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This is a book about death written by a lusty sixty-year-old man who had reason to fear that his own death was imminent. It is also a loving account of his return to those heroic days when he was young and learning about life in the bull rings of Spain.
In the summer of 1952 Life magazine headquarters in Tokyo dispatched a courier to the front lines in Korea with an intoxicating message. After prowling the mountainous terrain along which desultory action was taking place, he found me at a forward post with a small detachment of Marines.
"Life is engaged in a tremendous venture," he told me in conspiratorial whispers. "We're going to devote an entire issue to one manuscript. And what makes the attempt so daring, it's fiction."
The name exploded in the cavelike foxhole with such force, such imagery, that I was instantly hooked. I had always admired Hemingway, considered him our best writer and certainly the man who had set free the English sentence and the crisp vocabulary. As I wandered about the world I constantly met foreign writers who went out of their way to assure me that whereas they considered themselves as good as Hemingway, they did not want to mimic him. They had their own style and were satisfied with it. And I began to wonder why they never said: "I don't want to write like Faulkner..." -- or Fitzgerald, or Wolfe, or Sartre, or Camus. It was always Hemingway they didn't want to copy, which made me suspect that that's precisely what the lot of them were doing.
If you had asked me the day before that meeting with the Life man I'd have said: "I admire Hemingway immensely. He gave us all a new challenge. But of course I don't want to write like him."
The emissary continued: "With so much riding on this experiment Life can't afford to take chances."
"On Hemingway? How could you lose?"
"Apparently you haven't been following the scoreboard. The critics murdered his last offering."
"Across the River and Into the Trees? It wasn't too hot. But you don't condemn an artist for one..."
"That's not the point. They not only blasted the novel, which was pathetic, but they called into question his legitimacy, his right to publish any further."
"I can't believe that."
"Didn't you read that savage burlesque of him and his novel? That hurt."
"I missed it, being over here. But you can't burlesque a man unless he's very good to begin with...unless readers are so familiar with his work that they catch the jokes. You don't waste your time teasing a nothing."
"This wasn't teasing. This was a thrust at the jugular."
"Hemingway probably told them to go to hell."
"Maybe, but he was deeply hurt. And Life is painfully aware that the attacks cast a shadow over whatever he publishes next." The man paused to study the battlefield in front of our dugout, then came to the point: "We have one hell of a bundle -- money, prestige -- riding on this one-shot issue."
"Why come to see me?"
"We want to present the story in the best possible light."
"What can I do? I don't know Hemingway."
"Do you respect him?"
"He's one of my idols."
"That's what the editors hoped." He looked me in the eye, then said: "They want you to read the galleys...make up your own mind...no pressure from us. And if you like what you see, give us a statement we can use in nationwide publicity."
"To what purpose?"
"To kill any lingering reminders of those savage reviews. Knock in the head suspicions that the old man might be through."
"Tell me the truth. Have you asked other writers better known than me? Have they refused?"
"I really don't know. But I do know the editors think that your approach to war and the role of men makes you eligible. Also, they think readers will listen."
"Is Hemingway in on this?"
"He would be mortified if he knew we thought he needed help. He'll know about it when he sees the copy."
The decision was easy and automatic. I assured the emissary that I would read the manuscript, praying that it would be good, and if it was I would not hesitate to say so boldly. Because a writer just getting into his career as I then was rarely has an opportunity to pay tribute to one of the masters.
"Guard this with your life," the emissary said. "This is the only copy outside New York. And if you decide to make a statement, get it to us in a hurry." Placing the rather frail parcel in my hands, he nodded, warned me not to leave it where others might spy, and left to catch the Tokyo plane.
The next hours were magic. In a poorly lighted corner of a Marine hut in a remote corner of the South Korea mountains I tore open the package and began reading that inspired account of an old fisherman battling with his great fish and striving to fight off the sharks which were determined to steal it from him. From Hemingway's opening words through the quiet climaxes to the organlike coda I was enthralled, but I was so bedazzled by the pyrotechnics that I did not trust myself to write my report immediately after finishing.
I knew that Hemingway was a necromancer who adopted every superior Balzacian trick in the book, each technical device that Flaubert and Tolstoy and Dickens had found useful, so that quite often his work seemed better than it really was. I loved his writing, but he had proved in Across the River and Into the Trees that he could be banal, and I did not want to go out on a limb if he had done so again.
But as I sat alone in that corner, the galleys pushed far from me as if I wished to be shed of their sorcery, it became overwhelmingly clear that I had been in the presence of a masterpiece. No other word would do. The Old Man and the Sea was one of those incandescent miracles that gifted writers can sometimes produce. (I would learn that Hemingway had dashed it off in complete form in eight weeks without any rewriting.) And as I reflected on its perfection of form and style I found myself comparing it with those other gemlike novellas that had meant so much to me: Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome, Joseph Conrad's Youth, Henry James's The Aspern Papers, and Faulkner's The Bear.
When I had properly positioned Hemingway's tale among its peers I hid the galleys beneath my bedroll and walked out into the Korean night, agitated by this close contact with great writing, and as I picked my way across the difficult terrain I made up my mind that regardless of what critics sager than I had said about Hemingway's previous fumbles, I would have to flaunt my opinion that The Old Man was a masterpiece, and to hell with caution.
I am embarrassed to state that I have no record of what I actually reported. My judgment appeared in full-page ads across the country, and I think I said something about how happy writers like me were that the champ had regained the title. No one reading my words could doubt that here was a book worth immediate reading.
At any rate, Life used my statement enthusiastically and paid me, but what I didn't know was that while their Tokyo agent was handing me my top-secret copy of the galleys -- "the only set outside New York" -- Life was distributing another six hundred sets to opinionmakers across the United States and Europe, each one top secret and unique. When the issue containing Hemingway's novella appeared during the first week of September 1952, it was already an international sensation. One of the cleverest promotions ever orchestrated had resulted in immediate sales of 5,318,650 copies of the magazine, the swift rise of the book version to head the best-seller list, and a Nobel Prize.
Hemingway had won back the championship with a stupendous ninth-round knockout.
The success of this daring publishing venture had a surprising aftermath. Life was so pleased with its coup that the editors decided to try their luck a second time, and when they cast about for some writer who might do another compact one-shot, they remembered the man who had stuck his neck out when they needed a launching statement for their Hemingway.
Another emissary, this time from New York with lots of corporate braid, came to see me, in Tokyo I believe, with a dazzling proposal: "We had such an unprecedented success with The Old Man that we'd like to go back to the well again. And we think you're the man to do it."
"There aren't many Hemingways around."
"On your own level you might do it. You understand men in action. You have any stories in the back of your mind?"
I have always tried to answer such questions forthrightly. I love writing. I love the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions. Of course I had a dozen ideas, most of them worthless when inspected closely, but a couple of them seemed to have real staying power.
"I've been doing some combat flying over Korea..."
"At your age?"
"And a lot of patrol work on the ground. I see certain big outlines."
"Like it's perilous for a democracy to engage in war without declaring war. Like it's morally wrong to send young men into action while old men stay home and earn a bundle without any war taxes or deprivations. And it is especially wrong to call a few men arbitrarily into action while allowing others just as eligible to stay home free."
"Would your story be beating those drums?"
"I don't beat drums."
"Write it. I think we might have something."
Driven by a fire I had rarely known, and excited by the prospect of following in the shoes of Ernest Hemingway, I put aside all other work. On 6 July 1953 Life offered its second complete-in-one-issue novella, The Bridges at Toko-ri. This was less than a year after the great success of The Old Man and, as before, the editors protected themselves by asking another writer to authenticate the legitimacy of their offering. This time they chose Herman Wouk to say good things, and although I cannot remember what I said about Hemingway, I recall quite clearly what Wouk said about me: "His eyes have seen the glory." That became the sales pitch this time, but a friend of mine writing a review for the New York Herald Tribune phrased it more cautiously:
This is, says an advance publicity release, "the first major work of fiction to be written expressly for Life." We are not sure whether they mean they ordered a major work of fiction from Mr. Michener, who duly complied, or that the novel happily turned out to be a major work of fiction after it was completed. We are not even sure, for that matter, whether it is a major work of fiction...
Although the sales of my effort did not come close to matching those of Hemingway's, the second try was sufficiently rewarding to start the editors looking for a third and a fourth successor, thinking that this could become a yearly ritual. I believe they planned to keep the daisy chain going: me to applaud Hemingway's effort, and then write my own; Wouk to applaud mine and then to write his, and whoever cheered Wouk to write the fourth. Alas, Wouk had nothing in the works that he wished to throw into the race, so Life hit upon a British writer with a reputation almost equal to Hemingway's, but his novella fell on its face disastrously, and Number Four was abandoned. Life's one-shot innovation worked sensationally with a vintage Hemingway. It was moderately acceptable with someone like me, and a flop if the writing was not both inspired and compact. The experiment died.
I met Hemingway only once. Late one wintry afternoon in New York my longtime friend Leonard Lyons, columnist for the New York Post and a sometime confidant and travelling companion of Hemingway's, called me: "Papa's up from Cuba. We're here with Toots. Come on over."
When I reached the famous bistro I found Shor in his favorite corner dispensing insults: "Imagine a man of my substance wastin' a whole day with this bunch of writin' creeps." Hemingway, Lyons, and two gofers whose names I did not catch were trading war stories, and although Leonard had assured me that Papa wanted to see the man who had stuck his neck out in defense of The Old Man, Hemingway made no mention of that fact; indeed, he was so self-conscious and rude that he even refused to acknowledge that I had joined the party.
Two exchanges softened him. At one point he said, referring to my hometown: "I never wanted to be known as 'that gifted Philadelphia writer.' I wanted to go up against the champions, Flaubert, Pío Baroja." He was astonished when I said that I had once paid my respects to Baroja, a down-to-earth novelist whom I held in great regard. Shortly before Baroja's death, Hemingway had told the salty old man: "You deserved the Nobel Prize, not me." And we spoke affectionately of this hard-grained Spaniard.
More surprising to Hemingway was the fact that I had once travelled with a cuadrilla of Mexican bullfighters, and he was delighted to learn that I had known the Mexican greats: Juan Silveti with his cigar, fearless Luis Freg, drowned in a boat accident in Mérida, Carnicerito de Méjico, killed in the bull ring, the superb Armillita with no chin and never a major goring, the gaudy Lorenzo Garza, the engaging Silverio Pérez.
We spent some time with these matadors, Hemingway condemning most of the Mexicans to second category, but then I happened to mention the Spaniard Cagancho, the flamboyant gypsy whom Hemingway had respected for the man's unashamed cowardice. This led to a discussion of the corridas I had seen in Spain as a university student on vacation, and when he learned that at my first fight in Valencia -- Domingo Ortega, Marcial Lalanda, El Estudiante -- I had fallen under the spell of Ortega, a dour, hard fighting man, he told Toots: "Any man who chooses Domingo as his hero knows something," and I told him: "When I was last in Madrid for San Ysidro, Ortega was advisor to the presidente and remembering me from when I trailed along behind him he invited me to join him in the palco."
Hemingway nodded approvingly, but he could not bring himself to thank me for what I had said about The Old Man, nor did I wish to bring up the subject. Not long after, in July 1961, I heard that he was dead at the age of sixty-one.
The last extended work of any importance that Hemingway wrote was another assignment for Life, and one can visualize the clever editors of that magazine at some strategy session in 1959 proposing: "Wouldn't it be great if we could get Hemingway to bring his bullfighting book up to date?" All present, remembering the great success Life had had with The Old Man, must have jumped at this suggestion, and when it was presented to Hemingway he must have liked it, too.
In 1930 he had published in Fortune a longish, knowing article on bullfighting as a sport and an industry and this led, two years later, to the remarkable illustrated essay, Death in the Afternoon. A disaster with the critics, who could not understand why a writer of his talent should waste himself on such arcane material, it quickly became a cult book.
Those of us who liked bullfighting recognized this as a loving, faithful, opinionated account of an art form which few non-Spanish speakers understood. We applauded his daring in bringing it to an indifferent public, and we knew it was destined for a long subterranean life. It was one hell of a book.
Succeeding decades had seen it climb to respectability, with Scribners selling hundreds of thousands of copies and reprinting it dozens of times. As bullfighting became popular, with several motion pictures of merit gaining it new adherents, Death in the Afternoon became a kind of Bible, with library aficionados who had never seen a fight ardently debating the relative accomplishments of Belmonte, Joselito, and Niño de la Palma. I had kept the book with me in Mexico when I travelled with bullfighters.
In 1959 Hemingway went back to Spain and during that long, lovely summer when he was already beginning to suffer the ravages which would in the end destroy him -- monomania about being spied upon, suspicion of his most trusted friends, doubt about his capacity to survive -- this powerful man, so much a legend of his own creation, returned to the vibrant scenes of his young manhood. With great good luck he arrived in Spain just as two wonderfully handsome and charismatic young matadors, brothers-in-law, were about to engage in a protracted mano a mano, hand-to-hand duel, which would carry them and their partisans to most of the famous bull rings in Spain.
The matadors were Luis Miguel Dominguín, thirty-three years old and usually the more artistic, and Antonio Ordóñez, twenty-seven, the brilliant son of Cayetano Ordóñez (who fought under the name Niño de la Palma), whom Hemingway had praised in Death in the Afternoon. Fairly matched in skill and bravery, they were sure to put on a stupendous show. It proved to be a glorious summer, a most dangerous one, and Hemingway adopted that concept for the title of his three-part series, The Dangerous Summer.
Certain facts about the manuscript he produced are significant. Life had commissioned him to write a crisp, 10,000-word article about what it was like to go back, but he became so obsessed by the drama of the summer -- much of which he superimposed upon a solid base -- that he was powerless to halt the flood of words. The first draft ran to 120,000 words. The polished manuscript, from which the Life excerpts and the present book were edited, ran to about 70,000. The present version, which contains about 45,000 words, endeavors to give the reader an honest rendering of what was best in this massive affair.
I cannot be critical of the vast amount of overwriting Hemingway did -- 120,000 words when 10,000 were all that was needed -- because I often work that way myself. I have consistently turned in to magazines and newspapers three to four times the number of words requested, prefaced by the note that will accompany these pages when I submit them to Scribners:
You are invited to edit this overlong manuscript to fit the space available. You are well-regarded editors and cutting is your job.
Even in the writing of a novel I persistently write more than is required, then cut back toward the bone. When a recent publication asked me for six sharp pages on a pressing topic, I warned them: "In six pages I can't even say hello. But I'll invite you to cut."
I wish I could have heard what went on in Life's editorial offices when they saw what their request for 10,000 words had produced. A friend once sent me a photostat of a marginal note which had appeared on one of my submissions to a different magazine: "Somebody ought to tell this son-of-a-bitch that he's writing for a magazine, not an encyclopedia."
What Life did was to employ Hemingway's good friend and travelling companion A. E. Hotchner to edit the manuscript, cutting it ferociously. Intended originally as a one-shot nostalgic essay, it would appear as a three-part extended account of the peripatetic duel between the two matadors. I have been permitted to see Hemingway's original version of Part II of the Life series and can say with certainty that no magazine could have published the entire version. No book publisher would have wanted to do so either, because it was redundant, wandering in parts, and burdened with bullfight minutiae. I doubt if there will ever be a reason to publish the whole, and I am sure that even a reader who idolizes the author loses little in the present version of the book. Specifically, I think Hotchner and the editors of Life did a good job in compressing Hemingway's outpouring into manageable form, and I believe that the editors of Scribners have done an even better job in presenting the essence in this book.
I was in Spain following the bulls shortly after the Life series appeared under the agreed-upon title The Dangerous Summer, so I was in a position to evaluate its acceptance by the international bullfighting public, a suspicious, envious lot. Men and women alike took strong stands, and the consensus seemed to be: It was great that Don Ernesto came back. He reported the temporada enthusiastically. He was too partial to his favorite boy. And be should be stood against the wall and fusilladed for the things be said about Manolete.
It is generally agreed among bullfight fans that the two greatest matadors of recent history have been Juan Belmonte, the twisted little gnome of the 1920s, and Manolete, the tall, tragic scarecrow of the 1940s. Some add the Mexican Carlos Arruza, dead before his time, and bobbysoxers and tourists from France deem the recent phenomenon El Cordobés worthy of inclusion, although purists dismiss him with contempt because of his excessive posturing.
For an American outsider like Hemingway, no matter his long service to the art, to barge into Spain and denigrate Manolete was like a Spaniard sticking his nose into Augusta and claiming that Bobby Jones did not know how to play golf. I heard some extremely harsh indictments, including threats in the tapa bars to beat up on Hemingway if he dared to show his face, but as time passed the castigation became less severe until even Manolete's partisans acknowledged that to have had a Nobel premiado like Hemingway treat their obsession seriously, and in a magazine of Life's circulation, was a desirable thing. Don Ernesto was re-enshrined as the patron saint of the art.
More serious, I think, was the charge that in reporting upon the mano a mano between the brothers-in-law Hemingway had abused the position of the writer by siding so outrageously with one of them, Ordóñez, whom he knew best and obviously idolized. Again and again he betrayed his partisanship -- which was justified by the awesome performances of his man -- in sentences that an impartial reporter should not have used: "I do not know what Luis Miguel (Dominguín) did nor how he slept the night before the first decisive fight at Valencia. People told me he had stayed up very late but they always say things after something has happened. One thing I knew; that he was worrying about the fight and we were not." (My italics.)
Long after publication of the articles, Hemingway confessed that he had not treated Dominguín fairly and half-apologized, but the damage had been done. This book stands as an unwarranted attack on Dominguín, who was not as outclassed in that long duel as Hemingway claims.
The articles had not been in circulation long when rumors began to reach us that Life considered their publication a disaster. Readers were impatient with the long digressions that not even Hotchner's careful editing could eliminate. The newness that had greeted Death in the Afternoon was replaced by a jadedness which caused readers to mutter: "We've read all this before." We were assured, erroneously it turned out, that Life had actually halted the series in midflight because the reception had been so negative, and we heard other reports, accurate we found later, that Hemingway himself was disgusted with the whole affair, for he realized belatedly that he had made a mistake in doubling back in the first place and in writing so copiously in the second. Representatives from Life admitted that they were not entirely happy with the way it had turned out. The text did not appear in book form, and Hemingway was understood to be happy when the matter died an unlamented death. An aficionado from Bar Choko said: "This time it was death in September."
My own judgment, then and now, was that Hemingway was unwise to have attempted this return to his youth; that he tried to hang far too much on the slender, esoteric thread of one series of bullfights; but that he produced a manuscript that revealed a great deal about a major figure of American literature. It is a record worth having.
To the lover of taurine literature, Hemingway's description of the historic Málaga corrida of 14 August 1959 in Chapter 11 is one of the most evocative and exact summaries of a corrida ever penned. It is a masterpiece. That afternoon the brothers-in-law fought an exceptional set of Domecq bulls, and the fame of the corrida still reverberates, because the two men cut ten ears, four tails, and two hooves. There had never before been such a performance in an arena of category.
Hemingway could have ended his manuscript on that high note, but because he was an artist who loved both the drama and the twists and turns of the arena, he ended his series with a corrida of much different quality, and on its tragiheroic note he ended what he had to say about the two men whose footsteps he had dogged like a starstruck little boy.
To those, and they are legion and of good sense, who will protest that Hemingway should have wasted so much attention on a brutal affair like bullfighting, or that a major publisher should resuscitate his essay, or that I am defending the work, I can only say that many Americans, Englishmen, and Europeans generally have found in the bullfight something worthy of attention. That one of our premier artists chose to elucidate it both in his youth and in his older age is worthy of note, and I have never been ashamed to follow in his steps.
Bullfighting is far less barbarous than American boxing, and the death of men comes far less often, in recent years something like sixty deaths in the boxing ring to one in the bull ring. And few Americans are aware that our football, high school and college, kills a shockingly higher number of young men than bullfighting and makes paraplegics of scores of others.
Of course, bullfighting has elements of brutality, but so does surgery, hunting, and the income tax. The Dangerous Summer is an account of the brutal, wonderful, challenging things that happened during one temporada in Spain.
Introduction copyright © 1985 by James A. Michener
Posted December 1, 2010
If you have read his original novel about bullfighting, Death In The Afternoon, you will not be disappointed with the descriptions and stories that he shares in this book. You are instructed about one of the world's most controversial traditions, as well as entertained with the non stop rivalry of Antonio Ordoñez and Luis Miguel Dominguín. This novel is intensely written and shares the love that Don Ernesto had for the sport with his readers.
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Posted July 9, 2013
Posted August 5, 2011
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