Another presumptuously tedious if a touch affecting étude of the Darwinian dynamics between young and old, Nick Adams and a washed up and now deranged pugilist–deranged from all the poundings he took. He unpredictably goes from courteous to angry and violent. He knows it. “I’m not quite right,” he says. Nick Adams is thrown out of a train he’d been hoboeing on. The pugilist and his black companion (why black?) are by a campfire. They see what happened to Nick. They invite him over. All’s well until the pugilist misinterprets something Nick says as an offense to the black man called Bugs, and whom Hemingway at least twice refers to as “the nigger.” Why? The pugilist turns violent. Bugs knocks him out and tells Nick to leave, for his safety, giving hims something toe at for the road. He leaves “The little man whom Nick knew by name as a former champion fighter.”
A tedious, pretentious sequel to “The End of Something” cloaked in the three-day blow’s vaguely biblical connotations of a break between past and future, Nick Adams, annoyingly referred to as “Wemedge” by his friend Bill–and by Hemingway’s friends in his actual life–talks literature, booze and Marge with Bill as they talk of getting drunk more than they actually do get drunk. The story ostensibly reflects Nick’s uncertainty about his break-up with Marge, but not without a good dose of misogyny in the mouth of Bill:
“Once a man’s married he’s absolutely bitched,” Bill went on. “He hasn’t got anything more. Nothing. Not a damn thing. He’s done for. You’ve seen the guys that get married.”
Nick said nothing.
“You can tell them,” Bill said. “They get this sort of fat married look. They’re done for.”
“Sure,” said Nick.
Nick doesn’t want to talk about it but keeps talking about it. The dialogue is that clipped Nick-Adams-Stories type, mostly circular, a good pastiche of Hemingway.
Nick is 17. Marjorie is his girlfriend. But “it’s no longer fun.” They’re in a row boat, going for a picnic. They remember the days of the mill, long gone. He’s not hungry. He eats anyway, and tells her it’s no longer fun. She rows off, leaving him. His friend Bill joins him. He doesn’t want to be joined by his friend Bill. It’s the end of something. I’m all broken up inside. I hope the pâté was good, at least.
Dr. Adams hires a group of Native Americans to chop down logs on his beach. One of the Indians, Dick Boulton, suspects the logs are stolen. He checks the stamp on one of them and discovers them to have belonged to someone. Dr. Adams decides not to chop them. The Indian doesn’t care, but still implies Dr. Adams stole them. Dr. Adams confronts him, threatens him. Dick “liked to get into fights. He was happy.” Dr. Adams turns tail and goes home, telling his wife Dick just didn’t want to pay back what he owed in work. The doctor had previously treated his wife’s pneumonia. It’s another one of those Hemingway stories that chew on latent violence, rivalry, manhood dared and manhood declined, all in front of Nick, who’s getting an education in huff. His wife asks him whether he said anything to anger Boulton. He is reluctant to explain, but then claims Boulton is being lazy. She calls him “dear.” The dear seems patronizing. He’s losing on all fronts. He decides to hunt, though when he picks up his rifle at first you may think he’s got other thoughts on his mind, including maybe blowing out his mind. Not really. He’s just going out to shoot squirrels, with Nick. Sure the style is minimalist, but one suspects the emotions in play are primal, too, like objects in the mirror: less searching than they appear.
Hemingway’s passport photo, a year before the publication of ‘Indian Camp.’ (Wikimedia Commons)
In “The Hartleys” and “River” tradition of shocking endings, the dead one in this case not being a child, but the father of a child being born: a very small difference, as the man’s suicide, so willfully orphaning the child, is a form of murder.
Nick and his father board a boat that an Indian rows to an Indian camp, with Nick’s Uncle George on board as well. A woman is in a difficult labor. Nick’s father will perform a cesarean. On the way to camp, Nick’s father has his arm around the boy. Nick admires his father, deifies him, though his father will shatter his ability to withstand so much admiration when the gore of the operation overtakes the scene. The father of the baby is in a bunk above the scene, turning to face the wall. The woman has been screaming. His quiet is telling. The doctor celebrates the birth:
As they row out, Nick asks his daddy if dying is hard. “”No, I think it’s pretty easy, Nick. It all depends.” And that final, searingly beautiful image in spite and still: “In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing, he felt quite sure that he would never die.” The arm stretched around him at the beginning of the story.
The Indian’s terror may have been Hemingway’s: his wife Hadley went into labor with their first child while he was away. He was terrorized at the thought of anything going wrong and of getting there too late. He transferred the fear, and took it beyond its human limits: a literary leap that serves other purposes in the story but that still seems, in and of itself, a touch gratuitous. But then, in light of Hemingway’s suicide, was it not merely premature projection? “He couldn’t stand things, I guess.” The woman meanwhile has no name, no face, no presence but those screams.
The elephant in the title, as big as the hills, as big as the elephant in the room, the white elephant: the “girl” (Hemingway’s women are always “girls”) is pregnant. “The American” (not just a man, certainly not a boy: The American) wants her to have an abortion, “to let the air in,” as he describes the “operation,” which he says isn’t an operation at all really, never saying the word abortion or coming close to it. It’s what, 1920s Spain? They’re drinking. “That’s all we do, isn’t it–look at things and try new drinks?” she tells him.
She looks out and describes the hills “like white elephants,” at least at first. He misses the point. He doesn’t try to engage her on hers. What do you mean? What do you see? He doesn’t even think of trying to see through her eyes. He says: : ‘I’ve never seen one,” and drinks beer. Brings it back to himself. He’s a narcissist. “No, you wouldn’t have,” she says. Again he misses the point: “Just because you say I wouldn’t have doesn’t prove anything.” What their exchange proves is that they are talking at cross-purposes. It’s a conversation between two deaf people, two people deaf to each other. He is not listening. She is not interested in listening, and will have to tell him so explicitly by the end of the story.
They talk beer. Talk drinks. They have that in common. Then he breaks it to her: “It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig.” Jig? Why did Hemingway call his “girl” by a dance’s name? It’s not a small detail. Nor is the astoundingly dumb, even macabre, reduction of an abortion to this: “It’s just to let the air in.” For him, maybe. (The story is an unfortunately strong argument for anti-abortionist zealots.) It brings happiness, he tells her. Couples who do it love each other again: that is, they can fuck freely again, no baby burden. She wonders: “and things will be like they were and you’ll love me?” That she has to ask whether he loves her negates his affirmation (“I love you now. You know I love you.”) Clearly, so much is amiss, tragically so. Including the next revelation, almost suicidal for the “girl” and at this point murderous for the bay: “Then I’ll do it. Because I don’t care about me.” If you don’t care, I don’t care. Hemingway’s foresight: he is the man, nevertheless he can articulate the woman’s isolation and nearing despair. The man is about what the man wants: the operation, the resumption.
Then she changes her mind about the hills like white elephants, as if to try again, prompt him to see: “They don’t really look like white elephants. I just meant the coloring of their skins through the trees.” But all she’s done is humanize the hills even more.
There’s an exchange toward the end where she seems to want the possibility of possibilities: “we could have everything.” No. The man says they can’t. “Once they take it away, you never get it back.” Take what away? We never know. The baby? She wants him to stop talking. She begs him to. The drink at separate tables. Her last line is damning: “There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.” She wants the baby. She is not diseased.
The themes strengthen the story, which hints at certain sensibilities that suggest Hemingway was not entirely deaf to women’s. And abortion, ever the white elephant. Hemingway executes the theme deftly, with the unsaid here sounding so loud, so painful, as it always is in these circumstances: so much of it can’t be verbalized, so much of it the man in the story either doesn’t want verbalized, for all his intolerable volubility, or wouldn’t know how: “Just because you say I wouldn’t have doesn’t prove anything.” But it seems to.
American Writer. Ernest Hemingway With His First Wife Hadley Richardson And Their Son John Hadley Nicanor Hemingway (Jack) In Schuns, Austria, 1926. (Credit unclear. Found on “Posterazzi,” on Amazon.)
There’s always been various connections between Hemingway and cats, even in passing. This is one of them. Carlene Brennen in Hemingway’s Cats (2000) describes Hemingway’s young marriage to Hadley Richardson when she wanted a child and a cat. A child was out of the question: he was writing. She was lonely. At the time Hemingway was a reporter for the Toronto Star, writing from Europe. She had nothing to do. They both loved cats but he told her they were too poor to own one. They lived in a shabby rented room with beautiful views of Paris rooftops. Hemingway thought the room had belonged to Verlaine, where Verlaine had died. He worked. She paced. She got pregnant, unexpectedly. “The story was a tribute to Hadley, who was dealing with her first year of marriage, the loneliness it entailed, and her deep desire for motherhood,” Brennen writes. Brennen then cites Gioia Diliberto’s biography, Hadley, that found Hemingway basing the story on an incident in Rapallo in 1923, the little Mediterranean town near Genoa, where the couple spent some time when Hadley was two months pregnant. She saw a kitten hiding under a table, just as in the story. “I want a cat,” she is reported to have said in the biography, or in the story: Brennen doesn’t make a distinction. “I want a cat. I want a cat now. If I can’t have long hair or any fun I can have a cat.” Ernest actually gave her a small dog in her last month of pregnancy, and they both took to it. “Cat in the Rain” was part of the In Our Time collection published in 1924.
As in “The Quay at Smyrna,” most of the story is in what’s not told, though in this case, between the affected prose and the Hemingway anchor attached to the story, it leaves a lot of room for wild interpretations. The biographical context of the story doesn’t help, except to shed some of the pretentious assumptions a critical reading of the story risks producing. To me, a little too obviously, the protectiveness for the cat is the basic maternal instinct, the more so since Hadley was gestating child and instinct. The opening scene-setting seems superfluous: the war monument, the palms, the Italians who come “from a long way off” to look at the monument, even Italy: they could have been on a hot tin roof for all we care, the story could have still been pulled off the same way but for Hemingway’s affectations and his desire to advertise that he’s ben to an Italian seaside town with a war monument. The insistent rain is necessary to ensure that the cat needs to be sheltered from it, though wind, cold, sleet or afternoon heat might’ve had the same effect on most cats. Why the woman is referred to, twice, as a “girl” is unclear. Maybe that’s how Italians saw Americans. Why she can’t have long hair even more so: in the mid-20s? In Europe? Finally, the cat presented to her by the Italian maid may not be the one she’d seen, though given the incessant rain, it seems a quick check of her fur would reveal whether she’d been outside or not. The ambiguity seems more literary than meaningful, although isn’t it so with child: you never know what you’re going to get until it’s delivered. Or didn’t, anyway, back then, before the era of grotesque-dimensional ultrasounds.
This is too much: “Italians came from a long way off to look up at the war monument. It was made of bronze and glistened in the rain. It was raining. The rain dripped from the palm trees. Water stood in pools on the gravel paths. The sea broke in a long line in the rain and slipped back down the beach to come up and break again in a long line in the rain. The motor cars were gone from the square by the war monument. Across the square in the doorway of the café a waiter stood looking out at the empty square.” This is the sort of paragraph that makes Hemingway disciples swoon. This is the sort of paragraph that does not make me swoon. It just makes it clear how much of a one-trick wonder Hemingway was, and how much he demolished generations of writers who tried to be the next Hemingway. At least Camus had something to say in his minimalism. With Hemingway, the iceberg below the surface is hollow.
Like reading a Barnett Newman. It is mostly in what Hemingway doesn’t say, in the silences between glimpses of terror and cruelty: “The worst, he said, were the women with the dead babies. You couldn’t get the women to give up their dead babies.” They scream at midnight until the soldiers point searchlights at them. One woman dies and goes immediately stiff. They’re refugees of the Greek-Turkish war of 1922, seen by a seemingly dissociated narrator, either a British or American soldier in charge of managing the situation while Turks, a little too Paul Bowles-like summed- and smudged up in the person of one “Turk,” are portrayed as complicating the situation. But that narrator is either unnerving or maddening, or both. Or mad: “You remember the harbor. There were plenty of nice things floating around in it.” Who is he talking to? Why this reference to “plenty of nice things floating around” in the midst of horrors? What nice things ever float in a harbor? Ever? It’s throw-away details like that, that you know would never be throw-aways in Hemingway, that make you think he’s just throwing a line for effect rather than meaning/ Nothing wrong with that of course. Viz, Newman, his Vir Heroicus Sublimis (the “Heroic Sublime”), whom we just saw at MoMa. See my picture above. Maybe that’s a Turkish man wondering yet again why he’s being thrown under the big red bus and those “zips,” as Newman called those lines. I don’t know why the photo utility I just used dulled the reds as it did. Maybe Kazyo Shigara’s 1964 “Untitled” is more apt:
Kazuo Shiraga’s Untitled,” 1964. (c FlaglerLive)
The two-page vignette was originally the introduction to In Our Time. He unfortunately renamed it, pretentiously, “On the Quai at Smyrna.”
EH 7018P Ernest Hemingway on safari, Africa. January, 1934. Photograph in the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.
Too pretentious for my taste. A man on safari with his boring rich wife dying of gangrene and regret, a subtextual alliteration throughout the longish story. Regret for all the stories he did not write, but not as much regret for all the lies he tells, better and better with age. He wishes he had better company than this wife. Stupidest line: “So this was how you died, in whispers that you did not hear.” A lot of stream of consciousness reminiscences that sound too much like an intellectual, name-dropping safari of geographic glamor.
August 1936, Esquire.
Image credit: unattributed – Photograph in the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. Ernest Hemingway on safari, Africa. January, 1934. Wikimedia Commons.
Originally titled more directly, “The Horns of the Bull.” A waiter named Paco wants to know what it’s like to face a bull. A man indulges him by putting knives for horns at the foot of a chair and charging him. Paco is gored and dies. He had been full of illusions. “He had not had time in his life to lose any of them.” An early-gory Hemingway indulgence in the pseudo-romance of bullfighting, otherwise known as the torture and killing of animals for public enjoyment after the age of gladiatorial murder of human beings in big arenas made that less explicitly but no less enthusiastically accessible (our arenas now as ever are war theaters). There’s a hint of Hemingway’s pretension about both Madrid and bullfighting in his reworked title, in a story that starts with superbly deceptive humor and quickly moves into Paco pathos:
Really? (During a safari in Africa in 1934. Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)
Man and woman on safari. Man acts cowardly when first rushed by a lion. Woman is embarrassed, ashamed. So is he. She sleeps with the safari man. He regains his courage, kills a bull, then gets ready to kill a lion rushing him, but she shoots from the car–and hits him in the head, killing him. His happiness was those few hours of feeling courageous. It may be one of his most famous stories, but in retrospect the fame should’ve dimmed. The story is schematic, solipsistic, a tinge misogynistic.
From Wikipedia: In “The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story,” author and literary critic Frank O’Connor, though generally an admirer of Hemingway, gives one of the most colorful and uncharitable summations of “The Short Happy Life”: “Francis runs away from a lion, which is what most sensible men would do if faced by a lion, and his wife promptly cuckolds him with the English manager of their big-game hunting expedition. As we all know, good wives admire nothing in a husband except his capacity to deal with lions, so we can sympathize with the poor woman in her trouble. But next day Macomber, faced with a buffalo, suddenly becomes a man of superb courage, and his wife, recognizing that[…] for the future she must be a virtuous wife, blows his head off. […] To say that the psychology of this story is childish would be to waste good words. As farce it ranks with Ten Nights in a Bar Room or any other Victorian morality you can think of. Clearly, it is the working out of a personal problem that for the vast majority of men and women has no validity whatever.”