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The War in “Big Two-Hearted River” – A Guest Post by Professor Allen Josephs

The War in “Big Two-Hearted River” – A Guest Post by Professor Allen Josephs

When I set out to learn more about Hemingway, Allen Josephs’ name often came up. “Write him!” urged a friend, “Talk to him!”  I resisted for a long time, thinking I would read his books instead. But as it turned out, when we lived in Spain last year, we carried only a few books with us, and three of them were written by Allen. The entire family read them, and in many ways, Allen unknowingly guided and shaped our experiences there. We looked at Spain through a particularly rich and interesting perspective of Spanish history, literature, and myth found in Allen’s wonderful book, White Wall of Spain: The Mysteries of Andalusian Culture. For Whom the Bell Tolls: Ernest Hemingway’s Undiscovered Country was another book that fascinated us, imparting a greater sense of place for what some consider to be Hemingway’s finest novel. Allen’s lyrical book, Ritual and Sacrifice in the Corrida: The Saga of Cesar Rincon  added to our understanding of  Spain, its landscape and its people. Add some Hemingway, Michener, the story of el Cordobes or Manolete, and suddenly, you’re deeply in love with Spain.

 Allen’s perspective on Spain, Hemingway, Fishing, Toreo, and Bulls feels authentic, with an  attention to detail that suggests first hand experience. There is a certain feeling of apprenticeship to Allen’s work, a quality that indicates a lifetime of thinking, feeling, and study, genuine life experience with his subjects, of deep and careful scholarship. I’ve been writing about Hemingway for over five years now, and I haven’t come close yet to the depth of relationship Allen has towards his material. For example, I am amazed in the following essay, that Allen could hold a Hemingway question in his heart for twenty-five years. 

The War in “Big Two-Hearted River”

In memory of Robert W. Lewis

The story was about coming back from the war but there was no mention of the war in it. A Moveable Feast (76)

Heretical as it may sound, I must ask the question: Was “Big Two-Hearted River” about coming back from the war?

Edmund Wilson and then Malcolm Cowley were first to suggest that there was more going on here than a fishing story. In his introduction to The Portable Hemingway in 1945, Cowley wrote of “Big Two-Hearted River” as being connected to “Now I Lay Me,” concluding that “Hemingway himself sometimes seems to regard writing as an exhausting ceremony of exorcism. And, as a young man after the First World War, he had painful memories of which he wanted to rid himself by setting them all down” (Cowley/Weeks 43). Cowley didn’t state flatly that the story was about the unmentioned war, but he certainly pointed us in a direction that would prove difficult to reverse.

Other critics followed Cowley’s lead. Carlos Baker in 1952 believed it was a “legitimate guess” that Nick was “a returned war-veteran, going fishing both for fun and for therapeutic purposes” (127). Philip Young’s book appeared the same year, attributing massive and pervasive importance to Hemingway’s wounding. Specifically he claimed that within “Big Two-Hearted River” a “terrible panic is barely under control, and the style—this is the ‘Hemingway style’ at its most extreme—is the perfect expression of the content of the story; with its fixation on detail and repetitive, almost mechanical, movement, it resembles the behavior of a badly shell-shocked veteran” (46).  Young’s assertion rather violently opposed Baker’s opinion that “the close reader finds a carefully determined order of virtue and simplicity which goes far towards explaining from below the oddly satisfying effect of the surface story” (126), yet both critics believed that the story was about the effects of the war.

In 1989 Paul Smith in A Reader’s Guide to the Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway wrote that Young’s theory had a “profound influence” on critics considering “Big Two-Hearted River” and that “few contest his interpretation of the story in the light of the later war stories…” (89). Once Hemingway himself had written in A Moveable Feast that the story was about the war, the case was closed, even if only well after the fact, especially since he would reiterate the whole business in his 1959 piece, “The Art of the Short Story,” eventually published in the Paris Review  in 1981: ‘“Big Two-Hearted River’ is about a boy coming home beat to the wide from a war. Beat to the wide was an earlier and possibly more severe form of beat, since those who had it were unable to comment on this condition and could not suffer that it be mentioned in their presence. So the war, all mention of the war, anything about the war, is omitted” (88). The author’s recollection would seem to settle the issue, since, in spite of Hemingway’s off-key tone, he cloaked the brilliance of the story, the seven-eighths of the iceberg left out—the war and all its consequent implications—in an invisible cloak of seemingly intentional or even obligatory omission.

Hemingway’s fanciful explanation, as though he were fictionalizing the fiction, does not describe what I see happening in 1924, when the young and brilliant and relatively inexperienced Hemingway was actually writing the story, rather than recalling and embellishing the writing of it many years and a few wars later.  Maybe in its first iteration, a three-page first-person autobiographical account of a fishing trip to the Fox River in 1919, along with two fishing pals, Al Walker and John Pentecost, it was to have been a story about going fishing after the war. But that first attempt, probably written in late 1923 was “a false start” that went nowhere (Smith 85).

The story then turned into a third-person omniscient account of a solitary expedition made by Nick Adams, with many fictionalized elements, including in its first finished version—one that Hemingway sent out for publication—the notion that “Nick in the stories was never himself. He made him up” (NAS 238). As we know, this metafictionalizing—Nick inventing Nick—complicated  the story enormously, although that complication of what Hemingway later excised interests me less at this juncture than the problematic chronology of what Philip Young eventually published as “On Writing” in his attempt at a chronological compilation of Nick’s life in The Nick Adams Stories. We will return to the metaphysics later.

In that original version, we find some interesting and pertinent information, chronologically and sentimentally linking Nick Adams and Hemingway. We encounter: 1) Ezra, presumably Ezra Pound, a buddy of Nick’s who seems to be a poet and thinks fishing is a joke. Hemingway met Pound in mid-February, 1922. 2) Bill Bird, a newsman who, like Pound, is in Paris. Hemingway met Bird in April 1922, when he went to cover the Genoa Conference for the Toronto Star. 3) We find Nick is married, not such a surprise assuming there is some chronological order to In Our Time—after all, Nick was already married in the Nick Adams story prior to “Big Two-Hearted River,” which is to say “Cross Country Snow,” married and with his wife Helen expecting a child. 4) Nick likes to travel to Spain, going to “bullfights,” and he hangs out with historical figuras such as Algabeño and Maera, matadors Hemingway mentions in his correspondence from Pamplona in July of 1924 (see particularly the postcard of July 13 to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Letters II, 274). 5) Nick is in Pamplona with Hemingway’s pal, Chink Dorman-Smith, putting us again into July, 1924. 6) Nick had been on the road to Karagatch in the fall of 1922, in the Greco-Turkish war, and he’s also written a story about it, transferring part of the action, the childbirth, to an Indian camp. Hemingway wrote “Indian Camp” between late 1923 and February 1924.  7) Nick also knows Gertrude Stein and James Joyce. He has read Ulysses and even undertakes to criticize it, especially Joyce’s autobiographical rendering of Stephen Daedalus (NAS 234-240).

Allen Josephs holding a 25.5 pound sea-run brown trout caught from the Río Grande, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina on Good Friday, April 2, 1999.

Hemingway included that original version of “Big Two-Hearted River” as the final story of the typescript of In Our Time, which he had Donald Ogden Stewart shopping around to publishers in New York during that fall of 1924 (Smith 86). How is that story, which covers some time at least up to mid-1924, about “coming back from the war”? “Soldier’s Home,” which he wrote the previous spring, was about a boy home from the war, but “Big Two-Hearted River,” as he first wrote it, was not. In this first version, Nick is making himself up in the late summer or early fall of 1924, six years after the end of the war, a period that covered a quarter of Hemingway’s life and most of his life as a writer. The chronology that Hemingway inculcated into the story assures us, via its many undeniable biographical references, that the story as originally conceived and submitted for publication as the clincher in a connected collection of stories could not possibly be construed as being about a boy back from the war. It was about a young man who wanted to write—and who was, in fact, doing so, more than six years after his wounding in the summer of 1918.

Towards the end of October of 1924 Gertrude Stein returned to Paris, read the original version of the story and told Hemingway bluntly that remarks were not literature (Reynolds 247). She would recall the process nearly a decade later in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas: “[Hemingway] had added to his stories a little story of meditations and in these he said that The Enormous Room was the greatest book he had ever read. It was then that Gertrude Stein had said, Hemingway, remarks are not literature” (219).

Whatever she actually said at the time, Hemingway immediately set about excising the so-called remarks, turning the story into the published version we have today. He cut away the offending pages and explained to Robert McAlmon in a letter of Nov 1, 1924: “I have decided that all that mental conversation in the long fishing story is the shit and have cut it out. The last nine pages. The story was interrupted you know just when I was going good and I could never get back into it and finish it. I got a hell of a shock when I realized how bad it was and that shocked me back into the river again and I’ve finished it off the way it ought to have been all along. Just the straight fishing” (Letters II, 323).

No war, just the fishing. Then he quipped to McAlmon: “Wouldn’t it be funny if some publisher had accepted it because of the stuff that I’ve got to cut?” (Letters II, 324). The material he cut is not about the war either—it’s all about the things Nick loves, the bulls, fishing and above all, writing, which is presumably why Philip Young titled the excised part “On Writing.” Another curious chronological point: If “Big Two-Hearted River” is about being back from the war and the wounding, why did Young place the excised “remarks” in his last section, called “Company of Two” (that is, after Nick has married Helen)? For all the reasons I have been adducing—because the original chronology of the story, as Hemingway first wrote it, had nothing to do with coming back from the war. And I can’t believe that, interruptions and all, Hemingway started out thinking it was about the war and then forgot about it, going on to write about Paris and Pamplona. The excised parts had nothing to do with the war but did have to do with Gertrude Stein, and there is a wonderful irony in that connection, because, as I have pointed out previously, the cut parts (except for a parodic poem or two), are the most Gertrudesque words he ever penned. So the excisions and revisions had the double effect of freeing up the story to its essence and liberating it from her influence (Josephs 9).

Actually there is one minor, skewed mention of the war in the cut part. Nick is remembering how too much talking ruined everything, as the movies did, and he thinks “That was what had made the war unreal. Too much talking” (NAS 237). The use of the past perfect tense—what had made the war unreal—distances the war from the young man wading in the river and the adjective  unreal, connected not to trauma but to too much talking, as in the movies, do not constitute any sort of argument for the unmentioned presence of war. Quite the opposite, especially given the history of talking movies, still in their infancy in 1924.

Two days after the letter to McAlmon, on November 3, 1924, Hemingway wrote to Don Stewart in New York: “I have discovered that the last eleven pages of the last story in the book I sent you are crap. [.…] Under this same cover you will find five pages—These five pages are to take the place of the last eleven pages in the story called Big Two Hearted River” (Letters II, 326-27). He then proceeds to tell Stewart the same thing two more times in the same letter. Still no rumor of war.

Allen Josephs holding a 27.5 inch river rainbow, caught from the Sedanka Spring Creek, Kamchatka, Siberia, August 2007. This fish tied with the existing record for the river.

In certain letters in the second volume of Hemingway’s complete letters (1923-1925), he talks about his swell fishing story, but nowhere does he mention that Nick is back from the war. He tells his father: “I’ve written a number of stories about the Michigan country—the country is always true—what happens in the stories is fiction. [...] The river in it [“Big Two-Hearted River”] is really the Fox above Seney. It’s a story I think you will like” (II, 464). Why will his father like it? Because of how the country is. As he had told Edward J. O’Brien, in September 1924, just as he finished the original draft, “It is much better than anything I’ve done. What I’ve been doing is trying to do country so you don’t remember the words after you read it but actually have the country” (II, 304). If the story were really about coming back from the war with no mention of the war, wouldn’t Hemingway—in his youthful enthusiasm about his experimental fiction—have revealed it? Instead we have the repeated issue of the country, such as in the August 15, 1924 letter to Stein and Toklas in which he specifies “trying to do the country like Cezanne […] and sometimes getting it a bit. […] and the country is swell […] [and] it is swell about the fish […] (II, 288). He shares his secret about Cezanne with them, even though “It was a thing you couldn’t talk about” (NAS 239), but there is no “swell” about the left-out war.

Contrary to Paul Smith’s opinion, Michael Reynolds thought all along it was a story about writing. As Hemingway hacked away Nick’s “meditations,” Reynolds wrote in The Paris Years (which appeared the same year as Smith’s Guide, 1989): “It was still a story about writing, but he did not have to tell the reader directly: fishing was an art form, so was writing” (247). Reynolds ended that section with this comment on the cutting: “Thus his daring experiment disappeared, leaving the collection thematically linked but without the artifice of Nick the writer telling the stories” (248). All the metafictional niceties disappeared—and what replaced them? Nothing. Just the straight fishing. Until the critics came along decades later and decided that the thing left out was the war.

At about the same time, Debra A. Moddelmog, thinking along the same lines, introduced the theory that Nick was the author of all of In Our Time. This highly original piece, which I still remember in its prototypical “conference-paper” version, may well have been what initially spurred me to examine, twenty-five years on, this whole issue of the precise role of the war in the story, the war as opposed to the writing.

As I have written previously: “In its brilliant and original fusion of style and of substance, of form and content, of fishing and writing, ‘Big Two-Hearted River’ embodies, more than any other story, the early elliptical style that would profoundly influence the way we write today” (8, my emphasis here). The unspoken intertwining of fishing and writing carry the story, indeed they are the story. Writing, not the war, is the thing left out. Given the encompassing metaphysical nature of that deleted material, it may well be the definitive instance of omission in all of Hemingway’s work, one in which the artificer erases the artifice but not the art, clearly a reason the finished story is so much finer than the original. What we lose in metafiction—perhaps the most prescient and revealing passage Hemingway ever wrote—we gain in solid composition, as with the painting of Cezanne. By removing Cezanne, he paradoxically achieved the writerly Cezannesque style he was so avidly seeking.

Does that mean I am categorically denying the presence of the war in the story? Not altogether. There is a residual hollowness in the story—something that clearly concerns Nick. But how are we to know what that is? Is it possible that the story is about fishing and writing on the surface and in its depths also about some inchoate expression of the lasting effects of the war? We don’t know from the text—nor can we know—what it is that Nick seems to be holding at bay. Not until we read later stories do we begin to get possible clues. And from that original uncut version we are textually limited to Nick’s concerns, years after the war, about his writing. Early on in both versions of the story, Nick tells us that he had “left everything behind, the need for thinking, the need to write, other needs” (CSS 164, NAS 179). “The need for thinking,” synonymous with worrying, is vague and ubiquitous in Hemingway’s work, from at least “The Killers” forward. “Other needs” is downright obscure. Only “the need to write” is specific. As any angler knows, one of the great appeals of fishing is precisely leaving everything behind. It is therefore ironic and poignant that Nick failed to leave thinking and writing behind, especially in the uncut version in which he thinks about writing more than anything.

Virtually all the criticism that adduces the unmentioned presence of the war does so by quoting late Hemingway or by inferring from later stories—especially “In Another Country” (1926), “Now I Lay Me” (also 1926) and “A Way You’ll Never Be” (1932). This inferred interpretation of “Big Two-Hearted River” depends on an extended, eight-year, chronology that has nothing to do with the writing of the story in 1924 and it cannot prove the (negative) presence of war in the story. The critics have instead assumed the war and continued to assume it in successive interpretations until we end up with a classic post-hoc-ergo-propter-hoc argument that bases its conclusions on the order of events, specifically the as-yet-unwritten stories mentioned above—in the light of the later war stories, to remember Paul Smith’s phrase. The most subtle exercise of this procedure is Joseph M. Flora’s conjecture that Nick’s state of mind in “Now I Lay Me” forms “the deep memory that Nick in ‘Big Two-Hearted River’ holds back, the dark swamp” that he is reluctant to enter. I like Flora’s idea and have elsewhere quoted it (8), but my preference doesn’t keep it from being a post-hoc argument. I think Flora may be right on some subliminal plane, yet the practical problem of the chronology in the original material, which has bothered me for decades, still persists.

Ernest Hemingway, doing what he loved.

Hemingway/Nick did in fact make himself up. The stories are by no means strictly autobiographical. By way of example, “Three Shots”—another piece of excision (NAS 13-15), in this case the beginning of “Indian Camp”—dealt with Nick’s discovery of the fear of death as a child but it used Hemingway’s own concerns about such fears, after his wounding and near-death-experience, to introduce the allusion to the silver cord from Ecclesiastes 12:6—“Or ever the silver cord be loosed”—by way of the derivative hymn, “Some Day the Silver Cord Will Break,” as well as his own need for a light at night. And as we’ve already seen, he used the Karagatch birth he witnessed in 1922 to fictionalize the published part of the story “Indian Camp,” from Nick’s childhood, even going so far as to comment on the exchange in the excised part of “Big Two-Hearted River”: “[…] he’d never seen an Indian woman having a baby. […] He’d seen a woman have a baby on the road to Karagatch and tried to help her” (NAS 238).

Bearing in mind that propensity to invent and to re-chronologize when it suited his purposes, let’s return to Malcolm Cowley’s statement: “Hemingway himself sometimes seems to regard writing as an exhausting ceremony of exorcism.” Sounds good, psychologically sound—but what if it’s the other way around? What if, instead of exorcism, it’s incantation, bewitchment by word? Exorcism is singular, ugly and abortive. “Big Two-Hearted,” au contraire, lines out a haltingly repetitive, awkwardly original, rhythmic lyricism and we read the story over and over, fascinated, as we would poetry or liturgy.

Cowley continues, “And, as a young man after the First World War, he had painful memories of which he wanted to rid himself by setting them all down” (Weeks 43). What if instead of ridding himself, he was incorporating, assimilating through the incantation, healing, with the words annealing? No casting out of evil spirits, rather a casting toward the sacred fish that were a salvific fashioning or forging out of his own spirit, something he clearly enunciated in the excised—but never exorcised—part: “He, Nick, wanted to write about country like Cezanne had done it in painting. You had to do it from inside yourself. There wasn’t any trick. Nobody had ever written about country like that. He felt almost holy about it. It was deadly serious. You could do it if you would fight it out. If you’d lived right with your eyes” (NAS 239, my emphasis). These phrases—giving us an unparalleled sense of Hemingway/Nick’s dedication to his craft—composed a kind of cryptic treasure map to the sacred font. But as in the case of “Three Shots,” they revealed too much about the young author’s intentions—doubtless what shocked him back into the river again—intentions that had nothing to do with the war and everything to do with learning to write. So, embarrassed by his transparency and scolded by Gertrude Stein, he threw away the map—which Philip Young later exhumed, mirabile dictu—and returned to the straight fishing.

As Hemingway delved deeper into his war experiences, always creating, always making him up, the more he came to understand, after the fact, the connected nature of those later stories, which, read in reverse order, send us back—even turned Hemingway back—to “Big Two-Hearted River,” to the river that was the source, the literal stream of consciousness, the sacred spring that was the fountainhead of the stories to follow. Contrary to what he had written his father, it was not the actual Fox he had put in the story, it was the poetry of the invented, the realer-than-real, Big Two-Hearted River. It was country made immanent. Hemingway was closer to the source of the story when he wrote in A Moveable Feast: “What did I know about truly and care for the most? There was no choice at all” (76).

Then too, what if “Big Two-Hearted River” is not about the memory he would explore two years later in “Now I Lay Me,” as Flora would have us believe? What if it’s the other way around? In “Now I Lay Me” Nick, avoiding sleep in order to save his soul, invents new rivers to fish: “Some nights too I made up streams and some of them were very exciting and it was like being awake and dreaming” (CSS 277). The words made up, and very exciting and like being awake and dreaming suggest that in the same way that Nick in the stories was never himself, that he made him up, so the Big Two-Hearted is not the Fox and that he made it up, exactly as Nick tells us in “Now I Lay Me,” and that it is the writing of “Big Two-Hearted River” that had become the source and the inspiration—following the chronology of the writing rather than of Hemingway/Nick’s biography—for “Now I Lay Me.”

Nick explains that inspiration precisely in “Now I Lay Me”: “Some of those streams I still remember and think that I have fished in them, and they are confused with streams I really know. I gave them all names and went to them on the train and sometimes walked for miles to get to them” (CSS 277, my emphasis). Names like Big Two-Hearted. You can still cross the railroad tracks west of Seney and walk for miles parallel to the Fox, seeing a landscape of river and pines and downed trees and cedar swamps—the swamps are very real—and it can be quite exciting and the river is a classic trout stream. But mere reality does not suffice: for it to be made up and  very exciting and like being awake and dreaming—for it to achieve its full Platonic resonance—you have to read the story, itself a river flowing, ever with the same incantational waters.

Reading The Trip to Echo Spring, Olivia Laing’s fascinating new study of alcohol and writing, I came upon this quote, written about Hemingway’s insomniac nights during his separation from Pauline in the autumn of 1926, precisely when he was writing “Now I Lay Me.” It seemed written as an illustration of what Nick was explaining: “Lying rigid in his bed listening to the sound of rain. Making up a man who makes up rivers and sits beside them with a rod, fishing for trout and sometimes losing them, until the sun comes up and it is safe to close his eyes” (98). Nick’s fear in the story of losing his soul by going to sleep derives from a reversal of Hemingway’s actual insomnia of 1926 as he lay awake remembering the creation of the Big Two-Hearted: I gave them all names and went to them on the train and sometimes walked for miles to get to them.

Just as many of the critics were seduced by a reverse biographical current, even Hemingway himself seemed to come in time to believe that “Big Two-Hearted River” was about the war (suggested, Heaven forbid, by the critics?). The inexact psychological and physiological experience of the memory of war is never wholly extractable from Nick once he is wounded, just as it is not extractable from Hemingway. I think that in some inevitable and unconsciously accretive way, some confabulation, with time and chronology compressing and rearranging in memory—“memory of course is never true” as Hemingway wisely wrote in Death in the Afternoon (100)—it became for him a story about the war, mutatis mutandis, just as it became one which in hindsight and seen through the prism of the later stories we have inevitably associated with the war. But in 1924 when he wrote it, it was not about the war. Nor did he say it was. Not in 1924, not for many years. In 1924, as the text of the original ending makes clear, it was about a young man fishing and learning to write and discovering his commitment to art. As he fought it out—wading into the picture, living right with his eyes, then cutting loose the theoretical and aesthetic commitment and conjuring up in its stead the ominous and very real swamp—he was showing us (rather than telling us) how he wrote, working as best he could at the edge of the dark swamp of his creative unconscious, rendering base experience into gold.

Just the straight fishing but ending finally with an unrealized half-lit and tragic fishing to come. Is it there, in the final cutting and rewriting, that the war, in some recurring memory, began to infiltrate and replace the burden of Hemingway’s creative consciousness? Or is that deep-water, half-lit, tragic fishing a congeries of all those initial feelings about writing, deep within him, tragic with the exposed core of sentience he tells us he was experiencing—it was deadly serious, he felt almost holy about it—feelings with which he was not quite yet ready to cope? Nick thinks, perhaps optimistically, in the story’s last line: “There were plenty of days coming when he could fish the swamp” (CSS 180). The intentional and opaque ambivalences of the story—half-lit and tragic reflections themselves—will doubtless keep us fishing for another hundred years.

This essay will appear in Allen Josephs’ new book, On Hemingway and Spain: Collected Essays and Reviews, 1979-2013. New Street Communications, due mid-April, 2014

Allen Josephs in the Madrid plaza de toros, May 2013

Allen Josephs is an internationally renowned Hemingway scholar and past president of the Ernest Hemingway Foundation and Society. His new collection, On Hemingway and Spain: Essays and Reviews, 1979-2013 will be published by Newstreet Communications this spring. 
He is the author of nine books and more than a hundred essays and reviews published in the New York Times Book Review, the Atlantic Monthly, the New Republic, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Virginia Quarterly Review, The North Dakota Quarterly and many others in the U.S. and abroad. His last major book, Ritual and Sacrifice in the Corrida, won four prizes. He is University Research Professor at the University of West Florida. 


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