Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The interest in The Torrents of Spring since its publication has been mainly historical. Certainly, the novella adds little to an overall appraisal of Hemingway’s talent, except, perhaps, for the recognition of his capacity for such broad slapstick humor. In this regard, The Torrents of Spring resembles the nonsense plays that Ring Lardner was writing at about the same time.

The work may be most interesting for presenting a Hemingway with whom few readers are familiar. The typical Hemingway hero—from Jake Barnes to Frederic Henry (in A Farewell to Arms, 1929) to Robert Jordan (in For Whom the Bell Tolls, 1940)—is a rather unliterary “tough guy.” Hemingway himself, especially in his later years, took on the characteristics of his own heroes, for he liked to leave the impression, in interview or essay, of the hardy, macho sportsman who had little time or inclination for the niceties of the literary life. Yet The Torrents of Spring reveals a Hemingway with a wide and deep literary background: The title comes from a short novel by the nineteenth century Russian writer Ivan Turgenev; the subtitle to part 4 is a veiled reference to Stein’s The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family’s Progress (1925); there are numerous other allusions and references to writers both older (Percy Bysshe Shelley) and contemporary (Mencken, Ford Madox Ford, Joyce).

The 1920’s in Paris was one of the most exciting periods in literary history, especially for expatriate American writers. Rarely in American literature has there been a period of such rich literary experiment and productivity, and Hemingway was at the center of it all. The Torrents of Spring is a minor literary work but a major revelation of Hemingway’s immersion in the literary life swirling around him.