So Who is Hemingway, Anyway? And What about the Fish?

Nick looked down into the clear, brown water, colored from the pebbly bottom, and watched the trout keeping themselves steady in the current with wavering fins. As he watched them, they changed their positions by quick angles, only to hold steady in the fast water again. Nick watched them a long time.

When Nick later catches a too-small trout, he is careful to return it safely to the water. He is a hunter who learned as a soldier what it is to be hunted. There are fair rules of engagement, fair fights, just victories. There is dignity when there is nothing else. Indeed, when there is nothing else, there must be dignity.

These are sensitively, compassionately, spiritually drawn moments in Ernest Hemingway's two short stories "Big Two-Hearted Rivers."

Could they have been written by a hard-drinking, he-man woman-hater horse-betting manly man who was fond of bullfights? Guess so--if we go by this perception of Hemingway held by most students in the classes I teach to college freshmen. Hmmm.

Whenever we begin to look at an author, I like to ask what they "know" about him or her. It's my way of collecting the assumptions and prejudices they will bring to their reading. It's my way of exploring and exploding prejudice, which is yet another way to handle cultural studies criticism.

Ask, "Who was Hemingway," and you hear: a guy who was a reporter, a hunter, a misogynist, an atheist, a suicide--some guy who exists in several parallel categories defined by neither Hemingway nor some other guy who knew him.

Nobody says Hemingway was an artist, a man deeply involved in living life. How much of this beautiful story about trauma and recovery is lost if we read the text through common misperceptions?

All of it, in the same way we can lose each other in the prejudices and gossip of others in lieu of firsthand experience.

The Portrait of Hemingway a la the Freshman doesn't square with the image of a man who could draw in sometimes excruciating detail the pain of the world that is too much with us and then take us on a long walk to find peace and stability for just a little while.

I read about Nick's watching the trout, and I see that fish. I ponder this being in sync with the river and able to change positions by quick angles "to hold steady in the fast water" and I claim for myself a new definition of dignity. But I've always liked Hemingway, so maybe it's just my prejudice talking.


  1. I've always liked Hemingway, even participating for a while in a "Bad Hemingway" writing group. I have mentioned him in at least three article on my blog, which I found by trying the "Search" box for the first time today!

  2. Hemingway is surely a very very complex guy! It's sort of like Sylvia Plath she always be remembered for her suicide and fer failed marriage. She was more than that, right?

  3. Greg,
    I'm going to read your Hemingway tonight. Thanks for telling me it's there.

    The prejudice readers bring to texts intrigues me. It is the same prejudice people bring to relationships. I'm fascinated by people who befriend, or reject, their perceptions of others rather than others themselves.


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