By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D., Commentary | Published November 17, 2016
It is a time of drought across almost all of Georgia. Wildfires are burning in the north Georgia mountains. Though cooler temperatures have eased some of the threat to our precious trout streams, any angler will tell you that the fishing is poor, and the trout are struggling. For the first time in many years, I haven’t bothered to fish for trout in this arid north Georgia autumn.
So I’ve been doing what baseball fans do in the cold months before spring training, and what fishermen do when the weather is against them: I’ve been reading.
Baseball and fishing have produced our greatest sports literature, perhaps because each is so connected to contemplation, time, myth and memory. The writing related to each of these sports produces a vicarious pleasure unique in literature.
Short story features autobiographical character
Ernest Hemingway’s brilliant story, “Big Two-Hearted River,” is particularly relevant during a drought. Consider the opening lines, in which Hemingway describes the landscape around Seney, Michigan, where the story is set: “There was no town, nothing but the rails and the burned over country. … It was all that was left of the town of Seney. Even the surface had been burned off the ground.”
Even the grasshoppers, which the narrator Nick Adams hopes to use for bait, “are all black, all a sooty black in color. … They had all turned black from living in the burned-over land.”
Yet in the midst of this wasteland, Nick still clings to a small hope. “Seney was burned, the country was burned over and changed, but it did not matter. It could not all be burned. He knew that.”
“Big Two-Hearted River” was first published in 1925 and appeared in Hemingway’s collection of short stories, “In Our Time.” It is set in the upper peninsula of Michigan, where many of Hemingway’s early stories take place, and it features as its primary character Nick Adams, who is a prominent character in Hemingway’s short fiction and a kind of alter ego for the author himself. Hemingway references the Black River in the story, but the action—much of it autobiographical—most likely occurs along the Fox River. Hemingway divides the story into two distinct parts. The first concerns Nick’s arrival in Seney and his making camp along the banks of the river. The second part describes Nick’s first day of trout fishing.
Nick Adams has returned home from war, the First World War. He is, as he tells himself repeatedly in the first part of the story, “happy.” But as the story progresses, we see that Nick is really a deeply troubled young man, a combat veteran enduring a dark night of the soul as he tries to recover a sense of meaning. Nick is broken, but he wants to be whole.
“Big Two-Hearted River” cannot be fully understood outside the context of Hemingway’s own experiences in World War I, nor can it be appreciated beyond its simple surface without an appreciation for Hemingway’s Catholicism.
Hemingway drawn to Catholicism
For many years, readers and critics alike have debated Hemingway’s identity as a marginal Catholic. In 2013, however, Matthew Nickel’s book, “Hemingway’s Dark Night: Catholic Influences and Intertextualities in the Work of Ernest Hemingway,” asserted that Hemingway’s Catholic faith was much more important to him than previously believed.
Most people are aware that Hemingway served in Italy in World War I; he was an ambulance driver, and he also worked as a canteen corpsman, who delivered food, drink and cigarettes to soldiers at the front. On July 18, 1918, Hemingway was severely wounded by mortar fragments and machine gun rounds.
Much of the rest of the story has for decades been shrouded in myth, owing in part to Hemingway’s own exaggerated accounts of his military service. But Nickel’s book convincingly asserts that Hemingway actually experienced a profound religious conversion following his wound.
Hemingway recounted that he felt his “soul or something coming right out of my body, like you’d pull a silk handkerchief out of a pocket by one corner. It flew around and then came back and went in again and I wasn’t dead anymore.”
Hemingway further explained that when he was taken to a field hospital, he was baptized and given extreme unction by a Catholic priest. Nickel asserts that this moment represents the pinnacle of an exploration of Catholicism that Hemingway had actually begun long before his wounding.
A fascination with the faith
Raised in a strict Protestant Midwestern home, Hemingway retained his Christianity even in Europe following the war when he immersed himself in the Parisian Left Bank world of expatriates and artists. While in Europe, Hemingway developed a fascination with Catholic ritual and liturgy, and of course he was in awe of the great French cathedrals.
A reading of Hemingway’s correspondence from the early 1920s reveals a man who was frequently visiting Catholic churches and participating in Catholic rituals. He describes lighting votive candles for the intentions of his friends, and he names specific saints to whom he has prayed for intercession. He describes going to Mass, and at one point he states explicitly, “If I am anything I am a Catholic. … I cannot imagine taking any other religion seriously.”
At the time of his second marriage to the Catholic Pauline Pfeiffer in May of 1927, the Archdiocese of Paris affirmed that Hemingway was “certified a Catholic in good standing.” Nickel has dispelled the prior assumption that Hemingway converted to Catholicism solely to marry Pauline; in fact, he was practicing aspects of the Catholic faith before he even met Pauline.
No one can know the true depth or sincerity of anyone’s faith. Yet it is likely that Hemingway’s exploration of Catholicism never really achieved the fullness of the faith. Hemingway was certainly attracted to the Catholic intellectual and aesthetic tradition. Living in Europe in the early 20th century, with the English and French Catholic literary revivals in full swing, Hemingway was aware of Catholicism’s influence upon modern art. Further, as the product of an austere and pious Protestant upbringing, Hemingway could not help but be fascinated by the beauty and elaborate ritual of Catholic liturgy.
Yet Catholicism extends far beyond ritual, and the liturgy is not intended merely as beautiful ceremony. It seems Hemingway grasped the traditional and liturgical aspects of the Church, but never reached an appreciation of the sacramental truth of Catholicism. Awed by the beauty and majesty of the Latin liturgy and the European cathedrals, Hemingway seemed not to grasp the theology of what actually happens in the Mass.
Short story depicts struggle to find redemption
You probably know the fascinating and sad story of Hemingway’s life after the 1920s: his rise to international fame, a series of love affairs and marriages, the award of the Nobel Prize in literature, an outpouring of brilliant fiction and investigative journalism, the creation of a mythical persona larger than life, and the depression that drove him to commit suicide in 1961. Though a Catholic priest presided at a simple graveside service, Hemingway’s divorces reportedly prevented him from receiving full Catholic funeral rites.
Nick Adams’ simple approach to finding redemption in “Big Two-Hearted River” is not that different from Hemingway’s own constant struggle to find meaning in a world on the brink of existential chaos.
Early in the story, before he makes his camp, Nick stops to rest in a grove of pine trees. The scene is described as if it is a church: “The trunks of the trees went straight up or slanted toward each other. The trunks were straight and brown without branches. The branches were high above. Some interlocked to make a solid shadow on the brown forest floor. … The trees had grown tall, and the branches moved high, leaving in the sun this bare space they had once covered with shadow. … He looked up at the sky, through the branches, and then shut his eyes. … There was a wind high up in the branches.”
Later, in his camp, Nick reflects that he “had not been unhappy all day. This was different though. Now things were done. There had been this to do. Now it was done. It had been a hard trip. He was very tired. That was done. He had made his camp. He was settled. Nothing could touch him. It was a good place to camp. He was there, in the good place. He was in his home where he had made it.”
As the story moves into its second part, however, Nick must balance his fragile peace with the urgency and excitement of the river and the fishing, and the ominous darkness of a swamp that both frightens and beckons him: “Nick did not want to go in there now … in the fast deep water, in the half light. The fishing would be tragic. In the swamp fishing was a tragic adventure. Nick did not want it.”
Yet as the story concludes, Nick thinks, “There would be plenty of days coming when he could fish the swamp.”
The tragedy for Nick and Hemingway is that each came so close to the fullness of joy and truth, and did for a moment embrace the possibility of redemption. Yet the swamp, the darkness, never ceased calling. Of all our dead Catholic writers, I think I pray most for Hemingway to be finally at peace.
David A. King, Ph.D., is associate professor of English and Film Studies at Kennesaw State University and director of adult education at Holy Spirit Church in Atlanta.