“What did I know best that I had not written about and lost?” Hemingway asks in A Moveable Feast, as he recalls sitting in a corner of the Closerie des Lilas on the rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs in 1924 and beginning to write “Big Two-Hearted River.” It was to be his longest story until then—some one hundred pages of handwritten manuscript. And the subject? “There was no choice at all.”
There is a wonderful photograph of Hemingway, already a fisherman, with a broad-brimmed straw hat and a huge cane pole; it was taken on Horton’s Creek, near Charlevoix, Michigan, when he was five years old. The creel over his shoulder looks large enough to carry one hundred brook trout. He fished first with his father, Dr. Clarence Hemingway, a keen sportsman, and with friends like Howell Jenkins, Lewis Clarahan, John Pentecost, Bill Smith, Al Walker, and others, on rivers and in lakes in northern Michigan, near the family’s summer home on Walloon Lake, near Petoskey. There are photographs of him with pike, bass, and perch, but he seems from early
on to have preferred moving water and trout. And always, as Carlos Baker notes in Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story, he “shared his father’s determination to do things ‘properly’”—a phrase and concept he carried with him into his love of hunting, his passion for bullfighting, his big-game fishing, and his fierce will to be a great writer.
In June of 1916, he took a steamer from Chicago to Onekama, Michigan, and trekked with Lewis Clarahan for ten days to Petoskey, keeping a detailed diary. They fished Bear Creek, the Manistee, the Boardman, and the Rapid, and the diary is early evidence of the care he devoted first to planning the trip, to recording what he saw, and to his skill at camping and fishing. Closer to Walloon Lake he had long fished little creeks like Schultz’s and Horton’s, often by lowering bait into the tangles of deadfalls and hoisting fish abruptly out onto the shore, and later the Black, the Sturgeon, and the Pigeon in the Pine Barrens southeast of Petoskey, usually with worms or grasshoppers, though occasionally with a fly. The McGinty was the first fly he had confidence in, and he never progressed as a fly fisherman much beyond wet-fly fishing. His son Jack says, in Misadventures of a Fly Fisherman, that his father liked best to fish a “two- or three-fly wet-fly rig through the riffles”—using a McGinty, a Coch-y-Bondhu, and a Woodcock Green and Yellow for the tail fly. Ninety percent of his fly fishing was done across and downstream with this team of flies, which sometimes included a Yellow Sally or a Royal Coachman. For a writer so beloved by fly fishermen, he shows little interest in this brand of fishing, makes a sharp comment about fly fishermen in “Big Two-Hearted River,” and there’s little evidence throughout his life that he released fish except if they were too small or he’d taken enough to eat; he claimed he hated to be photographed but there are thousands of photographs of him with gigantic dead fish.
Perhaps Hemingway found the esoterica of fly fishing—its fly-line sizes, Latin classifications of insects, and dozens of fly patterns and styles even then—to be too much like jargon. There is little in his language, in any of his writing about fishing, that is not self-explanatory, that cannot be read with full understanding by the alert
general reader. We feel, in all of Hemingway’s writing about fishing, that he has special knowledge, true authority—but we never feel he is writing in ways that exclude those without such special knowledge.
When Hemingway had finished writing for the day at the Closerie des Lilas, he “did not want to leave the river” and could still “see the trout in the pool, its surface pushing and swelling smooth against the resistance of the log-driven piles of the bridge.” I have stood on that railroad bridge, just west of Seney, and though in the late 1990s I could not see one trout and the bottom had silted in, it is still a lovely piece of water and Hemingway caught it, and its tawny color, exactly right.
Hemingway’s passion for fishing, the way it intertwines with his life as a writer and finally culminates in the novella The Old Man and the Sea, is the simple focus of this collection. The pilgrimage of his life is recorded in his stories and articles: from the solitary Nick to the public Papa, photographed with his big kills, from the stillness of trout fishing in northern Michigan, with its healing powers, to the unalloyed excitement and challenge of big-game fishing, where one is alone in other ways, locked in what approaches a life-and-death struggle. From the beginning, he loved sport, grew expert at the various aspects of the brand of fishing he chose to pursue, and always found a way to use it deftly in his writing. But beyond that, fishing, which kept him wedded to the natural world, was an important enough part of his life to affect all of his writing, and understanding its importance helps us understand a lot about the man and a lot about all of his writing, always his most stringent commitment.
Early photographs and letters, his 1916 diary of the trip to Walloon Lake, and then his first reportage for the Toronto Star, show that he fished regularly and with skill and success. Fishing was a source of sheer fun and adventure, a respite from the increasing complexity of
his life, and a place to test his skills and to heal. Even early short stories like “Indian Camp”—still one of my favorites—show how the details and language of fishing filtered naturally into his stories: the father sewing up the Indian woman, after performing a cesarian operation with a jackknife, with fishing gut, and the bass jumping at the end.
In “Big Two-Hearted River” he finds a connection between writing and fishing that was both new and remarkable, and here we can actually see how he transformed experience into art.
Hemingway had fished a river called the Fox, near the town of Seney on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, with his friends Al Walker and Jock Pentecost, in September 1919, after he had returned from Red Cross ambulance service in Italy during the First World War. He had been wounded by a mortar shell and machine-gun fire, and had been hospitalized in Milan with hundreds of pieces of shrapnel in his lower body. The trip he took with his friends, reported in a letter to Howell Jenkins, was scarcely the brooding, meditative, mysterious journey he describes in his story, but rather one filled with the excitement and high jinks of young men off in the woods, catching and boasting about having taken more than two hundred wild brook trout—some up to 2-1/2 pounds—camping out, shooting at deer with a .22. When he began to write “Big Two-Hearted River” in Paris, he started: “We got off the train at Seney.” “Jock” and “Al” are characters in that first, tentative beginning, and “They all three” stand and look at the burned-out town of Seney; Al says: “This was the toughest town in Michigan.” Then he changed the opening to “They got off the train at Seney”; and then, after three pages, he abandoned the story. Only when he begins, “The train went on up the track out of sight” and eliminates his two friends does the actual event begin to fade, in deference to the fictional event. He is already there; generalities like “toughest” are replaced by details like the “thirteen saloons that had once lined the streets of Seney”; details extraneous to the theme of the story (about the burned-out town, for example) are trimmed; and the country and his fishing and his inner life become the true center of the story.
The sight of the trout, clearly after some period of time away from trout rivers, leads him to feel “all the old feeling.” He relishes the long and demanding trip upriver; and as he carefully and “properly” makes his camp, cooks his food, and the next day begins to fish, the underlying, unspoken tension is that he is, with deliberation, reconstructing a life. Each gesture—from rigging his tackle, collecting grasshoppers, putting them on the hook to catching and putting a few fish into his canvas fish sack—is performed with the same ritual care. We know nothing other than his actions about what might have precipitated this deliberateness. We know that he does not want to “rush” his sensations. We know he wants to master his feelings. Much later, in “The Art of the Short Story,” Hemingway said that he had made up the entire story, that “there were many Indians in the story, just as the war was in the story, and none of the Indians nor the war appeared.” The real trip has vanished.
Such writing depends first upon a capacity to “get the feeling of the actual life across,” as he wrote to his father just before the story was to appear in The Transatlantic Review, “not to just depict life—or criticize it—but to actually make it alive. So that when you have read something by me you actually experience the thing.” This is of course what happens most distinctly in “Big Two-Hearted River.” We are very much there with the young man, participating in the fishing trip that is so much more than a fishing trip. The story has the feel of the river; it registers the young man’s affection for the pursuit of trout; it represents by indirection a disciplined search for control by Nick, a control that he cannot yet extend to fishing in the swamp. Throughout, he uses images and events that ascend into metaphor. The sharks that devour Santiago’s great marlin are real sharks and they suggest a hundred forces in a life that might attack and destroy one’s accomplishments; the burned-out town of Seney suggests burned-out emotions; and the swamp, which I’ve seen, is still a very real danger. He will save that for another day.
The story is seminal to any understanding of Hemingway, both as a fisherman and as an artist. In it he finds a sure way to use the special,
even expert, knowledge he has acquired about angling, which he will carry to Islands in the Stream and The Old Man and the Sea, and into his fiction about bullfighting and hunting. He learns, as he writes to Gertrude Stein, to “do” the country like Cézanne—as if seeing it for the first time, inventing tree and shadow, without sentimentality or rhetoric or “tricks” that will “go bad afterward,” not mannered, not describing but reducing the imagery to an elemental world that we can enter and cannot leave, all of its forms pointing to one effect, direct, spare, elusive, as clear and mysterious as a spring creek, as clear today as it was in 1925—and just as rare.
Hemingway found saltwater fishing in 1928 when John Dos Passos introduced him to Key West and he soon moved there with his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer. They bought the house at 907 Whitehead Street that is now a Hemingway museum, in 1931.
While in Europe, in the 1920s, he had fished for trout in the Black Forest and the Pyrenées and had written articles about the good places he had found; he shared his enthusiasm with his father—fishing remained their firmest connection—and he also shared his disappointment that the Irati, which he had fished with such pleasure in 1924, had been ruined by logging and the electric companies. But except for occasional trips to Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, his primary fishing thereafter was all in salt water.
At first he fished mostly from the piers and bridges, catching that great grab bag of strong fish from the ocean that dwarfed in size the trout he’d been used to taking—grouper, jacks, snapper, and tarpon. Even later, after he had become fascinated by boats and bigger game, Kip Farrington reports: “Ernest was as happy with the catching of a five-pound fish as with catching a 400-pounder, and many times he would go bottom fishing in the evenings and bone-fishing after a long day in the Gulf Stream . . .” He even ends one of his Cuban
Letters for Esquire magazine with these words: “I would like to go back to fishing for fun and take a day off and go snapper fishing over by the concrete ship.”
But boats gave him a much broader world, a much larger playing field with discrete challenges, a place to test brawn and courage and endurance. He fished in the Marquesas and the Dry Tortugas, and now he grew to love to troll, especially rigged baits, for king-fish, wahoo, barracuda, and eventually sailfish, tuna, and marlin. He had a will to master, to win, and since he was a natural competitor—a boxer, hunter, lover of fighting cocks, and competition of all sorts—and since he loved both the physical risk and the life-and-death struggle, it was natural that he gravitated more toward big-game fishing and found in it an ultimate challenge. A fight with a truly big fish was a test of self. “Il faut (d’abord) durer” he liked to say, about life and a fight with some mammoth fish—one must, above all, endure.
After he bought the Pilar in 1935, in his fascination with the Gulf Stream and its great denizens, Hemingway studied sharks and marlin with the care and zeal of a naturalist. Beginning in 1928, he often fished with Carlos Gutierrez, a commercial fisherman from Cojimar, the small picturesque town ten miles east of Havana—and the home of Santiago, his central figure in The Old Man and the Sea. And he invited Charles M. B. Cadwalader, Director of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, and Henry Fowler, Chief Ichthyologist at the Academy, to study marlin with him. Together they caught, measured, and dissected fish, and Hemingway kept extensive day-log journals, amounting to many hundreds of pages, about what they learned. He also fished with Dr. Perry W. Gilbert, a shark expert and head of the Mote Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida. In the journals, he records the people on board, barometer readings, the amount of gas put in, the cost of the gas, the number of commercially caught marlin in the market (and their sizes), the time out, and the weather; there are detailed notations on what fish they caught, how, at what time, their sizes, time of capture, weather conditions, information about what sharks they saw, seeds for later writing, and what they had for
dinner. He took careful notes on sharks and cataloged the principal kinds found in Cuban waters, their size range, and whether or not they were man-eaters, and if they would respond to shark repellents.
He had lost most of his first tuna and marlin to sharks off Bimini and devised two methods of dealing with them. He told Kip Farrington that it was necessary to bring fish in quickly, before sharks could locate them, and that for this you must “convince” all big fish, and to do this you must be willing to suffer. And he began to carry a Thompson submachine gun on board the Pilar, which he used with glee to kill sharks. Aggressive fishing became his hallmark.
Within six years of the time he began to fish for big game in the Gulf Stream, out of Key West, then Bimini, then Havana, he was viewed by many of the best big-game fishermen in the world—Farrington, Michael Lerner, Van Campen Heilner—as their peer and as a great innovator. He was asked to write the marlin section for Eugene V. Connett’s American Big Game Fishing and the chapter on Cuban fishing for Game Fish of the World, as well as more fugitive but highly authoritative articles for Esquire and Look. He took a keen interest in the technology and ethics of big-game sport fishing and served on the governing board of the International Game Fish Association, founded by Michael Lerner in 1940. In his introduction to Kip Farrington’s book Atlantic Game Fishing, he wrote that “The development of big-game angling was retarded for many years by inadequate tackle,” but is now “in danger of being completely ruined as a sport through development of too efficient tackle.” It was the balance, of course, that kept the challenge worth taking on.
Dozens of people fished with Hemingway in those years—Dos Passos, his editor Maxwell Perkins, Arnold Gingrich (who wrote a sharp, amusing chapter in The Well-Tempered Angler called “Horsing Them in with Hemingway”), Ben Finney, Grant and Jane Mason, the painters Waldo Peirce and Mike Strater, H. L. Woodward, a local contemporary Charles Thompson, and a host of others. Their opinions of him vary sharply, from overt adulation, even hagiography, to appreciation and affection, to claims that he was immensely exciting, a bully, a
show-off, and a bad loser, and (in Gingrich’s words) “more fun to fish with when there were fewer people aboard for him to show off for.” No one disputes his prowess as a fisherman—or a writer.
Writing was always foremost in his mind, and only a bit of it, of course, was actually about fishing. For a while he entertained the idea of doing a book of “Sportsman’s Sketches,” deriving roughly from Turgenev’s—and there is a manuscript of some fourteen typewritten pages in which he makes a start on such a project. His day-log journals were often the first step in a journey that leads to his journalistic articles or less successful books like To Have and Have Not, or to Islands in the Stream and The Old Man and the Sea. Sometimes, when working on a major novel, he would back out of commitments to fish. In 1939 Thomas Shevlin invited him to fish on the U.S. Tuna Team in Nova Scotia. Hemingway had accepted but on April 4 he wrote Shevlin: “Any guy who says he will do a thing and then rats out is a shit . . . I can’t be a sportsman and write a novel at the same time. If I blow up on it (but I can’t you see. That’s the one thing you can’t envisage. It’s like quitting on a fish) I will wire you and fly over . . .” He writes to Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings that sport is for the times “in between” writing, “when you can’t do it.”
With occasional trips to Wyoming and then Sun Valley, where he hunted and fished for trout, Hemingway remained a passionate big-game fisherman until his late fifties. He was even asked to fish for a month in Capo Blanca, Peru, to capture a huge black marlin for the film of The Old Man and the Sea. He did not finally catch the fish they needed, found the entire trip upsetting, and thought Spencer Tracy a “very fat, rich, and old” Santiago.
A. E. Hotchner says that Hemingway once told him, concerning psychoanalysis, that he spent a hell of a lot of time killing animals and fish so he wouldn’t kill himself. If he said it, and was reasonably sober
and not posturing, it’s one of those throwaway lines, true only north by northwest, feeding the stereotype.
Clearly Hemingway loved the visceral experience of fishing, from planning a trip, a campaign, an expedition, to arranging his gear and equipment, to the chase itself and the natural world in which it took place. He was fascinated with the technology and mechanics of fishing—from collecting and rigging bait for trout fishing to the advanced rods and reels he used for marlin. He loved to sit lazily on a dock and to troll for big game, and he loved the ache in his arms and the satisfaction of a thing well done. The naturalist in him loved the need to understand a mysterious quarry and its watery world. He loved, in his words, the “great pleasure of being on the sea, in the unknown wild suddenness of a great fish.” This was man’s play, fishing, and he enjoyed it for the sheer love of the game and he clearly loved it for the competition, against others, against oneself, against the fish. He loved the respite it brought from the weight of writing and the complexity of human relations. I sometimes think he fished because he loved to write about it—and he wrote about it superbly well.
In June 1961, less than a month before he shot himself, Hemingway wrote to his publisher, Charles Scribner, Jr., from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, to thank him for a mimeographed guide to the waters of the Yellowstone area by H. G. Wellington. He asked that a copy be sent to Jack, “who is about as advanced a fisherman as Herbert Wellington”; he had started Jack on those waters years earlier and was obviously proud of his son’s abiding interest in fishing. A few days later, he noted in a letter to young Frederick G. Saviers that he “saw some good bass jump in the river”; he’d never known anything about the upper Mississippi and found it beautiful country.
And then, his body torn with pain and his brain out of whack, unable to fish or hunt, or especially to write, he went to Sun Valley and ended matters.
There are three kinds of writing in the main sections of this book—short stories, sections from larger works (both fiction and nonfiction), and journalism.
I have begun with the most successful of Hemingway’s stories centered on fishing, “Big Two-Hearted River,” because it contains within it all of the elements of his love for fishing and the best of his prose. That its real subject lies somewhere within Nick’s psyche, and that finally it is not a “fishing story” at all, only suggests something of why it has had such broad appeal.
A good number of the Nick Adams stories have references to fishing and some have whole sections devoted to it, but I have only chosen “The End of Something,” and an excerpt from the rambling “The Last Good Country,” and the haunting story “Now I Lay Me.” None of these are “fishing stories” either but they use fishing well. All occur, chronologically, before “Big Two-Hearted River,” and “Now I Lay Me”—the strongest of the others—shows how Nick, wounded and unable to sleep for fear of dying, creates a stay against his fears by fishing in his half dreams rivers he had fished in his youth and knew well.
The section on fishing in the Seine provides a brief change of pace between the heavy undercurrents of the two dark stories to the bright trip to the Irati in The Sun Also Rises. The chapters from the novel suffer, of course, by being separated from the action in Pamplona and thereafter—for they are the simple foil against which the tense events of the fiesta are held, and here they have nothing upon which to reflect. That trip, though, moving from the oppressive heat and discomfort of Pamplona to the quiet, cool, and pastoral setting of Burguete, becomes almost a set piece—lyrical, full of amiable fun, showing the happy respite trout fishing could become in Hemingway’s scheme.
The opening of the third section, the beginning of that strange
book The Garden of Eden, also stands in sharp contrast to the increasingly complex gender explorations of the book itself. A big sea bass is caught is all, and then it is eaten, and it is simple fun for the couple whose life together soon begins to unravel.
In the second section I have collected a representative group of articles and essays on fishing, from his early dispatches for the Toronto Star through his Cuban Letters for Esquire and on to several late articles for Holiday and Look. I have had to make a few hard choices here. I preferred “Marlin off the Morro,” a Cuban Letter, to the fuller, expanded version of the piece, “Marlin off Cuba,” from Eugene V. Connett’s American Game Fishing, chiefly because (for this book) it seemed more direct, more intimate, more spontaneous. I have not included several introductions he wrote, to S. Kip Farrington’s Atlantic Game Fishing (though this shows his commitment to ethics and technology in big-game fishing), Van Campen Heilner’s Salt Water Fishing, and Charles Ritz’s A Fly Fisher’s Life. Though there is some repetition in this section, it shows what a fine and interesting journalist Hemingway could be, how solid a researcher, with an increasing fascination for every aspect of life on the Gulf Stream. It also shows, along with some of his letters and journals, how important this kind of writing could be to his major work, in particular the story and kind of knowledge required for The Old Man and the Sea.
The final section begins with the sea-bass incident and rushes into the boy David’s great and extended fight in Islands in the Stream, and then on to the elemental The Old Man and the Sea. I debated including the interesting section in To Have and Have Not centered on Johnson’s fishing out of Morgan’s boat, and the loss of Morgan’s rig, but it just did not seem to add much to a book that was becoming quite full.
I did not feel comfortable excerpting the tight novella; surely this story ought to be read in its entirety. I can only hope that the section here will send readers to the story itself, still Hemingway’s most popular book.
This is a full book, and one that I think shows—for fishermen and general readers—the full range of Hemingway’s passion for fishing, and the immense skill with which he wrote about this sport he loved all of his life.
New York City