Words, as well as deeds, are the key to understanding Hemingway.
Nov 5, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 08 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
Fishing was always Hemingway’s first love among sports, beautifully evoked in the early Nick Adams stories. But then came a frenzied intensification of hunting different types of game that went well beyond sport: the slaughter of African beasts, the often self-satirizing work on bullfighting, the boisterous drinking and whoring and celebration of warfare.
It cannot be baldly speculated that these were psychological “defenses”—that would simplify a complex man and artist. What can be said, after Hendrickson’s diligent book, is that Hemingway’s finest novels and tales may now be seen in a more revealing light, for they sound an insistent tragic note. In a way, we knew that all along, but not so clearly. Jake Barnes, in The Sun Also Rises, a book whose title echoes the bleak wisdom of Ecclesiastes, cannot consummate his love for Brett Ashley. He has been emasculated by a “rotten” wound in the First World War. (Or so it seems; the problem is never made explicit.) Frederic Henry, in A Farewell to Arms, deserts the Italian front—where the young Hemingway served as an ambulance driver—in that war to run away with his great love. But she dies one rainy day in childbirth.
In “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” a dying writer laments wasting his talent with drink and frivolity, and yearns for the distant, austere purity of the mountain. In the parallel African safari story, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” an episode of cowardice estranges Macomber’s wife, who takes up with their white hunter and later shoots Macomber. In The Old Man and the Sea, the heroic old fisherman hooks a magnificent fish, only to see it nearly devoured by sharks before he can bring it ashore.
One is reminded of the familiar lines of Matthew Arnold about Sophocles long ago, who Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought / Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow / Of human misery. That is one “fifth dimension” that sophomoric readers and writers of 50 years ago did not fully discern.
Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is is the author, most recently, of Vacancy: A Judicial Misadventure.