Posted by MK Waller
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.
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 thesaurus.com 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.”
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.
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.
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.)
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 Mysterical-E,
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.