In this in-between season there’s often time for reading. Since the latest Ken Burns historical series dropped this week, it seems fitting to break out some Hemingway.
Ernest Hemingway — the famous writer and infamous 20th century man’s man — was a curious choice for Burns. Hemingway’s name has become a trigger word for all things white and male, the stuff contemporary America is furiously reevaluating.
Trailers suggest Burns separates man from myth, revealing a richer story. More compelling for me is Hemingway’s writing. And when I need a quick fix I reach for his short stories.
I reread “Big Two-Hearted River, Parts I and II,” last week. The story is possibly my all-time favorite piece of fly fishing literature, despite the protagonist, Nick Adams, using live grasshoppers rather than artificials. The story rivals “A River Runs Through It” for my fishing lit top spot the way John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” jockey for No. 1 on the greatest album lists of jazz aficionados.
Fans know Nick Adams as Hemingway’s semi-autobiographical alter ego. The story begins when Nick gets off a train in Seney, a town somewhere in the upper peninsula of Michigan. The town’s lone street — once featuring 13 saloons — is gone, consumed in a forest fire.
As the story unfolds we see an introspective Nick return alone to a remote fishing hole. He sets off for the river, stopping only to rest. While he enjoys a smoke he broods over the surviving grasshoppers: black mutants camouflaged in the burned over country. Nick wonders how long they’ll stay this way, but the story hints that he’s actually wondering about himself, a survivor of some larger, landscape-blackening catastrophe.
The catastrophe, never mentioned, is World War I.
It takes Nick the rest of Part I to cross beyond the burnt land and reach the river, where he methodically sets up camp. After cooking dinner he makes coffee according to Hopkins, a companion from an earlier fishing trip, a trip from a better time before the world turned black.
Hopkins never returned to Michigan once he found oil in Texas. Before Nick’s thoughts can linger on his other companions, never returned due to less profitable circumstances I assume, he chokes off his mind. This trip is for escape, not reflection.
In Part II Nick hits the river. He hooks one trout as big as a salmon, then feels vaguely sick when his leader breaks, a disappointment requiring a smoke and time to recover.
He catches a couple not-quite-salmon-sized trout, then, before returning to camp, ponders fishing a nearby swamp. It’s filled with big fish, but he’d have to wade in water up to his armpits and the fishing would be “tragic.” He leaves the swamp for another day.
If Hemingway is a trigger, what the name provokes, unfairly I think, is in some a particular contempt for toxic masculinity. The critics ask, “Will we ever dispense with white male angst?” It’s a useful question, but in this case I’m not concerned by Hemingway’s foibles, nor his hyper-masculine persona, which prompted a life strewn with tragedy.
Nick Adams is something else. He’s a fictional stand in for a lost generation whose world was decimated by the aristocrats of early 20th century Europe — Prussian kaisers, haughty French diplomats, isolationist Brits all motivated to rule imagined empires, yet immune to remorse for the lives maimed by their ambition.
“Big Two-Hearted River” is the story of a man with post-traumatic stress disorder, surviving in a world that hadn’t yet acknowledged such a thing. If we can’t sympathize with Nick as we confront our own COVID-19 wrought PTSD, it’s not Hemingway’s soul that requires reevaluation.
It’s our own.
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