Hemingway's Private War
In the summer of 1924, Ernest Hemingway wrote to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas to report on the progress he was making with a long short story in which he was “trying to do the country like Cézanne and having a hell of a time and sometimes getting it a little bit. It is about 100 pages long and nothing happens and the country is swell, I made it all up, so I see it all and part of it comes out the way it ought to, it is swell about the fish, but isn’t writing a hard job though?” The story in question was “Big Two-Hearted River,” which in addition to being swell about the fish and as visually powerful as a Cézanne landscape, turned out to be a nice little masterpiece of psychological indeterminacy.
As he walks into the Michigan woods, the solitary Nick Adams feels a sense of release. “He felt he had left everything behind, the need for thinking, the need to write, other needs. It was all back of him.” Toward the end of the day, he pitches his tent and crawls inside, noting with pleasure how “homelike” the space seems. At last, he thinks, “he was settled. Nothing could touch him. It was a good place to camp. He was there, in the good place. He was in his home where he had made it.”
From this point forward the story abounds in details of how splendid the fishing is and what a good time Nick is having. Yet some sort of problem is lurking on the margins of his mind. Thus while he is finishing his supper the first night, he suddenly becomes aware that his mind is “starting to work,” but because he is tired he is able to “choke it.” The next day his happiness is again interrupted. An arduous battle with the biggest trout Nick has ever seen ends with the trout’s escape, and as the fisherman is reeling in his line he feels, vaguely, “a little sick.” In the manipulative manner of a Watsonian behaviorist, he thereupon modifies his behavior so as to avoid the negative stimulus of a second defeat in one day. Instead of plunging into the armpit-deep water of a tree-filled swamp, wherein he might hook big trout in places impossible to land them, he decides to postpone the experience. “There were plenty of days coming when he could fish the swamp,” he says to himself, as the story ends.
What are the “other needs” Nick feels he has put behind him on entering the woods? Why does he call the tent his home? What is the thought that he manages to choke off? Why is he so upset by defeat? Hemingway does not explain any of these puzzles. The angler on the bank of the Big Two-Hearted River is clearly a man with a divided heart, but the unhappiness underlying his predominant happiness is never specified.
For a decade and a half after its appearance as the concluding episode of In Our Time (1925), “Big Two-Hearted River” was admired by literary critics for its ambiguities. Then in the late 1930’s this situation changed, when Edmund Wilson took it upon himself to improve the story by making it more explicit. The experience that has given Nick Adams “a touch of panic,” Wilson asserted in 1939, is “the wholesale shattering of human beings in which he has taken part.” The statement had no basis in fact. For World War I is not mentioned in “Big Two-Hearted River,” and there is no reference in the story to feelings of panic.
That Wilson nevertheless described Hemingway’s hero as the psychological victim of a brutal war was a measure of the extent to which his literary sensibility was ruled by political nausea. In the early 30’s, Wilson’s nausea had led him to the Marxist faith, because Marxism called for the total rejection of the entire existing society. With visions of destruction dancing in his head, Wilson had dedicated himself to writing an ambitious book on European radical thought. To the Finland Station was completed in 1939, but by that time the author had come to the realization that the Marxist cure for social disease was no solution. The Bolsheviks, he admitted, had not erected a “classless society out of the old illiterate feudal Russia,” but rather had “encouraged the rise and domination of a new controlling and privileged class, who were . . . exploiting the workers almost as callously as the Czarist industrialists had done.”
The recognition of Stalin’s reign of terror, however, did not reconcile Wilson to the imperfections of capitalism; it merely caused him to include the Soviet Union among the governments of the world that he despised. Turning away from the study of radical political thought, he reread Hemingway—and promptly found in “Big Two-Hearted River” the vision of a sensitive writer whose suffering has been caused not by mistakes he himself has made, but by the belligerency of great powers. The commentators have been wrong in accusing Hemingway of an indifference to society, Wilson proclaimed at the end of his essay, for in fact “his whole work is a criticism of society.”
When, in 1940, Malcolm Cowley finally ceased apologizing for Stalinism, he, too, began to cast about for non-Marxist modes of continuing his assault on the moral credentials of capitalist society. America’s entrance into the war against Hitler made this problem particularly difficult for him, but Wilson’s overinterpretation of Hemingway seems to have showed him how to solve it. In addition to shoveling much more war-victim material into “Big Two-Hearted River” than Wilson had done, Cowley’s introduction to the Viking Portable Hemingway (1944) went on to insist that a haunted, hypnagogic quality characterizes all of Hemingway’s work. His stories are told against the background of the countries he has seen, Cowley said, but
these countries are presented in a strangely mortuary light. In no other writer of our time can you find such a profusion of corpses: dead women in the rain; dead soldiers bloated in their uniforms and surrounded by torn papers; sunken liners full of bodies that float past the closed portholes. In no other writer can you find so many suffering animals: mules with their forelegs broken drowning in shallow water off the quay at Smyrna; gored horses in the bull ring; wounded hyenas first snapping at their own entrails and then eating them with relish.
In a strangely mortuary light. To a critic who had argued all through the 1930’s that the difference between the Soviet Union and other countries was the difference between life and death, it must have felt like vindication to write those words, and to append to them that long list of fearsome illustrations. For while history had revealed that the critic might have been a bit incautious in his praise of the Soviet Union, Hemingway’s stories certainly seemed to confirm Cowley’s judgment of the rest of the world.
Was it really accurate, though, to say that Hemingway had presented France, Spain, Switzerland, the United States, and the other countries he knew as a series of hypnagogic visions? Convincing proof of this bold proposition would have required a great many demonstrations across the whole range of his work. The Viking Portable‘s editor, however, stuck to a strikingly limited number of stories; indeed, there was one story he kept coming back to again and again. In the end, all the credibility of his “nightmares at noonday” interpretation was invested in his comments on “Big Two-Hearted River.”
Cowley’s Nick Adams is in far worse psychological shape than Edmund Wilson’s. The evidence of his condition is not to be found in the story, to be sure, but that was nothing to worry about because “Hemingway’s stories are most of them continued,” and in a somewhat later book than In Our Time there is a story called “Now I Lay Me” that “casts a retrospective light” on “Big Two-Hearted River.” The later story is concerned with “an American volunteer in the Italian army who isn’t named but who might easily be Nick Adams.” (The critic is in error. The volunteer is named, and his name is Nick.) As a result of being wounded in action, the young man is afraid to go to sleep at night. “I had been living for a long time,” he confesses, “with the knowledge that if I ever shut my eyes in the dark and let myself go, my soul would go out of my body.” This confession, we are assured, enables us to appreciate the psychological fragility of the man who is fishing the Big Two-Hearted River.
Among the things Cowley neglects to tell us about “Now I Lay Me” is that the frightened American soldier is lying in a room a scant seven kilometers behind the lines. Moreover, the soldier knows that, as surely as autumn follows summer, he will have to return to the fighting—and in fact at the end of the story we learn of his later participation in the “October offensive.” The story, in short, is very much like another Hemingway story called “In Another Country,” in which a recuperating American soldier lies in bed at night in Milan, “afraid to die and wondering how I would be when I went back to the front again.”
In “Big Two-Hearted River,” we are in a very different world. Nick is a civilian, safely back in the United States. Now that he no longer has any worries about coming under fire again, has his psyche healed as rapidly as his body has, or is he still afraid to close his eyes at night, lest his soul take flight? Hemingway’s answer is clear. “Nick lay down . . . under the blankets. He turned on his side and shut his eyes. He was sleepy. He felt sleep coming. He curled up under the blanket and went to sleep.” So much for the retrospective light cast by “Now I Lay Me.”
Cowley’s essay on Hemingway is not a work that can bear careful scrutiny; it does not even give the correct year of Hemingway’s birth. Yet no sooner was the essay published than it began to influence critics everywhere. A young man named Philip Young, for instance, “ported a Portable Hemingway . . . half way across Europe during World War II,” and after the war he wrote a book that carried Cowley’s critical extravagances to further heights of absurdity. The wound Hemingway suffered in World War I, Young contended, had so deeply traumatized him that he spent his entire life as a writer composing variations on the story of the psychically crippled “sick man” who fishes the Big Two-Hearted River. Alas, Young never thought to ask himself whether reading the Viking Portable Hemingway against the dramatic backdrop of World War II had not made it all too easy for him to believe in the obsessive importance to Hemingway of World War I. Nor did Young ever suspect that Cowley’s conversion of a sun-drenched, Cézannesque picture of a predominantly happy fishing trip into a tale as spooky as any of Poe’s or Hawthorne’s was governed by an ideological purpose, which was to bathe American life in a strangely mortuary light.
Intellectual naiveté, however, was not the only reason Cowley’s introduction slew the minds of so many critics. In the wake of the triumph of American power in World War II, the anti-American prejudice of intellectuals who automatically identified themselves with powerlessness became more virulent than ever before, and anti-American interpretations of American literature sprang up like poisonous weeds. In Huckleberry Finn, for instance, Huck’s decision at the end of the book to cross over into the Oklahoma Territory for a few weeks of howling adventures with Tom Sawyer and Nigger Jim before returning to his home town in Missouri was transformed by post-World War II critics into a decision to secede forever from American society, because American society sickened the boy.
It was the critics, however, who were sickened by American society, not Huck Finn, and their endorsement of a war-wound interpretation of the life and work of Hemingway was a further reflection of their bias. Thus the late Mark Schorer, in an essay published in 1962, projected upon the author of “Big Two-Hearted River” his own sense of social victimization. On July 8, 1918, while on service with the Red Cross on the Italian front, Schorer wrote, Hemingway “was severely wounded by the explosion of a mortar shell and the next three months he spent in a hospital in Milan. Nothing more important than this wounding was ever to happen to him. A wound was to become the central symbol of nearly everything he was to write, and the consequences of a wound his persistent thematic preoccupation.”
Carlos Baker had a golden opportunity to overturn the prevailing clichés when he undertook to write his massive Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story (1969). But the weight of thirty years of accumulated critical authority was too much for Baker, and the opportunity was lost. Two events in recent months have now presented another opportunity. The first event was President Reagan’s reminder to the nation in March that, despite the awful pain, human beings are sometimes able to respond to the experience of being wounded with an amazing gaiety. The second was the appearance in April of a totally unstructured, badly under-annotated, unhelpfully indexed, but marvelously rich trove of Hemingway letters,1 which among other things reveals that the young man who was struck down on July 8, 1918 reacted to the event with humorous equivalents of his fellow Illinoisan’s “Honey, I forgot to duck.”
The youth’s first letter to his family, written from the hospital in Milan on his nineteenth birthday, not quite two weeks after he was hit, was adorned with a reassuringly funny cartoon he had drawn of himself lying on his back, a heavily bandaged leg thrust straight out. The balloon coming out of this comic figure’s mouth reads, “gimme a drink!” The text of the letter is equally high-spirited. “This is a peach of a hospital,” he began. “Everything is fine,” he continued, “and I’m very comfortable and one of the best surgeons in Milan is looking after my wounds.” The wounds in his left leg were “healing finely”; the bullet in his right knee would be removed “by the time you get this letter.”
A month later, he recounted to his family the whole story of how he had been “struck by a trench mortar and a machine gun while advancing toward the rear, as the Irish say.” In spite of his wounds, he had carried an injured Italian soldier to a dugout, where “I kind of collapsed.” When the ambulance finally came for Hemingway, he “ordered it down to the road to get the soldiers that had been wounded first.” Back at the dressing station at last, the officers “gave me a shot of morphine and an anti-tetanus injection and shaved my legs and took out about Twenty 8 shell fragments. . . . They did a fine job of bandaging and all shook hands with me and would have kissed me but I kidded them along.”
In mid-September, he announced to his father that “my legs are coming on wonderfully and will both eventually be O.K. absolutely,” and on October 18 he finished off another health report to his family by declaring that “it does give you an awfully satisfactory feeling to be wounded.”
Mixed in, though, with the enormous pleasure it gave him to know that he had behaved heroically and was healing splendidly were some chillier thoughts he was not talking about. A quarter of a century would pass before he would admit in a letter that in World War I he not only had been “really scared” when he was hit, but that in the ensuing months his continuing fear of death had prompted him to become “very devout.” For like the wounded American soldiers in “Now I Lay Me” and “In Another Country,” Hemingway knew that once he had recuperated he was slated to return to the front. On the eve of being discharged from the hospital, he sought to quiet his family’s anxieties by saying that “it has been fairly conclusively proved that I can’t be bumped off,” but as he nervously chattered on about what a “very simple thing” it was to die, and about how preferable it was “to die in . . . the happy period of undisillusioned youth, to go out in a blaze of light, than to have your body worn out and old,” it became clear that, like Tom Sawyer, he was whistling to keep up his courage as he walked past the graveyard at midnight.
A day or so after rejoining his unit, Hemingway was felled by an attack of jaundice, and by the time he was healthy again the armistice had been signed. The knowledge that he was no longer in danger of being killed was immediately reflected in the tone and content of his letters. Self-deprecatory humor gave way to bragging, and an inadvertent revelation of deadly fear was replaced by an inadvertent revelation of how little he knew about liquor and women. “Lately I’ve been hitting it up,” he boasted to his old friend Bill Smith in December, shortly before leaving Italy, “about 18 martinis a day.” The letter to Smith also asserted that, in spite of the writer’s “brutal” personality, a nurse he had met in the hospital had fallen madly in love with him and they were planning to get married and “have a wonderful time being poor together.” This estimate of things was no more accurate than the report on his martini intake. Not long after his return to the States, the nurse sent him a “Dear Ernest” letter. Hemingway was so overcome with anger that he ran a fever and was obliged to take to his bed.
Between the time he arrived at his parents’ home in Oak Park, Illinois, in January 1919, and his reembarkation for Europe in the late fall of 1921, the returned war veteran wrote many letters to many people. In none of them is there either an explicit or implicit indication of the sort of psychic malaise that literary criticism would subsequently assign to the autobiographical hero who fishes the Big Two-Hearted River. An emotion of startling intensity does surge to the surface of the correspondence in the middle of these postwar years, but the name of that emotion is not panic, or hypnagogic horror, or anything like. It is anger, an all-consuming anger, of the sort he manifested when he was jilted by the nurse. And what would trigger it would be a contest of wills with his mother.
Grace Hall Hemingway was an ardent Congregationalist, a frustrated opera singer, and the dominant personality in the Hemingway household. While her doctor husband resented his wife’s bossiness, he fully shared her moral values, and as a parent was a considerably stricter disciplinarian. Where Grace occasionally used a hair brush on an erring child, Ed Hemingway was quick to employ a razor strop. Conflict between the parents and Ernest, their headstrong second child (but first son), thus became inevitable, even though the boy worshipped his father for his knowledge of nature and his extraordinary prowess as a hunter and fisherman. According to Carlos Baker’s biography, young Ernest sometimes became so angered by the punishments meted out to him by his father that he would sit in the open door of a shed behind their house drawing beads on his father’s head with a shotgun, as Dr. Hemingway worked among his tomato vines.
But the struggle with his mother was finally much more bitter. In the opening pages of the new edition of the letters, we pick up the struggle at the point at which she was attempting to maintain control of her son’s life even though he had left home and taken a job with the Kansas City Star. It was an attempt which in some ways the eighteen-year-old Hemingway welcomed. Thus he was very grateful for the food she regularly prepared and sent to him. “The box came tonight and we just opened it at the Press room,” he informed her on March 2, 1918. With the help of some friends he had polished off the cake right there in the office. “Mother Hemingstein,” he said, using one of his two favorite nicknames for her (the other was, more simply, “Mrs. Stein”), you are “some cook.”
Yet if he was glad to reap the rewards of his continuing dependency, he refused to be bound by its obligations. As he would with all the women he would marry, the young Hemingway wanted to eat his cake and have it too. When his mother remonstrated with him for not attending church, he replied with a patently hypocritical excuse. “The reason I don’t go to church on Sunday is because always I have to work till 1 a.m. getting out the Sunday Star . . . and I never open my eyes Sunday morning until 12:30 noon.” Modulating into outright lying, he added, “so you see it isn’t because I don’t want to. You know I don’t rave about religion but am as sincere a Christian as I can be.”
The war hero who came back to Oak Park in January 1919 felt it necessary to conceal from his parents not only that he had learned to smoke and drink, but that he had no intention of remaining for long in the United States. To one of his army buddies he revealed that he was keeping a bottle of booze in a “camouflaged bookcase in my room”; to another he grumbled that “My Family . . . are wolfing at me to go to college. They want me to settle down for a while and the place that they are pulling for is Wisconsin.” Toward the end of the summer of 1919, he briefly escaped the constraints on his freedom by going on a fishing trip with two friends to the Big Fox and Little Fox Rivers in the northern peninsula of Michigan. Below an old dam, Hemingway hooked the “biggest trout I’ve ever seen,” only to lose it after a long effort. Nevertheless, the fishing had been “priceless.”
On his return home, the fisherman and his mother inexorably moved toward a confrontation, and in the summer of 1920, shortly after his twenty-first birthday, it occurred. One moonlit night at the Hemingways’ summer place in Michigan, Ernest and some other young people in the neighborhood sneaked out after midnight and held a party on a sandbar that went on until 3 A.M. When the deception was discovered, the mother of one of girls blamed Ernest, because he was older, and thereafter refused to speak to him. Mrs. Hemingway punished her son by coldly ordering him out of the house. In reprisal, Hemingway refused to communicate with either of his parents and left their letters to him unopened. “Am so darn disgusted,” he wrote to his fifteen-year-old friend Grace Quinlan, “I don’t care to have anything more to do with them for a year at least.” In the first of a series of cruelly unfair allegations, Hemingway also told Grace Quinlan that his mother had been “glad of an excuse to oust me,” because she had “more or less hated me” ever since he had told her—or so he claimed—that she was spending money on herself that should have been reserved for the younger Hemingway children in college.
By the fall of 1920, he was once again in touch with his father, but not with his mother. In an effort to comfort his wife, Dr. Hemingway wrote her a letter—the text is in Carlos Baker’s biography—which left no doubt where his sympathies lay. “Ernest’s last letter to me,” he told her, “was written in anger and filled with expressions that were untrue to a gentleman and a son who has had everything done for him. . . . He must get busy and make his own way, and suffering alone will be the means of softening his Iron Heart of selfishness.”
Eventually, a reconciliation took place. The senior Hemingways were present at Ernest’s marriage to Hadley Richardson in September 1921, and they did not protest the decision of the bride and groom to make their home in Paris. Yet for all the polite gestures back and forth, Hemingway was never able to come to terms with his mother. As reviews of it have suggested, the new edition of his letters outrivals in vehemence even the collected eruptions of Mark Twain. Hemingway in the course of his life was angry at politicians, churchmen, fellow writers, literary critics, and assorted sports figures. But above all, he was angry at his mother. Not until his suicide—that act of supreme anger—would his epistolary abuse of her cease.
Upon learning from her in 1926 that she considered The Sun Also Rises to be a filthy book, he was so furious that for a time he could not reply. “I did not answer when you wrote about the Sun etc. book,” he finally explained to her on February 5, 1927, “as I could not help being angry and it is very foolish to write angry letters; and more than foolish to do so to one’s mother. It is quite natural for you not to like the book and I regret your reading any book that causes you pain or disgust.” Of course the book is unpleasant, he conceded with seeming good temper, as he prepared to counterattack, “but it is not all unpleasant and I am sure is no more unpleasant than the real inner lives of some of our best Oak Park families. You must remember that in such a book all the worst of the people’s lives is displayed while at home there is a very lovely side for the public and the sort of thing of which I have had some experience in observing behind closed doors.”
At times, his astonishing vulnerability to his mother’s moral judgments caused him to respond not with insults, but with flights of self-justification and prevarication, as in his adolescent letters from Kansas City. On the day, for instance, when he sought to explain to his parents why he had divorced Hadley and married Pauline Pfeiffer, he began by apologizing to them for having caused them “so much shame and suffering,” and then went on to declare, in a flagrant departure from the truth, that although he had been in love with both women for over a year, he had been “absolutely faithful to Hadley.” Moreover, he claimed, he had been leading a very clean life in other respects. “I remember Mother saying once that she would rather see me in my grave than something—I forget what—smoking cigarettes perhaps. If it’s of any interest I don’t smoke. Haven’t for almost 3 years altho you probably will hear stories that I smoke like a furnace.” As for the nature of his fiction, he admitted that while he was “upset about Mother accusing me of pandering to the lowest tastes,” his conscience was clear. “I know that I am not disgracing you in my writing but rather doing something that some day you will be proud of.” You cannot know, he cried out, his voice rising in anguish, “how it makes me feel for Mother to be ashamed of what I know as sure as you know that there is a God in heaven is not to be ashamed of.”
A year after receiving that letter, Dr. Hemingway committed suicide by shooting himself in the head. Angina pectoris, diabetes, and the inability to sleep because of pain were the reasons behind the tragedy, according to the letter that Hemingway dispatched to his editor, Maxwell Perkins. Physiological explanations, however, did not satisfy the letter writer for long. Whether because there simply was no limit to his desire to degrade his mother, or because he was trying to cover up his own guilty sense of having caused his father a great deal of unhappiness, Hemingway soon persuaded himself that a hen-pecking wife had “forced my father to suicide.” Thenceforward he was wont to refer to her in his correspondence as “my bitch of a mother.” He refused to invite her to visit him at his home in Cuba, and he would not go to Oak Park, because “I can’t stand to see her.” Even after her death in 1951, he continued to rail at her as a husband killer.
Right from the start of his career as a creative writer, Hemingway also sought to pursue his war with his mother by fictional means. From the vantage point of Paris’s Left Bank in 1924, he looked back upon Oak Park in anger, as he worked upon the stories that became the book called In Our Time. “The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife,” the second of the stories in the book, presents a sanctimonious wife, her hen-pecked husband, and their little boy. Instead of obeying his mother’s request that he come up to the bedroom where she is lying with the blinds drawn and a Bible beside her, the boy goes off for a walk in the woods with his father. In “Soldier’s Home,” the seventh story, we meet a mother who willingly cooks breakfast for her war-veteran son, but who doesn’t allow him to “muss up” the morning newspaper—it is the Kansas City Star, we learn—which he wants to read while eating. She then completes the young man’s annoyance by asking him if he loves her, to which he replies, “I don’t love anybody,” and by urging him to kneel and pray with her, to which he replies, “I can’t.” In both of these stories, the need to comply with a mother’s demands is defied by a rebellious son. The final story in In Our Time, as we have seen, centers on a fisherman who feels, as he enters the woods, that he has left everything behind, “the need for thinking, the need to write, other needs.” Whether the “other needs” he has escaped include the need to please his mother is never made clear.
Yet if the fisherman’s dark thoughts in “Big Two-Hearted River” are choked off before they reach the level of consciousness, Grace Hall Hemingway was surely on the storyteller’s mind. The satisfaction Nick takes in referring to his tent as his home, for instance, derives from the author’s inability either to forget or to forgive his mother’s banishment of him four years before from their home in Michigan. As Nick sets up the tent, he is defiantly establishing a counter-domicile—and as he proceeds to hang his pack from a nail that he has “gently” driven into a pine tree, to prepare a delicious meal of beans and spaghetti, to brew his coffee by a carefully described method, and to clean up after himself with scrupulous thoroughness, he is defining a counter-domesticity. Hemingway may have rebelled against the values of his mother and father, but he was also marked by them; in the woods, Nick Adams apes the cooking skills and the careful housekeeping habits that Hemingway had observed in his father on fishing and hunting trips and in his mother at home.
Happiness for the hero of “Big Two-Hearted River” is an inordinate concern with small details. On the one hand, his obsessiveness keeps dark thoughts at bay; on the other hand, it demonstrates how responsible he is. Before reaching down into the stream to touch a trout resting on the bottom, Nick conscientiously wets his hand, “so that he would not disturb the delicate mucus that covered him. If a trout was touched with a dry hand, a white fungus attacked the unprotected spot.” The author who would cry out to his mother that his work was nothing to be ashamed of, and that the day would come when she would be proud of him, could not have continued writing if he had not believed himself to be, in his own way, a moralist. He had incorporated into himself too much of her personality to have embraced the nihilism with which his interpreters have been so eager to associate him.
The question of why the author elected not to specify the nature of the malaise that underlies Nick’s happiness in “Big Two-Hearted River” can never be answered with certainty. But the most plausible answer is that, unlike “The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife” and “Soldier’s Home,” in which sons are clearly unhappy in the homes of their mothers, “Big Two-Hearted River” takes place in the woods. If Nick Adams had been revealed as a man so angry at his mother that he could not even forget her when he was off on a fishing trip, readers might simply have concluded that Nick was an emotional adolescent. The only way to avoid such a judgment would have been to show Nick using his time in the woods to sort out his feelings about his mother and come to an understanding of the tension between them. Writing that kind of story, however, would have required of Hemingway a degree of self-understanding that he would never achieve.
“I had a wonderful novel to write about Oak Park,” he told the literary critic Charles Fenton in 1952, but “would never do it because I did not want to hurt liveing [sic ] people.” The excuse rings false. Neither as a man nor as a writer had Hemingway ever hesitated to hurt living people, and furthermore both of his parents were dead when he wrote to Fenton. If pangs of conscience had previously stayed his hand, why did he not write the Oak Park novel at some point during the ten years of life that remained to him after his mother’s death in 1951? Clearly, it was not a concern for protecting his parents that forever prevented him from writing the book, but rather his own failure to master its materials. A novel-length exploration of the experience of growing up in Oak Park would have led Hemingway into a swamp filled with deep water and overgrown with trees, in which big trout might be hooked but not landed.
Having failed to work out his relationship with his mother, Hemingway went on to marriages that mostly did not work, and to fictional commentaries upon them that are either as brutally direct as “The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife” and “Soldier’s Home” are about his mother, or as brilliantly evasive as “Big Two-Hearted River.” Three of his four marriages were important to him personally, the first, the second, and the fourth, but in terms of their fictional consequences, the first was by far the most significant.
Hadley Richardson was eight years older than Hemingway. She was raised in a roomy, comfortable house in the suburban West End of St. Louis, where the oak trees and fine lawns recalled Oak Park’s. Her mother’s overriding interest was in varieties of religious experience, from theosophy to mental science to psychic phenomena. “A woman of strong personality and convictions,” says Hadley’s biographer, Alice Hunt Sokoloff, “she was the dominant influence in the Richardson family.” Mr. Richardson ran a pharmaceutical business and was a heavy drinker, a habit of which his wife severely disapproved, and when Hadley was twelve years old, he committed suicide. The similarities in their backgrounds helped to make Ernest and Hadley feel that they belonged together, and so did their dreams of escape. When Hadley wrote to Ernest during their engagement that “The world’s a jail and we’re going to break it together,” she knew she spoke for him as well as for herself.
“She’s a wonderful tennis player, best pianist I ever heard and a sort of terribly fine article,” Hemingway wrote to Grace Quinlan in the summer of 1921, a month and a half before he and Hadley were married. Under his tutelage, Hadley also learned to fish as well as he could, and in the first two years of their marriage she kept right up with him as he walked over the St. Bernard pass into Italy, played tennis at Rapallo, hiked through the Black Forest, spent three months skiing in Switzerland, handicapped the horses at San Siro and Auteuil, went to all the bullfights at Pamplona, and dined out every night in Milan at the Cova or Campari’s. Despite the considerable difference in their ages—which for unstated psychological reasons must have played its part, too, in his attraction to her—Hadley was wonderfully youthful, a gutsy companion, a perfect pal.
In August 1923, the endless honeymoon abruptly came to an end, as the Hemingways left Paris for Toronto. Hadley was pregnant, and they both wanted the baby to be born in a hospital on North American soil. (In Europe, it was still not the general practice to give anesthetics to women in labor.) On September 10, Hemingway reported for work at the Toronto Daily Star. He expected to be kept on local assignments, but was told he might be sent out of town as well. A month later, he was in New York, covering the arrival of the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, when the news reached him that Hadley had gone into the hospital. The long train ride back to Toronto gave him ample time to worry about all sorts of things. Upon reaching the hospital the next morning, he looked broken down “from fatigue and strain,” as Hadley subsequently described him to Isabel Simmons, an old friend of Ernest’s from Oak Park.
By the end of January 1924, the Hemingways were back in Paris, where because of Bumby, their baby boy, they now settled in a somewhat larger apartment than they had previously occupied. Soon, Hemingway’s letters to his friends were bubbling with descriptions of where he and Hadley had just been and of where they were planning to go next. “We have more fun together all the time,” he wrote to Howell Jenkins. “She is the best guy on a trip you ever saw. She is keeping her piano up and runs the house and the baby damned smooth and is always ready to go out and eat oysters at the cafe and drink a bottle of Pouilly before supper.” The endless honeymoon had seemingly resumed—except that it hadn’t. “It is just about morning,” Hemingway wrote to the publisher Robert McAlmon in the pre-dawn darkness of November 15, 1924, “Bumby had a night when he didn’t sleep and Hadley and I’ve been up with him alternatively and together.” Baby-sitter problems forced them to come home in the evening before Hemingway was ready to do so, and when they left Bumby with a sitter and went to the six-day bike races at the Velodrome d’Hiver, Hadley’s energies would give out in the hours after midnight, forcing her to curl up on the bench and nap, as her indefatigable husband went on cheering the riders.
In his immaturity, Hemingway was no more ready to accept the restrictions on his freedom that fatherhood had imposed than he had been to live by the rules of conduct laid down by his mother. The letters he sent to friends during 1924 had only praise for lovely, gallant Hadley, but in several of the stories he wrote for In Our Time, he revealed how deeply conflicted his feelings about her had become.
Of the six stories in the collection that reflect one facet or another of the author’s angry, guilty, depressed state of mind, the most blatantly autobiographical is “Cross Country Snow.” Nick Adams and his friend George are having such fun skiing by themselves in Switzerland that they both wish they could go on sampling the slopes indefinitely and “not give a damn” about anything else. Nick, though, is married to Helen, and Helen is going to have a baby. “Will you go back to the States?” George inquires. “I guess so,” Nick replies. “Do you want to?” George asks. “No,” says Nick.
In “Cat in the Rain” and “Out of Season,” the author extended his examination of the problems of young American couples in postwar Europe. But in the other three stories about Hadley and himself, Hemingway projected his sense of foreboding backward in time, into stories of boyhood in Michigan before the war. He wrote “The Three-Day Blow,” he later recalled in his memoir of the 20’s, A Moveable Feast, while sitting in a café on the Place St.-Michel on “a wild, cold, blowing day,” and so he made it “that sort of day in the story.” A marital weather as well got into the story, and into “Indian Camp” and “The End of Something.”
Carlos Baker’s biography tells us that Hemingway once knew a girl from Petoskey, Michigan, named Marjorie Bump, and that he “romanticized their friendship” in “The End of Something.” Nick’s girlfriend in the story is, to be sure, named Marjorie, but the fact that she fishes as well as he can, is very much of a pal to Nick, and yet is deeply in love with him, strongly suggests she is Hadley. Furthermore, the story does not “romanticize” Nick’s friendship with Marjorie, it portrays the swift and ruthless destruction of their relationship. For Hemingway was testing out, through the composition of “The End of Something,” the idea of divorce. In the mid-1930’s he would do the same thing in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” by presenting his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, transparently disguised as the rich-bitch spouse of a dying writer, even though at the time of writing the story Hemingway was assuring such correspondents as Maxwell Perkins that “Pauline is fine,” just as he had written only sweet words about Hadley in his correspondence of 1924.
As Hemingway conjured up Nick and Marjorie building a fire on a sandy point and watching it get dark, he was rehearsing a scene he would shortly play in his own life. “There’s going to be a moon tonight,” Nick says. “I know it,” Marjorie replies happily. Without warning, Nick turns on her. “You know everything,” he says sarcastically. “I’ve taught you everything,” he goes on angrily, “and now it isn’t fun any more.” Stunned, Marjorie asks, “Isn’t love any fun?” “No,” says Nick, his head in his hands. The feeling of emptiness that one can sense in Nick’s laconic answers to George in “Cross Country Snow” is again evident in the wake of his anger at the end of “The End of Something.”
The mood of depression in the follow-up story, in which Nick and his friend Bill get drunk on a cold and blowy afternoon and talk about Marjorie, is considerably deeper. If you hadn’t broken off with Marge, Bill says, “you’d be back home working trying to get enough money to get married.” Nick says nothing, so Bill resumes his effort to comfort him. “Once a man’s married he’s absolutely bitched. . . . He hasn’t got anything more. Nothing. Not a damn thing. He’s done for.” Once again, Nick says nothing. Depression has reduced him from laconicisms to silence.
And sometimes silence is the prelude to suicide, as “Indian Camp” demonstrates. Through the wide eyes of a very young Nick Adams, we watch his doctor father enter an Indian shanty one night and perform a Caesarean section on a young woman, using a jackknife to make the incision and a tapered gut leader from a fishing kit to sew it up. Only after the operation has been successfully concluded does Dr. Adams discover that the woman’s seemingly stoic husband, unable to bear his wife’s screams, has slit his throat while lying in the upper bunk.
For years, incautious critics claimed that “Indian Camp” was based on the author’s memory of an incident he had witnessed as a little boy. Thanks to Carlos Baker, the claim no longer has any credibility. Yet Baker’s own belief that the “melodramatic circumstances” of the story were entirely an “invention” is equally misleading. Behind the grisly tale lay the circumstance of Hemingway’s anxiety-ridden train trip back to Toronto on the night Hadley went into labor. Did Hemingway, on that long night, out of a fear of being entrapped once again in family life, consider deserting his wife? Out of a sense of guilt at being absent from Hadley’s side to help her through an ordeal which he himself had caused, did the train rider contemplate suicide? All we know is that he arrived at the hospital looking broken down with strain and fatigue. Yet eventually he did desert his wife and, as the new edition of his letters shows, by the time that “Indian Camp” and the rest of the In Our Time stories were published in October 1925, the author was openly talking of killing himself. “Indian Camp” is even more eerily predictive than “The End of Something.”
Like Hemingway on the train, who in his imagination could see his wife in the hospital even though he was hundreds of miles away from her, the Indian husband is there in the room, listening to the screams, yet is so unconnected to what is going on that it is as if he were somewhere else. He does not speak to his wife, he does nothing to assist the doctor, he displays no interest in watching the birth of his son. Instead, he lies silently on his bunk, smoking a pipe, and then rolls toward the wall. Why his will to live has been overmastered remains mysterious. Throughout the story he has said not a word, and Nick Adams is so young that his father has to reply to the boy’s question about the tragedy on a very simple level. “Why did he kill himself, Daddy?” “I don’t know, Nick. He couldn’t stand things, I guess.” Reading that exchange, one feels that the author has brilliantly finessed a situation which virtually demanded perceptive comment because he was at a loss to explain his own vulnerability to thoughts of self-destruction. If Nick had been sixteen or seventeen years old, he and his father conceivably could have had a probing discussion of why a man might be moved to kill himself on the night he became a father; by making Nick a young boy, the author precluded the possibility.
“Perfectly calmly and not bluffingly,” so he later reminded Pauline Pfeiffer, Hemingway announced in the fall of 1925 that if his emotional split between Pauline and Hadley “wasn’t cleared up by christmas I would kill myself.” His flight from family life had led him into a love affair that had become more serious than he had bargained on.
If the recollections of the dying writer in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” may be trusted as autobiographical confession, Hemingway was already consorting with other women as early as the fall of 1922, barely more than a year after his wedding to Hadley. “To me,” he confessed to F. Scott Fitzgerald on July 1, 1925, “heaven would be . . . two lovely houses in town; one where I would have my wife and children and be monogamous and love them truly and well and the other where I would have my nine beautiful mistresses on 9 different floors.” Not too many weeks after writing that letter, Hemingway sent Hadley and Pauline off to the Loire Valley together so that he could finish the first draft of The Sun Also Rises at full throttle. “I did not want to lose my speed making love,” he explained a quarter of a century later to the art historian Bernard Berenson. But after the manuscript was completed, he told Berenson, he felt “hollow and lonely and needed a girl very badly. So I was in bed with a no good girl when my wife came home and had to get the girl out onto the roof . . . and change the sheets and come down to open the door.” Having fornicated into a “state of absolute clear-headed-ness,” he then went off with Hadley and Bumby to Schruns in the Vorarlberg, where they had “a wonderful, healthy, happy life,” and he twice rewrote his novel. Pauline joined them at Christmas.
All very jolly, except that the hollow feeling he referred to in the letter to Berenson was depression. In the fall, he had threatened to kill himself if his love life were not cleared up by Christmas, but by then it was more agonizing than ever. A Christmas eve note to Scott Fitzgerald spoke of nights of sleeplessness and of all the “sons of bitching things I’ve done,” and in yet another letter to Fitzgerald he admitted that he had been “in hell” since Christmas, “with plenty of insomnia to light the way around so I could study the terrain.” Ever since he had met Hadley, he had regarded her as “the best and truest and loveliest person that I have ever known.” He could not have written In Our Time, The Torrents of Spring, and The Sun Also Rises if he had not had her “loyal and self-sacrificing and always stimulating and loving . . . support,” as well as the financial backing of her small inheritance. Bumby, he exclaimed, was so lucky to have her as a mother. Yet he was sexually enchanted and intellectually beguiled by Pauline. Besides being four years younger than Hadley, she was handsomer, wealthier, better dressed, and far more willing to cater to Hemingway’s dependency on female flattery. Most people, including Hadley, were embarrassed by Hemingway’s vicious parody of Sherwood Anderson in The Torrents of Spring, but Pauline predictably adored it. The writer who put his new novel through two more drafts at Schruns was a man torn in half between wife and mistress.
Jake Barnes, the hero of The Sun Also Rises, has always been the prize exhibit of the war-victim interpretation of Hemingway. For Jake is sexually impotent as a result of a wound received in World War I, and he has trouble sleeping at night. But Jake’s wound is not only the thematic preoccupation of the novelist, as Mark Schorer would have it; it is also a cover-up for artistic failure, a simplistic and sensationalistic means of accounting for the hero’s depressed condition. Jake’s insomnia, the new edition of Hemingway’s letters makes clear, was inspired by the sleeplessness of a married man at Schruns, and Jake’s inability to make love to the woman he is in love with was inspired by Hemingway’s inability to find sexual contentment in the arms of the “best and truest and loveliest person” he had ever known. In The Sun Also Rises, the author let a war wound stand for a more subtle and complicated disability which he was afraid to deal with directly.
But if Hemingway is the impotent Jake, who is the nymphomaniacal Lady Brett Ashley? This compulsive creature, who claims to be deeply in love with Jake, has generally been identified by the critics as the fictional counterpart of Lady Duff Twysden, whom Hemingway had sometimes encountered in the bars of Montparnasse (and may, just possibly, have bedded). Yet while Lady Brett’s boyish hairdo and clipped-speech mannerisms were in all likelihood modeled on Lady Duff’s, the real-life lady’s sexual liberation fell considerably short of the fictional lady’s insatiability.
In her raging need to fornicate, Lady Brett is Hemingway himself, as the novelist came close to acknowledging in a letter to the poet Archibald MacLeish in 1943. Each of his novels, he told MacLeish, contained one new thing he had personally learned in the course of his life, and the realization that The Sun Also Rises had been based on was, “Promiscuity no solution.” To the considerable distress of the poet Allen Tate, who reviewed The Sun Abo Rises in the Nation in 1926, the novel not only makes its wayward heroine an attractive person, it condones her incontinent behavior. The letter to MacLeish explains why. Hemingway never thought of not condoning Lady Brett’s sexual self-indulgence because he never thought of not condoning his own. Hemingway’s only objection to promiscuity was that it had led him into hell, not heaven. Instead of solving his emotional problems, it had multiplied them.
Hemingway has not rounded out his people, Allen Tate further complained in his review, he has created caricatures based on one or two traits; his vision of character is “singularly oblique.” Singularly oblique indeed. The novelist had based both the principal female character and the principal male character on aspects of himself and had then depicted these representatives of his divided self as being desperately in love with one another. In the back seats of taxicabs, they hold hands and kiss and exchange endearments. Kinkiness, though, was utterly foreign to the spirit of Hemingway, in Hemingway’s opinion. Never in my life have I “felt a ‘malajust’,” he boasted to a friend in 1932. Kinkiness was a disease that afflicted only other writers, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was eternally worried, Hemingway jeered, about the size of his penis, or Gertrude Stein, who was a queer. Stein in particular became an object of his derision and contempt, for in addition to being a lesbian, she was a Jew. But Stein’s worst sin of all in the eyes of the author of The Sun Also Rises was that although he had thought of her as a mother he could count on, she had failed to give him her unstinting approval.
“Mrs. Stein” was one of his nicknames for his real mother. No sooner had he fled from her authority to Paris than he placed himself under the wing of Miss Stein, at 27 rue de Fleurus. At first, it was marvelous. She gave him the “run of the house.” She encouraged him in his writing. And when he eventually asked her to become Bumby’s godmother, she agreed. Yet if he basked in her love and understanding, this enormously gifted, deeply damaged man was no more able to tolerate her authoritarianism than he had been his mother’s. An exasperated remark she made about the irresponsibility of the generation to which Hemingway belonged may very well have marked the moment at which his increasing irritation with her began to fester into an uglier feeling. For in front of the text of The Sun Also Rises he placed her remark about his generation being lost in juxtaposition with a quotation from Ecclesiastes to the effect that one generation passeth and another cometh, but the earth abideth forever—and the juxtaposition was no more intended as a compliment to his surrogate mother than the ensuing novel was intended as a bow to the literary taste of his real mother.
To Maxwell Perkins in 1926, he confessed that while he himself did not think “a hell of a lot” of his generation, he had resented Gertrude Stein’s “bombast.” “Nobody knows about the generation that follows them and certainly has no right to judge.” In 1932, he told another friend that the purpose of the two quotations had been “to show the superiority of the earlier Hebrew writers over the later.” In 1934, his accumulating anger finally exploded into hatred. Gertrude Stein “was a damned pleasant woman,” he wrote to Arnold Gingrich of Esquire,
before she had the menopause and it goes against my digestion to take shots at anyone who’s ever been a friend no matter how lousey [sic] they get to be finally. Besides, I’ve got the gun and it’s loaded and I know where the vital spots are and friendship aside there’s a certain damned fine feeling of superiority in knowing you can finish anybody off whenever you want to and still not doing it.
The words seethe with the primitive rage of the child who drew beads on his father’s head with a shotgun.
After she and Ernest had come to a parting of the ways, Hadley insisted that he and Pauline also part; if, after a considerable number of months had passed, they still found that they loved one another, Hadley would agree to a divorce. Hemingway’s letters to Pauline during the period of their separation are filled with allusions to “horrors at night” and to “black depression.” When two people love one another terribly much and then go away from each other, he told her, “it works almost as bad as abortion.” All you can do is lie awake at night and “pray and pray and pray you won’t go crazy.”
Yet within a few weeks of his marriage to Pauline on May 10, 1927, the presumably happy bridegroom wrote “Hills Like White Elephants,” an emotionally urgent story in which a man like Hemingway pleads with a woman like Hadley that if only she will consent to an abortion, “We can have everything. . . . We can have the whole world.” And three months later, the bridegroom wrote to his father and admitted that “After we were divorced if Hadley would have wanted me I would have gone back to her.” Another era, in short, had begun in Hemingway’s life and work, in which fantasies of what-might-have-been would loom very large.
Across the entire length of his adult life, Hemingway kept a double record of his feelings by writing stories and by writing letters. In contrast to the appalling frankness of the letters, the stories suppress information, conflate memories, play tricks with time-frames, speak in symbols. But with the help of the letters, they can be decoded and, at long last, properly understood. In the light of this understanding, the interpretation of Hemingway’s fiction that originated forty years ago in Edmund Wilson’s misreading of “Big Two-Hearted River,” and that was then magnified by Malcolm Cowley into a misreading of the entire oeuvre, can also be recognized for what it really is: the exploitation of an author’s work for ideological purposes.
Taken together, the letters and the stories show that what happened to Hemingway on July 8, 1918, did not give him nightmares for the rest of his life. If World War I played hob with his future, it was not because of a wound but because it suddenly propelled a rebellious youth who was barely out of high school into a very much bigger and more exciting world than the one he was slowly getting to know as a newspaperman in Kansas City.
Perhaps his separation from his mother and the values she stood for could never have been accomplished in the spirit of mutual understanding and love that Sherwood Anderson describes so delicately in his account of the relationship between young George Willard and his mother in Winesburg, Ohio. Perhaps, like figures in an O’Neill tragedy, Hemingway and his mother were doomed to claw and slash at one another, no matter what. The high-gear acceleration in his development that resulted from the war, however, certainly did not enhance the chances of establishing peace on the home front. Hemingway came back to Oak Park in 1919 spoiling for a fight, and his mother was waiting for him.
1 Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters, 1917-1961, edited by Carlos Baker, Scribner's, 948 pp., $27.50.