New Critical Approaches to the Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway

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With an Overview by Paul Smith and a Checklist to Hemingway Criticism, 1975–1990

New Critical Approaches to the Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway is an all-new sequel to Benson’s highly acclaimed 1975 book, which provided the first comprehensive anthology of criticism of Ernest Hemingway’s masterful short stories. Since that time the availability of Hemingway’s papers, coupled with new critical and theoretical approaches, has enlivened and enlarged the field of American literary studies. This companion volume reflects current scholarship and draws together essays that were either published during the past decade or written for this collection.
The contributors interpret a variety of individual stories from a number of different critical points of view—from a Lacanian reading of Hemingway’s “After the Storm” to a semiotic analysis of “A Very Short Story” to an historical-biographical analysis of “Old Man at the Bridge.” In identifying the short story as one of Hemingway’s principal thematic and technical tools, this volume reaffirms a focus on the short story as Hemingway’s best work. An overview essay covers Hemingway criticism published since the last volume, and the bibliographical checklist to Hemingway short fiction criticism, which covers 1975 to mid-1989, has doubled in size.

Contributors. Debra A. Moddelmog, Ben Stotzfus, Robert Scholes, Hubert Zapf, Susan F. Beegel, Nina Baym, William Braasch Watson, Kenneth Lynn, Gerry Brenner, Steven K. Hoffman, E. R. Hagemann, Robert W. Lewis, Wayne Kvam, George Monteiro, Scott Donaldson, Bernard Oldsey, Warren Bennett, Kenneth G. Johnston, Richard McCann, Robert P. Weeks, Amberys R. Whittle, Pamela Smiley, Jeffrey Meyers, Robert E. Fleming, David R. Johnson, Howard L. Hannum, Larry Edgerton, William Adair, Alice Hall Petry, Lawrence H. Martin Jr., Paul Smith

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Editorial Reviews

A sequel (with no duplication) to the 1975 The short stories of Ernest Hemingway: critical essays. Twenty-eight previously published and five new essays (plus an overview essay) reflect the state of Hemingway scholarship since 1975. Includes a checklist of all the short story criticism from 1975 through early 1990. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822310679
  • Publisher: Duke University Press
  • Publication date: 12/28/1990
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 512
  • Product dimensions: 6.02 (w) x 9.17 (h) x 1.62 (d)

Read an Excerpt

New Critical Approaches to the Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway

By Jackson J. Benson

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1990 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-8234-8


Critical Approaches

Narrative Voice

The Unifying Consciousness of a Divided Conscience: Nick Adams as Author of In Our Time

Debra A. Moddelmog

In the lengthy passage that was Hemingway's original ending to "Big Two-Hearted River," Nick Adams, having caught "one good trout" (NAS, 213), rests and reflects on many things, particularly his writing. For readers of In Our Time, who have arrived with "Big Two-Hearted River" at the book's final story, this interior monologue (had Hemingway kept it) would have revealed some interesting facts, but none more so than that Nick has written two of the stories we have just read: "Indian Camp" and "My Old Man." Indeed, in the final scene of this ending, Nick heads back to camp "holding something in his head" (NAS, 220) and is apparently preparing to write "Big Two-Hearted River" itself. But lest we misunderstand these stories, Nick also explains his method of composition: "Nick in the stories was never himself. He made him up. Of course he'd never seen an Indian woman having a baby. That was what made it good. Nobody knew that. he'd seen a woman have a baby on the road to Karagatch and tried to help her. That was the way it was" (NAS, 217–18).

Most critics who discuss this rejected conclusion generally assume that Hemingway lost control of his art here, identified too closely with Nick, and began writing autobiography rather than fiction. In fact, both Hemingway's critics and biographers quote from this monologue as if Hemingway, not Nick, were the speaker. Even when a critic, like Robert Gibb, takes Hemingway at his word, he concludes that we need not worry finally about distinguishing between Nick and Hemingway. Whether a story has been written by "Hemingway the writer who wrote in the character of Nick Adams" or by "Nick Adams the writer who, by existing, shaped the idea of a man and his cosmos" matters not, according to Gibb: "Remembrance goes both ways."

Remembrance may go both ways, but Gibb is finally wrong to suggest that our understanding of a story remains the same regardless of whom we see as its author. Obviously, all words lead back to Hemingway, and I would not wish to suggest that in stories of In Our Time he is introducing the kinds of author-character confusions we have come to expect from many postmodern writers. However, as I hope to show, there are some good reasons for seeing Nick as the implied author of In Our Time, and doing so resolves many confusions about the book's unity, structure, vision, and significance. Moreover, such an approach casts new light on Nick Adams as a character separate from yet also an extension of Hemingway.

In his book-length study of Nick, Joseph Flora states, "No one would argue that 'Big Two-Hearted River' would gain from the inclusion of Nick's several memories and theories of writing." I want to make clear from the start that I wholeheartedly agree with this statement. From the moment Nick arrives at Seney he does everything in his power to hold back his thoughts, yet in the nine pages that Hemingway finally rejected, Nick suddenly begins thinking and does so calmly and contentedly. This ending would have reduced the story's tension and given us a very different Nick Adams. That Hemingway realized this indicates how clear a vision he had formed of what he wanted to accomplish in his fiction. His letter to Robert McAlmon—written in mid-November 1924, about three months after he finished "Big Two-Hearted River" and two months after he had arranged and submitted In Our Time for publication—provides the fullest explanation of his reasoning: "I have decided that all that mental conversation in the long fishing story is the shit and have cut it all out. The last nine pages. The story was interrupted you know just when I was going good and I could never get back into it and finish it. I got a hell of a shock when I realized how bad it was and that shocked me back into the river again and I've finished it off the way it ought to have been all along. Just the straight fishing." In brief, Hemingway recognized that "all that mental conversation" jarred asthetically with the rest of his story and actually contradicted its point. Wisely, he cut.

But just because Hemingway saved "Big Two-Hearted River" by removing Nick's monologue does not mean that we, like a jury commanded to disregard a witness's last remark, should automatically ignore all we learn here. Certainly critics are right that Hemingway comes close to crossing the boundary between fiction and experience in these pages, but that is a line he almost always approaches in his Nick Adams stories. As Flora notes, "Although Nick is not Hemingway, he reflects more of Hemingway than any other Hemingway hero," and Philip Young observes that Nick has "much in common" with his creator and was, for Hemingway, "a special kind of mask." Significantly, Hemingway's letter to McAlmon disloses that he revised his conclusion because he was worried about the artistic integrity of his story, not about his artistic persona.

Ironically, it is actually because Hemingway was so close to Nick and yet not Nick that he was able to conceive of surrendering authorship to Nick without destroying the illusion of his fictional world. Of course, when he wrote "Big Two-Hearted River," Hemingway had already written almost every story in In Our Time (only "The Battler" and "On the Quai at Smyrna" came later), and so obviously he did not plan from the time he composed these stories to attribute any of them to Nick. However, Nick shared so much of Hemingway's personality and experience that turning him into the author of the stories ex post facto required very little work. All Hemingway had to do was supply Nick with the relevant background, specifically a writing career and some postwar history. This he was doing in the nine pages he eventually cut out. And, as I indicated above, Hemingway actually gave Nick the background needed to be considered author of all of In Our Time, not just of the two stories he specifically mentions, "My Old Man" and "Indian Camp."

The evidence leading to this deduction begins with a sentence quoted earlier in which Nick tells us: "Nick in the stories was never himself." The use of the plural "stories" is significant. Because Nick is not in "My Old Man," he apparently has written other stories about himself besides "Indian Camp." This hypothesis is supported by Nick's references in this lengthy monologue to people and places that play a part in other Nick Adams stories. For example, Nick thinks about fishing at Hortons Creek (NAS, 216), the scene of the breakup with Marjorie in "The End of Something," and he remembers "drinking with Bill's old man" (NAS, 215) which calls to mind "The Three-Day Blow." He also mentions his wife, Helen, a figure whose existence we learn of in "Cross-Country Snow." Finally, Nick states that his family has misunderstood his stories, believing that they were all recountings of his experience (NAS, 217). One implication of this statement is that his relatives have been reading fiction in which Nick appears as a central character and have presumed that the other characters are themselves; the most likely candidate to provoke this reaction would be "The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife."

But Nick's memories of people and places are not limited to those which materialize in stories about himself. Many of his allusions also recall non-Nick narratives of In Our Time. For instance, the woman giving birth on the road to Karagatch, the encounter from which Nick indicates that "Indian Camp" derives, is presented without change in chapter 2. Nick also states that too much talking had made the war unreal (NAS, 217), an attitude shared by Harold Krebs in "Soldier's Home." The matador Maera figures prominently in Nick's thoughts (e.g., "Maera was the greatest man he'd ever known," NAS, 216), as he does in chapters 13 and 14 of In Our Time. Nick even confesses that "His whole inner life had been bullfights all one year" (NAS, 216), an obsession that could explain why six of the fifteen chapters deal with that subject. All of these connections between Nick's memories reviewed during his fishing trip to upper Michigan and the narratives of In Our Time support the premise that this original conclusion supplied the personal history necessary to see Nick as the author of this book.

To repeat what I said earlier, we need not assume that Nick lost all of this past when we lost this ending. In fact, a key sentence in the version of "Big Two-Hearted River" that was finally published implies that this background did not disappear forever but simply moved, so to speak, underground. Soon after Nick starts hiking away from Seney and toward the river, he discovers that "He felt he had left everything behind, the need for thinking, the need to write, other needs" (IOT, 134). Exactly why Nick feels so relieved to leave behind these three needs becomes clear when we see In Our Time as the product of his experiences and imagination. Although obviously we cannot pin down the precise date when Nick wrote any particular story in In Our Time—excluding perhaps "Big Two-Hearted River"—we can, I think, safely infer that he composed most of the book after World War I. Not only do most of the stories describe events of this war or shortly thereafter (the Greco-Turkish War, American couples visiting Europe, soldiers returning to the States), but also Nick admits that "He always worked best when Helen was unwell" (NAS, 218), a condition that definitely arises after the war. By roughly dating the composition of these stories, we are able to connect them to that stage in Nick's life immediately following World War I, and they can, therefore, help us to understand the Nick Adams we meet in "Big Two-Hearted River."

In approaching the stories of In Our Time as if Nick were their author, we discover that it will, indeed, be easier to trace through them Nick's recent psychological history than his actual history. Because Nick has told us that he was never himself in his stories and because we lack the biographical evidence (letters, memoirs, interviews) that usually fill the gap between an author's life and his fiction, we are left wondering where we might find the real Nick Adams. The fact that Nick's family has taken his fiction for autobiography suggests that, like Hemingway, Nick was drawing heavily from life when he wrote his stories. Still, we will have to guess, for the most part, at what Nick actually experienced, at "the way it was" (NAS, 218). But since our main interest is Nick's psyche, we need not worry too much about our inability to sort reality from imagination. By looking for repeated patterns and by studying the subjects that Nick chooses to develop as well as his manner of presenting those subjects, we should uncover those fixations of his imagination that reveal his basic outlook on life.

Having established the parameters of our investigation, we find new fascination in one fact about Nick's history that we do know: "he'd never seen an Indian woman having a baby.... he'd seen a woman have a baby on the road to Karagatch and tried to help her." This confession about the source of "Indian Camp" indicates, first of all, that the woman Nick attempted to help has affected him deeply. As I have already noted, Nick reports this encounter directly in chapter 2 of In Our Time, a description which ends with the comment "Scared sick looking at it" (21). Apparently neither version alone was enough to purge Nick of this memory, and the question is why he is so preoccupied with it.

Part of the answer could lie in the transformations Nick makes when turning the experience into fiction. Not only does he concentrate on the pain and suffering of childbirth, but he also changes the witness of the delivery from an adult immersed in war and evacuation to a child involved with family life and night-time adventures. Such a transference is psychologically symbolic. It implies, first, that the older Nick views his meeting with the woman on the road to Karagatch as an initiation of the innocent. By projecting himself as a young boy present at a difficult childbirth, Nick suggests that he feels victimized by the exigencies of the adult world ("It was an awful mess to put you through," his father says—IOT, 18) and also reveals a lingering inability to accept suffering and dying ("[C]an't you give her something to make her stop screaming?" "Do ladies always have such a hard time having babies?" "Do many men kill themselves?" "Is dying hard?"—IOT, 16, 19). A strong degree of self-pity thus permeates the story, especially its final scene where the young Nick questions the all-knowing father. However, Nick also attacks that self-indulgence with self-irony by ending his story with the child's denial of his own mortality, a denial that he, a war veteran and writer, now knows to be a lie.

But "Indian Camp" discloses more about Nick than just the fact that he feels victimized and confused by life. It also reveals his despair, possibly even his guilt, over being unable to ease the suffering of the woman on the road to Karagatch. In describing the source of his story, Nick tells us that he "tried" to help this woman, a qualifier which implies failure. He reproduces that sense of helplessness and frustration in the person of the Indian father who commits suicide because he "couldn't stand things" (IOT, 19). But he also places the suffering Indian mother in the professional hands of Dr. Adams, who does stop her pain and delivers her child. Nick thereby completes in his imagination what he failed to do in reality. Fiction serves as wish fulfillment by enabling Nick to control a world that seems to deny all attempts at such control.

Feelings of horror and frustration, and a desire not to enter the complex realm of adulthood help to explain why Nick has built two separate narratives out of his meeting with the woman in Asia Minor. But, in fact, this focus on pain and suffering—both experienced and observed, physical and mental—countered by a wish to escape or deny that vision actually forms a pattern found throughout the stories of In Our Time, especially those in which Nick is a central character. In "The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife" we are witnesses to the marriage of incompetence and insularity and find that its sole issue is incompatibility. The young Nick responds to the friction of his parents' relationship and the myopia of his mother by ignoring the latter's summons for that of black squirrels. In "The End of Something" and "The Three-Day Blow," Nick discovers for himself the agony of relationships and reacts to that pain, first, by retreating from all companionship, even that of his friend Bill, and then by retreating from the home, the conventional domain of woman, to the woods where "the Marge business was no longer so tragic. It was not even very important. The wind blew everything like that away" (IOT, 49). Nick learns in "The Battler" about the cruelty of society and the viciousness of insanity, a lesson which ends, once again, in confused escape. And, finally, in chapter 6, the violence of war so shatters Nick's spine and peace of mind that he vows to make "a separate peace," to desert not only the battlefield but also the patriotism that led him to that destructive arena.

A quick glance at the six non-Nick stories which follow chapter 6—our last look at Nick until he reappears in "Cross-Country Snow"—is enough to confirm the paradigm. In fact, although the flight from pain is not depicted as regularly in these stories, the vision they present is so similar to that found in the Nick narratives that we can have no doubt that their author is the same. In "A Very Short Story" a soldier who wants to marry his girlfriend-nurse "to make it so they could not lose it" (IOT, 65) does lose "it." The woman jilts him, and he subsequently loses his health when he contracts gonorrhea from a salesgirl in the backseat of a cab. Harold Krebs, the soldier come home, loses touch with the reality of World War I and his own identity: by lying he "lost everything" (IOT, 70). The revolutionist, failing to comprehend the political reality of the world, is captured by the Swiss and loses his freedom; the narrator of his story has already lost his own political idealism. And the couples in "Mr. and Mrs. Elliot," "Cat in the Rain," and "Out of Season" all dramatize loss of understanding, communication, and love; in place of these things they substitute reading, a cat, writing reams of poetry, a lesbian affair, fishing.

This consistency of vision found throughout the stories we have examined so far suggests that Nick has a fairly inflexible, troubled way of seeing the world. No matter what or whom he writes about, he tends to view life as a losing proposition. Gertrude Stein's "You are all a lost generation" describes In Our Time as aptly as it describes The Sun Also Rises in this sense: Nick seems to believe that the things most worth having and caring about—life, love, ideals, companions, peace, freedom—will be lost sooner or later, and he is not sure how to cope with this assurance, except through irony, bitterness, and, sometimes, wishful thinking. Although we cannot determine definitely when such a belief was formed, the most likely candidate to have precipitated this change is, of course, Nick's involvement in two wars—WWI and the Greco-Turkish war of 1922—which brought him face to face with many kinds of losses, especially of life and ideals. As I have already discussed, Nick was so shaken by his encounter with the pregnant woman on the road to Karagatch, an encounter that certainly included violent pain and possibly death, that he created two stories out of it. The several other narratives of In Our Time depicting the violence and senselessness of war ("On the Quai at Smyrna" and chapters 3, 4, 5, and 7) emphasize Nick's obsession with these matters.


Excerpted from New Critical Approaches to the Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway by Jackson J. Benson. Copyright © 1990 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


The Art of the Short Story,
I Critical Approaches,
II Story Technique and Themes,
III Story Interpretations,
IV An Overview of the Criticism,
V A Comprehensive Checklist of Hemingway Short Fiction Criticism, Explication, and Commentary, 1975–1989,
Notes and References,
About the Contributors,

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