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The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway; and East of Eden, by John Steinbeck

Latest Hemingway And Steinbeck

The Old Man and the Sea.
by Ernest Hemingway.
Scribner. 140 pp. $3.00.

East of Eden.
by John Steinbeck.
Viking. 602 pp. $4.50.

 

Hemingway’s new story happily demonstrates his recovery from the distemper that so plainly marked his last novel, Across the River and into the Trees. The artist in him appears to have regained control, curbing the over-assertive ego which sometimes declines into a kind of morbid irritability of self-love mixed with self-pity. It is to be hoped that the recovery is more than temporary and that it will stand him in good stead in the completion of the long work he is reported to have embarked on some years ago.

But free as this latest work is of the faults of the preceding one, it is still by no means the masterpiece which the nationwide publicity set off by its publication in Life magazine has made it out to be. Publicity is the reward as well as the nemesis of celebrities, but it has nothing in common with judgment. Though the merit of this new story is incontestable, so are its limitations. I do not believe that it will eventually be placed among Hemingway’s major writings.

Moreover, it is in no sense a novel, as the publishers would have us believe. At its core it is actually little more than a fishing anecdote, though one invested with a heroic appeal by the writer’s art, which here again confirms its natural affinity with the theme of combat and virile sports. This art is at its best in the supple and exact rendering of the sensory detail called for by its chosen theme; and in telling of the old fisherman’s ordeal on the open sea—of his strenuous encounter with a giant marlin, the capture of him after a two-day struggle, and the loss of the carcass to the sharks in the end—Hemingway makes the most of his gifts, fulfilling his imaginative intention of showing us “the real thing, the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion,” and turning to good account the values of courage and endurance and discipline in action on which his ethic as an artist depends.

The premise of the story—its moral premise at any rate—is in the purity and goodness and bravery of Santiago, the Cuban fisherman. And given Hemingway’s habitual attitude of toughness coupled with sentimentality, one can easily make out the chief threat to the integrity of the writing; and it is in fact to the circumvention of sentimentality that the story owes its success. The two scenes (in which the boy displays his adoration of Santiago) that are not quite exempt from the charge of sentimentality are but indirectly related to the action. They form a lyrical prelude and postlude to the action, which is presented in fictional terms that are hard and clear. And it is saved from false sentiment, I think, by Hemingway’s wonderful feeling for the sea and its creatures—a feeling that he is able to objectify with as much care and devotion as he lavishes on the old man. This creates the rare effect of our perceiving the old man and the fish he catches as if they existed, like a savage and his totem, within the same psychic continuum. No wonder that at the height of his battle with the fish Santiago exclaims: “You are killing me, fish. . . . But you have a right to. Never have I seen a greater, or more beautiful, or a calmer or more noble thing than you, brother. Come on and kill me. I do not care who kills who.”

When all this has been said, however, one is still left with the impression that the creative appeal of this narrative is forceful yet restricted, its quality of emotion genuine but so elemental in its totality as to exact nothing from us beyond instant assent. It exhibits the credentials of the authentic, but in itself it promises very little by way of an advance beyond the positions already won in the earlier phases of Hemingway’s career. To be sure, if one is to judge by what some of the reviewers have been saying and by the talk heard among literary people, the meaning of The Old Man and the Sea is to be sought in its profound symbolism. It may be that the symbolism is really there, though I for one have been unable to locate it. I suspect that here again the characteristic attempt of the present literary period is being made to overcome the reality of the felt experience of art by converting it to some moral or spiritual platitude. It goes without saying that the platitude is invariably sublimated through the newly modish terms of myth and symbolism. As Lionel Trilling reported in a recent essay, students have now acquired “a trick of speaking of money in Dostoevsky’s novels as ‘symbolic,’ as if no one ever needed, or spent, or gambled, or squandered the stuff—and as if to think of it as an actuality were sub-literary.” Perhaps this latterday tendency accounts for some of the inflationary readings that Hemingway’s story has received, readings that typically stress some kind of schematism of spirit at the expense of the action so lucidly represented in its pages. Hemingway’s big marlin is no Moby Dick, and his fisherman is not Captain Ahab nor was meant to be. It is enough praise to say that their existence is real, and that their encounter is described in a language, at once relaxed and disciplined, which is a source of pleasure. In art, as Wallace Stevens once put it, “Description is revelation. It is not/ The thing described, nor false facsimile.” And to the ingenious interpreters I would suggest to look to the denotations of a work of literature before taking off into the empyrean of pure connotation.

_____________

 

In John Steinbeck’s novel, on the other hand, we get “false facsimile” in a very large dose. His book is a family chronicle of immense length and pretension in which the conviction of the actual is almost entirely lacking. The sensational violence and evil it continually precipitates cease to arouse our concern once we become aware of the sheerly manipulative will laboring to overwhelm us. At the same time one is persuaded that this manipulative will is in a state of helpless ignorance of its own nature: which explains how it can play along so smoothly with the all too evident sincerity of this novelist—the strangling sincerity of an uninteresting mind.

East of Eden is the story of two generations of the Hamilton family and three of the Trask family, more particularly of Adam Trask, his twin sons, and their “errant mother,” as the book jacket describes her with singular understatement. But consider the enormous load of evil which Cathy Trask—the “errant mother” so-called—is made to carry. The list of misdeeds that follows is incomplete, but this woman is guilty, among other things, of trapping her parents in a locked house and setting fire to it with homicidal results; of committing adultery on her wedding night and, later, of shooting her husband with gratuitous ill will and deserting her infant sons in order to enter a brothel of which she eventually becomes the proprietor through the simple expedient of poisoning the owner. Cathy is so prodigiously without conscience in her wickedness that compared to her Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, who murders two women with an ax, is a small-time delinquent needlessly fussing. The author of Crime and Punishment defined his story as the “psychological account of a crime.” Steinbeck, on his part, makes no effort to motivate Cathy’s crimes psychologically or otherwise, resting content with the bald statement that the same process which produces physical monsters might also produce mental or psychic ones. This is a very lazy idea for a novelist, for it lets him off much too easily. With this reduction of the mental to the physical as his justification, he is no longer under obligation to impose any sort of order on experience but can rely on the weird contingencies of raw life for his effects. But life, as the old saying goes, is stranger than fiction, and Steinbeck ignores this fact at the cost of total incoherence. Cathy Trask belongs in a freak show. She cannot be assimilated to the organized structure of meanings that a novel must be if it is seriously to solicit our attention. As it is, East of Eden mixes the automatic violence of a pulp writer like Mickey Spillane with the sense of evil, stylized in the extreme, now enjoying a vogue in literature unequaled since the period of the decay of the Elizabethan drama. Steinbeck’s novel can be said to mark the reductio ad absurdum of the trend.

This novel contains other elements, obviously designed to force a contrast between good and evil. But on the whole the character images of goodness and humane wisdom it projects are quite as arbitrary as its images of total depravity; and the literary idiom in which these images are tossed to and fro through six hundred long pages induces a terrible weariness. It is a language animated by an energy more mechanical than creative, conveying an innate cheeriness that surely belies the assumption of meanings deep and tragic. Steinbeck, the author of some fine short stories and The Grapes of Wrath of course—a monumental documentary, if not a satisfactory work of the imagination, which admittedly did some good in its day—was never the major talent that the mass media of reviewing and book publicity have taken him to be. This latest production will least sustain the high claims made for him.

_____________

 

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