(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

As he is in all of his work, both fiction and nonfiction, Hemingway is preoccupied in Green Hills of Africa with the themes of heroism and personal success in the modern world. Hunting serves as a metaphor for living, the hunter becomes emblematic of the hero making his way through a hostile world where skill, courage, perseverance, and luck are all necessary for survival.

The book provides a portrait of that familiar figure, the Hemingway hero. In Green Hills of Africa, Hemingway himself plays the part. In his interaction with others, and in long passages of self-analysis, he offers readers a character sketch of the components of heroism in postwar Western society. The professional hunter Phillips demonstrates the stoicism, knowledge, and patience that the man of action must possess to balance his violent life-style. The Africans, too, are important as illustrations of what is respected, what not: M’Cola carries out his duties without fanfare, displaying quiet expertise, while the garrulous Garrick carries on like a hero in the safe confines of his village but quails beside the Masai warriors whom the hunting party meets on the trail, uncomfortable in the presence of what Hemingway describes as a natural nobility.

Hemingway’s major subject, however, is himself. The book presents a portrait of heroism seen from inside, analyzed with a great sense of self-awareness and, despite an occasional burst of hyperbole, with genuine humility. Hemingway looks inside himself to see if he has what it takes to be the kind of hero about whom he has written in the Nick Adams stories or in his early novels The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell to Arms (1929). He recognizes that writing is central to his life; it is not what he does but what he must do to make his life worthwhile: “I must write because if I do not write a certain amount I do not enjoy the rest of my life.” “To work,” he remarks, “was the only thing, it was the one thing that always made you feel good.”

The same kind of intensity that drives him to write well inspires him to hunt big game. Hunting well—doing all he is supposed to do correctly, with precision— gives him “the feeling of well being and confidence that is so much more pleasant to have than to hear about.” He seems to take special pleasure in describing the details of the hunt: how he carefully tracks the...

(The entire section is 986 words.)