The Old Man and the Fish





Posted by MK Waller

A couple of months ago, I wrote that I’d planned to write about Ernest Hemingway but decided against it. I changed my mind because I wanted to be erudite but that night just didn’t have it in me.

The truth is, I never have erudite in me. I am not an erudite person. If people read my master’s thesis, they might think I’m erudite, and maybe I was, a little, when I wrote it in 1985–I used a lot of semicolons–but overall, I am just not erudite. And I’m too tired to pretend I am.

English: Hemingway posing for a dust jacket ph...
English: Hemingway posing for a dust jacket photo by Lloyd Arnold for the first edition of “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, at the Sun Valley Lodge, Idaho, late 1939. (Photo credit: Wikipedia) Public domain.

So I’m going to write a little bit about Hemingway, but in a non-analytical, non-literary, non-scholarly, generally shallow way.

My working vocabulary has never been large, so I used to find both synonyms and antonyms for erudite. I didn’t approve of the antonyms, so I put a few touches of my own on some synonyms, as one knows if one read the preceding paragraph.

(Using one in place of you and I smacks of scholarship, but it’s the only thing in this post that will smack of it.)

The antonyms I objected to are uneducated, ignorant, and uncultured. They don’t necessarily apply. I have a couple of degrees and I know a few things about Hemingway. As to culture, I make no claims, except to say I like opera, at least the old-fashioned ones with melodies, and I am never tempted to laugh when the soprano starts to sing.

Anyway, I was reminded of Hemingway today while reading The Art of X-Ray Reading: How the Secrets of 25 Great Works of Literature Will Improve Your Writing. In a chapter devoted to Hemingway, author Roy Peter Clark, says, “Writers of my generation–the baby boomers–grew up being told that Ernest Hemingway was a great writer. We read his books, such as The Old Man and the Sea, as early as junior high, and our first inklings of authorial style came from the legendary writer’s pellucid prose.”

After quoting part of a review by Ford Madox Ford and then the opening paragraph of A Farewell to Arms, he continues:

I can say that as a young reader and writer I did not get Hemingway at all. My negativity may have been nothing more than a 1960s rebellion against the sensibilities of our parents. . . . 

While some would claim that the passage above [from A Farewell to Arms] is strong, clear, lean, direct and pure, all I could see was dry, repetitious, undecorated, and dull, a movie star without makeup.

Well. I liked The Art of X-Ray Reading–I enjoy reading literary criticism and analysis, so maybe I’m a little cultured. But when I reached that passage, I absolutely fell in love with it. Because I didn’t get Hemingway at all either.

No, I lie. I didn’t like Hemingway. I’m a baby boomer, too, but my distaste for his books had nothing to do with the generation gap.

I didn’t like him because of all the fishing.

American author Ernest Hemingway with Pauline,...
American author Ernest Hemingway with Pauline, Gregory, John, and Patrick Hemingway and four marlins on the dock in Bimini, 20 July 1935. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my junior American literature class, we read “Big Two-Hearted River.” I’m sure it was a truncated version. But it seemed interminable. Nick, the main character, goes out into the forest to fish. He walks, sees a grasshopper attached to his sock, takes a nap, wakes up sore, sets up his tent, eats (pork and beans, spaghetti, and canned apricots), drinks coffee, kills a mosquito, and goes to sleep, all methodically, every move described in detail. But most of what Nick does is fish. Fish, fish, fish.

San Marcos River above Fentress, Texas. © MK Waller

My grandfather took me fishing a couple of times, and I liked the way he did it. In the evening, he set out trotlines across the river, and early the next morning he went out again to run the lines. Looking back, I see it as inhumane, and I wouldn’t do it today. I think trotlines are illegal now, so he wouldn’t do it either.

But the thing is–my grandfather didn’t stand out in the middle of the river, baiting his hook with grasshoppers, and hoping to catch one fish at a time. He used Crystal White Soap and caught lots of fish all at once. Fishing wasn’t so much a sport as an art or what might now be called a practice: he was meticulous, every movement deliberate, as methodical as Nick. But not nearly so boring.

Regarding the story, it might have helped if I’d known that after serving in World War I, Nick is trying to adapt to life at home, where no one understands what he’s experienced. But I was a sixteen-year-old girl, so it probably wouldn’t have, not really.

Years later, I took a graduate seminar in the novels of Hemingway and Faulkner. It’s amazing what a little education can do. Close textual analysis under the direction of a formidable scholar and professor (and a thoroughly delightful man) forged in me a sincere appreciation for the novels.

Excluding The Old Man and the Sea.

I expressed my negative feelings (quietly) to a classmate. She asked if this was the first time I read the book. I said yes.

“That’s the problem,” she said. “If you’d read it in seventh grade, you’d love it.”

Sure. Old man, boy, boat, sea, alone, forty days and forty nights, catch, sharks, dreaming of lions.

Nothing but fish, fish, fish.

And that’s my shallow, non-erudite dissertation on Hemingway.


(Does anyone out there appreciate how difficult it is to compose a blog post with fifteen pounds of cat lying across your forearm, elbow to wrist, whence he has access to keys that can wipe out everything? If Hemingway had used a computer, with all those six-toed cats, he’d never have published a thing.)

American Author Ernest Hemingway with sons Pat...
American Author Ernest Hemingway with sons Patrick (left) and Gregory (right) with kittens in Finca Vigia, Cuba. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


My memory of “Big Two-Hearted River” was helped along by Sparknotes.

MK Waller–who used to be,
and still is, Kathy Waller–
has published stories
in Austin Mystery Writers’
Murder on Wheels (Wildside, 2015)
and on
Her story “I’ll Be a Sunbeam” will appear
in Kaye George’s anthology DAY OF THE DARK,
to be released by Wildside Press
on July 21, 2017,
exactly a month before the
August 2017 solar eclipse.
She blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly.


26 thoughts on “The Old Man and the Fish

  1. I have never read a single line that Hemmingway wrote, but while in high school, I did a paper on him. One of the most interesting men and interesting lives ever lived.



  2. Kathy, I learned a lot from some of Hemingway’s work, but I was bored with The Old Man and the Sea and the Nick Adams stories. I think he wrote them while waiting for a good story idea to come along.


    1. Earl, thank you, thank you, thank you for your comment about the Old Man and the Nick Adams stories. I never let my students say literature was boring without telling them that boring was in the brain of the beholder, and they should re-read it ten years later, and, when I was in a certain state of mind, that only dull people are bored. So I had to wait till I was retired to write this post. But that book and those stories were boring. 🙂 Of course, when I hear someone say Jane Austen is boring, I give them a good talking-to.


  3. So where would Key West be without Hemmingway? Cat lovers go to his house to see all the cats. The dad of a close female friend of mine grew up in Key West. He isn’t much into reading, but the one book he did read back in high school was ‘The Old Man and the Sea.’


    1. Key West would be greatly diminished and so would American literature. I would love to see the cats. I’d like to see other things there, too, but mainly the cats. Thanks for commenting.


  4. Have not read Hemingway, was not interested in his books. That’s how shallow I am. Didn’t have to read them in highschool. My schools were weak on literature. However, it seems he slept everywhere, even in a hotel or two in Wyoming. And we ride on the coattails of his fame. Interesting thoughts on his work, and apparent love of cats. Enjoyed learning more.


    1. I wouldn’t call that shallow; it’s more like Hemingway isn’t to your taste. I haven’t read anything by him since that graduate seminar. My admiration is limited to the classroom. As far as coattails go, his are good ones to ride on. Thanks for your comment.


  5. I agree with you cat statement, and to my mind, that might not have been a bad thing. Of course I wasn’t fond of Faulkner either. Still, I suppose…no, I really didn’t like either of their works. But I loved you post. Doris


    1. I liked Faulkner more than I liked Hemingway. The Sound and the Fury blew me away, but only because the professor gave us cues to help us follow the timeline. If he hadn’t, I would still be wondering what it was about. Hemingway probably got the cats too late to make a difference. Thanks for your comment.


  6. I’ll confess that I liked The Old Man and the Sea, but I’ll confess the reason. It was required reading and it was very short. Other than the length, and, as you point out, a lot of fishing, I don’t remember much about it. I like some of his other things a LOT better.


    1. There is a certain attraction to short required reading, I agree. I don’t think there’s much to remember about The Old Man and the Sea except fishing. I’m still sorry the old man died but that’s Hemingway for you. (Apologies to TOMATS lovers.) My favorites are A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises. Thanks for commenting.


  7. I read the Old Man and the Sea in high school, but I don’t remember it. That’s nothing new I don’t remember much of what I read back then. I was a very avid reader on my own, but I really liked Jack London type books as far as required reading. Thanks. Glad your cat was comfortable. Cher’ley


    1. Thanks, Cher’ley. Required reading frequently isn’t the most enjoyable. I liked The Call of the Wild, which I read by choice, and “To Build a Fire,” which was in our American lit textbook. I felt sorry for Buck when he didn’t end up sleeping beside a warm fire and eating regular meals, much sorrier than I did for the man in the short story. What that says about me I don’t care to analyze. As to the cat, he’s always comfortable. Even as I type, he’s threatening to press Enter. Thanks for commenting.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. The Old Man and The Sea was a favourite book of my father’s. He even made a painting of it which I think I still have in my cellar. I was probably around 15 or 16 when I first read it, too, but I guess my dad had influenced me enough that it was the dreaming of a better environment and maybe a better future- something, I’m sure, that my dad wanted for me but knowing that sometimes they are only pipe dreams. I don’t remember it being a long book but since it was around the same time that I read Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’, anything and everything was shorter!


    1. Thanks for your comment, Nancy. That your father made a painting of The Old Man and the Sea–that’s wonderful. I hope you’ll post a picture of it. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but I suppose a lot of Hemingway’s works deal with pipe dreams. Things never work out happily, anyway. I’m impressed: You read War and Peace AND memorized “Tam O’Shanter.”


  9. That was a fun post, Kathy. One that I could relate to and appreciate. I always felt less cultured than other “literary types” because I don’t appreciate the classics like I feel I’m supposed to. The only books I really enjoyed in high school and college literature courses were “The Great Gatsby” and “The Grapes of Wrath.” Everything else was tedious to me, especially “The Scarlet Letter.” Ugh. I have to admit I’ve never read Hemingway but it sounds like I would absolutely not like it. I’m definitely not into fishing and a lot of description with not much going on. Interesting tidbit: my mom told me her dad used to hang out with Hemingway in Cuba. My grandfather left my mom when she was very young to travel and was a vagabond (her words, not mine). So that’s my connection to Hemingway.


    1. I thought The Scarlet Letter was tedious, too, and was amazed that one of my high school students became so wrapped up in it that she told me she wished I would stop talking so she could read. I stopped talking. I’m impressed about your connection to Hemingway. I don’t think my relatives ever hung out with anyone interesting. If they did and happen to read this, they can correct me.


  10. Like Neva, I’ve not read Hemingway, but I do like/did like his way with cats! LOL I, too, would enjoy a visit to Key West simply for that reason. I once had a black cat with six toes on each front foot — I LOVED that girl! I also spent part of my childhood with a fishing pole in hand since I grew up near the Mississippi River. Cats, river, fishing — not a bad way to spend time, as a child OR an adult! Delightful post, Kathy!


    1. Anyone who has a way with cats is okay with me. Lots of writers seem to be drawn to them–Hemingway, Dickens, Twain… Growing up on the Mississippi seems rather exotic, or romantic, to me; Mark Twain is responsible for that. My river is just a trickle compared to the Mississippi, but I loved it, and it periodically creeps into my fiction. Thanks for your comment.


  11. We read the Old Man and the Sea in book club a few years ago. I liked the insight on him. I’d like to see Key West someday and maybe have a drink to toast him


    1. I would love to see Key West and toast Hemingway. My ideal vacation is a tour of authors’ homes, starting with Mark Twain’s. A drink would be necessary there, too, I believe. Thanks for your comment.


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