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In the panorama of twentieth-century literature, no figure rivals Ernest Heming way's reputation for taking chances. His exploits in war, expatriate apprenticeship, exotic travel, doomed love affairs, personal demons, and even his shocking final act of suicide are legendary. In Hemingway: So Far from Simple, Donald F. Bouchard examines how Hemingway's lust for danger and the unknown extended to his writing as an "experience of the limit." He took risks as a writer despite the sometimes harsh words of critics and ...
In the panorama of twentieth-century literature, no figure rivals Ernest Heming way's reputation for taking chances. His exploits in war, expatriate apprenticeship, exotic travel, doomed love affairs, personal demons, and even his shocking final act of suicide are legendary. In Hemingway: So Far from Simple, Donald F. Bouchard examines how Hemingway's lust for danger and the unknown extended to his writing as an "experience of the limit." He took risks as a writer despite the sometimes harsh words of critics and the dismay of readers. Where some of his contemporaries, most notably F. Scott Fitzgerald, stumbled by seeking fortune and glory, Bouchard demonstrates that Hemingway stubbornly refused to allow dishonesty or hypocrisy to taint his body of work. His myth may stand on his colorful life, but his work continues to endure because, as he said, "I only think about writing truly."
Less and less frequently do we encounter people with the ability to tell a tale properly. Walter Benjamin, "The Storyteller"
There is, of course, the problem of sustenance. A Moveable Feast
During an interlude of the hunt in Green Hills of Africa, Hemingway coalesces his youthful writing with his experiences of war. The catalyst fusing his private obsession as writer with the major public event of his time is a reading of Tolstoy's Sevastopol. "It was a very young book," he writes, "and had one fine description of fighting in it, where the French take the redoubt and I thought about Tolstoy and about what a great advantage an experience of war was to a writer." In this characteristic observation, Hemingway suggests the retrospective view of his emergence from the vignettes and stories of In Our Time through A Farewell to Arms. A double objective marks Hemingway's first writing: mapping the effects of war on his generation and, simultaneously, storming the redoubt of new writing in Paris during the 1920s. In the retrospective of Green Hills of Africa, WWI is more than an impetus to Hemingway's activity as writer, more than the material he would "represent." It is the basis of his differentiation, even eccentricity, with respect to earlier writers and contemporaries: "It was one of the major subjects and certainly one of the hardest to write truly of and those writers who had not seen it were always very jealous and tried to make it seem unimportant, or abnormal, or a disease as a subject, while really, it was just something quite irreplaceable that they had missed" (p. 70). Hemingway speaks to the issue of "rarity" in this passage, the exceptional nature of his writing and experience and the "statements," highly individualistic in their formation, that constitute his difference. It also points to the importance that Hemingway gives to his specific development and the "progress" already made in his career. In short, the experience of war is a hard-gained differentiation and the basis of the cultural significance of his works.
Throughout Hemingway's first decade as a writer, the experience of war was inescapable, as specific subject or as the general horizon encapsulating domestic scenes. Part of the achievement of A Farewell to Arms was in allowing Hemingway to end the apprenticeship that originated in his reaction to WWI and to begin a new phase of his career. In any event, his first war was decidedly perplexing and its effect not easily overcome, because it stood for the general collapse of individual values that overshadowed particular national defeats. It was the individual and the value of individual experience that most suffered the brutalizing effects of war. It was the individual who returned from the battlefield poorer in experience, incapable of telling his story because personal experience was now literally unaccountable, without meaning. Impersonal forces, tactical decisions, and chance events canceled individual initiative, and to recount this story was to tell a tale that was incomprehensible. Thus, the basis of a pointless vignette of In Our Time: "We'd jammed an absolutely perfect barricade across the bridge.... It was absolutely topping. They tried to get over it, and we potted them from forty yards. They rushed it, and officers came out alone and worked on it. It was an absolutely perfect obstacle. Their officers were very fine. We were frightfully put out when we heard the flank had gone, and we had to fall back" (p. 113). Measured by this scene, we can begin to appreciate Walter Benjamin's observation "that men returned from the battlefield grown silent-not richer, but poorer in communicable experience." Clearly, Benjamin shared the pathos of In Our Time: "A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body."
Another well-known vignette shows a wounded Nick Adams lying among the rubble of a war-torn village:
"Senta Rinaldi. Senta. You and me we've made a separate peace." Rinaldi lay still in the sun breathing with difficulty. "Not patriots." Nick turned his head carefully away smiling sweatily. Rinaldi was a disappointing audience. (p. 139)
Nick's isolated condition is coterminus with his sensitivity to "the tiny, fragile human body." Further, in three of the strategically positioned stories of In Our Time, we encounter the isolated substance of impossible communications. The first story of the collection, "On the Quay at Smyrna," deploys the disembodied voice of a nameless officer. It introduces us to pointless wartime atrocities along with equally pointless misunderstandings among the enlisted men under his command. The shock of these experiences is inexpressible, except in the language of dreams ("That was the only time in my life I got so I dreamed about things") or bluff understatement: "It was all a pleasant business. My word yes a most pleasant business" (p. 88). "Soldier's Home," a middle story of In Our Time, delineates another aspect of personal loss. Recently returned from the war, Krebs finds it impossible to convey the "cool, valuable quality" he experienced at the front. His audience, he learns, was "not thrilled" by his stories. Consequently, he discovers a new value in keeping to himself, now an alien in his country, a stranger among friends and family. In the last story of In Our Time, we again find a soldier's return: "The story was about coming back from the war but there was no mention of the war in it" (MF, p. 76). Nevertheless, the effect of war is readily sensed in "Big Two Hearted River"-in Nick's self-imposed isolation, in his suppression of the past and suppression of thought, and in the skewed reality of this narrowed situation in the present. The small town of Seney, Nick first discovers, has been destroyed by fire; the accumulated experience of successive generations is flattened beyond recognition, beyond retrieval. Nick is fully alone, "a tiny, fragile human body," under the unchanging clouds of a northern Michigan sky. He has his "pack," nothing else.
"Big Two Hearted River," in particular, shows that Hemingway's interest in war extends beyond its possible use as specific subject matter. In his view, WWI dramatically altered the writer's relationship to his audience, to personal experience, to language, and to forms of writing. If "Big Two Hearted River" is the last story of In Our Time, it is because WWI placed a special burden on the writer, because experience and a difficult language, in the failure of ordinary language, were now inextricably linked. It might be said that the writer's exertion against a recalcitrant language reflected important aspects of a culture's identity and fate. No longer able or, perhaps, willing to identify with his culture's essential beliefs, the artist's sense of experience and the particularity of his wartime experience is only matched by images of emotional intensity. Language, then, is not the basis of normal communication and the writer no longer speaks for the dominant culture. To better understand this curious historical reversal of the artist's role, what it means to end In Our Time with a tense fishing story, we need to explore the background out of which "Big Two Hearted River" arose. As we shall see, this background specifically involves Hemingway's preoccupation with his writing and the experience aligned with the act of writing. For this reason, its significance as an isolated act extends to the culture at large.
"Big Two Hearted River" is one of two central stories of Hemingway's beginning as a writer. The other, to be discussed later, is "Up in Michigan." Both stories concern "beginning intentions." They required a fundamental realignment and discovery on Hemingway's part and they continued to be replayed throughout his career. At first glance, we find an outdoor fishing scene-an idiosyncratic boy's life-and an explicit, crude seduction in a small Michigan town (with arresting dialogue). Both are primitive in the sense that they go deeper, are less changeable, more permanent than much of the Paris activity of either The Sun Also Rises or A Moveable Feast or in stories like "Cat in the Rain." Both are foundational-the visible, open air of the outdoors and the hidden, secret sexuality found in many of Hemingway's stories.
In a direct way, "Big Two Hearted River" is inaugural of Hemingway's career. According to A Moveable Feast, it is the first story written after the theft of his manuscripts at the Gare de Lyon. Prior to this event, Hemingway was precisely an apprentice writer, modeling his writing on Sherwood Anderson and Gertrude Stein or as a disciple of Pound, involving himself in avant-garde projects. This is a period of dependence and the establishment of artistic alliances and it is brought to a close, as Pound said, by "an act of Gawd" (L, p. 77n).
Hemingway had made earlier difficult choices with regard to his desire to become a writer, but now he was faced with an even more decisive question. What kind of writer would he be? His alternatives are either to write a novel or to continue "with great difficulty to write paragraphs that would be the distillation of what made a novel" (MF, p. 75). Although writing a novel seems a more plausible course-"it was what I should do if we were to eat regularly"-he acts out of a deeper compulsion: "What did I know best that I had not written about and lost? What did I know truly and care for the most? There was no choice at all. There was only the choice of streets to take you fastest to where you worked" (p. 76). Disillusionment has led Hemingway to his necessity and individuality as a writer and to the beginning of a "development" that would be his mainstay throughout his career. Especially early in his career, we find many instances of Hemingway's preoccupation with the nature of his text, the critical choice that begins and sustains a career. In any event, the logic underlying Hemingway's reflection is based on a "fortuitous and inevitable" event that sets aside the earlier work that was produced out of conscious volition or the "lyric facility of boyhood that was as perishable as youth was." His discovery of an essential imperative of modern writing is expressed in the simplest formulation: "There was no choice at all." What was needed was to put his suffering to work, through impressions that are "hewn out of life, delivered in a work."
In an opening section of A Moveable Feast, Hemingway speaks of those times "when starting a new story and (he) could not get it going." Then he thinks, "Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know." What then is a true sentence? Is it, in the simplest sense, a true "sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say" (p. 12)? If so, what makes it true? Obviously, the sentence has a relationship to contemporary reality and to his present experience. Does that relationship make the sentence true? What decisively connects an observation, however faithfully recorded, to the artist's imperative that "there was no choice at all"? As a reflection of his apprenticeship, A Moveable Feast suggests the kind of acuity that Gilles Deleuze finds in Proust, who underwent a similar, visible apprenticeship. Proust's "search" for truth, writes Deleuze, led him to discount the philosophical attraction of "the method." In its place, Proust introduces the double idea of "constraint" and "chance." Truth depends on an encounter, on an event that forces true thought to arise and that determines the nature of an ongoing search that is the substance of the literary text. "The accident of encounters and the pressure of constraints are Proust's two fundamental themes." Given these conditions, the genuine "true sentence" has a necessity not found in volitional activity; it is found, not willed.
"Art is the apotheosis of solitude," says Beckett in his study of Proust; "the artistic tendency is not expansive, but a contraction." "Big Two Hearted River" contracts the casualties of war and transplants accidents and misfortunes into the emerging outline of the writer's necessity. (In the opening passage of A Moveable Feast, Hemingway describes his technique for writing short stories: "That was called transplanting yourself, I thought" [MF, p. 5].) The story quickly subordinates an initial scene of devastation, because "the river was there. It swirled against the log piles of the bridge" (p. 209). Recalling this crucial renewal in A Moveable Feast, Hemingway writes:
When I stopped writing I did not want to leave the river where I could see the trout in the pool, its surface pushing and swelling smooth against the resistance of the log-driven piles of the bridge. The story was about coming back from the war but there was no mention of the war in it.
But in the morning the river would be there and I must make it and the country and all that would happen. There were days ahead to be doing that each day. No other thing mattered. In my pocket was the money from Germany so there was no problem. When that was gone some other money would come in. All I must do now was to stay sound and good in my head until morning when I would start to work again. (pp. 76-77)
At the moment of greatest loss, Hemingway unexpectedly finds his life's work and the possibility of transforming the personal experience he "knows best" into a work, "excavated, pre-existing within the artist, a law of his nature." Hemingway has undergone a conversion-"no other thing mattered"-and it has the unshakable confidence of any new faith, "when that was gone ..." Written in the last years of Hemingway's life, A Moveable Feast is a testimony to the career that renews beginning intentions and to the ever-continuing text "when I would start to work again."
The experience of loss is basic to the definition of Hemingway's "code hero." But it is important to emphasize that it is the experience of the artist that anchors Hemingway's codified scene, perhaps most insistently when he is nowhere to be seen. The writer deals with the consequences of his disruptive time and, of note, he recognizes and prizes a highly limited reality. In his Paris apprenticeship, Hemingway observed the excesses of expatriot colleagues and friends and its effect on their work and personal relationships. The portrait of Gertrude Stein in A Moveable Feast serves as an example, and there are many others. In each case, there is a transgression of limits and an exhaustion of talent, of work, and finally, of life. But Hemingway, as we shall see, was also drawn to this "limit-experience" throughout his career.
In any case, resources must be husbanded in a beginning career, rules established: "All I must do now was to stay sound and good in my head ..." Nick Adams, for his part, must resist the lure of the swamp: "He felt a reaction against deep wading with the water deepening-up under his armpits, to hook big trout in places impossible to land them" (p. 231). Hemingway's "constraints" are self-created as a condition of his work. The discipline of a detailed routine, described in A Moveable Feast, as accompanying the writing process is not decoration.
In "Big Two Hearted River," detailed activity is set against a limited natural world. In the renewal of the story, we find a reflection of artistic reversals and adaptations that secures pleasure: "I did not want to leave the river where I could see the trout in the pool, its surface pushing and swelling against the log-driven piles of the bridge." Writing substitutes manageable rules and, as a repeated exertion against resistances, it creates a pleasurable effect of "swelling smooth." A more explicit instance of this process is found in Death in the Afternoon, where the importance of the second act of the bullfight is stressed as a required transformation of the bull's "free, wild quality":
When I learned the things that can be done with him as an artistic property when he is properly slowed and still has kept his bravery and his strength I kept my admiration for him always, but felt no more sympathy for him than for a canvas or the marble a sculpture cuts or the dry powder your skis cut through. (pp. 98-99)
"Transplanting" to an artistic medium, not without its own specific dangers, is fundamental to the integrity of an ensuing action in which the artist is indistinguishable from the totality of the "work in progress." This, for Hemingway, is the strenuously achieved figure of simplicity on the basis of which "no other thing mattered."
Excerpted from Hemingway by Donald F. Bouchard Copyright © 2010 by Donald F. Bouchard. Excerpted by permission.
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A Note on the Texts 9
Part 1 A Twenties "Emergence"
Chapter I "Necessary Measures": Writing and the Inner Experience 33
Chapter II Rejecting Expatriate Practice 49
Part 2 "Its Fullest Flower at its Rottenest Point"
Chapter III What You Make of It 69
Chapter IV "My Book Has Created Me" 93
Part 3 "Now there is Politics too"
Chapter V Being Collected 115
Chapter VI "How It Really Was" 125
"Myself I Must Remake" 147