Ernest Hemingway’s first book, In Our Time, is a collection of stories and vignettes. I really enjoyed the stories, and the vignettes are thought-provoking, visceral and vivid but I don’t understand how they are supposed to work together. There are a few scenes from a war, a few from bullfights and one about the hanging of a convict. They seem to have little to do with each other, but they are short and never drag. One of the very great things about Hemingway is brevity. He is concise and economical yet vivid and original. It is very difficult to write vividly and originally and yet keep it brief. I’m thinking about the razor-sharp writers I admire–Dorothy Parker, James Baldwin–their observations were keen, quick and so originally phrased.
I’m writing the week after the 2022 mid-term elections when the expected Republican “red tsunami” never materialized and hope for civility and moderation returned to many places in America. The insensible, egomaniacal rantings of Le Grand Orange and his minions aren’t as omnipresent and I’m reading and listening to some politicians who actually can string a few sentences together intelligently and who don’t resort to schoolyard name-calling. Reading a lot of Hemingway during this time has helped tune my ear back to the recognition of strong, clear, sensible American English.
My favorite stories from In Our Time are Big Two-Hearted River, Parts One and Two. I can picture scenes from these stories so clearly. I love how carefully Nick sets up his camp–smoothing the ground and laying out his blankets, using a rope between two pine trees to pull up the canvas and make a tent, pegging it out at the sides. Rolling his shoes in his trousers to make a pillow. He let himself get very hungry so that he would enjoy his dinner even more and then let the hot dinner cool so that a burnt tongue wouldn’t interfere with that enjoyment. These are simple but profound experiences that most readers will have had and I wonder what it is that makes reading about them so delightful.
After the ugliness in some of the stories–the collection begins with a story about a backwoods Caesarian birth during which the husband in the bunk above his wife silently slits his own throat–the Big Two-Hearted River stories end with no injuries, emotional or physical. Nick avoids fishing the dark swamp. He thinks he will fish it another day and I realized I really didn’t want him to fish the swamp, something terrible was bound to happen and I hope he never fishes it. But we know he will, eventually.
The Snows of Kilimanjaro collection of stories begins with the powerful title story. I don’t want to spoil it for anybody, but will just say that the twist still surprised me even though I’ve read the story before. I was so absorbed in the sharply drawn scene and characters that I was in the present moment with them and didn’t drift into wondering how it was going to end.
A Clean Well-Lighted Place is the second, very short, story that many of us read in high school as a prime example of Hemingway’s writing. I understand it better with each reading as I get older and older. Hemingway was half my age when he wrote it. The funny thing is, he probably didn’t truly understand and relate to the character of the old waiter either, when he wrote it, but was able to write it anyway.
Writing is not like painting. Picasso said it took him his whole life to learn to paint like a child, but a writer would never say his goal was to write like a child, although that’s kind of what happens. You learn to edit more and confidence allows you to delete a six syllable word when a two or three syllable word would do just as well. You understand grammar and sentence structure and know when it’s appropriate to relax the rules. The accumulated knowledge of what CAN be done allows one to choose the very simplest, freshest way of painting or writing something.
Hemingway wrote about grasshoppers in The Sun Also Rises and writes about them again in the story A Way You’ll Never Be. In the novel he writes about catching grasshoppers for fishing bait in the early morning when it is cold and they move slowly, not flying. In the story the character of a young American soldier in Italy shares the trick of having a friend hold one end of some mosquito netting and walking into a swarm, trapping a bunch of them as they fly into the net.
I was going to extrapolate on how grasshoppers are a symbol of youth and inexperience that Hemingway was using to tap into our collective unconscious, but on further research discovered that calling someone “Grasshopper,” originated from the 1970s TV show, Kung Fu. In Chinese culture, the grasshopper symbolizes fertility and abundance. For someone brought up with the Old Testament, the grasshopper/locust is a symbol of plague and could foreshadow death. It’s very possible that Hemingway wrote about them simply because grasshoppers are truly good trout bait.