A Case of Identity: Ernest Hemingway
by Anders Hallengren*
The recognition of Hemingway as a major and representative writer of the United States of America, was a slow but explosive process. His emergence in the western canon was an even more adventurous voyage. His works were burnt in the bonfire in Berlin on May 10, 1933 as being a monument of modern decadence. That was a major proof of the writer's significance and a step toward world fame.
To read Hemingway has always produced strong reactions. When his parents received the first copies of their son's book In Our Time (1924), they read it with horror. Furious, his father sent the volumes back to the publisher, as he could not tolerate such filth in the house. Hemingway's apparently coarse, crude, vulgar and unsentimental style and manners appeared equally shocking to many people outside his family. On the other hand, this style was precisely the reason why a great many other people liked his work. A myth, exaggerating those features, was to be born.
Hemingway in Our Time
After he had committed suicide at Ketchum, Idaho, in 1961, the literary position of the 1954 Nobel Laureate changed significantly and has, in a way, even become stronger. This is partly due to several posthumous works and collections that show the author’s versatility - A Moveable Feast (1964), By-Line (1967), 88 Poems (1979), and Selected Letters (1981). It is also the result of painstaking and successful Hemingway research, in which The Hemingway Society (USA) has played an important role since 1980.
Another result of this enduring interest is that many new aspects of Hemingway’s life and works that were previously obscured by his public image have now emerged into the light. On the other hand, posthumously published novels, such as Islands in the Stream (1970) and The Garden of Eden (1986), have disappointed many of the old Hemingway readers. However, rather than bearing witness to declining literary power, (which, considering the author’s declining health would, indeed, be a rather trivial observation even if it were true) the late works confront us with a reappraisal and reconsideration of basic values. They also display an unbiased seeking and experimentation, as if the author was losing both his direction and his footing, or was becoming unrestrained in a new way. Just as modern Hemingway scholarship has added immensely to the depth of our understanding of Hemingway - making him more and more difficult to define! - these works reveal and stress a complexity that may cause bewilderment or relief, depending on what perspective one adopts.
The "Hard-boiled" Style
The slang word "hard-boiled", used to describe characters and works of art, was a product of twentieth century warfare. To be "hard-boiled" meant to be unfeeling, callous, coldhearted, cynical, rough, obdurate, unemotional, without sentiment. Later to become a literary term, the word originated in American Army World War I training camps, and has been in common, colloquial usage since about 1930.
Contemporary literary criticism regarded Ernest Hemingway’s works as marked by his use of this style, which was typical of the era. Indeed, in many respects they were regarded as the embodiment and symbol of hard-boiled literature.
However, neither Hemingway the man nor Hemingway the writer should be labeled "hard-boiled" - his style is the only aspect that deserves this epithet, and even that is ambiguous. Let us get down to basics, concentrate on one main feature in his literary style, and then turn to the alleged hard-boiled mind behind it, and his macho style of living and speaking.
A hard-boiled mind?
Photo: John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library
An unmatched introduction to Hemingway’s particular skill as a writer is the beginning of A Farewell to Arms, certainly one of the most pregnant opening paragraphs in the history of the modern American novel. In that passage the power of concentration reaches a peak, forming a vivid and charged sequence, as if it were a 10-second video summary. It is packed with events and excitement, yet significantly frosty, as if unresponsive and numb, like a silent flashback dream sequence in which bygone images return, pass in review and fade away, leaving emptiness and quietude behind them. The lapidary writing approaches the highest style of poetry, vibrant with meaning and emotion, while the pace is maintained by the exclusion of any descriptive redundancy, of obtrusive punctuation, and of superfluous or narrowing emotive signs:
IN the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterwards the road bare and white except for the leaves.
At the end of the sixteenth chapter of Death in the Afternoon the author approaches a definition of the "hard-boiled" style:
"If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things."
Ezra Pound taught him "to distrust adjectives" (A Moveable Feast). That meant creating a style in accordance with the esthetics and ethics of raising the emotional temperature towards the level of universal truth by shutting the door on sentiment, on the subjective.
A macho style of living and speaking.
Photo: John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library
The Unwritten Code
Later biographic research revealed, behind the macho façade of boxing, bullfighting, big-game hunting and deep-sea fishing he built up, a sensitive and vulnerable mind that was full of contradictions.
In Hemingway, sentimentality, sympathy, and empathy are turned inwards, not restrained, but vibrant below and beyond the level of fact and fable. The reader feels their presence although they are not visible in the actual words. That is because of Hemingway’s awareness of the relation between the truth of facts and events and his conviction that they produce corresponding emotions.
"Find what gave you the emotion; what the action was that gave you the excitement. Then write it down making it clear so the reader will see it too and have the same feeling as you had."
That was the essence of his style, to focus on facts. Hemingway aimed at "the real thing, the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion and which would be as valid in a year or in ten years or, with luck and if you stated it purely enough, always" (Death in the Afternoon). In Hemingway, we see a reaction against Romantic turgidity and vagueness: back to basics, to the essentials. Thus his new realism in a new key resembles the old Puritan simplicity and discipline; both of them refrained from exhibiting the sentimental, the relative.
Hemingway's sincere and stern ambition was to approach Truth, clinging to an as yet unwritten code, a higher law which he referred to as "an absolute conscience as unchanging as the standard meter in Paris" (Green Hills of Africa, I: 1).
Hemingway's Near-Death Experience
Though Hemingway seems to have seen himself and life in general reflected in war, he himself never became reconciled to it. His mind was in a state of civil war, fighting demons inwardly as well as outwardly. In the long run defeat is as revealing and fundamental as victory: we are all losers, defeated by death. To live is the only way to face the ordeal, and the ultimate ordeal in our lives is the opposite of life. Hence Hemingway's obsession with death. Deep sea fishing, bull-fighting, boxing, big-game hunting, war, - all are means of ritualizing the death struggle in his mind - it is very explicit in books such as A Farewell to Arms and Death in the Afternoon, which were based on his own experience.
Escaping death during World War I.
Photo: John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library
Modern investigations into so-called Near-Death Experiences (NDE) such as those by Raymond Moody, Kenneth Ring and many others, have focused on a pattern of empirical knowledge gained on the threshold of death; a dream-like encounter with unknown border regions. There is a parallel in Hemingway's life, connected with the occasion when he was seriously wounded at midnight on July 8, 1918, at Fossalta di Piave in Italy and nearly died. He was the first American to be wounded in Italy during World War I. Here is a case of NDE in Hemingway, and I think that is of basic importance, pertinent to the understanding of all Hemingway's work. In A Farewell to Arms, an experience of this sort occurs to the ambulance driver Frederic Henry, Hemingway's alter ego, wounded in the leg by shellfire in Italy. (Concerning the highly autobiographical nature of A Farewell to Arms, see Michael S. Reynolds’s documentary work Hemingway's First War: The Making of A Farewell to Arms, Princeton University Press 1976). As regards the NDE, we can note the incidental expression "to go out in a blaze of light" (letter to his family, Milan Oct. 18, 1918), and the long statement about what had occurred: Milan, July 21, 1918 (Selected Letters, ed. Carlos Baker, 1981).
Hemingway touched on that crucial experience in his life – what he had felt and thought - in the short story "Now I Lay Me" (1927):
"my soul would go out of my body ... I had been blown up at night and felt it go out of me and go off and then come back"
- and again, briefly, in In Our Time in the lines on the death of Maera. It reappears, in another setting and form, in the image of immortality in the African story The Snows of Kilimanjaro, where the dying Harry knows he is going to the peak called "Ngàje Ngài", which means, as explained in Hemingway's introductory note, "the House of God".
The Coyote and the Leopard
Hemingway's seeming insensitive detachment is only superficial, a compulsive avoidance of the emotional, but not of the emotionally tinged or charged. The pattern of his rigid, dispassionate compressed style of writing and way of life gives a picture of a touching Jeremiad of human tragedy. Hemingway's probe touches nerves, and they hurt. But through the web of failure and disillusion there emerges a picture of human greatness, of confidence even.
Hemingway was not the Nihilist he has often been called. As he belonged to the Protestant nay-saying tradition of American dissent, the spirit of the American Revolution, he denied the denial and acceded to the basic truth which he found in the human soul: the will to live, the will to persevere, to endure, to defy. The all-pervading sense of loss is, indirectly, affirmative. Hemingway's style is a compulsive suppression of unbearable and inexpressible feelings in the chaotic world of his times, where courage and independence offered a code of survival. Sentiments are suppressed to the boil.
The frontier mentality had become universal - the individual is on his own, like a Pilgrim walking into the unknown with neither shelter nor guidance, thrown upon his own resources, his strength and his judgment. Hemingway's style is the style of understatement since his hero is a hero of action, which is the human condition.
There is an illuminating text in William James (1842-1910) which is both significant and reminiscent, bridging the gap between Puritan moralism, its educational parables and exempla, and lost-generation turbulent heroism. In a letter written in Yosemite Valley to his son, Alexander, William James wrote:
"I saw a moving sight the other morning before breakfast in a little hotel where I slept in the dusty fields. The young man of the house had shot a little wolf called coyote in the early morning. The heroic little animal lay on the ground, with his big furry ears, and his clean white teeth, and his jolly cheerful little body, but his brave little life was gone. It made me think how brave all these living things are. Here little coyote was, without any clothes or house or books or anything, with nothing but his own naked self to pay his way with, and risking his life so cheerfully - and losing it - just to see if he could pick up a meal near the hotel. He was doing his coyote-business like a hero, and you must do your boy-business, and I my man-business bravely, too, or else we won't be worth as much as a little coyote."(The Letters of William James, ed. Henry James, Little, Brown and Co.: Boston 1926.)
The courageous coyote thus serves as a moral example, illustrating a philosophy of life which says that it is worth jeopardizing life itself to be true to one's own nature. That is precisely the point of the frozen leopard close to the western summit of Kilimanjaro in Hemingway’s famous short story. That is the explanation of what the leopard was seeking at that altitude, and the answer was given time and again in the works of Ernest Hemingway.
Jeopardizing life itself to be true to one's own nature.
Photo: John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library
But what about the ugliness, then? What about all the evil, the crude, the rude, the rough, the vulgar aspects of his work, even the horror, which dismayed people? How could all that be compatible with moral standards? He justified the inclusion of such aspects in a letter to his "Dear Dad" in 1925:
"The reason I have not sent you any of my work is because you or Mother sent back the In Our Time books. That looked as though you did not want to see any. You see I am trying in all my stories to get the feeling of the actual life across - not to just depict life - or criticize it - but to actually make it alive. So that when you have read something by me you actually experience the thing. You can't do this without putting in the bad and the ugly as well as what is beautiful. Because if it is all beautiful you can't believe in it. Things aren't that way. It is only by showing both sides - 3 dimensions and if possible 4 that you can write the way I want to.
So when you see anything of mine that you don't like remember that I'm sincere in doing it and that I'm working toward something. If I write an ugly story that might be hateful to you or to Mother the next one might be one that you would like exceedingly."
Hemingway family photo, 1909.
Photo: John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library
Merging Gender in Eden
Like many other of his works, True at First Light was a blend of autobiography and fiction in which the author identified with the first person narrator. The author, who never kept a journal or wrote an autobiography in his life, draws on experience for his realism, slightly transforming events in his life. In this sense, the posthumous novel Islands in the Stream is in some places neither fictional nor fictitious. The Garden of Eden, however, a book brimming with the author’s vulnerability just as A Farewell to Arms is, treats intimate and delicate matters. It is a story told in the third person, as are all his major works. Thus we get to know the writer David Bourne, assuredly an explorer like Daniel Boone, on his adventurous Mediterranean honeymoon.
The anti-hero’s wife in The Garden of Eden, Catherine Bourne, is one of the most persuasive and lively heroines in Hemingway’s works. She is depicted with fascination and fear, like Marcel Proust’s Albertine and, at least in name, she reminds us of the strong and attractive Catherine Barkley (alias the seven-year-older Agnes Von Kurowsky), the Red Cross heroine in A Farewell to Arms. The former character is much more complex and difficult to define, however, and her ardor and the fire of marital love prove consuming and transmogrifying.
Living at the Grau ("canal") du Roi, on the shores of the stream that runs from Aigues-Mortes straight down to the sea, the newly wedded couple in The Garden of Eden live in a borderland where "water" and "death" are key words, and where connotations like L’eau du Léthe present themselves: Eros and Thanatos, love and death, paradise and trespass.
In this innocent borderland, moral limits are immediately extended, and conventional roles are reversed. Sipping his post-coital fine à l’eau in the afternoon, David Bourne feels relieved of all the problems he had before his marriage, and has no thought of "writing nor anything but being with this girl," who absorbs him and assumes command. Then the blond, sun-tanned Catherine appears with her hair "cropped as short as a boy’s," declaring:
"now I am a boy ... You see why it’s dangerous, don’t you? ... Why do we have to go by everyone else’s rules? We’re us ... Please understand and love me ... I am Peter ... You’re my beautiful lovely Catherine."
From that moment the tables are turned. David-Catherine accepts and submits, and Catherine-Peter takes over the man’s role. She mounts him in bed at night, and penetrates him in conjugal bliss:
"He had shut his eyes and he could feel the long light weight of her on him ... and then lay back in the dark and did not think at all and only felt the weight and the strangeness inside and she said: ‘Now you can’t tell who is who can you?"
Ernest Hemingway, 1901.
Private photo, Oak Park Illinois. JFK Library
The Father in the Garden
Women with a gamin hairstyle, lovers who cut and dye their hair and change sexual roles, are themes that, with variations, occur in his novels from A Farewell to Arms,For Whom the Bell Tolls, to the posthumous Islands in the Stream. They culminate in The Garden of Eden. When writing The Garden of Eden he appeared as a redhead one day in May 1947. When asked about it, he said he had dyed his hair by mistake. In that novel, the search for complete unity between the lovers is carried to extremes. It may seem that the halves of the primordial Androgyne of the Platonic myth (once cut in two by Zeus and ever since longing to become a complete being again) are uniting here. Set in a fictional Paradise, a Biblical "Eden", the novel is perhaps even more a story about expulsion, the loss of innocence, and the ensuing liberation, about knowledge acquired through the Fall, which is the basis of culture, about the ordeals and the high price an author must pay to become a writer worthy of his salt. Against a mythical background, the voice of Hemingway’s father is heard, challenging his son, as did the Father in the Biblical Garden. Slightly disguised, Hemingway’s dear father, who haunted his son’s life and work even after he had shot himself in 1928, remained an internalized critic until Ernest also took his life in 1961. Hemingway's père pressed his ambivalent son to surpass himself and produce a distinct and lively multidimensional text, - "3 dimensions and if possible 4":
"He found he knew much more about his father than when he had first written this story and he knew he could measure his progress by the small things which made his father more tactile and to have more dimensions than he had in the story before."
After they had committed honeymoon adultery with the girl both spouses equally love passionately, David exclaims: "We’ve been burned out ... Crazy woman burned out the Bournes." This consuming and transforming fire of love and its subsequent trials and transgressions, in the end has a purging effect on the writer, who finally, as if emerging from a chrysalis stage, rises like the Phoenix from his bed and sits down in a regenerated mood to write in a perfect style:
"He got out his pencils and a new cahier, sharpened five pencils and began to write the story of his father and the raid in the year of the Maji-Maji rebellion ... David wrote steadily and well and the sentences that he had made before came to him complete and entire and he put them down, corrected them, and cut them as if he were going over proof. Not a sentence was missing ... He wrote on a while longer now and there was no sign that any of it would ever cease returning to him intact."
Maji-Maji and Mau Mau
But why is Maji-Maji so important to the author when he has attained perfection?
When Tanzania gained independence in 1961-62, President Julius Nyerere proclaimed that the new republic was the fulfillment of the Maji-Maji dream. The Maji-Maji Rebellion had been a farmers’ revolt against colonial rule in German East Africa in 1905-1907. It began in the hill country southwest of Dar es-Salaam and spread rapidly until the insurrection was finally crushed after some 70,000 Africans had been killed. The farmers challenged the German militia fearlessly, crying "Maji! Maji!" when they attacked, believing themselves to be protected from bullets and death by "magic water". Maji is Swahili for "water" – one of the key words in Hemingway’s novel.
The conviction and purposefulness of the Maji-Maji in The Garden of Eden, corresponds to the Kenyan Mau-Mau context of the novel True at First Light, which Hemingway started writing after his East African safari in 1953. Mau Mau was an insurrection of Kikuyo farm laborers in 1952. It was led by Jomo Kenyatta, who was subsequently held in prison until he became the premier of Kenya in 1963 (and the first President of the Republic in 1964). For Kikuyo men or women (and there were several women in the movement), to join Mau Mau meant dedicating their lives to a cause and sacrificing everything else, it meant taking a sacred oath that definitely cut them off from decorum and ordinary life.
In Hemingway’s vision, Maji-Maji and Mau Mau blend with his notion of the ideal committed writer, a man who is prepared to die for his art, and for art’s sake.
In the private library of Dag Hammarskjöld, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize after his death in the Congo (Africa) in 1961, the year Hemingway died, a copy of the beautiful original edition of A Farewell to Arms (Charles Scribner´s Sons, 1929) may still be seen (now in the Royal Library, Stockholm). In a way it is significant that the Secretary-General of the United Nations, who was dedicated to peacemaking, should have been a Hemingway reader.
* Anders Hallengren is an associate professor of Comparative Literature and a research fellow in the Department of History of Literature and the History of Ideas at Stockholm University. Heserved as consulting editor for literature at Nobelprize.org. Dr. Hallengren is a fellow of The Hemingway Society (USA) and was on the Steering Committee for the 1993 Guilin ELT/Hemingway International Conference in the People's Republic of China. Among his works in English are The Code of Concord: Emerson's Search for Universal Laws; Gallery of Mirrors: Reflections of Swedenborgian Thought; and What is National Literature: Lectures on Emerson, Dostoevsky, Hemingway and the
First published 28 August 2001
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SOURCE: Summerhayes, Don. “Fish Story: Ways of Telling in ‘Big Two-Hearted River.’” The Hemingway Review 15, no. 1 (fall 1995): 10-26.
[In the following essay, Summerhayes examines Hemingway's use of language in “Big Two-Hearted River.”]
We've reached a stage of modernity where it is very difficult to accept innocently the idea of a “work of fiction”; from now on, our works are works of language; fiction can pass through them, contacted obliquely, indirectly present.
What do I want to communicate but what a hell of a good time I had writing it? The whole thing is performance and prowess and feats of association. Why don't critics talk about those things—what a feat it was to turn that that way, and what a feat it was to remember that, to be reminded of that by this. Why don't they talk about that?
It was really more fun than anything. That was really why you did it. He had never realized that before. It wasn't conscience. It was simply that it was the greatest pleasure. It had more bite to it than anything else. It was so damn hard to write well, too.
Near the end of “Big Two-Hearted River,” as Nick Adams anxiously anticipates fishing in the swamp, we find this passage: “He wished he had brought something to read. He felt like reading. He did not feel like going on into the swamp” (IOT [In Our Time] 211).2 In this moment the mimetic code seems to vacillate: to what voice can we assign these words? We put an asterisk or a question mark in the margin of our text to signify our intention to come back to the passage, because there's something perplexing in the alternatives Nick postulates for himself. There seems to be a misstep or lapse in the tone. Can we imagine Nick saying these words to himself? If so, could he be kidding? Is there a kind of rueful self-mockery at his bookish evasiveness?3
Other passages in “Big Two-Hearted River” similarly outplay obvious or direct meaning with extra possibilities. For instance, the narrator's voice and the character's voice seem sometimes distinct, sometimes merged. Or, now and then, through the migration of particular words or phrases, other voices or traces of voices obtrude from earlier stories in In Our Time or from earlier passages in this story, with confusing or distracting associations. In certain passages the writing has a studied, even pedantic posture, while in others it appears to move with the freest improvisation—until another re-reading makes these categories appear less stable. Finally, this is a text in which both character and narrator seem to be involved in the process of writing as it goes along, self-consciously, often even playfully, trying out phrases and locutions, reaching for ways to conjure verbal consciousness out of feelings and sensations. Every reader feels an unmistakeable energy in this text, an exhilaration that is not necessarily confined to the themes and the author's success in “trying to do country,” but that generates itself over and over in the writing, in the “words you don't remember.”4
Writing is often engaged in numerous other or extra activities besides those required to tell a story, or even to make the reader feel as if s/he's “there,” and these activities in themselves are also what this story is about. From this perspective, the question is not so much ‘what does it mean?’ but ‘what can we make of this text?’ in which “nothing happens and the writing is swell”?5 How can we “perform” it at those moments where the cleft between writing and fiction is most noticeable, and the language as language most high-spirited and playful? Questions like these, irritating or amusing from reader to reader, invite responses that deviate from our usual strategies of interpretive analysis.
What follows is a series of ruminations on passages, like the one where Nick “felt like reading” because he “did not feel like going on into the swamp,” which seem to invite a freer play of association than usual and to attract attention to the self-consciousness of the writing as writing. Reading and re-reading this way—with a kind of perverse distractibility—tends to fragment and disperse the text, of course, and to disrupt narrative sequence. Yet when we rough things up a bit we are more likely to spot those inconvenient details and patterns—loose ends, hiatuses, undecidables—that often embarrass readings that strain after complete coherence and certitude. Re-reading “Big Two-Hearted River” for forty-odd years and layering my margins with questions hasn't helped me to master the text, but it has kept it open and unpredictable and unfailingly fascinating. It so often ingeniously declines to assent to what it so often confidently asserts. Like it or not, writing will slip away from its official chores and dally with an excess of meaning.
At the climax, when Nick has lost the big trout, we read:
He had never seen so big a trout. There was a heaviness, a power not to be held, and then the bulk of him, as he jumped. He looked as broad as a salmon. … That was a trout. He had been solidly hooked. Solid as a rock. He felt like a rock, too, before he started off. By God, he was a big one. By God, he was the biggest one I ever heard of.
The vividness and immediacy of the whole passage surrounding this, including the aftermath of Nick's feeling “vaguely, a little sick” (204), don't escape us. By God, this is writing! But I can't suppress my suspicion that I'm hearing one of the innumerable fish stories I've listened to and told all my life. The biggest ever that got away! The text doesn't acknowledge any awareness of these echoes; and of course can't, like us, anticipate their return in, notably, The Old Man and the Sea. And is there an indication of something just slightly off-stride with the confusion over the narrative voice? Who says, “By God”? If it is “I,” what happened to “he”? Well, the good reader says, who has trouble with this, after all? It's probably a case of the text getting so exuberant it jumps out of the hands of the narrator. Yet that it can do so with (relative) impunity here might make us wonder where else it might be doing it without being noticed.
At its first moment of narrative the text of “Big Two-Hearted River” compromises its autonomy. The opening sentence echoes and partly reiterates the opening sentence of an earlier story in In Our Time. “The Battler” (written later than “Big Two-Hearted River” but inserted earlier into the text to replace the banned “Up in Michigan”) starts, “He looked up the track at the lights of the caboose going out of sight around a curve” (65). “Big Two-Hearted River” starts, “The train went on up the track out of sight, around one of the hills of burnt timber” (177).
The similarity in the language, like the similarity of Nick's standpoint, can't be innocent. Whether Hemingway thoughtlessly or cunningly (mis)quotes himself, any reader of In Our Time still retains some traces of Nick's reaction to being “busted” by the brakeman. And some echo still lingers, unmeasurable, of the meeting with the nightmarish Ad Francis and his companion Bugs. The language, not the narrator, tells us that Nick is not entering an idyllic fishing trip. Or not only idyllic.
The text doesn't openly acknowledge echo or trace. The voice that speaks here, like a voice momentarily booming in on a car radio from some distant station, is heard only through the reader's unwillingness to ignore it.6 Call it the reader's voice, perhaps, since it speaks on behalf of the reader who wants to hear everything a text has to say.7
Further down the opening page, Nick registers delayed shock to the discovery that “There was no town, nothing but the rails and the burned-over country” (177). The text intimates—what, surprise? dismay?—with the timing of the phrase, “The river was there.” We can hear Nick whisper to himself. We can sense the calculating narrator set up a metonymic sequence—“burned-over stretch of hillside … railroad track … bridge … river”—delaying and then delivering the punchline: “The river was there!”
As if the matter were in doubt. The sentence confirms the presence of the river, and it seems to confirm also the nature of Nick's presence. He is there, too. He is really there, and this is no dream. But the sequence that sets up the sentence confirms also the presence of a narrator ordering the language, and manipulating the reader. For the reader's pleasure. Some time later, Nick “was there, in the good place” (186). The text is quoting, the reader remembering.
“Big Two-Hearted River” comes in two “Parts.” “Part One” ends, “He curled up under the blanket and went to sleep” (192). “Part Two” begins, “In the morning …” (195). Nick presumably sleeps between the two parts. When the story appears in anthologies “Part Two” immediately follows “Part One.” In In Our Time, however, the parts are separated by “Chapter XV” (“They hanged Sam Cardinella … [at six a.m.] in the corridor of the county jail” (193-4)). One of five men sentenced to be hanged, Sam has been “like that since about four o'clock in the morning”—“like that” meaning so immobilized by fear that he is unable to keep control of his “sphincter muscles” and has to be carried. He is admonished, “Be a man, my son,” by one of two priests, maybe the one who “skipped” back on the scaffolding just before the “drop” fell.
“Chapter XV” is positioned precisely where we might expect, in a certain kind of story, to encounter a dream. This text, however, will not acknowledge any such design, and leaves readers to speculate independently on whether the account of Sam's death constitutes some of the material Nick Adams's unconscious is working with at the beginning of his fishing trip: “Be a man, my son.”
If so, whose voice can we speak it in? If not, then what can we make of it? Does a trace of the priest's voice linger in other admonitions scattered through the text? Should we search Nick's earlier sleep in the “island of pine trees” (183-84) for possible implications?
Lacking companions, Nick talks to himself. He is speaker and listener, actor and audience. He tosses a blackened grasshopper into the air: “‘Go on, hopper.’ Nick said, speaking out loud for the first time. ‘Fly away somewhere.’” (181) Later, making his meal: “‘I've got a right to eat this kind of stuff, if I'm willing to carry it,’ Nick said. His voice sounded strange in the darkening woods. He did not speak again” (187). Didn't want to hear his voice again? Didn't want to sound “strange”? All the same, one page later, after tasting the hot beans and spaghetti: “‘Chrise,’ Nick said. ‘Geezus Chrise,’ he said happily.” Three times the text distinguishes between Nick's speaking out loud and speaking silently:
1) an idle echo of child-like communion with an insect—(“Ladybug, Ladybug,/Fly away home”) (“Fly away, Peter, fly away, Paul”); or is this a sophisticated writer's self-conscious imitation of child-like communion, an impersonation?
2) a gratuitous self-defence, a peevish reaction to internalized judges and critics: “I've got a right.” (Be a man, my son.)
3) a burlesque blessing on a meal, saying grace by accident—“Chrise.”
The speeches, and the impulse to speak out loud, are part of the story of Nick Adams. Suppose he's taking the kind of pleasure he might take in posturing in front of a mirror, just to find out how he looks or sounds, or might look or sound to an audience. Suppose these little bits of natural behaviour don't merely enhance the narrative's reality illusion, but also provide spot-checks whereby Nick tests and confirms his identity? Or maybe not his identity so much as the high spirits (the “old feeling”) that insist on breaking out. Whose high spirits? Try the narrator too. Try Hemingway. Try language itself.
Earlier, after confirming that the river is there, Nick stands on the bridge and watches the trout “keeping themselves steady in the current” (177). We wait for more than twenty pages for “steady” to confirm its function as a word the text conjures with. When Nick releases the first trout he catches, it pauses on the bottom until Nick reaches down to touch it: “The trout was steady in the moving stream, resting on the gravel, beside a stone” (201). Another few pages on, after he has lost the big one, we read: “He thought of the trout somewhere on the bottom, holding himself steady over the gravel, far down below the light, under the logs, with the hook in his jaw” (204). The repetition of “steady” turns it inward, reinforcing its earned new power, so that it becomes, almost explicitly, a kind of admonition to himself to be steady—for example, not to “rush his sensations any.”
At the same time the repetition discreetly invites the reader to respond to language as language, writing as writing, at play with itself even as it promotes the story's negotiations with meaning. In fact, in our pleasure at the text's ingenuity in generating these recycled words and sentences, we may even forget that we are reading a “work of fiction.” Over and over the text quotes itself, plagiarizes itself, reproduces itself, and dangles invitations to its [re]reader to read it as a “work of language.”
Let's try another cast over that early scene in Seney:
Nick looked down into the pool from the bridge. It was a hot day. A kingfisher flew up the stream. It was a long time since Nick had looked into a stream and seen trout. They were very satisfactory.
In the fitful, half-perceptible oscillation between voices throughout this text, whereby from time to time we suspect that the character is aware of the language which operates his story, these words register Nick's self-conscious detachment from his activity and his commentary on it. The whole process of looking, as of inscribing the looking, holds off generalization until a series can be laid down that permits the subject to say, “They were very satisfactory,” decanting the word either for its modest precision or for its ironic value to the self-amusement Nick sometimes favors. A term like this—this term, sa-tis-fac-to-ry—is hard to come by; it has to be worried, then tested by being spoken (out loud or in one's head, it doesn't matter), which requires that the speaker choose the tone of its speaking. Like “tightened” at the bottom of the same page it invites a ludic performance, as one might imagine Henry James saying with deliberative pauses, “They were, as you might say, very satisfactory.”
Until it's actually used, there's no way to establish its function. It stays ready in the reader's memory, the first of a series of words by which this text glosses its vocabulary of sensation. Almost immediately it's followed by another “found” word: “He was happy … but Nick felt happy” (179).
At the beginning of “Part Two” Nick crawls out of his tent “to look at the morning”:...