(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Torrents of Spring is a short parody of Sherwood Anderson’s novel Dark Laughter (1925) and a satire of literary manners and morals in the 1920’s. As such, it is not an extremely important work, but as the second published book—after the stories of In Our Time (1924, 1925)—by a major American writer, the novella has biographical and historical interest. To be enjoyed, however, it must be read first for its nonsense and humor.

For such a short work, The Torrents of Spring is surprisingly complex—an indication of its parodic purpose. Subtitled “A Romantic Novel in Honor of the Passing of a Great Race,” the book is divided into four parts, each with its own grandiose subtitle and each prefaced by an epigraph from the eighteenth century English novelist Henry Fielding. In the tradition of Fielding (who in Joseph Andrews was himself parodying his predecessor Samuel Richardson), Hemingway also conducts a humorous dialogue with his imaginary readers, explaining his novel—or urging them to get their friends to buy the book.

The structure of the work is equally elaborate, and to retell the story is to highlight its nonsense. Part 1 (“Red and Black Laughter”) opens with Yogi Johnson and Scripps O’Neil staring out the window of the pump-factory where they work at the empty yard where snow covers the crated pumps. (Dark Laughter opens with two characters named Bruce Dudley and Sponge Martin looking out a factory window at “a more or less littered factory yard.”)

The narrative now splits, and Hemingway picks up the absurd story of how Scripps got to Petoskey. A year earlier, he lived in the town of Mancelona, with his wife and daughter Lucy—or Lousy, as he calls her. (In Dark Laughter, Sponge Martin’s daughter is named Bugs—and the parody goes on.) One night, Scripps and his wife went out drinking, and he lost her—or, he came home one night and she was gone. It does not matter which is true. (In the same way, Scripps’s mother was either a poor Italian immigrant—or the wife of a Confederate general.)

Scripps wanders into Petoskey, meets Diana in Brown’s Beanery (“The Best by Test”), finds work in the pump-factory, and returns to marry the waitress. Just as quickly, however, he meets Mandy, the junior waitress in the beanery, and falls in love with her...

(The entire section is 979 words.)

The Torrents of Spring Chapter Summaries

The Torrents of Spring Chapter 1 Summary

Yogi Johnson looks out the window at the snow-covered yard of the pump factory where he works in Michigan. He thinks of a line from a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley (either quoted or attributed by Johnson to “this writing fellow Hutchinson”):

If winter comes, can spring be far behind?

He hopes it is true again this year. Near Johnson, a fellow worker, Scripps O’Neil, also looks out to the crated pumps. Scripps is tall and lean with a tall and lean face. When the spring comes and the snow melts, the pumps will be moved down to the train station, where they will be loaded onto flat cars and freighted away. Yogi thinks of Paris, where he had once spent two of the happiest weeks of his life. That happiness, like everything else, is behind him now.

Scripps has two wives in two separate cities in Michigan: Mancelona and Petoskey. He has not seen the wife in Mancelona for almost a year. The two of them often got drunk together. When Scripps was drunk, he and his wife were happy. Scripps thinks the drinking makes him strong. He has a daughter named Lucy, but he calls her “Lousy.” One night, Scripps awakened after being drunk for three or four days and realized he lost his wife. He walked back along the train tracks to find her. He tried to walk on the rails but could not do it, so he continued walking on the ties. It was a long walk into town, but finally Scripps saw the lights of the switchyard. He passed the high school; he thinks there was nothing Rococo about it. He compares it to the buildings in Paris, but he has never been to Paris. It is his friend Yogi who went there once.

Yogi continues to look out the window and realizes that it will soon be time to shut up the pump factory for the night. When he opens the window a little, he feels the chinook (a warm breeze that heralds spring) blowing. The workmen, many of whom are Indians, lay down their tools. The foreman is famous in the factory for having once made a trip as far as Duluth, Minnesota, where a wonderful thing happened to him. He wets his finger and holds it up in the air, feeling the warm breeze. He shakes his head and tells the other men that it is a regular chinook. The men silently put up their tools and the half-completed pumps and walk out to the washroom to clean up before going home. Outside there is the sound of an Indian war whoop.

The Torrents of Spring Chapter 2 Summary

The story flashes back to the night Scripps O’Neil lost his wife. Ignoring the falling snow, Scripps stands outside the Mancelona High School. A man passes by, stares at him for a while, and then moves on. Scripps looks at the school, thinking about the fact that inside are boys and girls in search of knowledge. It is this surge of interest in knowledge that is sweeping the country, he believes. He thinks of his daughter, Lousy, in there. He also thinks about the seventy dollars in doctor’s bills she has cost him. Scripps, however, is proud of her; he thinks that—for himself at least—it is too late to learn.

Scripps makes his way to his small home. He is not bothered by its size; neither is his wife. She told him often when they were drinking together that she does not want a palace but simply a place that keeps the wind out. Based on that, Scripps chose this small house. He is glad to have taken her for her word, for he is not the kind of person to want a palace either.

As he enters his home, something keeps going through his head. He tries to get it out, but to no avail. He thinks of his friend Harry Parker who had met a poet in Detroit who had written the poem “There’s No Place Like Home,” or so he claimed. Scripps had written a tune to the words of this poem and had taught it to Lucy, his wife, when they were first married. Scripps thinks that, if he had had the chance, he might have become a famous composer. Scripps decides he will have Lucy sing the song this night and vows never to drink again. He thinks drinking robs him of his ear for music. When he is drunk, the sound of trains coming through town sounds like music to him, more beautiful than music composed by Stravinsky. It is not beautiful, but he thinks so because of the drink. He decides to go to Paris, like the violinist Albert Spalding.

When he opens his front door, he calls out a greeting to Lucy, but he receives no answer. He promises himself he will never drink again, nor will he spend nights out on the railroad. He wants to buy his wife things like a fur coat and perhaps a bigger house after all. He lights the lamp and continues to call out, but the house is empty. Through the snow-filled air outside, Scripps hears the sound of an Indian war whoop.

The Torrents of Spring Chapter 3 Summary

Scripps decides to leave Mancelona; he believes the place has never given him anything. He worked all his life and then lost all his savings. He is headed for Chicago to find a job. He plans on buying land in the Loop, which was beginning to become a major shopping and manufacturing district of the city. He will buy land at a low price and hang on to it.

Slowly, Scripps walks bareheaded down to the train tracks. He sees what he thinks is a dead bird, picks it up, and cuddles it inside his shirt to warm it; it begins to peck at his chest. The wind is blowing straight from Lake Superior, blowing snow before it. The train approaches, and Scripps steps away from the track to let it pass. He thinks of a saying that he...

(The entire section is 486 words.)

The Torrents of Spring Chapter 4 Summary

As he walks down the train track throughout the night, Scripps becomes confused. He had left home when he learned that his wife, Lucy, had left. He has no idea where she has gone, nor where his daughter, Lousy, is. He no longer cares but keeps walking until he sees a sign: Petoskey. Beside the platform is a pile of dead deer being shipped down from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan by hunters. Scripps looks in the window at a man tapping something on a telegraph. He asks the man if he is a telegrapher. The man looks at him strangely, thinking, “What is this man to me?” Scripps asks him if it is hard to be a telegrapher, though he really wants to ask him outright if the town is really Petoskey. The telegrapher asks Scripps if he...

(The entire section is 428 words.)

The Torrents of Spring Chapter 5 Summary

Scripps looks inside the barber and contemplates going in. He likes the look of the barbers in their white coats, deftly using their tools. He has money, so he feels assured that he has the right to go in. Instead, he decides he wants something to eat, plus he needs to take care of the bird.

As Scripps walks down the frozen street, he hears the sound of sleigh bells. He thinks perhaps it is Christmas. He remembers from his childhood in the South how the children would shoot off fireworks. His father had been a soldier in the Confederate army. When General William T. Sherman marched through Georgia, he had burned down the O’Neil home. Scripps recounts to himself that Sherman had said:


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The Torrents of Spring Chapter 6 Summary

Scripps O’Neil walks down the street of Petoskey. He avoids the barbershop he passed earlier. When he arrives at the pump factory, he is unsure that this is the right place, even though he sees pumps carried out. He fears that might be a trick. He stops one of the workmen and asks if their loads are pumps, and the workman replies that they will be in time. Scripps then knows this is the pump factory.

Scripps walks up to a door on which there is a sign: “Keep Out. This Means You.” Scripps is not sure if this means him, so he knocks on the door and then walks in and asks to speak to the manager. One of the men stops and says that he is the foreman, and what he says goes. Scripps asks if he can hire and fire people....

(The entire section is 440 words.)

The Torrents of Spring Chapter 7 Summary

Scripps has finished his first day at the pump factory. It is the beginning of a long succession of days of piston collaring. He retreats to the beanery once again to eat. During the day, Scripps kept his bird with him; he cut a small slit in his shirt so the bird could peek out.

Although Scripps finds the work at the pump factory dull, he is glad he can do work with his hands. He is looking forward to seeing the waitress at the beanery again. He wonders what happened to her in Paris. Yogi Johnson had been in Paris, so Scripps decides he will get him to talk about it. Scripps is adept at getting people to talk about themselves. He would like to have asked Yogi to go with him to the beanery, but he did not dare as yet....

(The entire section is 429 words.)

The Torrents of Spring Chapter 8 Summary

Scripps and the waitress return to the beanery half an hour later as husband and wife. The beanery looks the same, but a change has come over Scripps and his wife. They are both hungry and want to eat. The replacement waitress is surprised to see them because the cook had reported that they had gone off into the night. Scripps’s new wife announces that they are married now and then asks Scripps what he wants for supper. Scripps notices that one of the customers is reading the Detroit News and tells him it is a good paper. The customer congratulates them on their marriage and says he is a married man himself. Scripps explains that his wife had left him, but the new Mrs. O’Neil tells him not to tell that story anymore...

(The entire section is 501 words.)

The Torrents of Spring Chapter 9 Summary

Scripps goes more slowly to his job at the pump factory after his marriage. His wife (“Mrs. Scripps”) watches him as he goes up the street. She does not find time to read The Guardian anymore, nor does she read about English politics or cabinet crises in France. She thinks how strange the French people are—the historical figures, the authors, the politicians, the actors. She thinks of other writers and wonders what it is all about and where it is taking her. She has a husband now. She is not sure if she can keep him.

Mrs. Scripps has gone from being an elderly waitress to being the wife of Scripps O’Neil, who has a good job in the pump factory. Her new name is Diana Scripps. She had been named after her...

(The entire section is 414 words.)

The Torrents of Spring Chapter 10 Summary

The narrative now returns to when the story began, when the chinook is blowing and the men are leaving the factory. Scripps’s bird is singing in its cage and Diana is looking out the window, watching for Scripps. She is still wondering whether she can hold him. She also wonders, if he leaves her, will he also leave his bird? In the nights, when she touches Scripps, he rolls away from her. She views this as a sign that she cannot hold him. She spends the days reading and waiting for Scripps to come home. She reads The Century, which has a new editor. In this she tries to garner some hope that Scripps will stay with her. She waits at the window, trying to see him without having to put on her spectacles. She wants his first...

(The entire section is 439 words.)

The Torrents of Spring Chapter 11 Summary

Yogi Johnson leaves the pump factory and thinks that it was wise of the foreman to let them go because of the chinook wind. If there had been any accident, it would be blamed on the foreman and fall under the Employer’s Liability Act. As Yogi walks down the street, he worries that he does not seem to want any woman. The night before he had gone to the library; he felt nothing when he talked with the librarian. As he encounters women, he feels no desire for them. Yogi rationalizes that at least he has retained his love for horses. He passes a couple of horses hitched at the front of the feed store, and he marvels at them but worries that there might be something wrong with these particular horses.

Yogi walks up the...

(The entire section is 447 words.)

The Torrents of Spring Chapter 12 Summary

Yogi Johnson and the two Indians walk down the hill to the town. The Indians invite Yogi into the pool hall to shoot a game of pool, but Yogi explains that his arm was injured in the war, so now he cannot play. They suggest that he play Kelly, who had both arms and legs shot off at Ypres. Yogi thinks this sounds more agreeable. He meets Kelly, who has two artificial arms. At the end of an hour and a half of playing, Yogi owes Kelly money. Kelly invites Yogi to go with them for a drink. They lead him to a speak-easy (this is during the time of Prohibition), which is up in the loft of a stable. Several Indians are in the bar, and Yogi recognizes some of them. He learns that the Indians are segregated into two groups: town Indians and...

(The entire section is 460 words.)

The Torrents of Spring Chapter 13 Summary

Yogi and the two Indians walk down the street. Yogi has his arm around the little Indian, who is still grieving for his lost artificial arm. Yogi thinks of the big Indian, who was also in the war. The three of them walk with no particular destination in mind. At a streetlight, the big Indian stops and demands to know where they are going. Yogi does not know where they are going. He had intended just to walk, but they are getting nowhere. He admits to the big Indian that he does not know where they are going. Since “the white chief” Yogi does not speak, the big Indian asks if he has ever gone to Brown’s Beanery. Yogi says that he never has, but he feels defeated at the mention of the beanery. They agree to go to the beanery....

(The entire section is 466 words.)

The Torrents of Spring Chapter 14 Summary

Yogi looks around at the customers filling the beanery. He sees white men, white women, and Indian men, but he sees no Indian women. He wonders what has happened to the “squaws” until the door opens and an Indian woman, naked except for a pair of moccasins, enters with a papoose on her back and a husky dog beside her. The owner shouts at her to leave. The Black cook forcibly makes her leave. Scripps, who is also present, speculates at to what might have happened if she had stayed. The Indians watch all this impassively. Yogi had been unable to move. The women had covered their faces when the squaw entered. Scripps felt faint and shaken, but something inside him stirred with a primordial feeling. One customer, a "drummer"...

(The entire section is 478 words.)

The Torrents of Spring Chapter 15 Summary

Only Scripps, Mandy, Diana, and the "drummer" are sitting in the beanery now. The drummer also eventually leaves. Mandy is talking to Scripps, leaning on the counter. Scripps has his eyes fixed on her. Diana is not listening or even pretending to. She knows it is over but decides to make one more attempt. She addresses him, and he answers her shortly, asking what is on her mind. She asks if he would like to go home now. The new papers have arrived. She begs him to come home with her. Scripps looks up, and Diana thinks that perhaps he is going to come home after all. She tells him that there is an article by Mencken, whom he used to enjoy. Scripps refuses to leave, saying that he no longer cares for Mencken. Diana’s head drops....

(The entire section is 499 words.)

The Torrents of Spring Chapter 16 Summary

It is long past midnight, but the lights are still burning inside the beanery. The town sleeps, and the cold railroad tracks run North and South. North of the town, a couple is walking side by side on the tracks. It is Yogi Johnson walking with the Indian squaw who was thrown out the beanery that evening. As they walk, Yogi begins to take off his clothes, casting each item by the side of the tracks. In the end, he is wearing only his pump-maker shoes. Together they walk naked in the cold along the tracks, the squaw carrying her papoose on her back. Yogi tries to take the papoose from her, to carry it for her. The husky dog, which has followed the woman, whines and licks at Yogi’s ankles. The square refuses to give up the papoose;...

(The entire section is 430 words.)

The Torrents of Spring Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Benson, Jackson J., ed. New Critical Approaches to the Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1990. Section 1 covers critical approaches to Hemingway’s most important long fiction; section 2 concentrates on story techniques and themes; section 3 focuses on critical interpretations of the most important stories; section 4 provides an overview of Hemingway criticism; section 5 contains a comprehensive checklist of Hemingway short fiction criticism from 1975 to 1989.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Ernest Hemingway: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 1985. After an introduction that considers...

(The entire section is 258 words.)