Oh, Be a Man

The remarkable aspect of The Nick Adams stories, the anthology of Ernest Hemingway’s short stories about Nick Adams, is that though the stories were published separately and out of order, once pieced together in this  chronological fashion, they produce a sort of Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel. Nick comes into his own in a masculine-dominated society; this seemingly would be a difficult place for a woman to exist, but Hemingway’s stories tell us that, in fact, young men have it hardest since they have to overcome the immense egos of the alpha males in their society in order to be seen as “somebody.” Invariably, the women in Hemingway’s stories and novels always come off as much wiser and stronger than the men, as though they subconsciously understand the folly and triviality of machismo and thus ignore it.

Young Ernest Hemingway

“Indian Camp” is a story of Adams’s formative years, when he is still a young boy, hanging around the northern Michigan woods with his family during summers. Doctor Adams, Nick’s father, has been summoned to a Native American camp near to the Adams summer cabin to conduct the difficult delivery of baby there; he has brought along his brother, George, for assistance, and Nick, seemingly, “for the experience.” Once there, the doctors orders some water to be boiled so he can sterilize his instruments (what turns out to be a jackknife and some fishing line), and prepares Nick for what is about to happen:

“This lady is going to have a baby, Nick,” he said.

“I know,” said Nick.

“You don’t know,” said his father. “Listen to me. What she is going through is called being in labor. The baby wants to be born and she wants it to be born. All her muscles are trying to get the baby born. That is what is happening when she screams.” (17)

Nick attempts machismo here by feigning his understanding of what is happening. His father, the obvious alpha male, quickly shoots him down by pointing out that he doesn’t understand. Comprehending the situation would make Nick “one of the guys,” but Doc Adams is quick to acknowledge that the boy is not. In fact, Nick himself soon after reveals his “unmanliness” when he begs, “Oh, Daddy, can’t you give her something to make her stop screaming?” (18). His father, seeing an opportunity to teach his son how to act “like a man” in such situations, replies, “No. I haven’t any anesthetic…But her screams are not important. I don’t hear them because they are not important.” We should acknowledge that the father does not say he doesn’t hear hear screams because she is not important. The screamer is irrelevant to the screams: it could be a wounded male soldier screaming, and the screams would still be unimportant to the situation at hand. Doc Adams is simply teaching Nick how to keep his cool “like a man should” in tense situations such as this. Certainly, the doctor is modeling such calm and collected behavior, for he gently explains while scrubbing up for the operation that the baby is breech and that a Caesarian might have to occur.

That the women in this story are seen by the men as inferior should nevertheless be acknowledged. While performing the Caesarian, the Native American woman is being held down by men; she goes as far as to bite George, who then angrily snarls, “Damn squaw bitch!” (18). Later on, George’s wound becomes a point of fond reminiscence, as if the men see the teeth marks and think ever so condescendingly, “Silly woman!” Ostensibly, this seems to be an attitude–perhaps excluding the derogatory remarks–that needs to be accepted to be “one of the guys.” Nick, however, is far too squeamish at this point to even notice the behavior of the men around him:

“See, it’s a boy, Nick,” [Doctor Adams] said. “How do you like being an intern?”

Nick said, “All right.” He was looking away so as not to see what his father was doing.

“There. That gets it,” said his father and put something into the basin.

Nick didn’t look at it.

“Now,” his father said, “there’s some stitches to put in. You can watch this or not, Nick, just as you like. I’m going to sew up the incision I made.” (19)

Nick, not “manly” enough to stand looking at his father remove the placenta–that “something” that is placed into the basin–or sew up the Caesarian, averts his gaze and looks elsewhere. He is too focused on not looking at the operation to notice how to the other men are behaving, much less to comprehend what his father is saying to him (notice, for instance, his two-word response throughout the entire ordeal). Conversely, the men in the room–those who have been successfully initiated into the masculine society of men–are cool and collected, specifically Doc Adams, the story’s alpha male: “He was feeling exalted and talkative as football players are in the dressing room after a game” (19).

But here the story takes a sharp turn: until this point, the men seem to be the undisputed masters of their domains; but in a snap, Hemingway subverts the masculine world:

“Ought to have a look at the proud father. They’re usually the worst sufferers in these little affairs,” the doctor said. “I must say he took it all pretty quietly.”

He pulled back the blanket from the Indian’s head. His hand came away wet. He mounted on the edge of the lower bunk with the lamp in one hand and looked in. The Indian lay with his face to the wall. His throat had been cut from ear to ear. The blood had flowed down into a pool where he body sagged the bunk. His head rested on his left arm. The open razor lay, edge up, in the blankets. (20)

Not all men are impervious, it seems: despite the machismo of the men previously in the story, Hemingway demonstrates that men are not inherently strong, and in fact can even be weaker than women. It is significant that the mother does not die, despite the dangerous, impromptu surgery. The father, on the other hand, himself in no immediate danger, nevertheless kills himself, perhaps from the fright of the responsibility of fatherhood. Doc Adams expresses his shame and embarrassment that Nick had to bear witness to such masculine weakness soon after: “‘I’m terribly sorry I brought you along, Nickie,’ said his father, all his postoperative exhilaration gone. ‘It was an awful mess to put you through'” (20). The lesson in the strength of men quickly gives way to a lesson in the weakness of men, and the doctor is not surprisingly bewildered and ashamed by the turn of events.

By the story’s end, we see that Nick has learned no lesson about being a man–or, at least, has not yet processed the lesson–for, while sitting with his father on the boat back to the Adams cabin, Nick feels certain that he will never die. He is still immature, and still relies on his father for safety and comfort. He is not yet his own alpha, but instead requires his alpha-male father. By itself, “Indian Camp” is a depiction of the silliness of masculine society, which is puffed up and egotistical, but is ultimately as prone to weakness as any woman or child. In the context of the Bildungsroman-esque Nick Adams Stories, this tale makes the same observation of masculinity but also provides us an insight into the development of Nick’s ego. By then end of the anthology, we see that he has, in fact, been initiated into masculine society, but also that he is helplessly weary from the cost of such an initiation. Hemingway, who on the outset seems to be a typical “man’s man,” what with his voluminous writings on hunting and fishing, nevertheless reveals to us in narratives such as “Indian Camp” that masculinity is a mere screen behind which often hides a wounded, sensitive soul.

*Note: All parenthetical reference correspond with the 2003 Scribner Trade Paperback edition of The Nick Adams Stories.

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