fishing with hemingway
“Do you read Hemingway?”
The sound of something striking brass, a bird of prey flees in the distance.
It’s a leathery, loaded question.
And, let’s be honest a dividing one. For a writer whose work can stand in for the authority of literature itself, like Woolf or Flaubert, maybe you’re asking... do you care about reading. He’s also one of the writers, like Sartre and Henry Miller, whose specific personality and, specific machismo, seem inextricable from the books themselves. So in other cases, what you’re asking is... do you get on board with Hemingway. And if you’re asking a woman, that clarifies to... can you bear to.
In the episodic and autobiographical A Moveable Feast (to be fair a collection that was ordered and compiled only after his death, but ironically, by his wife) the main female character is referred to as wife a total of 19 times before she is referred to by her name: Hadley. Hadley Richardson was a St Louis heiress who married Hemingway months before they joined the American diaspora in Paris in the 1920s, Hemingway’s most prolific decade. As an aside, Hadley’s personal wealth is the first liability to one of the most famous Hemingway myths, much recorded by him in the Paris sketches, that of the starving artist. But the more you read him, the more your personal stake in the intersection of the man and his myths, debunked or otherwise, contains the answer to all of the questions around why you read Hemingway if that’s what you do.
And, woman though I am, I know why that is for me, it’s because of what happens when he goes fishing.
War, drinking, bullfighting and fishing. These are the fictional motifs that ballast the myth of the man himself. That his oeuvre really is architectural in 20th century literature as a whole, is partly because the Hemingway tropes, like the Hemingway trout, appear and strike the reader timelessly and in mysteriously personal ways.
In May of 1925 Hemingway published Big Two Hearted River. It is a story in two parts, and the first Hemingway I ever read. Now, it threads the line for me for every other fishing scene in the whole of his oeuvre, and there are many. I love going fishing with Hemingway, I’ll go with him every time.
In the story, the most famous of the Nick Adams saga, a man, Nick, gets off a train, walks for the better part of a day though the American midwest, pitches a tent by a river, eats, sleeps, wakes, and goes fishing.
Turbo charged by the celebrity of Hemingway himself, and the frequent autobiography in his fiction, the academy has leapt since the story’s publication in1925 to the cause of debating what this simple story is about. In the first full length study of Hemingway’s work in 1949, Phillip Young filed Big Two Hearted River amongst what are known as the war wound works. Hemingway was himself wounded in 1918 (while volunteering in Italy for the American Red Cross). For Young, the spectacle of a man seeking ritualised solace from a battle-frayed psyche is where the story’s value lies. If not a war wound work, Young claims, it is ‘an otherwise pointless story.’ Others have schooled to the childhood trauma assessment, a popular overlay to a lot of Hemingway’s more watery expositions, because, as we now know, the writer was dressed as a girl by his mother until he was old enough to notice.
But back to the story: Nick actually succeeds in catching fish, so, wound or not, I think it’s possible to dispute Young’s ‘pointless’ assertion on those grounds alone, and though it’s hard to unbind the Freudian murk of childhood gender disturbance and the silty depths of nature, there’s a further more revealing aspect, I think, to Nick’s walk to, and activities on the riverbank. And it’s how the fishing feels.
The feels in Hemingway, or rather, as a result of him, are interesting in and of themselves because stylistically, that’s not what he ever does. It’s another point that frequently appears on the gender line drawn through Hemingway readership. Let’s be real: more men than women will be drawn into the subject matters of war, drinking, bullfighting and fishing, but when those activities are furthermore imparted in what often reads like a list of things, the question of can you get on board with Hemingway is compounded by his style. ... Until you stick with it.
One of the recognised marvels of modern writing is how Ernest Hemingway produces the sensorial dimensions he does, from language of such extreme mundanity, which is neither masculine nor feminine.
“Nick leaned back against a stump and slipped out of the pack harness. Ahead of him, as far as the eye could see, was the pine plain. The burned country stopped off at the left with the range of hills. On ahead islands of dark pine trees rose out of the plain. Far off to the left was the line of the river. Nick followed it with his eye and caught glints of the water in the sun”
Read it again.
For any man or woman who’s ever set off through a landscape, the layered effect of this description, the particular order of its information does every bit of the sensory job needed to absorb ourselves into Nick’s experience. Again, in this phrase from another man’s walk to a riverbank in The Sun Also Rises:
“The path crossed a stream on a foot log. The log was surfaced off, and there was a sapling bent across for a rail. In the flat pool beside the stream tadpoles spotted the sand. We went up a steep bank and across the rolling fields. Looking back we saw Burguete, white houses and red roofs, and the white road with a truck going along it and the dust rising”
Simplicity, monosyllables, the absence of adverbs and adjectives. The relentless, rhythmic compiling effect of ‘and.’ Pedestrian in execution, yet inescapably vivid. Mysterious in effect, though un-mysterious in stylistic influence, as Hemingway, again, was bombastic in telling us.
In a profile of Hemingway written for the New Yorker in 1950, Lillian Ross ends up at the Met Museum with the man. “I can make a landscape like Mr Paul Cézanne” he says, “I learned how to make a landscape from Mr Paul Cézanne by walking through the Luxembourg Museum a thousand times with an empty gut, and I’m pretty sure that if Mr Paul was around, he would like the way I make them…”
And he may be right, if only because Hemingway wrote compositions that, like Cézanne’s paintings, rest in a virtuosic order of association.
In the passage from Big Two Hearted River, the eye is drawn with precision and economy of palette from the foreground, to the far distance, to the left, then the middle, resting eventually with an evocation of the organising principle: the sun.
Hemingway, like Cézanne composed so that no individual feature fully comprised the image. Left alone, features are blurred and indistinct, together, they are more like the world than the world itself. Or rather, they are our experience of it.
The Met Museum with Lillian Ross, was not the only time Hemingway told us about this though. Ever the autobiographer, he also, as the character Nick Adams, told us in the original ending of the fictional Big Two Hearted River, which is, in reality, the only extra textual information needed to complete the understanding of what the story is really about. In these unpublished pages, we learn that Nick is actually a writer, and that he has gone fishing to figure that out.
In October 1924, on the advice of Gertrude Stein, Hemingway cut the last 9 pages of his story. Acquiescing to Stein’s comment that “remarks are not literature” he re-wrote the ending and omitted Nick’s internal monologue about the challenges he faces with writing well. Specifically whether to write like Mr Paul Cézanne paints, and how.
The fishing-ness is, in this light, a figuring out-ness. For me, there is a belligerence to the point made by this lost unfolding of Nick’s mind on the riverbank, and it’s that through Nick Adams we find Hemingway to be someone who did the things that contained the metaphors he needed to write, and maybe therefore, to live.
Ironic that the original ending of Big Two Hearted River was cut because the writing wasn’t good. Interesting, that it was Stein, the only woman recorded in Hemingway’s oeuvre who is outside his sexual paradigm, whose advice he followed. Nonetheless it’s because of these pages that we know the story to be about writing itself, and that, I think, is a lasting gift of both the work of art and of the artist himself. Even if he is someone you can’t always get on board with or bear.
I’ll go along with Hemingway. I’ve landed on that side of the line. I am gradually becoming a more mature reader too, and an appreciation of his stylistic mastery, is a part of the joy I extract from reading now, woman or not.
Because of Big Two Hearted River, I’ll read him for another reason though, a personal one. Because especially, while we are fishing, Hemingway helps me to remember that we do control our own metaphors. That though blurry on their own, the instructions on how to live do make sense if you’re patient enough to hang them together.
Big Two Hearted River teaches me about hope, and loss, and patience and persistence. And above all, about pursuit. It teaches me the value of being solitary, the certainty of fear and the range of choices I have of how and when to face that. It reminds me to do a simple thing gently, and to do it all the time.
And it also teaches me, in extreme technical detail, about actual fishing, and in the fullness of time in a changing world, perhaps that’s a gift in itself.
Hemingway, Ernest, Fiest: The Sun Also Rises (Arrow Books, London, 2004) p.102
Hemingway, Ernest, The Nick Adams Stories: Big Two Hearted River (Charles Scribner's Sons; Reissue edition,1981) p. 179
Ross, Lillian, 'How do you like it now, Gentleman', The New Yorker (New York, May 15, 1950), digital edition
Stein, Gertrude, Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein, Ed. Carl Van Vechten (New York: Vintage, 1962) p. 207
Young, Phillip, Ernest Hemingway: A Reconsideration (University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, Publisher, 1966, revised edition), p. 47
MELISSA CHAMBERS is an ensemble theatre director and co-founder of The Signal House. She has created shows for companies in Australia (where she is originally from), New York (where she lived from 2008–2014), and in London for The Signal House. She is a visiting director at East 15 Acting School and has taught at Rose Bruford College and RCSSD. Her original work has toured to festivals in New York, Amsterdam and Norway. She has been previously published in the journal Freerange.
(Image credit: Leaping Trout, 1888, Winslow Homer, Metropolitan Museum of Art)