Ernest Hemingway at 100
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Commentary: Hemingway's fiction contains great truths about the
places he visited
Commentary: Hemingway's fiction contains
great truths about the places he visited
By RICHARD P. McDONOUGH - Special to
Date: 06/27/99 00:01
Paul White/The Associated Press
Ernest Hemingway told the world about the annual running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain.
As an adolescent I knew Pamplona and the running of the bulls, could feel
the heat and smell the fear in the corrida. The African bush, the
rippling of water at Horton's Creek, the whisper of wind in hemlocks up
in Michigan, the relentless sun off the coast of Cuba -- these places and
sounds and smells were part of my consciousness although I had never been
farther from my housing project home than Harvard Square, just across the
river from Boston.
It was Ernest Hemingway who transported me -- and ultimately millions
of others -- to places that meant so much to him, by the power of his
Beyond his distinctive, spare, declarative style, and a reaction to
what he considered an excess of a wordy romanticism in American
literature, his ability to evoke place so that we could know it as he
experienced it is one of Hemingway's greatest achievements.
The doctor's son from Oak Park, Ill., a good Midwestern boy, was born
on the edge of a millennium when there were still Indians in the woods.
He was privileged, loved, maybe spoiled.
At 5 years old he fished with his dad at the cottage in Michigan,
learning to take a fish at Horton's Creek. These early and generally
happy experiences resulted in an affection for the natural world and
sharpened his observations of man in relation to it.
Those observations, that sensibility, informed Hemingway's work as an
adult and can readily be seen in the short stories that involved the
recurring character Nick Adams.
Those stories are filled with detail of the American landscape he came
to know in his boyhood experiences and are certainly indicative of the
wish to "get it right" about place. You could read "Big Two-Hearted
River" as a manual of how to set up camp:
With the ax he split off a bright slab of pine from one of the
stumps and split it into pegs for the tent. He wanted them long and solid
to hold in the ground. With the tent unpacked and spread on the ground,
the pack, leaning against a jack pine, looked much smaller ... Across the
open mouth of the tent Nick fixed cheesecloth to keep out mosquitoes. ...
Nick was happy as he crawled into the tent.
When Nick has finished on that first day and driven a nail to hold his
canvas water bag you have walked your way in beyond the fire-line and are
eager to get to sleep and wake in the morning ready for the trout.
As a self-conscious adolescent, Hemingway had written in a journal his
wish to travel, to know Africa, to know adventure.
He came to know all of this, writing his earliest work from Paris,
including the bulk of the Michigan stories, a kind of testament that
distance sharpens vision.
In Africa he hunted. The restrained Midwesterner became the stolid,
noble Hemingway character of superhuman restraint. He is evident in
The Green Hills of Africa, in which the heat, dust, sandy soil and
the waiting in this glorious East African landscape for the greater, not
the lesser, kudu by the salt lick are made nearly palpable in Hemingway's
This lick had an impossible approach. Trees grew around its open
area so that it was as though the game were in the blind and you had to
come to them across the open. Of course once you were inside the
protecting trees, and in the blind, you were wonderfully placed, for
anything that came to the salt had to come out in the open twenty-five
yards from any cover. But though we stayed until eleven o'clock, nothing
Though Hemingway's hunts did not always achieve their goals he had his
adventures, indeed, one nearly costing him his life in the 1950s when his
small plane lost control and crashed when on safari.
As travel enriches us, so, too, does it allow us to gerrymander our
judgments of people and places because of our ultimate separateness from
them. This seems much the case in Hemingway's Spain.
The Sun Also Rises is perhaps the most affectionate portrait of
a land and its people, particularly people. His portraits of Americans
and Brits are often not pretty; some are even a petty settling of old
scores in his life. But his Spanish are noble, their nobility emphasized
by the transliterative quality of his Spanish characters rendered into
English. The nobility of the bull, of the ring, of Jake and his stoicism
in light of his wounded manhood are exaggerated by Hemingway's style, yet
there is a glorious truth there.
Eating and drinking with Jake and his friends, observing the customs
of the country, getting to know the ritual of the corrida, seeing
those bulls run in your mind's eye, the foolish and the talented running
before them, these are Pamplona, these became Spain for many readers.
The Fiesta was going on outside in the night but I was too sleepy
for it to keep me awake. When I woke it was the sound of the rocket
exploding that announced the release of the bulls from the corrals at the
edge of town. They would race through the streets and out to the
bull-ring ... Down below the streets were empty. All the balconies were
crowded with people. Suddenly a crowd came down the street. They were all
running, packed close together. ... Behind them was a little bare space,
and then the bulls, galloping, tossing their heads up and down. It all
went out of sight around the corner. One man fell, rolled to the gutter
and lay quiet. But the bulls went right on and did not notice him. They
were all running together.
And there is Hemingway's Paris, of course, the dear Paris in which he
wrote his first "serious" work, as biographers say. Published after his
death, A Moveable Feast, a wonderful recounting of life in the
world's most glorious city when Americans were living on a strong dollar
and a very weak franc.
His observations of place are as meaningful today as when he first put
them down, for Paris is not called the eternal city for nothing. You can
still go to Dome or Clos de Lilas, and still divine the differences and
the cliques and observe the stylishness of this grand place where he was
so happy and lucky to have lived.
You can still stand in front of 12 rue de l'Odeon and envision George
Antheil climbing to his apartment over Sylvia Beach's bookshop where
Hemingway was a regular. His epigraph for the book may indeed be brought
to bear on all of his travel, and all of ours if we are good observers.
It reads, in part, "for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for
Paris is a moveable feast."
Substitute Africa, Pamplona, Italy during the Great War, the Michigan
woods, and you have the truth of it and the power of his experiences in
our lives as embodied in his work.
That summer day he died I was in Alexandria, thanks to Lawrence
Durrell's Justine, which I was reading on the front porch of a
Victorian farmhouse in a Boston neighborhood. Knowing of my interest, a
neighbor came to me and said, "Hemingway just killed himself."
Absorbing this fact, I thought of recent photographs of Ernest
Hemingway. There was a melancholy in his eyes, a distant vision of
greener places, of youth, of men finding themselves, testing themselves
against the stream, the mountain, the cold, the steamy ... and coming out
Although he did not succeed, I have the notion, perhaps one as
romantic as Hemingway might have had, that at that final thunder there
was a vision of his youth when the young man, his father still there, no
gun yet raised to his head, strong, silent, giving succor through his
craft of medicine, up there in Michigan, his Mackinaw closed against the
cold, the hemlocks snow-draped at their tops, the air nearly brittle with
the clarity and purity of winter, his flesh so alive and his vision of
the future so clear, that there is a boundlessness that he had always
Richard McDonough is an editor and literary agent who lives in Venice,