With the help of my esteemed department chair, I decided to add The Nick Adams Stories to my 8th Grade English literature curriculum for next year. The unique aspect of this book is that it was not originally intended by Hemingway to be published in this fashion, for the Nick Adams stories themselves appeared sporadically and out of chronological order throughout the 1920s and 1930s. It was only in 1972, about 11 years after Hemingway’s suicide, that some editors from Charles Scribner’s Sons decided to put the stories in order and publish it as a book. Though this may or may not have been against Hemingway’s wishes (this discrepancy is currently a matter of academic controversy), it nevertheless resulted in something rather unique: separately, the stories give us a jumbled if nevertheless poignant description of Nick; but together, they comprise a sort of Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel, in which the main character grows physically and spiritually over the course of the narrative. I use the term “novel” with caution, however, since The Nick Adams Stories is technically an anthology; but we can safely say that, in chronological order, the stories constitute a story that tracks Nick’s development from boyhood, through his teenage years, through his experiences in World War I, through his shifting back into “normal” life after the war, to his familial life thereafter. That these stories are at least semi-autobiographical is indisputable, for like Hemingway did, Nick spends a significant amount of time as a boy in Michigan, goes off to World War I, and afterwards spends a great deal of time trying to find peace in the great outdoors. Thus, by reading about Nick Adams, we learn a lot about Hemingway; we become friends in an extremely intimate, if literary, sense.
To be honest, until this point, I have not bothered much with Papa Hemingway since initially meeting him in high school, except for a half-hearted listening of an audiobook version of The Sun Also Rises a few years back. Until recently, he was like an old friend I thought about occasionally but didn’t really care to see again. Even now, I want to like his novels, particularly The Old Man and the Sea, but I find myself drifting off in those texts all to quickly. Indeed, once you discern that Santiago is an allegory of Christ, what else can you hope to get out of Old Man? The venerable Harold Bloom has said on more than one occasion that The Sun Also Rises is the only Hemingway novel that doesn’t nowadays seem as a mere period piece, and I tend to agree with him. I will probably continue to reread that novel throughout my lifetime, but I cannot imagine myself picking up something like, say, For Whom the Bell Tolls ever again. There’s just no intellectual or spiritual reason for me to do so–there’s just nothing eternal in those novels that isn’t said better elsewhere.
Hemingway’s short stories are something else altogether, though: there are several misses in that lot, but there are a plethora of gems as well. The Nicks Adams stories are generally all good (though I have my doubts about a few); “Indian Camp,” “The Light of the World,” “In Another Country,” and “Big Two-Hearted River” are particularly astonishing. But setting Nick aside, Hemingway also demonstrates his brilliance in “Hills Like White Elephants” and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” for like the Nick Adams stories mentioned above, these texts push literary pretensions completely aside and strike directly out at the human experience. Indeed, “Hills Like White Elephants” is little more than straight-out dialogue, leaving little room for any external commentary. We understand the conflict in that story clearly–even though it, an abortion, is not once mentioned by name–because we encounter it in much the same way we would in our daily lives, if we were one of the characters participating in the discussion. Hemingway isn’t concerned with flowery language or grandiose imagery; rather, at his best, he cuts to the heart of the matter and holds up before our eyes the naked human soul. When he fails at this, as he does in stories like “The Last Good Country” (which, as far as I can tell, was intended to be a novel before Hemingway lost interest in the narrative), his prose is choppy and insignificant, and the human soul remains hidden.
But like his hyper-masculine main characters, Hemingway himself was broken inside; his gruff exterior concealed a soul wounded by annihilative war and the rigid and ultimately destructive masculine code which ubiquitously pervaded his consciousness. Thus, on July 2, 1961, Hemingway shot himself with his 12-gauge Boss shotgun, effectively destroying the upper part of his face and head, including his brain and the masculine code that haunted the neural connections therein. Given the bleak characterizations of his protagonists like Nick Adams and Jake Barnes, this fate is hardly surprising, if still somewhat upsetting. For once we’ve read about Nick Adams–and, indeed, about Jake Barnes and every other fictional Hemingway imprint–we have read about Papa Hemingway himself; and after embarking through his texts, we find that we know Hemingway intimately. Thus, when we consider Hemingway’s suicide, we consider the death of a dear friend. Fortunately for us, we can always visit with this friend–or, perhaps more appropriately, take a walk through the woods or a canoe ride on the river–by simply opening one of his books. Now that I’m teaching one of these texts, I know I’ll be visiting Papa often.