The Nick Adams Stories
Most writers about Hemingway conclude that The Nick Adams Stories, while fiction, are thinly disguised autobiography. We touched briefly on some of those stories in the previous paper, and now have the opportunity of forming further insights into Hemingway by virtue of these stories.
It seems that the book of this title was recently published posthumously – in 1999 – if I read the copyright page correctly, and it contains stories previously published in Hemingway’s life, plus some stories and fragments, never published before at all. And for the first time, all of these tales are arranged in the order of Nick’s chronological life (and hence of Hemingway’s) as well.
If you are reading the book, the new material is set in oblique type, a kind of italics, to differentiate it from the previously published content. In chronological order the stories are as follow. Italics identifies the new material.
The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife
The Indians Moved Away
The Light of the World
The Last Good Country
Crossing the Mississippi
Night Before Landing
Nick Sat Against the Wall . . .
Now I Lay Me
A Way You’ll Never Be
In Another Country
Big Two-Hearted River
The End of Something
The Three-Day Blow
An Alpine Idyll
Fathers and Sons
“Three Shots” we commented on earlier, and rereading suggests one more thing, Hemingway’s fascination with the wild. He doesn’t start his childhood stories with Twain-like tales of school mates and pranks. Twain died in 1910, and so was alive when Hemingway was young. It is probable that Hemingway read Huckleberry Finn in school or from the Oak Park library.
It is interesting to note that Hemingway is never humorous; sometimes he’s sarcastic, but never with the purpose of making the reader laugh – which is often the motivation of Twain. So we start Hem off with the frightened youth in the Michigan forest; the first in a lengthening string of threatening situations, culminating with the bullfight, or bullets and bombs in war.
There is one story about Nick as a wounded soldier in the Italian army called Now I Lay Me, that contains many youthful memories. Indeed, the title itself is the beginning of a child’s nightly prayer that is likely one that Hemingway, as a youngster, recited. Also, the story might really belong with some other of the adolescent stuff – like The Last Good Country – and so I’d like to discuss it first.
Of course, Hemingway was wounded as an ambulance driver for the Italians in WWI, when he was a quite young adult, so one might expect the story to carry much truth. Strangely, the story is mostly about Nick’s fear that his soul will leave his body if he goes to sleep in the dark. So, Nick goes to great lengths not to fall asleep in the dark. He has this fear because he felt as if this were happening to him when he was “blown-up” (and Hem was blown-up in his legs when he was wounded), but Nick struggled successfully to keep his soul in his body.
I have known men who quite seriously confided to me that “soul travel” has happened to them, sometimes called “out-of-body experience” or “astral planing.” It hasn’t happened to me, but then I don’t think I have a soul like that. For a wounded soldier, such a sensation certainly might be frightening, because once the soul leaves the body, the body may be dead, if, of course, the soul can not return, as many who report the phenomenon say it can and does.
Nick is only afraid of this happening to him if he goes to sleep in the dark. If there is light, artificial or daylight, he feels he can prevent it, but not in the dark. One wonders if such thoughts bothered Hemingway. His whole lifework, one way or another, concerns fear – bravery and cowardice – and what to do about it. Hemingway was raised Christian – protestant, but Christian – which implies a belief in an afterlife.
Before he married his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, a Catholic, he converted to Catholicism. I don’t know how he squared his divorce from Hadley with the Church, but maybe his conversion made his first marriage null and void. In spite of my eighteen years of Catholic education, I don’t know just how that works, but I can imagine that Hemingway was not sincere about it anyway, and I’ve never read anything after that to lead me to think he was very committed to Catholic orthodoxy.
In fact, there is one place in Death in the Afternoon where he says that the belief that humans have “immortal souls” is why severely injured bull-fighters are not put out of their misery like bulls and horses are. Hemingway doesn’t seem to share that belief. There may be other places in his fiction where this dilemma is considered, but I haven’t encountered it yet.
We must remember that Hemingway killed himself, in 1961, with his mouth covering the barrels of a shotgun (I have heard), so there would be a clear outcome to his action and no possibility of earthly survival. He must have settled his mind about the matter of soul travel by then, and I suspect he didn’t expect an afterlife. But many in our world do. Hemingway’s father also committed suicide, as did his kid brother, Leicester, in 1982.
Most of Now I Lay Me deals with the ways in which Nick forces himself to stay awake in the dark. These ways are entertaining, but not profound. He fishes. In memory he recalls in detail all the trout streams he has ever fished, how many worms he had, and what other bait he used. He prays for every person he can remember, and in the remembrance relives his mother “cleaning the basement” and burning his father’s collection of Indian artifacts – arrowheads and stone tools – and other “saved” objects his father tries to rescue by raking them out of the fire.
One wonders if this is a memory of Hemingway’s or an invention. We know from biographies that Hemingway’s relationship with his mother was strained in many ways, but especially by the way she treated his father – and tried to treat Ernest. He and his father were the only males in the family of five females until his brother Leicester was born, fifteen years later. That is really what the The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife is about, but more subtly.
In Now I Lay Me, Nick is a Lieutenant paired with “an orderly” assigned to him, who occupies the same room in an Italian home or hospital, and has trouble sleeping also, but not for the same reason. Nick does not reveal his fear to the orderly, and they converse in the night, careful not to awaken their Italian hosts.
The orderly thinks that Nick should marry a wealthy Italian girl, because their culture prepares them so well for wifedom. “A man ought to be married,” the orderly says. “You’ll never regret it. Every man ought to be married.” Nick says he’ll think about it, but demurs because he doesn’t speak Italian that well. He tries to remember every girl he ever knew, and imagine what kind of wife they would be. Eventually, all the girls blurred together, so he returned to his trout-stream memories in order to keep his soul in his body.
We know Hemingway married four times, and was unfaithful to his wives when opportunity beckoned. He liked marriage as a convenience, but never allowed himself to be dominated by a woman, like his father was. In Death in the Afternoon, he reveals that he marries to keep himself out of the whorehouses, and to protect himself from disease. Syphilis and gonorrhea at the time were very widespread, and penicillin wasn’t even discovered until 1928. But he did allow himself some leeway when it came to beautiful women who threw themselves at him; as did Marlene Dietrich.
Hemingway’s four wives were Hadley Richardson (m. 1926-29, Paris), Pauline Pfeiffer (m. 1930-40, Key West), Martha Gellhorn (m. 1940-45, Europe), and Mary Welsh (m. 1946-61, Cuba and Idaho). [dates approximate, spelling correct]
Hem fathered three sons (no daughters), one by Hadley and two by Pfeiffer. Hadley’s son John (called Jack, or Bumby) produced three daughters including Mariel, later appearing as a seductive teen-ager in Woody Allen’s film Manhattan, and Margaux, who committed suicide almost twentyfive years to the day after Ernest did.
So, we would have to conclude that Hemingway was a ladies man, and a marrying one at that. He had many male friends, but there is no suggestion I know of that he was ever in doubt about his own heterosexuality. That is part of his charm, for women, at least. Add to that his stature, almost 6’1” and carrying for most of his life a weight above 200 lbs, he cut a very manly figure.
There is a passage in Death in the Afternoon where Hemingway discusses homosexuality among men. Seems he didn’t think much of them. The terminology then was “queers” and “fairies,” and Hem uses both. In Spanish it is “maricone,” and he asks a female author, who is writing a book about El Greco, if she considered Greco a maricone.
“Why no,” she replies, “should I?” Hemingway then compares El Greco to Goya and Velasquez, finding El Greco’s paintings the most feminine of the three. Probably I would too. Hem instructs her to just look at El Greco’s work. Perhaps convinced, nevertheless she says “The book is done.”
Hemingway concludes this scene by writing, “Viva Goya. Viva el Rey de los Maricones.” Long live Goya, the King of the Queers? Does that make sense? Goya, the most masculine of the three, is still considered by Hem to be a “fairy?” Maybe that is what he thought about all artists.
Let’s jump now to a peculiar Nick Adams story, called A Way You Will Never Be. Well, what is this way you – the reader – will never be? Maybe “the way” would be called PTSD today, or post-traumatic stress disorder. When the story was written, that term did not exist yet, and maybe Hemingway didn’t expect that it, or something like it, ever would.
Here, Nick is recovering from his wounds by visiting a battalion to which he was once attached. He is clearly bothered by his war experiences, in recurring dreams and in wakefulness. Nick, an American helping the Italians, now finds his sanity questioned by his previous brothers-in-arms, and though he feels sane, he realizes how tough it is to shake a “crazy” rep once it gets applied to you.
His “duty” as it were, is to demonstrate to Italian troops what an American uniform looks like. “Millions” of American troops are coming – by most accounts – but haven’t arrived yet. This is what they will look like. His uniform has been manufactured by an Italian tailor, and isn’t quite correct; and Nick is supposed to have cigarettes and chocolate to give away, but those goods are presently not available at the front.
He attracts a crowd of curious soldiers, but instead of instructing them about the uniform, he regales them with stories of catching grasshoppers to use for fishing bait, and informs them that American grasshoppers are called locusts in Europe. Nick thinks this is okay, that he is not “crazy,” as some say, but it would be harder to find a crazier statement than this one, under the circumstances.
Now I have been crazy, and can attest that while crazy, one has certain defects of thought – appropriateness, logic, interpretation – that I could see after the fact as crazy, but I needed some time to come out from under. Maybe this is what Hemingway means by “a way you will never be,” that is, shell shocked by the craziness of war.
As the story opens, and elsewhere in his writing, he describes the dead men he sees on the battlefield, almost bursting with gas, covered with flies, and with their pockets all turned out by the victors, or by thieving civilians, looking for money. The other papers – letters, photographs, notes – are scattered all around the bodies, of no interest now that their principal is dead. Morte, in French, tote, in German. Nonexistent, in English. Or at least nonexistent unless you believe – as Hemingway may have, at that time – in a spiritual life after death. My father had that, my mother too. I don’t. What more can I say?
Is that what A Way You’ll Never Be means? Crazy, shell-shocked, PTSD? The answer must be in the story. Read it for yourself.
In The Light of the World, we seem to look in on two early experiences of Nick and his friend Tom, when they were seventeen and nineteen, according to Nick. Probably Nick is the younger. They enter a bar and order beer, for a nickel a glass.
The bar offers free pig’s feet to customers, but not for a nickel beer. Nick puts a half dollar out, and Tom takes some pig’s feet, but immediately spits it out. “Your goddam pig’s feet stink.” He gripes. “You punks stink yourself,” says the bartender.
I remember pig’s feet from my uncle’s bar, in Dayton Ohio in the late ‘30s. Disgusting items floating in brine. Maybe now I’d be willing to try some, but as a child – no.
To avoid a fight, Nick hauls Tom out of the bar and they walk in the cold to the train station, where there are a few people, including three whores, huge women in shimmering dresses, the largest a 350 pounder named Alice. “Must be like getting on top of a hay mow,” a bystander says. Funny line, but somehow not laughable in context.
The whores begin arguing about a man (not present) named Steve Ketchel, that both claim to have been loved by. One whore attests: “I knew him like you know nobody in the world, and I loved him like you love God, and his own father shot him down like a dog.”
Alice contradicts her, “No. I knew him before that. He was the only man I ever loved. He said, ‘You’re a lovely piece, Alice,’ that’s exactly what he said.”
“It’s a lie,” the other whore said. Alice and she wrangle about the “truth” of their memories until Nick and Tom decide to move on, but Nick reflects that Alice had “about the prettiest face I ever saw . . . but, my God, she was big.” Alice said “Good-by,” and Nick thinks, “she certainly has a nice voice,” before Tom pulls him away and they depart – end of story.
What in the hell is “the light of the world”? Is it the experience of these two encounters illuminating the mind of young Nick about some of the persons and situations he will face in the world? More than likely. We have a venal, self interested, bar-keeper leery of two youngsters (punks, in his language), plus a trio of derailed women reminiscing about life, love, truth and loss. Pretty good addition to the education of Nick Adams, if you ask me.
Well, here we are at the end of seven pages, and still have at least a half a book to go. Think I will end it here, and get it posted for you blog followers, at up2pee.com and copied for those of you without computers. Caio