This is one of Hemingway’s most famous short stories. The setting is an African safari, like the one Hemingway himself took in 1933. It’s a pleasant read, with lively scenes of Africa, and of places where Hemingway lived previously. The protagonist (“Harry”) is an aging writer who is dissatisfied with himself, his life, his writing, and his wife. His decision to go on safari was prompted by a feeling that he had grown lazy and comfortable. Harry takes a no-frills safari in order to regain his youthful vigor and “work the fat off his soul.” But while on safari, he cut himself on a thorn, his leg has gangrene, and his life is in danger — just as Hemingway himself became seriously ill on his safari.
When I read “Kilimanjaro,” I thought it was written in the Fifties; Harry seems like Hemingway at 55. I thought that, in “Kilimanjaro,” Hemingway was looking back on his three failed marriages. I was surprised to learn that “Kilimanjaro” was written in 1936, when Hemingway was only 37. Was Hemingway foreseeing his future? Hemingway matured quickly, and aged quickly. Harry’s feelings are doubtless Hemingway’s own:
|He had had his life and it was over and then he went on living it again with different people and more money, with the best of the same places, and some new ones.... I’m getting as bored with dying as with everything else, he thought. “It’s a bore,” he said out loud. “What is, my dear?” “Anything you do too bloody long.”|
I’m reminded of Beckett’s grim comment about the world: “It has gone on long enough.” I’m also reminded of Sartre’s argument that Faulkner was a “lost man” because he couldn’t look to the future, he could only look back: “Fui. Non sum [I was, I am not].” Perhaps we should classify Hemingway, Faulkner, and Beckett as members of “The Lost Generation.” According to Wikipedia, Harry (the protagonist of “Kilimanjaro”), lives “only for the moment, with no regard to the future.”
When it first appeared, “Kilimanjaro” mentioned “Scott Fitzgerald” in a derogatory way (as we see in the Fitzgerald documentary). Hemingway described Fitzgerald as “wrecked.” Fitzgerald objected to Hemingway and to Maxwell Perkins (Perkins was Hemingway’s editor and also Fitzgerald’s editor). Fitzgerald wrote Hemingway thus:
Please lay off me in print. If I choose to write de profundis sometimes it doesn’t mean I want friends praying aloud over my corpse. No doubt you meant it kindly but it cost me a night’s sleep. And when you incorporate [the story] in a book would you mind cutting my name?
It’s a fine story — one of your best — even though the “Poor Scott Fitzgerald, etc.” rather spoiled it for me.
Ever your friend,
Riches have never fascinated me, unless combined with the greatest charm or distinction.
Fitzgerald’s letter was “as gracious as it was blunt” (to use Updike’s description). In later printings of “Kilimanjaro,” Fitzgerald’s name was replaced by the name Julian (Julian English was the protagonist of John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra; Julian drinks too much, ruins his life, and finally commits suicide).
Perhaps Hemingway felt justified referring to Fitzgerald as “wrecked” because Fitzgerald himself had published a series of essays about his own “crack-up” (these essays were published in book form with the title The Crack-up). Indeed, it can be argued that “Kilimanjaro” was inspired by Fitzgerald’s “crack-up” essays, by Hemingway’s fear that he himself would crack up.
Hemingway writes (in “Kilimanjaro”), “He remembered poor Julian and his romantic awe of [the rich] and how he had started a story once that began, ‘The very rich are different from you and me.’” Actually, Fitzgerald had written, “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.” These sentences come from Fitzgerald’s story “The Rich Boy,” considered one of his best stories.
Hemingway also takes a swipe at Malcolm Cowley in “Kilimanjaro,” describing him as an “American poet with... a stupid look on his potato face.” Hemingway’s quarrels with fellow writers are legendary.
“Kilimanjaro” contains many cutting remarks about Harry’s wife (Hemingway’s wife?): she’s a “rich bitch,” Harry doesn’t really love her, Harry doesn’t mind dying “except that he would rather be in better company.” Should we praise Hemingway for being brutally honest, or criticize him for being brutally tasteless? How did Hemingway’s wife feel about this story (he was married to his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, during the period of the safari and the writing of “Kilimanjaro”)?
Wikipedia says this about Hemingway’s early novel, The Torrents of Spring:
|The hero of this novel suffers from impotence, while the hero of The Sun Also Rises suffered from an undescribed war wound that prevented intercourse. Many of Hemingway’s short stories from this period (such as “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”) also treat themes of sexual dysfunction.|
In “Kilimanjaro,” Hemingway seems to say that this problem diminished with the passing of time:
|It was strange that when he did not love her at all and was lying, that he should be able to give her more for her money than when he had really loved.... He had sold vitality, in one form or another, all his life and when your affections are not too involved you give much better value for the money.... He had chosen to make his living with something else instead of a pen or a pencil.|
As the ailing Harry lies in his cot, vultures and hyenas closing in, he thinks he’s going to die, and he recalls incidents from his past life that he hasn’t yet written about. He recalls his early days in Paris at the Place Contrescarpe:
|In that poverty, and in that quarter across the street from a Boucherie Chevaline and a wine cooperative he had written the start of all he was to do. There never was another part of Paris that he loved like that, the sprawling trees, the old white plastered houses painted brown below, the long green of the autobus in that round square, the purple flower dye upon the paving, the sudden drop down the hill of the rue Cardinal Lemoine to the River, and the other way the narrow crowded world of the rue Mouffetard.... There were only two rooms in the apartments where they lived and he had a room on the top floor of that hotel that cost him sixty francs a month where he did his writing, and from it he could see the roofs and chimney pots and all the hills of Paris.|
Hemingway and his first wife lived at 74 rue Cardinal Lemoine, on the third floor. His “writing room” was nearby, at 39 rue Descartes. In my Paris travel narrative, I described eating at a restaurant at 35 rue Descartes. At that time, however, I wasn’t interested in Hemingway, and didn’t realize that I was in his neighborhood.
Harry/Hemingway also recalls winters in the Austrian Alps, and ski runs:
|As you ran down the last stretch to the steep drop, taking it straight, then running the orchard in three turns and out across the ditch and onto the icy road behind the inn. Knocking your bindings loose, kicking the skis free and leaning them up against the wooden wall of the inn, the lamplight coming from the window, where inside, in the smoky, new-wine smelling warmth, they were playing the accordion.|
Perhaps the high point of the story is Harry’s dream of flying to a Nairobi hospital. He’s in a tiny plane, piloted by “old Compton”:
|Compie turned his head and grinned and pointed and there, ahead, all he could see, as wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun, was the square top of Kilimanjaro.|
Hemingway’s description is so good that one is convinced that Hemingway saw that himself. As you read it, you feel that you’re seeing it. And when you’re done, you want to go there, and see Kilimanjaro for yourself.
I haven’t read much commentary on “Kilimanjaro.” The only commentary I can recommend is Carlos Baker’s Hemingway: The Writer As Artist, which contains five pages on “Kilimanjaro.” Baker discusses the argument that Harry suffers from both spiritual and physical corruption, while Kilimanjaro represents uncorrupted purity, the purity that Harry longs for.
This is a fine story, at least as good as “Kilimanjaro”. If you like stories in which the protagonist changes, this one is for you. On the other hand, if you dislike violent hunting scenes, you may want to avoid “Macomber.”
“Macomber” deals with overcoming fear, the sudden death of fear. Hemingway suggests that he witnessed the death of fear when he was a soldier. In an earlier issue, I described a woman’s experiences “Alone in the Mountains” — how she was terrified initially, but later her terror disappeared, suddenly and completely.
Spoiler Warning: If you think you might read “Macomber,” skip the rest of this paragraph. For many years, a critical debate swirled around “Macomber”. Warren Beck argued that Mrs. Macomber wasn’t trying to kill her husband, Mark Spilka that she was. According to Spilka, Beck made a mistake typical of New Critics: he looked only at the text, not at the author’s whole body of work. Spilka argued that, given Hemingway’s typical views of hunters, wives, etc., we should see Mrs. Macomber in a negative light, the hunter (Wilson) in a positive light. Spilka’s argument is akin to Leslie Fiedler’s argument that an author has a certain “signature”. “Fiedler questioned the principles of New Criticism.... Fiedler targets New Criticism in his well-known essay ‘Archetype and Signature.’”1
I’ve argued for years that an imaginative writer has certain themes/worldviews that he repeats in his various books, so I’m drawn to the Spilka/Fiedler position. But I’m not sure how to interpret the ending of “Macomber.” In earlier issues, we discussed Wilson Knight’s view that there’s a pattern/theme in Shakespeare, and Ted Hughes’ similar view that a poet is moved by particular archetypes, archetypes that can be traced in all their works.
As a stylist, Hemingway aims at simplicity and truth. His style is typical of modern style insofar as it lacks structure, grammatical structure, grammatical clarity. As long as his words are clear and truthful, he doesn’t seem to care how he throws them in, or how they function grammatically. One might trace this to the decline of Latin study, or to the influence of journalism (Hemingway himself was a journalist). As an example, let’s look at Hemingway’s description of The Macombers riding with their guide, Wilson: “She was sitting far back in the seat and Macomber was sitting forward talking to Wilson who turned sideways talking over the back of the front seat.” Notice how the words are jumbled up without regard to grammatical structure, yet the overall effect is clear and vivid. It would be difficult to diagram that sentence, and say what grammatical function each word plays, but it’s not a difficult sentence to read.
Another example: at the beginning of the story, The Macombers and Wilson ask for gimlets for lunch: “The mess boy had started them already, lifting the bottles out of the canvas cooling bags that sweated wet in the wind that blew through the trees that shaded the tents.” Hemingway would agree with William James, who said, “I don’t care how incorrect language may be if it only has fitness of epithet, energy, and clearness.”
Hemingway was so fond of simplicity that he criticized Melville and Thoreau for being literary.
This is one of Hemingway’s best-known stories. One of the themes of “The Killers” is inaction. As Wyndham Lewis said, the Hemingway hero isn’t a person who acts, but rather a person “things are done to.” As we discussed in an earlier issue, Sartre argued that Faulkner and Proust created a world with no future; “Proust’s heroes never undertake anything.”2 For the Lost Generation of Hemingway, Faulkner, and Proust, the world wasn’t pregnant with possibilities, but rather “dying of old age.”3
“The Killers” inspired a well-known critical essay — an essay by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren in their textbook Understanding Fiction. Taken together, “The Killers” and the Brooks-Warren essay form an excellent introduction to Hemingway. Understanding Fiction is a great collection of stories and commentary; it might be useful for an aspiring fiction writer. For many years, it was a popular textbook in English classes, but its popularity is fading, perhaps because it doesn’t contain contemporary critical jargon, perhaps because it isn’t politically correct.
Brooks and Warren also wrote Understanding Poetry, a textbook that was even more popular than Understanding Fiction, and Understanding Drama. (Brooks also wrote two well-known books on poetry: The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry, and Modern Poetry and the Tradition.)
Brooks and Warren argue that “The Killers” is “about the discovery of evil. The theme [is] the Hamlet theme.” According to Brooks and Warren, young Nick Adams is the focus of “The Killers,” and Nick is changed by the events of the story. The gangsters follow the gangster code. They’re bored with the laymen who aren’t initiated into the gangster code. Nick is shocked to find that the gangster movie has suddenly become reality. He’s even more shocked to find that the gangsters’ intended victim, Ole Andreson, accepts the gangster code, and doesn’t even try to overturn the gangsters’ plans.
According to Brooks and Warren, the boarding-house manager, Mrs. Bell, is introduced as a contrast to the gangsters’ world: “She is the world of normality, which is shocking now from the very fact that it continues to flow on in its usual course.”
Turning to Hemingway’s other works, Brooks and Warren write:
|The situations and characters which interest Hemingway [are] usually violent ones: the hard-drinking and sexually promiscuous world of The Sun Also Rises; the chaotic and brutal world of war as in A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, or “A Way You’ll Never Be”; the dangerous and exciting world of the bull ring or the prize ring as in The Sun Also Rises, Death in the Afternoon, “The Undefeated,” “Fifty Grand”; the world of crime, as in “The Killers,” To Have and Have Not, or “The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio.” Hemingway’s typical characters are usually tough men, experienced in the hard worlds they inhabit, and apparently insensitive.... They are, also, usually defeated men. Out of their practical defeat, however, they have managed to salvage something.... They have maintained... an ideal of themselves, formulated or unformulated, by which they have lived.4|
Hemingway’s world is “violent and meaningless” but his characters “make one gallant effort to redeem the incoherence and meaninglessness of this world: they attempt to impose some form upon the disorder of their lives, the technique of the bullfighter or sportsman, the discipline of the soldier, the code of the gangster.” One might object, however, that the gangsters in “The Killers” can scarcely be called “gallant”, though they may be loyal to a code of behavior. Young Nick Adams is perhaps more deserving of the epithet “gallant” precisely because he harkens to natural human feelings instead of an artificial code.
On the whole, Brooks and Warren are doubtless correct, and Hemingway has a certain admiration for the disciplined soldier, the skilled bullfighter, etc. Doesn’t Hemingway also have a certain admiration for animals? For example, the wounded lion in “Kilimanjaro” who charges the hunters with his dying breath, and keeps charging as he’s being shot, or the fighting cocks mentioned in The Old Man and the Sea, who fight after one eye is destroyed, and keep fighting even after both eyes are destroyed. Surely these animals deserve mention when Brooks and Warren discuss “the gallantry of defeat.”
One might say Hemingway’s animals aren’t following a code, they’re following natural impulses. But aren’t these impulses a sort of code, a code that keeps them from acting capriciously and frivolously? Perhaps humans, too, can be spontaneous yet still structured, still un-frivolous. Don’t our impulses, like the impulses of animals, have a certain structure, a certain code?
Let’s accept the Brooks-Warren argument that Hemingway admires those who “impose some form upon the disorder of their lives.” Now let’s ask, where did this worldview come from? Did Hemingway get this worldview from experience, from life itself? Did experience teach him that you can’t live by spontaneous feeling — that the only way to survive is to follow a code? Or did Hemingway acquire this worldview from books, from a favorite author?
One of his favorite authors was Conrad. Perhaps the adventurous quality in Hemingway’s life was inspired by Conrad; perhaps Conrad was an inspiration for Hemingway’s life as well as his writing. At any rate, Conrad’s heroes seem to follow a code, just as Hemingway’s do. Conrad’s heroes follow the code of the seaman in the face of intense danger. In Heart of Darkness, Conrad mentions a seaman named Towser who writes a sailing manual with “a singleness of intention, an honest concern for the right way of going to work.”5 For Conrad and Hemingway, a code of behavior provides focus, concentration, “singleness of intention,” a way of imposing form on the chaos of experience. It seems likely that Hemingway acquired his worldview from Conrad, and then found this worldview verified by experience.
Brooks and Warren note that the Hemingway hero, in addition to being “tough and apparently insensitive,” is also “simple.” Here again, the parallel with Conrad is striking. Conrad describes one of his heroes (Beard, the sea captain in “Youth”) as “immense in the singleness of his idea.” Let’s assume I’m right, let’s assume Hemingway was profoundly influenced by Conrad. Should this make us think less of Hemingway? Not at all, just as evidence of Shakespeare’s influence on Twain doesn’t make us think less of Twain, and evidence of Homer’s influence on Vergil doesn’t make us think less of Vergil. If it’s valuable for an individual to have a code of behavior that can give structure to his life, so too it’s valuable for a young writer to have a model, a pole star, to guide his literary career.
Two points should be noted concerning The Hemingway Code. First, it runs counter to what we might expect, since we might expect authors to frown on those who follow rules, conventions, rather than natural feelings. Doesn’t Tolstoy frown on Alexey Karenina because he lives by social convention? Second, if we depict people living by a code, it leaves little room for unconscious motivation, shadow impulses, which many writers are preoccupied with. Ahab, for example, is driven by a shadow impulse, not by a sea-captain code. If Hemingway depicts people who live by a code, a Hemingway critic can argue that his psychology is somewhat flat. According to Brooks and Warren, Hemingway “rarely indulges in any psychological analysis, and is rarely concerned with the detailed development of a character.”
According to Brooks and Warren, one of Hemingway’s characteristics is “a little streak of poetry or pathos” in a world that seems violent and insensitive. Though Hemingway’s heroes follow a strict code, their spontaneous feelings aren’t completely dead, and they occasionally express these feelings with “ironic understatement.” For example, the guide in “Macomber,” Robert Wilson, is a tough character who follows the hunters’ code, but at the end of the story, he says he was beginning to like Macomber, and he’s “a little angry” at his murder. “Just as there is a margin of victory in the defeat of the Hemingway characters,” write Brooks and Warren, “so there is a little margin of sensibility in their brutal and violent world.” The juxtaposition of sensibility with brutality produces irony.
“The typical character,” write Brooks and Warren, “is sensitive, but his sensitivity is never insisted upon; he may be worthy of pity, but he never demands it. [When I read this, I thought of Santiago in Old Man and the Sea.] The underlying attitude in Hemingway’s work may be stated like this: pity is only valid when it is wrung from a man who has been seasoned by experience, and is only earned by a man who never demands it, a man who takes his chances.”
While many of Hemingway’s heroes follow a code, some of his characters, like young Nick Adams, haven’t yet been initiated into a code. According to Brooks and Warren, there are two types of Hemingway character: the hard-bitten initiated, and the young un-initiated. In “The Killers,” Nick is the un-initiated, while the other characters, with the possible exception of Mrs. Bell, have all adopted some sort of code.
Turning to Hemingway’s style, our authors say “there is an obvious relation between this style and the characters and situations with which the author is concerned: unsophisticated characters and simple, fundamental situations are rendered in an uncomplicated style.” Our authors proceed to connect Hemingway’s style with his metaphysics, his view of the universe:
|The short simple rhythms, the succession of co-ordinate clauses, and the general lack of subordination — all suggest a dislocated and ununified world. Hemingway is apparently trying to suggest in his style the direct experience — things as seen and felt, one after another, and not as the mind arranges and analyzes them.... It is as though he should say: despite the application of the human intellect to the problems of the world, the world is still a disorderly and brutal mess, in which it is hard to find any sure scale of values; therefore, it is well for one to remember the demands of fundamental situations — those involving sex, love, danger, and death, in which the instinctive life is foremost — which are frequently glossed over or falsified by social conventions or sterile intellectuality, and to remember the simple virtues of courage, honesty, fidelity, discipline.|
Brooks and Warren conclude their essay thus:
|The various (and often quite different) stories done by a good writer always have some fundamental unifying attitudes — for a man can be only himself.... A good writer does not offer us, for instance, a glittering variety of themes. He probably treats, over and over, those few themes that seem to him most important in his actual living and observation of life.|
Great novella, perhaps better than Moby Dick. Hemingway’s prose is simpler, more sublime than Melville’s, and his story is more touching than Melville’s. Hemingway’s old man, Santiago, loves and respects the giant fish. Thus, Old Man is the opposite of Moby Dick, in which Ahab is consumed with hatred for the white whale. Santiago has a humble love for the sea creatures that he calls his “brothers,” while Ahab pits his titanic hatred against the universe. Hemingway’s novella is a perfect blend of the realistic and the mythic.6 Melville, however, may be a more profound writer — better at psychological subtlety, better at the occult dimension. Hemingway’s hero is a hero for our time: he doesn’t have high birth or great natural gifts; he’s an average man, a working man, who achieves greatness through persistence, through his indomitable spirit, through his acceptance of suffering. Both Hemingway and Melville built their story from an actual event, both stretched the facts to the breaking point, but both created stories that “ring true.” As I said in our discussion of Twain, “Most of the characters in Huck Finn are based on people Twain knew: Pap, Huck, Tom, Jim, the duke and the dauphin, Boggs and Col. Sherburn. Twain’s fiction has a ring of truth because it’s based on fact.”
In an earlier issue, we discussed Faulkner’s character, Dilsey, whose attitude is “whatever happens must be met with courage and dignity in which there is no room for passivity or pessimism.” One might compare Hemingway’s Santiago with Faulkner’s Dilsey; they both keep going. Virtue is persistent, it’s always beginning (semper incipere, to use Luther’s phrase). “‘I told the boy I was a strange old man,’” Hemingway writes. “‘Now is when I must prove it.’ The thousand times that he had proved it meant nothing. Now he was proving it again. Each time was a new time and he never thought about the past when he was doing it.”
Carlos Baker, the prominent Hemingway critic, finds many parallels between Old Man and Conrad’s story “Youth.” Hemingway must have drawn on Conrad’s work, must have used it as a model. We know that Hemingway was an admirer of Conrad, and read him assiduously. Santiago is a blend of Conrad’s characters, Marlow and Beard. As Santiago remembers his youthful vision of lions on an African beach, so Marlow remembers his youthful vision of natives on a Java dock. As Santiago is distinguished by his eyes (“Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated”), so Beard is distinguished by his eyes (“He had blue eyes in that old face of his, which were amazingly like a boy’s, with that candid expression some quite common men preserve to the end of their days by a rare internal gift of simplicity of heart and rectitude of soul”).7 What Conrad says of Beard is true of Santiago: he is “immense in the singleness of his idea.” Santiago’s heroic determination is captured in the motto of Conrad’s ship: Do or Die. But despite his determination and skill, Santiago is overcome (like Beard) by the forces of nature.
A passage in Old Man reminded me of an idea that we’ve discussed in many previous issues, von Franz’s idea of frevel. Here’s the passage: “When he and the boy fished together they usually spoke only when it was necessary.... It was considered a virtue not to talk unnecessarily at sea and the old man had always considered it so and respected it.”
Von Franz relates a Swiss folk tale about a herdsman who doesn’t respect the numen of the mountains, a herdsman who exemplifies frevel.8 When the herdsman hears a voice in the mountains saying “Shall I let it go?” he answers back, rather impudently, “Oh, you can hold it still longer!” This is repeated the next day, and then the voice says, “I can’t hold it any longer!” and the mountain collapses, killing the herdsman. While Santiago has a pious respect for the numen, the divine power, of the sea, the herdsman is somewhat impious and disrespectful, he’s a freveler. Carlos Baker noticed that piety is one of Santiago’s salient traits: “Santiago is evidently a pious old man. The piety appears unobtrusively in his constant, accepted, and unquestioning awareness of supernal power.”9
Let’s assume I’m right, let’s assume that Santiago is pious and serious and devoid of frevel. Can we extend this view to all of Hemingway’s heroes? Do all of Hemingway’s heroes follow a code that keeps them within certain boundaries, keeps them away from frevel? Does von Franz’s idea throw light on Hemingway’s work? If frevel is a common path to evil, as von Franz argues, then is Hemingway right to recommend a code that keeps us on “the straight and narrow,” keeps us away from frevel?
Von Franz says that the word “frevel” is now usually used in connection with hunting; one who violates the hunting code is guilty of jagdfrevel. Examples of jagdfrevel are “shooting pregnant deer or hunting in the closed season... or shooting badly and wounding without killing, and then not bothering about the wounded animal afterwards.”10 This is the very situation that arises in “Macomber”: the guide insists on going after the wounded animal, dangerous as this may be. The guide follows the hunting code, and doesn’t commit jagdfrevel.
Good story. Simple, touching portrait of human suffering. Not much for critics to chew on, but good for readers. Set in Milan in the last year of World War I. At the end of the story, we find that ‘streak of poetry or pathos’ that (according to Brooks and Warren) is characteristic of Hemingway. The major is suffering, but doesn’t demand pity. He keeps his dignity, like other Hemingway heroes, and carries himself “straight and soldierly.”
“Fifty Grand” features a boxer who is a typical Hemingway hero: aging, experienced, understated, able to master intense pain and keep going. His opponent is a younger boxer who appeals to the crowd, who seeks “popularity,” whose motto is “Be yourself,” who can’t master pain but instead “rolled [on the ground] and twisted around,” who lacks grace under pressure.
The hero seems cynical, seems to care about nothing but money. But he has his pride, his code of honor: “He wanted to finish it off right to please himself. He didn’t want to be knocked out.” The hero says, “I think I can last. I don’t want this bohunk to stop me.” His motto seems to be “Control yourself,” rather than “Be yourself.”
His code of honor isn’t a traditional moral code, so he doesn’t scruple to bet against himself, to “fix” the fight. He’s a loser; he loses the fight on a foul, and even without the foul he would have lost. But he wins a subtle kind of victory by maintaining his self-respect, keeping the code, mastering his pain, not being knocked out.
“Fifty Grand” was published in The Atlantic in 1927, then in a short-story collection called Men Without Women. Joseph Wood Krutch described the collection as “sordid little catastrophes” involving “very vulgar people.” There is something sordid in “Fifty Grand,” but it also has something heroic. And Hemingway is certainly a master of the language of vulgar people; every word has truth and weight.
Hemingway and his generation had no faith in civilization, so they didn’t look for the heroic in the representatives of civilization — generals, statesmen, professors, and other leading figures. They looked for the heroic in the fisherman, the foot-soldier, the boxer, etc.
When Hemingway was in high school, he was tall and somewhat uncoordinated, he wasn’t very good at baseball, football, etc. But he liked boxing, and became somewhat proficient at it. When he lived in Cuba, he offered $250 to anyone who could stay in the ring with him for three minutes. He also refereed youth boxing.11
Hemingway is often called an innovator, and this may be partly true. But he can also be viewed as a follower, a follower of Joyce and other moderns.
“A Way You’ll Never Be” is a story that Hemingway published in 1933. It’s an autobiographical story, a story drawn from Hemingway’s WorldWarOne experience; Hemingway was on the Italian side when Italy was fighting Austria.
Hemingway dwells on the harsh realities of war. He speaks of “rape in which the woman’s skirts are pulled over her head to smother her, one comrade sometimes sitting upon the head.” Hemingway says of helmets, “They’re absolutely no damned good.... I remember when they were a comfort when we first had them, but I’ve seen them full of brains too many times.”
Before he turned 19, Hemingway was wounded in the head, legs, etc. The protagonist of “A Way You’ll Never Be,” Nick Adams, has an assortment of wounds. Nick says, “If you are interested in scars I can show you some very interesting ones.” Hemingway describes how Nick struggles with the effects of his wounds and his traumas. Nick has bad dreams, he can’t sleep without a light on, etc.
On the day described in the story, Nick lies down, and his mind wanders; he thinks of a dancing girl in Paris. Hemingway uses the stream-of-consciousness technique that Joyce popularized:
|And there was Gaby Delys, oddly enough, with feathers on; you called me baby doll a year ago tadada you said that I was rather nice to know tadada with feathers on, with feathers off, the great Gaby, and my name’s Harry Pilcer, too, we used to step out of the far side of the taxis when it got steep going up the hill and he could see that hill every night when he dreamed with Sacré Coeur, blown white, like a soap bubble.12|
In the past, writers usually aimed at clarity, but Hemingway seems to aim at obscurity. After Joyce, it seemed that obscurity was a virtue, a characteristic of serious writers.
“A Way You’ll Never Be” has little action, little plot; this is baffling to young readers, but it impresses sophisticated critics. One might say that Hemingway doesn’t try to give pleasure to the reader; this is characteristic of modern artists — painters as well as writers.
In an earlier issue, I discussed Arnold Bennett’s response to Faulkner. Bennett said that Faulkner is
|difficult to read.... There is no excuse for this. The great masters are not difficult to read.... A novel ought to be easy to read; it ought to please immediately. But too many young novelists seem to be actuated by a determination not to please.|
Despite these objections, Bennett was a fan of Faulkner, and I think it’s possible to be a fan of Hemingway despite his occasional obscurity, despite his “determination not to please.”
|1.|| Wikipedia article on Fiedler.
Before the advent of New Criticism, one of the leading American critics was Vernon Louis Parrington, who was a committed progressive, a critic of capitalism, and one of the founders of American Studies. Parrington is best known for his three-volume Main Currents in American Thought. back
|2.|| Sartre’s remarks on Faulkner can be found in the Norton Critical Edition of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury back|
|3.|| ibid back|
|4.|| One thinks of Santiago (in The Old Man and the Sea) who is defeated, but salvages something, upholds his ideal, the fisherman’s ideal. back|
|5.|| Ch. 2 back|
|6.|| In his Hemingway: The Writer As Artist, Carlos Baker quotes a critic named Harvey Breit: “‘Hemingway has attempted to annihilate the shadow which, according to T. S. Eliot, falls between the idea and the reality.’” Doesn’t haiku also annihilate this shadow? back|
|7.|| Since Hemingway lived at a time when old values were collapsing, he wouldn’t use expressions like “rectitude of soul” and “quite common men.” Hemingway’s reticence in moral matters might be compared to Conrad’s reticence in sexual matters; Hemingway is far more outspoken than Conrad regarding sexual matters. back|
|8.|| Shadow and Evil in Fairytales, part 2, ch. 2, p. 143 back|
|9.|| Hemingway: The Writer as Artist, ch. 12 back|
|10.|| Shadow and Evil in Fairytales, part 2, ch. 2, p. 143 back|
|11.||See the Burns/Novick documentary on Hemingway. And see Wikipedia, “Fifty Grand.” back|
|12.||Nick steps out of “the far side,” the side away from the driver, because he wants to get away without paying. He hopes they won’t see that driver again, and he has a “fear that they might take the same driver twice.” back|