” Baker pounces on Brett's statement, “I've got the wrong type of face” for a religious atmosphere:

She has indeed. Her face belongs in wide-eyed concentration over the tarot pack of Madam Sosostris, or any equivalent soothsayer in the gypsy camp outside Pamplona. It is perfectly at home [with the dancers, or] in the tavern gloom above the wine cask. For Brett in her own way is a lamia with a British accent, a Morgan le Fay of Paris and Pamplona, the reigning queen of a paganized wasteland with a wounded fisherman as her half-cynical squire. She is, rolled into one, the femme fatale de trente ans damnée.


It is perhaps wiser to say of Baker that he found T. S. Eliot's misogynism contagious rather than to speculate on the psychodrama that Brett inspired in him (he ends by calling Brett “an alcoholic nymphomaniac”). We shall simply let his tirade serve as a prime example of a modernist male's reaction to Brett Ashley as well as the kind of ad feminam criticism that prompted me to examine my own reaction to it. That is, I had finally reached the moment when I reacted to such criticism as male, and as sexist, and as in need of correction—feminist correction, of course.

For a woman, that is the moment of becoming, under the influence of Judith Fetterley's The Resisting Reader (1978), a member of that group. However, I was primarily resisting male critical readings, whose desire to emasculate my mind was, I felt, greater by far than Hemingway's. Yet even such harsh critics of Brett as Baker had to admit, albeit grudgingly, that Brett is sympathetically presented by her creator. Such sympathy becomes evident once one analyzes the value system in The Sun Also Rises and groups the characters into those who know the values and have paid for this knowledge, like Brett and Jake, and those who do not, like Robert Cohn. Brett is “one of the chaps,” as she likes to call herself, and she seems not to care much for the company of women. Hemingway's sympathies frequently lie with women (and little girls) who have (by Hemingway's standards) masculine characteristics (and are sexy): besides Brett, we have Pilar of For Whom the Bell Tolls and Catherine Bourne of The Garden of Eden. (As for little girls, there's Krebs's kid sister and Littless of “The Last Good Country.”) Perhaps Brett's harshest critics disapprove of her for a similar reason: they consider her sexual adventuring appropriate behavior for males only. Hence, like Pedro Romero, they would prefer a “more womanly” Brett, faithful to her one man.

In teaching and writing about Hemingway in the years between the dissertation and my discovery of and immersion in The Garden of Eden manuscript, my critical approach soon evolved from resistance and an emphasis on critique of male writers' treatment of women in literature, a position that characterized the first stage of feminist criticism, as Elaine Showalter has pointed out, to an examination of what we do when we read, and how our subjectivity is structured. This stance was encouraged by the explosion of theory that was going on in the late 1970s and 1980s, especially in the areas of reader response and sexuality and gender. Equally important as a stimulus to interpretation and analysis was teaching, and what I learned in the classroom in discussion and in analyzing my students' responses to Hemingway's texts. Hemingway's short stories are wonderful for teaching narrative, modernism, and of course, gender issues. I continue to be fascinated with the way discussions of “Indian Camp” divide along the lines of gender: how most men in the class reenact the Doctor's role: unlike most women in the class, they do not hear the Indian woman's screams; they pay little attention to the possible reasons for the Indian husband's suicide. I agree with Peter Schwenger's assessment of the message to male readers: “The equation is clear: those who feel emotion die; those who reject it are practical men” (104-05). Some readers make the mistake of assuming that Hemingway is saying this is how real men should behave. Such readings were often produced by those devoted to the concept of the “hero” and the “code” in Hemingway's work. Philip Young's definition of the “code hero” in 1952 proved highly influential:

It is made of the controls of honor and courage which in a life of tension and pain make a man a man and distinguish him from the people who follow random impulses, let down their hair, and are generally messy, perhaps cowardly, and without inviolable rules for how to live holding tight.

(Reconsideration 63-64)

Those “messy” people who “let down their hair” sound, well, feminine. Using Young's definition as a guide produces a simplistic reading of “Indian Camp” in which the Doctor is a hero and the Indian father, who “couldn't stand things,” is cowardly. (It should be noted that Young ignores the code business in his reading of the story.) Hemingway's men do have feelings and at times they do express them: but mainly to themselves. They operate under a code established by a patriarchal culture, which the author, who has been shaped by it himself, examines in his fiction. The hero is a man who holds on tight to his feelings, believing that if he blabs he will lose everything, meaning, for example in the case of Krebs in “Soldier's Home,” the pristine clarity of his memories of his heroic acts.

Hemingway excised the original opening of “Indian Camp” that showed Nick as a child who was afraid of the dark, which he found synonymous with dying. The excision made “Indian Camp” a more modernist story, but the reader's attention tended to focus more on the doctor than on Nick, whose story it really is. While “Indian Camp” is but one of the many Hemingway stories that can be read as commentaries on sexual and cultural differences, it should also be read, as Young has done, as one of the more brutal stories of a boy's premature initiation into “the violence of birth and death” (32).

Consistently, however, the Indian woman's part in the tale was ignored, though her effect was duly noted, as for example, in Joseph DeFalco's assessment in 1963: “The Indian as a primitive has no effective method of dealing with the terror created by the screaming wife” (31). This “primitive” female body, then, whose language of pain is ignored by the white man of science, is there to be colonized, indeed brutally incised, penetrated, and scarred. To be fair, in 1963, no one was considering the body in Hemingway's work; colonization of bodies and cultural differences had not themselves been incised in the critical lexicon. They had, however, by the time The Garden of Eden was published, the text that would call into question the consideration of sexuality and gender as a matter of simple binary oppositions in Hemingway's work. I had been looking forward to the publication of The Garden of Eden ever since Aaron Latham's article, “A Farewell to Machismo,” appeared in the New York Times Magazine in 1977. At the time, the description Latham gave of the manuscript material allowed me to provide this neat conclusion to an article I was writing on the economic structure of exchange in Hemingway's fictional value system:

Hemingway's last and unpublished work reveals the desire to remove the barrier between the sexes. … In this late work, androgyny is foregrounded. Androgyny would remove the bargaining and complexity Hemingway associated with male-female relationships. Here, finally, would be the simple exchange system he so greatly desired.

(“Hemingway's Economics” 253)

The publication of The Garden of Eden in 1986 brought gender issues to the foreground, not simply of that text but of the whole Hemingway text. During this same period, and continuing into the 1990s, biographies of Hemingway by Peter Griffin (1985, 1990), Michael Reynolds (1989), Kenneth Lynn (1987), and Mark Spilka's biographical-critical study, Hemingway's Quarrel with Androgyny (1990) appeared. All of these books drew on the unpublished material that was becoming available at the Kennedy Library. Other significant publications of interest to me were Robert Fleming's “The Endings of Hemingway's Garden of Eden,” (1989) and J. Gerald Kennedy's “Hemingway's Gender Trouble” (1991), both of which helped to seal my conviction that Scribner's Garden of Eden differed significantly from Hemingway's in ways that simply could not be ignored.

And it was at this juncture that my identity shifted for a time from “a woman writing on Hemingway” to “a woman collaborating with a man to write on Hemingway.” Robert Scholes and I had worked together on a number of projects, most of them textbooks, and were mulling over ideas for a new project. We had both been writing on Hemingway, so why not pull our stuff together and make a book out of it? We realized that the availability of Hemingway's manuscripts, and the Garden of Eden manuscript in particular, would very likely make us want to revise any previous work we had done. However, once we settled in among the wealth of material in the Hemingway room at the Kennedy Library, we soon knew that what we would write would be entirely new. The book that evolved from this collaboration, Hemingway's Genders, was in large part shaped during our commute between Barrington, Rhode Island and the Kennedy Library in Boston. As in our other collaborations, I can tell only some of the time which ideas were definitely mine or which words I remember writing. The book is very much univoiced, largely the result, as I have suggested, of our highway dialogues.

The Garden of Eden manuscript opened up the gender issue in all of Hemingway's work in ways we could not have predicted. In a sense, we started our research with the question, Where did this book come from? The novel as published seemed at first a startling departure from Hemingway's other work. To try to answer our question, we read through unfinished stories and novels, notes, letters, drafts, manuscripts, as well as published work, considering all of his writing as the Hemingway Test. In The Archaeology of Knowledge, Michel Foucault had raised the question, What is an oeuvre? In using this term, he says, “One is admitting that there must be a level … at which the oeuvre emerges, in all its fragments, even the smallest, most inessential ones, as the expression of the thought, the experience, the imagination, or the unconscious of the author, or, indeed, of the historical determinations that operated upon him” (24). Foucault repeated this question in his essay, “What Is an Author?” wherein he considers the “problems related to the proper name” (121), problems I'm not going to deal with here, interesting though they may be, given the ubiquity and power of the proper name “Hemingway.” Foucault finds the word “work” (oeuvre) problematic, along with the notion of unity that it designates. And so did we: we used “text” in the Barthesian sense, as regulated by a metonymic logic, “the activity of associations, contiguities, carryings-over [that] coincides with a liberation of symbolic energy” (158). In pointing out the plurality of the text, Barthes recalls its etymology: “The text is a tissue, a woven fabric” (159), and it is not closed off, as a work is; one can enter through any one of many strands. Rose Marie Burwell applied the concept of the text to Hemingway's posthumous novels, which she read as a “serial sequence,” showing the connections between them, connections that have been unrecognized “because of the manuscript deletions made for publication, the order in which the three published works appeared, and the restrictions of archival material that clarifies much about their composition and intentions” (Postwar Years 1). In so doing, Burwell had Hemingway's approval. She notes that he reminded Charles Scribner, who had chided him when Hemingway switched from one writing project to another, “All my work is a part of all my work” (51).

From her work then in progress, Burwell generously shared her research on the African book, having managed to read that manuscript at Princeton before legal entanglements closed it to scholars. The African material sheds light on the play with racial changing in The Garden of Eden, change that is signified by tanning rituals, and in the manuscript made more obvious by Catherine and Marita's joking about being David's “Somali women.” While the Scribner editor left in much of the material on sexual changing, the racial element was completely excised. Yet this racial business, of which tanning is the outward and visible sign, is an integral element of the desire for transformative experimenting that drives this text. The references to Somali women, “kanakas,” or “Oklahoma oil Indians” stem from Hemingway's fascination with primitivism. He liked to pose as part Indian in real life, and in Africa, he played his own games with racial transformation, when he shaved his head, dyed his clothes “a rusty Masai color, and began an elaborate courtship of his African ‘fiancée,’ Debba” (Meyers 502). The connection of Debba to Hemingway's fictional first love, an Indian girl who appears as “Prudie” or “Trudy” in several Michigan stories, is fairly obvious. Nick Adams's sexual initiation with Trudy in “Fathers and Sons” is echoed in David Bourne's initiation with the Wakamba woman in Africa. The “Last Good Country” manuscript contains a dialogue about Trudy between Nick and his little sister:

“I thought you were through with her.”

“I was. But I'm not sure now.”

“You wouldn't go and make her another baby would you?”

“I don't know.”

“They'll put you in the reform school for that if you keep it.”

(Kennedy Library ser. 542, folder 1, p. 11)

“The Last Good Country” is another piece of Hemingway's later, unfinished work, so that the slippage of concerns (or in this case, fantasies) from one manuscript to another is not surprising. The business of transgression in Garden is expressed frequently in terms of “tabus” or “tribal laws.” Such language comes directly from the African material, in which the narrator as would-be Masai warrior wants to make a baby with Debba. But as Burwell tells us, “Debba is protected by tribal law that forbids him to make love to her” (144). Nevertheless, the narrator defies the Elders, makes love to Debba, and thus violates a tabu. (The African book, True at First Light, edited by Patrick Hemingway, has been published, and the Debba business has of course been of interest to the press.)

As Hemingway is in the process of writing up his African material, he says of it in a letter to his friend Buck Lanham that “some of the stuff I think you'll like unless you have too strong views on mis-cegenation” (SL [Selected Letters] 839). Hemingway must have had them himself, and in The Garden of Eden he lets Catherine voice them. In a dialogue with David on the sexual merits of Somali men and women she says, “Then why don't you quit worrying and thinking in terms of Lutherans and Calvinists and St Paul and everything you don't come from” (ser. 422.1, folder 17, 25 bis). The worrying is about having two “Somali wives.” But a bit later, Catherine brings up a part of David's African narrative that is not written in the text but is referred to. This narrative concerns David's youth and purported sexual initiation by a Wakamba woman who, as Catherine reports it, apparently gave him the clap at age fourteen (ser. 422.1, folder 20, 14). Such is the price for violating a tabu, and we must note that David/Hemingway has imposed his own tabu against exposing this particular African narrative to his audience.

Certainly Hemingway conceived of sex and gender as a binary system, and that basic belief underlies the relationships in The Garden of Eden, as it does all of his work. However, at the same time, he was fascinated with the possibilities of experiencing a shift in genders, which explains his own experiments with hair and, if we can believe Miss Mary's diary, with sex. But as much as Puritanism is disavowed, a price is exacted nonetheless in this Garden for sexual experimentation. Hence, in this text, to try to break the binary system is to transgress. Here Hemingway appears to be incapable of considering variations in sexual positions or any similar experimentation as other than transgressive, or tabu. For him, there are certain positions that male heterosexuals assume to perform sex with female heterosexuals, positions sanctified by Western culture (as, for example, the missionary position). Other positions and actions are coded as perverse, if not homosexual (the latter implied in David's calling Marita a “Bizerte street urchin” with a “water-front Arab's” hair [ser. 422.1, folder, 36, p. 1]).

The problem of morality is one of the unresolved conflicts in The Garden of Eden. It underlies the issue of who one might consider, if one cared to do so, the “good girl” in the text, Catherine or Marita. Following the biblical line, the women are the temptresses in Hemingway's garden, and David is the willing-to-be-led Adam. Catherine, nicknamed “devil” by her Adam, has been subjected to some of the same sort of criticism that Brett has endured, and for similar reasons: both are perceived as destructive temptresses and catalogued in the “bitch” file. If Brett has been excoriated because she has supposedly corrupted a young bullfighter (bullfighters being numero uno on the hero scale), so also is Catherine for trying to corrupt a writer (also high on the hero scale), and (worse) for destroying his work. Scribner's certainly took the latter view in tailoring the manuscript to produce a happy ending (in Hemingway!) with the writer rewriting his lost stories with his faithful handmaiden, Marita, by his side. Such a scenario, Scribner's must have thought, was more in keeping with the Hemingway hero code.

It's fair to say that Hemingway was not sure whether David Bourne should remain with Catherine or Marita. He was rewriting his own personal dilemma of being in love with two women at the same time, Hadley and Pauline, and of having to make a decision, one that seems to have haunted him throughout his life. Many critics have no problem deciding between Marita and Catherine: those who favor David the (Hemingway) Writer choose Marita. She praises David's writing and is not jealous of his writing. Her only occupation is pleasing David, thus appearing to those critics as the ultimate Good Girl. However, Marita is no angel of mercy, like Catherine Barkley; she can be nasty—but is so only to Catherine Bourne, whose position she is artfully usurping. As the manuscript makes clear, Marita is the true bisexual who can switch roles without guilt, and she is proud to be able to do anything that Catherine can do better than she (ser. 422.1, folder 27, p. 32). In the manuscript, Marita reveals herself to be more knowledgeable and experienced in sexual matters than Catherine. Musing on her sameness with David, Marita concludes, “we're darker than she was inside” (ser. 422.1, folder 36, p. 14). In the manuscript, Marita comes to “look like Africa,” all right, with a difference, as David points out: “But very far north and you mixed up the genders.” Marita is happy to be both his “African girl” and his “street Arab” (ser. 422.1, folder 36, pp. 3, 25). She believes she is a better boy than Catherine because unlike Catherine, who feels driven to change, Marita does not have “to change back and forth,” in as much as she feels she is both a girl and a boy. Her attitude toward these sexual adventures is “It's not perversion. It's variety” (ser. 422.1, folder 36, p. 5), and “How could it be bad if it makes you feel so good and wonderful” (ser. 422.1, folder 36, p. 35).

Though David has enjoyed for the most part being shared by two women (and thus realizing a prime male fantasy), he feels “that it is was wrong to love two women and that no good could ever come of it” (132). But if he feels he has suffered a loss of moral fiber, he also realizes he has written better as he has “deteriorated morally” (ser. 422.1, folder 17, p. 9). And so he remains passive, accepting and enjoying sexual favors from each woman. However, he does suggest to Catherine that it's “not normal for any woman to want to share with anyone.” To which she replies, “Who said normal? Who's normal? What's normal?” (ser. 422.1, folder 18, p. 33). Catherine's awareness of her incipient madness (she exhibits some of the characteristics of schizophrenia) has made her want to provide a woman to take care of David: she refers to Marita as “heiress” for that reason and also because Marita has plenty of money. Readers who perceive Catherine as vindictively destructive overlook the fact that she is operating within the logic of madness, a condition that allows her to view her most destructive act, burning David's stories, as fully justifiable. If anything, Catherine is more self-destructive than destructive to others. Similarly, the same readers tend to overlook David's willingness to be treated as a sort of semi-helpless prodigy incapable of taking care of himself.

Catherine is the spur to David's creativity, and her edginess, wit, and unpredictability are what move Hemingway's narrative along. In this sense, she most resembles Brett Ashley, who, as we have seen, is the edgy center of The Sun Also Rises. Catherine, like Brett, has the best lines. That's why this woman reader was so impressed with The Garden of Eden: here at long last was another interesting woman, one who signaled a more complex and interesting Hemingway in this late phase of his career. To be sure, in David Bourne we have a familiar type, the sort of manly man of few words, here fashioned into the writer-as-(dubious)-hero. But David is rather boring, and the reader's attention is mainly focused on its women, who provide good conversation, a feature not to be underestimated in a novel where the major action consists of a man writing or a threesome whose primary endeavors consist of hair appointments, tanning, swimming, eating, drinking, and sex. Indeed, I have not mentioned a third woman in this garden, Barbara Sheldon, whose narrative is entirely missing from the published version. Barbara is married to Nick Sheldon, an artist, and the story of their marriage is being chronicled by Andy, another writer. Like Catherine, Barbara is unstable mentally and has given up her painting because she feels her work is inferior to Nick's. She is strongly attracted to Catherine, but is wary of Catherine's destructive powers. Though nothing comes of this attraction, Barbara does make love with Andy, and during the second of their trysts, she learns that Nick has been killed in an accident. Overcome by guilt, she later commits suicide.

Co-coordinating two triangular relationships was probably more than Hemingway could handle, which no doubt accounts for his summary extermination of the Sheldons, who are a slightly older, artier doubling of the Bournes. Indeed, the Sheldons physically resemble Hadley and Ernest Hemingway, while the blonde Bournes with their perfect bodies recall other fictional (or fantasy) blondes, both male and female, in the Hemingway Text. I have not stopped to count the times a beautiful blonde-haired woman with long lovely legs has strolled through Hemingway's work, avatars of the movie stars who visit blond Robert Jordan's dreams in For Whom the Bell Tolls. (Hemingway, of course, did not have much luck with real long-legged blondes, especially that talented one with brains.) This little blonde excursion is simply an example of the kind of associations a reading of The Garden of Eden prompts.

But let me return to my opening statement regarding Catherine Bourne as, along with Brett Ashley, the most interesting of Hemingway's women. My reading of Catherine Bourne was enlightened by recent work in gender theory, with its emphasis on the social construction of the feminine. Garden dramatizes the interplay between sexual theory, based on observable biological differences and the binaries of male and female, and gender theory, which is concerned with the social meaning for feminine and masculine. Judith Butler, in contesting “a mimetic relation of gender to sex,” points out, “When the constructed status of gender is theorized as radically independent of sex, gender itself becomes a free-floating artifice, with the consequence that man and masculine might just as easily signify a female body as a male one, and woman and feminine a male body as easily as a female one” (6). Inexplicably excised from the published version of Garden is the object that moves the Bournes and the Sheldons to question their binary conceptions of sex and gender: the Rodin statue that each couple, on separate occasions, has viewed at the Rodin museum in Paris, the Hotel de Biron, “where the changings had started” (ser. 422.1, folder 1, p. 30). The statue is The Metamorphosis, but this title is crossed out in the manuscript and the statue is simply identified as “The one there are no photographs of and of which no reproductions are sold” (ser. 422.1, folder 1, p. 21). Just as the statue is neither named nor described, so also do the nocturnal experiments of the two couples remain in the dark, as far as the text is concerned. But for eager scholars, a little research is rewarding. The statue represents an androgynous-looking couple in sensuous embrace, a fine example of Rodin's fascination with the erotic and with sexual fluidity. The statue thus functions as a subversive element, calling sexual binarism into question, because sexual differences are not easily discerned in these figures. Rodin has caught the moment when Iphis, a girl who has been brought up as a boy, is transforming into a male, thus validating her “masculine” love for the girl, Ianthe. But Rodin's boy, poised in the dominant sexual position, has breasts: the transformation is by no means complete, as if Rodin is taunting Ovid, in whose world homosexual love is considered abnormal.

That also holds true in the Hemingway text. Catherine's sexual experiments with Marita prove distasteful to her, and constitute another downward step in her psychic deterioration. Catherine dislikes her sexual self as well as her gendered self. She seems to believe that a woman's primary use is for reproduction, and that if she cannot conceive a child, her body is useless. When she and David are in Madrid, she lets loose a tirade summing up her disgust with what she construes as feminine characteristics, asserting that being a girl is “a god damned bore.” When David asks her to “hold it down,” she lashes out: “Why should I hold it down? You want a girl don't you. Don't you want everything that goes with it? Scenes, hysteria, false accusations, temperament isn't that it?” Of course, it's that time of the month for Catherine, as David learns when she says she must return briefly to their room: “Because I'm a god damned woman. I thought if I'd be a girl and stay a girl I'd have a baby at least. Not even that.” To give David credit, he does say, “That could be my fault” (70-71).

In this scene, Catherine performs feminine hysteria, thus becoming the stereotype she so despises. Her shift to a masculine role in sexual intercourse can thus be seen as a desire to break out of the repetition of performing the feminine, and the Rodin statue has symbolized for her the possibility of doing so. In Butler's terms, “The possibilities of gender transformation are to be found precisely in the arbitrary relation between such acts, in the possibility of a failure to repeat, a de-formity, or a parodic repetition that exposes the phantasmatic effect of abiding identity as a politically tenuous construction” (141). In the game of sexual politics in Garden, Catherine takes on a radical approach, while Marita practices a quiet but effective subversion, performing “feminine” docility, catering to the male's belief in his superior sexual and intellectual powers, and winning him over by performing his fantasy of the feminine.

Scribner's would have the story end there, but Hemingway did not wish it to, as his provisional ending makes clear, with its handwritten notation: “Written when thought something might happen before book could be finished. EH” (ser. 422.2, p. 1). Here, Catherine and David are a little bit older, but a good deal wiser. Catherine is sobered by her breakdown and her stay in a Swiss sanitarium, the price she has paid for trying to “change everything for my delight” (ser. 422.6, p. 5). This is a subdued, bittersweet ending, with the possibility of Catherine's going “bad” again, and with a suicide pact made if she should. Hemingway's is a mature ending, free of the male fantasy that makes the Scribner's version of a proper manuscript so insipid. Catherine Bourne, as she appears in the manuscript of The Garden of Eden, introduces the woman reader to a more complex, more interesting Hemingway, one who plays and questions the masculine role.

Works Cited

Baker, Carlos. Hemingway: The Writer as Artist. 4th ed. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1972.

Burwell, Rose Marie. “Hemingway's The Garden of Eden: Resistance of Things Past and Protecting the Masculine Text.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 35.2 (1993): 198-225.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Comley, Nancy R. “A Critical Guide to the Literary Journey in Henry Adams's Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres.” Diss. Brown U, 1978.

———. “Hemingway: The Economics of Survival.” Novel 12 (1979): 244-53.

Comley, Nancy R., and Robert Scholes. Hemingway's Genders: Rereading the Hemingway Text. New Haven: Yale UP, 1994.

DeFalco, Joseph. The Hero in Hemingway's Short Stories. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1963.

Fetterley, Judith. The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1978.

Fleming, Robert E., ed. Hemingway and the Natural World. Moscow: U of Idaho P, 1999.

Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge. Trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Harper, 1972.

———. “What Is an Author?” Language, Counter-Memory, Practice. Trans. Donald F. Bouchard. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1977.

Griffin, Peter. Along with Youth: Hemingway, The Early Years. New York: Oxford UP, 1985.

———. Less Than a Treason: Hemingway in Paris. New York: Oxford UP, 1990.

Hemingway, Ernest. A Farewell to Arms. 1929. New York: Scribner's, 1957.

Hemingway, Ernest. “Fathers and Sons.” The Nick Adam Stories. New York: Bantam, 1973. 234-45.

———. “Fishing the Rhone Canal.” Toronto Daily Star 10 June 1922. Rpt. By-Line. Ed. William White. New York: Scribner's, 1967. 33-35.

———. The Garden of Eden. New York: Scribner's, 1986.

———. The Garden of Eden. Mss. Hemingway Collection. John F. Kennedy Library, Boston.

———. Green Hills of Africa. New York: Scribner's, 1935.

———. “The Last Good Country.” The Nick Adams Stories. New York: Bantam, 1973. 56-114.

———. The Nick Adams Stories. New York: Bantam, 1973.

———. The Sun Also Rises. 1926. New York: Scribner's, 1954.

———. True at First Light. Ed. Patrick Hemingway. New York: Scribner's, 1999.

Lynn, Kenneth. Hemingway. New York: Fawcett, 1987.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Hemingway: A Biography. New York: Harper, 1985.

Reynolds, Michael. Hemingway: The Paris Years. New York: Blackwell, 1989.

Schwenger, Peter. “The Masculine Mode.” Speaking of Gender. Ed. Elaine Showalter. New York: Routledge, 1989. 101-12.

Showalter, Elaine. “Towards a Feminist Poetics.” The New Feminist Criticism. Ed. Elaine Showalter. New York: Pantheon, 1985. 125-43.

Spilka, Mark. Hemingway's Quarrel with Androgyny. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1990.

Young, Philip. Ernest Hemingway: A Reconsideration. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1966.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 722


Berman, Ronald. Fitzgerald-Wilson-Hemingway: Language and Experience. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2003, 125 p.

Contains two chapters on how Hemingway's innovative use of language conveys a modern sense of reality.

Broer, Lawrence R. and Gloria Holland, eds. Hemingway and Women: Female Critics and the Female Voice. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2002, 344 p.

A collection of diverse and provocative essays that explore the complicated roles that both gender and gender identity played in Hemingway's life and work.

Fleming, Robert E., ed. Hemingway and the Natural World. Moscow: University of Idaho Press, 1999, 276 p.

Anthology of wide-ranging essays from the Seventh International Hemingway Conference. Topics include Hemingway's portrayal of Native Americans in his fiction, and myth and gender in Hemingway's vision of nature.

Hemingway Review 18, no. 2 (spring 1999).

Special issue of the official publication of the Ernest Hemingway Foundation, marking Hemingway's centennial with reminiscences from those who knew him best.

Moddelmog, Debra A. Reading Desire: In Pursuit of Ernest Hemingway. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1999, 240 p.

Psychoanalytic study of the many permutations of desire in Hemingway's work.

Morgan, Robert. “Hemingway and the True Poetry of War.” War, Literature and the Arts 12, no. 1 (spring-summer 2000): 137-56.

A personal meditation on Hemingway's contribution to war literature, originally given as a keynote address at the October 9, 1999 Hemingway and War conference held at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

North Dakota Quarterly, Special Issue: Hemingway in the Millennium 68, nos. 2-3 (spring-summer 2001).

Contains essays from the John F. Kennedy Library's Ernest Hemingway Centennial conference in April 1999 and the Ninth International Hemingway Conference in January 1999.

Pettipiece, Deirdre Anne. Sex Theories and the Shaping of Two Moderns: Hemingway and H. D. New York: Routledge, 2002, 140 p.

Includes three chapters that study the forces that shaped Hemingway's sexual and gender identity.

Schedler, Christopher. Border Modernism: Intercultural Readings in American Literary Modernism. New York: Routledge, 2002, 188 p.

Contains a consideration of Hemingway as a writer who was culturally and stylistically on the “border” of Modernism.

Schwarz, Jeffrey A. “‘The Saloon Must Go, and I Will Take It With Me’: American Prohibition, Nationalism, and Expatriation in The Sun Also Rises.Studies in the Novel 33, no. 2 (summer 2001): 180-201.

A study of the role of alcohol in Hemingway's fiction and in his representation of American identity.

Smith, Paul. “Introduction: Hemingway and the Practical Reader.” In New Essays on Hemingway's Short Fiction, edited by Paul Smith, pp. 1-18. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

The founding president of the Hemingway Society discusses the challenges and opportunities to be found in re-reading Hemingway's short fiction. This critical anthology as a whole is composed of essays by leading Hemingway scholars.

Southern Review 35, no. 2 (spring 1999).

Special volume in celebration of Hemingway's centennial that includes essays on Hemingway's geographical imagination, nature in his Michigan stories, eroticism in The Garden of Eden, and Hemingway's sense of place.

Wagner-Martin, Linda, ed. Ernest Hemingway: Seven Decades of Criticism. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1998, 427 p.

Collection of Hemingway criticism from the 1930s through the late 1990s.

Williams, Terry Tempest. “‘Hemingway and the Natural World’: Keynote Address, Seventh International Hemingway Conference.” In Hemingway and the Natural World, edited by Robert E. Fleming, pp. 7-17. Moscow: University of Idaho Press, 1999.

Considers Hemingway's treatment of love, sensual pleasure, nature and landscape, and the pain of war in his works.

Additional coverage of Hemingway's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: American Writers; American Writers: The Classics, Vol. 1; American Writers Retrospective Supplement, Vol. 1; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 19; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 2; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vols. 2, 3, 13, 15; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1917-1929; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 34; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 3, 6, 8, 10, 13, 19, 30, 34, 39, 41, 44, 50, 61, 80; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 4, 9, 102, 210; Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vols. 1, 15, 15; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1981, 1987, 1996, 1998; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors and Novelists; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Novels; Exploring Short Stories; Literature and Its Times, Vols. 3, 4; Literature and Its Times Supplement, Vol. 1; Literature Resource Center; Major Twentieth-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Novels for Students, Vols. 1, 5, 6, 14; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 17; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 17; Twayne's United States Authors; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 115; World Literature Criticism; and Writers for Young Adults.


Hemingway, Ernest (Vol. 8)