Islands in the Stream.
by Ernest Hemingway.
Scribners. 466 pp. $10.00.
The second of Ernest Hemingway’s books to be published posthumously, Islands in the Stream antedates the first from the point of view of composition by approximately ten years. A Moveable Feast (published in 1964) contains memoirs begun in Cuba in the fall of 1957 and ostensibly completed with final revisions in Ketchum, Idaho, in the fall of 1960, not long before the author’s death. The present work, a long three-part novel which (according to the account given by Professor Carlos Baker of Princeton University in his recent, superficially painstaking biography)1 grew out of Hemingway’s conception of a big book about the sea—a conception which came to include The Old Man and the Sea as its concluding fourth section—was apparently begun shortly after the period of irritability and depression which followed the bad reviews attending publication of Across the River and Into the Trees: though it may contain elements composed several years earlier, the entire book seems to have been written and revised during a “huge working streak” between December 1950 and late summer 1951.
Although there are a number of confusing discrepancies between Professor Baker’s account and the actual “Sea Novel” manuscripts described in the inventory published in 1969 by Philip Young and Charles W. Mann,2 these dates seem relatively certain. But while The Old Man and the Sea, written rapidly in January-February 1951, was soon jettisoned from the larger work and eventually published on its own in its entirety (at first in an issue of Life magazine for September 1952), the three remaining sections of the “Sea Novel” were never to appear in Hemingway’s lifetime, despite the fact that he seems to have considered them ready for publication by the end of August 1951. The reasons for the delay in publication are not certain: it is possible that Hemingway felt that the book required further revision; it is also possible that he regarded it as “life insurance” (as he used to say), that he decided it was something he had written “for the bank” in order to save money on his income tax and spread his income out more evenly over leaner years; and it is possible that he felt that he needed to keep this novel in reserve in case his talent ever failed him. As will be seen, there might have been other reasons, too, reasons suggested by his own peculiar feeling about the book.
In any case, the book has now been published, edited by Mary Hemingway and Charles Scribner, Jr., and in the very brief note accompanying the text Mrs. Hemingway explains that “Beyond the routine chores of correcting spelling and punctuation, we made some cuts in the manuscript, I feeling that Ernest would surely have made them himself. The book is all Ernest’s. We have added nothing to it.” One cannot help but wonder exactly what was cut and why, and whether (as the wording of the note suggests) the two editors were in some disagreement about the validity of the excisions. (It should also be pointed out, although Mrs. Hemingway does not do so, that the title of the published book is an alteration of “The Island and the Stream,” which in the manuscripts appears to serve as the title of only one part of the novel, and that the titles of the individual sections of the published version—“Bimini,” “Cuba,” and “At Sea”—do not seem to be indicated in the manuscripts at all.)
The book’s three sections proceed chronologically; taken together they record (through flashback, recollection, and present-tense action) the life of Thomas Hudson, a successful American painter several times divorced, from his youthful, idyllic sojourn in the Paris of the 20’s to the brink of death in Cuba during World War II. Anyone familiar with the details of Hemingway’s own life will find many of them here, including the flat above the sawmill in Paris, the cat named “Mr. F. Puss” (and later another cat named “Boise”), the Floridita bar in Havana, the informal, improvised “Q-boat” patrols which Hemingway undertook in his own boat, the Pilar, in 1942—43, etc. The appearance of such details, some of which hardly seem transformed at all, serves to reinforce Philip Young’s claim that Hemingway’s fiction was always intensely autobiographical—a claim further reinforced by the Hemingway manuscripts, which show, for example, that in the original draft of The Sun Also Rises (titled “Fiesta”) the character who later comes to be known as Jake Barnes is referred to as “Hem” or “Ernie,” and Brett Ashley is called “Duff,” after her real-life original, Lady Duff Twysden.
“Bimini,” the opening section of Islands in the Stream, is largely concerned with a visit to Thomas Hudson by his three sons (one, Tom, by his first wife; two, David and Andrew, by his second) during their winter holidays. In addition to a powerful, if somewhat hallucinatory, fight scene which takes place before the boys’ arrival, and other minor scenes (some of them funny) later, this section contains a long episode, similar in many ways to The Old Man and the Sea, in which David, the middle son, goes through a six-hour ordeal attempting to bring in an enormous broadbill swordfish as a test of manhood and endurance. After the boys have left, Hudson finds himself alone again, just how alone he learns as Part I closes, when he receives word that David and Andrew have been killed in an automobile crash with their mother near Biarritz (it is worth noting, in this connection, that early in 1947 Hemingway’s sons Patrick and Gregory were involved in a similar accident with their mother, Pauline Pfeiffer Hemingway, although none of the three seems to have been seriously hurt). That the numbing effect of this news is to carry through the rest of the book is made apparent by Hudson’s reaction when someone attempting to console him reminds him that he still has his eldest son: “‘For the time being,’ Thomas Hudson said, and for the first time he looked straight down the long and perfect perspective of the blankness ahead.” On his way to Europe to take care of things, Hudson “thought that on the ship he could come to terms with his sorrow, not knowing yet, that there are no terms to be made with sorrow. It can be cured by death. . . . But if it is cured by anything less than death, the chances are that it was not true sorrow.”
In Part II (“Cuba”), Thomas Hudson has just learned that his eldest son, Tom, has been killed in the war. The logic of the book’s progression has now become clear: first all his sons, then he himself, must die. This section of the novel divides itself into two main parts. In the first, Hudson, after a sleepless night, goes into Havana with the intention of spending the day drinking and the evening having “his ashes dragged.” A long scene in the Floridita bar follows, during which Hudson consumes innumerable double frozen daiquiris (no sugar) and tells stories to Honest Lil, the respectable local prostitute, somewhat over the hill, whom he is planning to go home with. The scene is interrupted by the arrival of Hudson’s first wife, a beautiful actress now in uniform; they leave together, go back to Hudson’s finca, go to bed together briefly, share the shock of the death of their son, and part ways again as Hudson is suddenly called back to his work (which is unspecified but clearly very dangerous).
“At Sea,” Part III of Islands in the Stream, is completely taken up with the pursuit of the crew of a sunken German submarine off the coast of Cuba by Hudson and a group of underground commandos posing as scientists. This section of the book is unquestionably the weakest and most tedious, but in retrospect this seems to be because the real function of the plot here is simply to deliver Thomas Hudson into death: the ultimately meaningless pursuit, with all its elaborate strategies and calculations, serves only to delay that inescapable conclusion. And the book ends abruptly when the played-out narrative falls slack, as Thomas Hudson, after sustaining a wound which “he knew . . . was internal,” suddenly feels “sick into his bones and through his chest and his bowels and the ache went into his testicles.” Realizing that he is about to die, he experiences the “onslaught of weakness” and, without a thought of struggle, yields to it.
It was this last section which Hemingway had the most difficulty writing, but there is a quality of insomnia about the novel as a whole, an edge of desperation reminiscent of a man driving himself beyond exhaustion. The resulting combination of determination and distractedness probably accounts for the book’s uneven momentum: the narrative often seems slightly out of control, as if it had begun growing with a life of its own, bulging out in strange and unexpected blossoms which are then cut back, only to reappear after a time like the heads of the Hydra. This powerful but bizarre emotional quality of the book is suggested by such passages as the following, taken from Part I. Here Hudson’s eldest son is recalling the days in Paris when his father used to kill pigeons with a slingshot in the Jardin du Luxembourg and the young boy would hide them, still warm, under his coat until they had reached home:
“I remember the time one came alive,” young Tom said. “And I held him quiet and didn’t say anything about it all the way home because I wanted to keep him. He was a very big pigeon, almost purple color with a high neck and a wonderful head and white on his wings, and you let me keep him in the kitchen until we could get a cage for him. You tied him by one leg. But that night the big cat killed him and brought him in to my bed. The big cat was so proud and he carried him just as though he were a tiger carrying a native and he jumped up to the bed with him. . . . You and mother were gone to the café and the big cat and I were alone and I remember the windows were open and there was a big moon over the sawmill and it was winter and I could smell the sawdust. I remember seeing the big cat coming across the floor with his head high up so the pigeon barely dragged on the floor and then he made one jump and just sailed right up into the bed with him. I felt awfully that he had killed my pigeon but he was so proud and so happy and he was such a good friend of mine I felt proud and happy, too. I remember he played with the pigeon and then he would push his paws up and down on my chest and purr and then play with the pigeon again. Finally I remember he and I and the pigeon all went to sleep together. I had one hand on the pigeon and he had one paw on the pigeon and then in the night I woke up and he was eating him and purring loud like a tiger.”
Asked by his youngest brother, “Were you scared, Tommy, when he was eating him?” the older boy replies, “No. The big cat was the best friend I had then. I mean the closest friend. I think he would have liked me to eat the pigeon too.”
The association of tenderness with violence or horror represented here appears in other forms throughout the book. There is a similar scene involving Thomas Hudson and his own cat, “Boise,” recalled in Part II. And early in the book when Hudson’s friend Roger Davis, after some provocation, beats up an unnamed character almost beyond recognition, in the process he also “ruins” him as a man by holding him up to steady him each time he is about to fall, in a “way that made him feel absolutely helpless”: holding him “with his thumbs pushing in against the tendons at the base of the biceps,” “rubbing the thumbs back and forth over the tendons between the biceps and the forearms.” Here the act of cruelty and humiliation becomes virtually indistinguishable from an act of compassion, and the same emotional ambiguity is reflected in the dialogue: holding the arms of the beaten man in this way, “‘You’re a strong son of a bitch,’ he said to the man. ‘Who the hell ever told you you could fight?’”
Similarly, after young David Hudson has completed his ordeal with the swordfish, he confesses that “In the worst parts, when I was the tiredest I couldn’t tell which was him and which was me” and “Then I began to love him more than anything on earth.” The sexual carry-over of this tendency to merge with the antagonist at moments of conflict (a tendency which seems related to a powerful self-destructive impulse) is clearly expressed in a dream which Thomas Hudson has in the last part of the book:
While Thomas Hudson was asleep he dreamed that his son Tom was not dead and that the other boys were all right and that the war was over. He dreamed that Tom’s mother was sleeping with him and she was sleeping on top of him as she liked to do sometimes. He felt all of this and the tangibility of her legs against his legs and her body against his and her breasts against his chest and her mouth was playing against his mouth. Her hair hung down and lay heavy and silky on his eyes and on his cheeks and he turned his lips away from her searching ones and took the hair in his mouth and held it. Then with one hand he moistened the .357 Magnum and slipped it easily and sound asleep where it should be. Then he lay under her weight with her silken hair over his face like a curtain and moved slowly and rhythmically.
Among the many striking things to be noted about this extraordinary passage are the suggestion of a reversal of sexual roles and the fact that the instrument of love is a deadly weapon. (It seems indicative of the novel’s emotional economy, in this connection, that in Part III, after all of Hudson’s children have been killed, the machine guns carried by the men should be referred to throughout as los niños .) Later in the dream the exchange of identities is made explicit as Hudson’s wife tells him to take off the pistol and asks him, “Should I be you or you be me?” After he has agreed to try to be her, she asks again, “Will you give up everything?” And Hudson, replying yes, asks, “Will you swing your hair across my face and give me your mouth please and hold me so tight it kills me?” “‘Of course,’” she replies, “‘And you’ll do it for me?’”
The real interest of Islands in the Stream lies in the emotional life trapped but stirring restlessly beneath its surface, a life which it manages to convey through these passages of prose cut loose and floating free of the particular events of the plot: the events themselves are often (especially in Part III) presented without conviction, and in any case they serve as an inadequate vehicle for the burden of feeling they must bear. But it is precisely the distance between realistically-conceived events in the present tense and feelings suspended in a past whose presence can be reached only in dreams or dreamlike recollections that makes the obsessive drama of the novel so compelling, even when, from a narrow literary point of view, it is least successful. In this connection, near the end of the novel the author observes of the action that “Thomas Hudson had the feeling that this had happened before in a bad dream,” that “this was another thing that had happened sometime in his life. Perhaps it had happened all his life. But now it was happening with such an intensification that he felt both in command and at the same time prisoner of it.”
This ambiguous relation to the action corresponds closely to the rhythm and mood of the last section of the novel, and it may have something to do with the great difficulty which Hemingway seems to have had in completing that section. That he did have difficulty is suggested by the daily word count which he often marked at the end of the typescript pages. But that word count, although at times remarkably small, would not in itself be particularly significant; it is well known that Hemingway normally wrote very slowly—his output rarely exceeded an average of five or six hundred words a day—and it must be remembered that he had just gone through an extremely productive period during which he had produced one immediately publishable book at what was (for him) almost blinding speed. But another, more intriguing, bit of information recorded by Professor Baker suggests that the difficulty which Hemingway experienced at this time was not simply a result of fatigue or lack of inspiration. According to Professor Baker, after the completion of the final section of the book, in an unpublished letter to an old friend Hemingway “later said, somewhat overdramatically, that he had ‘dreaded’ to write it and had even hoped at one time that he would never have to set it down.”
The appalling presumption involved in the judgment that Hemingway was expressing himself “somewhat overdramatically” about an experience which he himself had just gone through is consistent with Professor Baker’s characteristic biographical stance, but once he has demonstrated that he has no trouble at all judging Hemingway’s reaction he does go on to indicate that he is not altogether sure he understands it, and to summarize, evidently—but not quote directly—Hemingway’s exact statement: “The reason for his dread was not entirely clear. Perhaps he meant only that it was so hard a task that he doubted his ability to bring it off. But there was a hint in what he said that the story was a true one—indeed, one might have inferred from his words that it had actually happened to him.”
Feelings so powerful, no matter how apparently inappropriate, cannot be dismissed lightly, and it is difficult to keep from speculating that they might have had something to do with Hemingway’s decision not to publish what was ostensibly a finished work. Hemingway was, after all, a rather superstitious man, and if this novel really struck him, in some strange way, as a rehearsal—or re-living—of his own death, then it seems understandable that he might have wanted to put the book away for awhile, if only by deciding not to publish it immediately. Two other bits of information are worth pondering in this regard. One: early in 1951, although he had apparently already finished the early sections of the book, instead of going on to the final section Hemingway paused in the story of Thomas Hudson and took up the narrative which was to become The Old Man and the Sea, a task which (in Professor Baker’s words) he “wrote Harvey Breit that he had been afraid to tackle . . . for ten years, though in fact he had put it off for sixteen.” Whatever else this may suggest, it clearly indicates that a task which Hemingway had put off for a very long while seemed more appealing to him at that time than the prospect of the one which lay immediately before him. Two: after the completion of this long sea novel, in the spring of 1952, Hemingway began work on a novel about Nick Adams and his kid sister fleeing the law in upper Michigan—a novel which he never finished, but worked on at various times at least until the summer of 1958, and which Professor Baker describes as “a curious throwback to the time of his boyhood both in style and substance.”
The publication of Islands in the Stream will not diminish Hemingway’s stature, nor will it add to it appreciably; but it should have the effect of reawakening serious critical interest in Hemingway by altering the dominant, rather schematic conception of the shape of his career and raising important new questions about his life and work and the relations between them. For a number of years many literary people have assumed, not always tacitly, that whatever his early achievements Hemingway eventually became a vaguely punch-drunk braggart lost in his own public image (if he had been able to lose himself that way, of course, there is no reason to suppose that he would not at least have been a happy man: he is still rumored to be Scribners’ best-selling author). Ten years ago the news of his suicide left several generations shaken and forced some tentative, if inconclusive, reconsiderations; but the old refrains are still plainly audible in John Aldridge’s 1965 judgment that “it now seems clear that Hemingway was in a state of progressive creative decline for at least the last two decades of his life,” and in the comfortable assertion of a scholar at Ball State University in 1966 that “The giants that stalk Hemingway’s world are experiences never measured and subdued by thought, never ordered within a framework of existence more comprehensive than that of a rather sensitive adolescent. . . . For all its blood and thunder, Hemingway’s world is not quite man-sized.”
Hemingway’s immense popularity has also been a problem, especially in the academy, where such things as best-sellerdom and movie rights are often (or used to be, before the inversions of “Camp” and the institutionalized worship of popular culture) superciliously regarded—at least overtly—as the unmistakable visible emblems of un-cleanness and aesthetic inferiority; but that is merely one of the elements to be discerned in Leslie Fiedler’s astonishing pronouncement (if only from the point of view of simple human decency), made in 1964, that “With a single shot [Hemingway] redeemed his best work from his worst, his art from himself, his vision of truth from the lies of his adulators.” Such statements as these and the simple-minded or downright repellent assumptions on which they are based have gone more or less unchallenged in recent years, but it is to be hoped that the publication of new Hemingway works, together with more detailed information about his manuscripts, will make a decisive challenge not only likely but inevitable in the near future.
In this regard, the appearance of Islands in the Stream is certain to raise questions about what unpublished Hemingway works still exist in manuscript, especially since there have been so many wild speculations and rumors regarding this matter (some of which will undoubtedly persist despite the published inventory). In the moving summary account of his labors published under the title “In the Vault with Hemingway” in the New York Times Book Review in 1968, Philip Young indicated that there were about 3,000 pages of unpublished manuscript, consisting—in addition to the present work—for the most part of a long, unfinished, mainly autobiographical “African Book” dating from 1955; a novel called “Garden of Eden,” set mainly on the Riviera in the 20’s (the provisional final chapter of which was written in 1958, when, according to Hemingway’s note, he “thought something might happen before the book could be finished”); twenty chapters of an early (1927) novel called “Jimmy Breen”; and numerous early and late stories, the latter, according to Young, “set in World War II and lying somewhere between fiction and autobiography.”
There is no way of knowing at this point how many of these manuscripts will eventually be published, but it should be noted that Scribners is planning to bring out, possibly in the spring of 1971, a collection tentatively titled The Adventures of Nick Adams (edited by Philip Young), which will presumably contain at least two unpublished Nick Adams stories: the half-novel mentioned earlier and a story called “Summer People” which Hemingway listed as unfinished in a 1926 notebook, and which Young takes “to be the first Nick story Hemingway wrote: the holograph shows him vacillating but finally deciding on his personal name.”
In time, the publication of such previously unknown works, by raising more questions than they seem at first to answer, will undoubtedly effect a serious revaluation of the significance of Hemingway’s career. But such a revaluation will require a rereading of his works which has as its object something more than proving that he was an adolescent, woman-hating bully, or that his prose went downhill all the way, or that these books are “successful” and those “fail.” It will also inevitably demand a careful study of the manuscripts, when these become more generally available, as well as the letters (which, although Hemingway left his widow specific instructions not to publish any of them, have not been destroyed). And while this ideal process is getting under way, one may permit oneself to hope that Philip Young, who after all his personal difficulties with Hemingway is still engaged in the labor of understanding, will decide to begin writing the unauthorized, definitive biography.
1 Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story, Scribners, 697 pp., $10.00.
2 The Hemingway Manuscripts, Pennsylvania State University Press, 138 pp., $5.95.