Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 821

Historically, critics have been divided on the merits of Hemingway’s work. While contemporary critics praised Hemingway’s mastery of form and narration, later critics took Hemingway to task for the limitations of his themes, for his perceived sexism, and for his extremely negative views of human life. Recent critical opinion has come to see Hemingway primarily as a stylist who has nothing profound or deeply original to say about the human condition, and although his influence on today’s short story writers is difficult to overstate, many critics today believe that Hemingway is simply not a great writer.

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‘‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’’ was first published in Esquire magazine in 1936, and first appeared in book form in his collection The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories of 1938. At that time, critics had their first opportunity to express their opinions on the story, and most were enthusiastic. Alfred Kazin, in the Books supplement to the New York Herald Tribune, wrote that the story was simply ‘‘terrific,’’ and Edmund Wilson felt that the ending was ‘‘a wonderful piece of writing.’’ Malcolm Cowley, in the New Republic, noted that the story was ‘‘the only story in which [Hemingway] has allowed himself to be conventionally poetic.’’

Later critics used the story to discuss larger themes that recur throughout Hemingway’s writing. Mark Schorer wrote in 1941 that ‘‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’’ marked a turning-point in Hemingway’s career, when his ‘‘subject matter began to change—from violent experience itself to the expressed evaluation of violence.’’ Schorer felt that with this shift, Hemingway’s powers had reached their limitations. Granville Hicks, writing in the New Republic in 1944, also noted a decrease of the quality of Hemingway’s writing, but puts the date earlier. Such stories as ‘‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro,’’ though, ‘‘permit Hemingway . . . to pull himself together after he had given every evidence of having gone to pieces, and to declare his old powers.’’ In 1964, the literary biographer Richard Ellman remarked that one of Hemingway’s posthumous publications—the Paris-in-the-1920s memoir A Moveable Feast—gave the writer a chance to return to ‘‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro.’’ ‘‘The hero of ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’ regretted on his deathbed that he would never be able to describe how he lived near the Place Contrescarpe, or how he wintered in Schruns, but Hemingway carries out posthumously Harry’s unfulfilled intentions.’’ Another critic, Julian MacLaren-Ross, notes the same congruity: in A Moveable Feast, ‘‘here we have again the two-roomed apartment in the rue du Cardinal Lemoine where Harry, the drunken failure dying of gangrene in ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro,’ having traded in his talent for security and comfort, also lived.’’

Critics closer to the present day have examined the story closely, especially to learn more about Hemingway’s attitudes toward death and writing. Joseph M. Flora extensively analyzes the story in his book Ernest Hemingway: A Study of the Short Fiction, and writes that it ‘‘shows us Hemingway writing a very different kind of story than any he had previously attempted. . . . The Snows emphasizes thought, perhaps because the protagonist can no longer avoid thinking. Ironically, the end of this African hunt has been reflection and judgment—something the African story had been designed to keep at a distance.’’ Flora draws a parallel between this story and two etchings by the eighteenth-century English poet William Blake noting that both artists looked at imminent death in similar ways, and allegorize it. Noting that the leopard mentioned in the story’s epigraph represents Harry himself, Flora argues that the epigraph is ‘‘a compact allegory of the story.’’ Flora also notes the irony of Hemingway describing the death of a ‘‘bad man’’ in a way that makes him good and that grants him transcendence. Gennaro Santangelo disagrees, feeling that this ‘‘moral redemption’’ symbolized by the mountain is ‘‘spurious.’’ The story is ‘‘a nightmare version of what [Hemingway] might have been and still might be.’’

In their study of Hemingway’s work, Earl Rovit and Gerry Brenner grant ‘‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’’ a prominent place, calling it ‘‘Hemingway’s one careful presentation of a non-ideal portrait of an artist’’ and using it to test their perceptions of Hemingway himself. Harry is ‘‘egocentric, hypocritical, and morally as well as physically rotten,’’ but the story ‘‘elevates him to the snow-capped summit and forces the reader to accept him as a superior man.’’ Hemingway turns the world upside-down, they argue, and readers accept it. Contrary to readers’ perceptions, they come to accept Harry as a ‘‘superior man’’ and to feel the same contempt for his wife that he does. The wife and the hyena both, the critics argue, represent the dull, misunderstanding public against which the writer must struggle. The readers themselves are the hyenas. ‘‘It is fair to say,’’ Rovit and Brenner conclude, ‘‘that Hemingway succeeds in this story in insulting his audience beyond endurance, in making the audience eat its own wounds, and like it.’’

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Essays and Criticism