“Hemingway reads like he wrote for ten-year-olds.”
Those words came years ago from a student of mine, a high school senior, and I understood why. We were reading Ernest Hemingway’s “The Big Two Hearted River,” the story of a young American man, Nick Adams, trying to put himself back together after returning in a shattered state from WWI. Nick hikes into the wilderness to find tranquility. Here, Hemingway describes how Nick has just finished setting up his camp:
Now things were done. There had been this to do. Now it was done.
It had been a hard trip. He was very tired. That was done. He had
made his camp. He was settled. Nothing could touch him. It was a
good place to camp. He was there, in the good place. He was in his
home where he had made it. Now he was hungry.
I could see what my student meant. The passage smacks of “See Spot. See spot run.” However, with a little probing, she and her classmates saw that Hemingway was more complex than they thought. He’d just made things look simple.
The beautiful thing about teaching Hemingway’s short stories is that you’re pretty much guaranteed that every student will have done the assigned reading by class time. That’s a victory when a teacher relies on students to carry a discussion. But it doesn’t mean they’ll like his prose.
When I teach Hemingway, I begin with “Indian Camp,” the first story in the collection In Our Time. It is the tale of a woman on an Indian reservation delivered of her child by Nick’s father. The 10-year-old boy watches with fascination and horror as Dr. Adams, summoned in an emergency, performs a Caesarian section with hot water and a jackknife. He sews up the mother with fishing line.
The procedure finished, Hemingway writes, “His [Nick’s] father stood up. Uncle George and the three Indian men stood up. Nick put the basin out in the kitchen.”
Talk about anti-climatic! However, my friend John, a concert pianist, says that the meaning in music comes not from the notes themselves, but from the spaces between the notes.
Hemingway operates in a similar way. His details are so sparse that a reader is forced to consider the “space” between them and ask, “How are they linked?” That seemingly empty space acts like a hyperlink: Pause and click on it, and suddenly deeper meaning of plot or character reveals itself.
Case in point: The Indian woman gives birth in a lower bunk bed. Her husband lies in the bed above. He is recuperating after badly cutting his foot with an axe. Hemingway tells us the man has been listening to his wife scream in labor for more than a day.
I ask my students, “Why did Hemingway situate father in the bed above his wife? He could have easily situated the man lying in another hut, far away from his wife’s wailing, where other Indian males had retreated.”
Hemingway is trying communicate something — exactly what, is a matter for rich discussion. However, the father’s placement is significant: After the baby is born, when Dr. Adams steps up on the lower bunk to congratulate the father, he discovers the man has slit his own throat.
Nothing is wasted with Hemingway.
For students who still buck at the author’s simplicity — or even how the study of literature itself might possibly benefit them as adults — I point out that if they can scan for and interpret the rare details in a Hemingway tale, they’ll be able to read the face and body language of a poked-faced venture capitalist when making a plea for start-up capital.