Thursday, August 30, 2007

Hemingway short stories – Part 2

Read Part 1. Once again: these posts will contain SPOILERS.

The four stories I “reviewed” in the first part of this series were the last four, by date, of The First Forty-Nine, all written toward the end of the 1930s. In this installment, we’re going back to the beginning, starting with “Up In Michigan”, Hemingway’s first short story, written in Paris in 1921. Many of these early stories comprise the so-called Nick Adams stories, which, taken together, form something like a bildungsroman of one of the most classic “Hemingway heroes”. So, with that preamble, here are some thoughts on the next five stories.

“Up In Michigan”
Interesting that this was written in Paris in 1921, as the setting seems quite remote from that in both space and time. It’s set in rural Michigan at some point in the past – it feels like the 1880s, perhaps? It has the character of a Western vignette. It’s a rather sad, poignant tale about the loss of innocence and about how what we hope for or expect isn’t always what we actually get when we finally do get what we thought we wanted. In other words: it’s a retelling of that old saw, “be careful what you wish for ...”

“On the Quai at Smyrna”
This could be a companion piece to “Old Man at the Bridge”, though written much earlier. A short, strange, experimental story about the sometimes surreal horrors of war. This time it’s the Greeks verus the Turks. The story is filled with dead babies and horrbile cruelty to animals, all treated very cavalierly by the narrator. There is no conclusion per se. I’m not sure I get it. Following the story, there’s a strange little “chapterlet”, called CHAPTER I. Looking ahead, I find these little opuscules in between all the stories from here to “Big Two-Hearted River”. Strange. Is this a sort of Canterbury Tales?

“Indian Camp”
I remember this story from college. It’s the first Nick Adams story, though as we’ll see shortly, “Up In Michigan” is set in the same geographical locus. The story centers around the emergency delivery of an Indian baby by Caesarian section, something only a surgeon can do. Luckily, Nick’s father is just such a man. While he operates, saving the mother and baby, the father slits his own throat with a straight razor and bleeds to death in silence in the same room! Why? The reason is not explained. Is it because a white man has touched his wife “intimately”? And where did George disappear to?

“The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife”
Picks up after “Indian Camp”. It’s about the tense relationship between the Indian and the White Man. Each thinks the worst of the other. What does it mean that Dick Boulton is a “half-breed”? Enormous hypocrisy in Nick’s father over the matter of the stolen lumber. What exactly is the relationship betwen the stories and the “chapterlets”?

“The End of Something”
A masterpiece of a short story! Set in Hortons Bay, the seting for “Up In Michigan”, only much later. Each of these stories leads right into the next with some shared image. For example, in the case of “Up In Michigan” to “On the Quai at Smyrna”, it’s the image of the creeping fog. In this case, it’s the image of the lumber, and the saw mill. The story is about the breakup of the relationship between Nick and Marjorie, but it’s beautifully foreshadowed by the death of the town, Hortons Bay, itself brought about by the end of the lumber. All that’s left is the and the “ruin” of the old saw mill, standing like a reminder of the ruin of their relationship. Also, the fish aren’t biting – itself strange – which allows the dialogue to subtly move from the first “what’s wrong?” (i.e., the fish aren’t biting) to the second “what’s wrong?” (i.e., with the relationship). Very nice! As I said, a tight, brilliant little masterpiece.


  1. The story is filled with dead babies and horrbile cruelty to animals, all treated very cavalierly by the narrator.

    I won't be reading this short story! Thanks for the warning.

    What does it mean that Dick Boulton is a “half-breed”?

    Does it mean he's half Indian, half White? That's what I always thought the term meant, but since I haven't read this story I can't be sure it's used in the same context.

    Thanks for the interesting posts on Hemmingway. He's not one of my favorites, but I'm learning a lot from your observations. :)

  2. Not from morbid curiosity! - - but I will have to look up the Smyrna story. What must be the same historic event is the climax of David Kherdian's THE ROAD FROM HOME, a book for teenage readers about the Armenian genocide. I have freshman composition students read this book every spring. It's well-written, shows the use of compositional qualities that we have studied, I want them to know about the event, and the genocide is commemorated every April.

  3. Cat Bastet, yes that’s what it means in the literal sense. What I meant, though, was, what is the significance of his being half-Indian, half-Caucasian? If memory serves (but I haven’t gotten there yet in my current reading), Dick Boulton shows up again in subsequent stories, and it wouldn’t surprise me to find that his “half-breed” identity (or resulting problems with identity / self-identification because of it) assumes greater significance.

  4. Dale, that could very well be the same event, yes. I’ll have to look up the David Kherdian novel. That’s not a period of history that I know a lot about, myself.

  5. The Road from Home is classified by the Dewey Decimal and the Library of Congress systems as history, not fiction, although it uses (very well) the techniques of fiction. After Kherdian's book prompts your interest in this little-known event (little-known in part because to this day Turkey tries to suppress its commemoration), take a look at Black Dog of Fate by Balakian, a memoir of an Armenian-American growing up surrounded by older relatives who don't want the kids to know about what happened.

  6. Thanks for the extra info and the second recommendation, Dale.