Arts & Culture

Commentary: Hemingway's fiction contains great truths about the places he visited

Editor's note: This story originally published in the June 22, 1999 edition of The Kansas City Star

As an adolescent I knew Pamplona and the running of the bulls, could feel the heat and smell the fear in the corrida.

Paul White/The Associated Press
Ernest Hemingway told the world about the annual running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain.

It was Ernest Hemingway who transported me -- and ultimately millions of others -- to places that meant so much to him, by the power of his writing.

Beyond his distinctive, spare, declarative style, and a reaction to what he considered an excess of a wordy romanticism in American literature, his ability to evoke place so that we could know it as he experienced it is one of Hemingway's greatest achievements.

The doctor's son from Oak Park, Ill., a good Midwestern boy, was born on the edge of a millennium when there were still Indians in the woods. He was privileged, loved, maybe spoiled.

At 5 years old he fished with his dad at the cottage in Michigan, learning to take a fish at Horton's Creek. These early and generally happy experiences resulted in an affection for the natural world and sharpened his observations of man in relation to it.

Those observations, that sensibility, informed Hemingway's work as an adult and can readily be seen in the short stories that involved the recurring character Nick Adams.

Those stories are filled with detail of the American landscape he came to know in his boyhood experiences and are certainly indicative of the wish to "get it right" about place. You could read "Big Two-Hearted River" as a manual of how to set up camp:

With the ax he split off a bright slab of pine from one of the stumps and split it into pegs for the tent. He wanted them long and solid to hold in the ground. With the tent unpacked and spread on the ground, the pack, leaning against a jack pine, looked much smaller ... Across the open mouth of the tent Nick fixed cheesecloth to keep out mosquitoes. ... Nick was happy as he crawled into the tent.

When Nick has finished on that first day and driven a nail to hold his canvas water bag you have walked your way in beyond the fire-line and are eager to get to sleep and wake in the morning ready for the trout.

As a self-conscious adolescent, Hemingway had written in a journal his wish to travel, to know Africa, to know adventure.

He came to know all of this, writing his earliest work from Paris, including the bulk of the Michigan stories, a kind of testament that distance sharpens vision.

In Africa he hunted. The restrained Midwesterner became the stolid, noble Hemingway character of superhuman restraint. He is evident in The Green Hills of Africa, in which the heat, dust, sandy soil and the waiting in this glorious East African landscape for the greater, not the lesser, kudu by the salt lick are made nearly palpable in Hemingway's prose.

This lick had an impossible approach. Trees grew around its open area so that it was as though the game were in the blind and you had to come to them across the open. Of course once you were inside the protecting trees, and in the blind, you were wonderfully placed, for anything that came to the salt had to come out in the open twenty-five yards from any cover. But though we stayed until eleven o'clock, nothing came.

Though Hemingway's hunts did not always achieve their goals he had his adventures, indeed, one nearly costing him his life in the 1950s when his small plane lost control and crashed when on safari.

As travel enriches us, so, too, does it allow us to gerrymander our judgments of people and places because of our ultimate separateness from them. This seems much the case in Hemingway's Spain.

The Sun Also Rises is perhaps the most affectionate portrait of a land and its people, particularly people. His portraits of Americans and Brits are often not pretty; some are even a petty settling of old scores in his life. But his Spanish are noble, their nobility emphasized by the transliterative quality of his Spanish characters rendered into English. The nobility of the bull, of the ring, of Jake and his stoicism in light of his wounded manhood are exaggerated by Hemingway's style, yet there is a glorious truth there.

Eating and drinking with Jake and his friends, observing the customs of the country, getting to know the ritual of the corrida, seeing those bulls run in your mind's eye, the foolish and the talented running before them, these are Pamplona, these became Spain for many readers.

The Fiesta was going on outside in the night but I was too sleepy for it to keep me awake. When I woke it was the sound of the rocket exploding that announced the release of the bulls from the corrals at the edge of town. They would race through the streets and out to the bull-ring ... Down below the streets were empty. All the balconies were crowded with people. Suddenly a crowd came down the street. They were all running, packed close together. ... Behind them was a little bare space, and then the bulls, galloping, tossing their heads up and down. It all went out of sight around the corner. One man fell, rolled to the gutter and lay quiet. But the bulls went right on and did not notice him. They were all running together.

And there is Hemingway's Paris, of course, the dear Paris in which he wrote his first "serious" work, as biographers say. Published after his death, A Moveable Feast, a wonderful recounting of life in the world's most glorious city when Americans were living on a strong dollar and a very weak franc.

His observations of place are as meaningful today as when he first put them down, for Paris is not called the eternal city for nothing. You can still go to Dome or Clos de Lilas, and still divine the differences and the cliques and observe the stylishness of this grand place where he was so happy and lucky to have lived.

You can still stand in front of 12 rue de l'Odeon and envision George Antheil climbing to his apartment over Sylvia Beach's bookshop where Hemingway was a regular. His epigraph for the book may indeed be brought to bear on all of his travel, and all of ours if we are good observers.

It reads, in part, "for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast."

Substitute Africa, Pamplona, Italy during the Great War, the Michigan woods, and you have the truth of it and the power of his experiences in our lives as embodied in his work.

That summer day he died I was in Alexandria, thanks to Lawrence Durrell's Justine, which I was reading on the front porch of a Victorian farmhouse in a Boston neighborhood. Knowing of my interest, a neighbor came to me and said, "Hemingway just killed himself."

Absorbing this fact, I thought of recent photographs of Ernest Hemingway. There was a melancholy in his eyes, a distant vision of greener places, of youth, of men finding themselves, testing themselves against the stream, the mountain, the cold, the steamy ... and coming out whole.

Although he did not succeed, I have the notion, perhaps one as romantic as Hemingway might have had, that at that final thunder there was a vision of his youth when the young man, his father still there, no gun yet raised to his head, strong, silent, giving succor through his craft of medicine, up there in Michigan, his Mackinaw closed against the cold, the hemlocks snow-draped at their tops, the air nearly brittle with the clarity and purity of winter, his flesh so alive and his vision of the future so clear, that there is a boundlessness that he had always sought.

Richard McDonough is an editor and literary agent who lives in Venice, Calif.