Ernest Hemingway was a first-rate novelist, but many scholars believe he was an even better short story writer, and many of today’s top writers (including Idaho’s own Marilynne Robinson) count “In Our Time” as a book that made an impact on them. And to help readers better understand Hemingway’s masterpieces, George Monteiro of Brown University dissects several Hemingway short stories in his book “A Critical Appreciation: The Hemingway Short Story.”
All three of Hemingway’s collections are represented in Monteiro’s creation. Essays, presented as chapters, from 1925’s “In Our Time,” include the one-two punch “Indian Camp” and “The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife,” which are linked thematically. In the latter, autobiographical Nick Adams story, Monteiro points out that Nick observing his father losing an argument to both Dick Boulton and Mrs. Adams is based on real-life events. Hemingway’s mother was the domineering figure in the Hemingway household, just like Mrs. Adams is presented in the story. In “Indian Camp,” the first story of “In Our Time,” Monteiro directs the readers’ attention to the masterful manner in which Hemingway wrote about “Death in the midst of life” as Dr. Adams delivers an American Indian woman’s baby (by C-section) while her husband does something unthinkable in the upper bunk.
Monteiro’s analysis of the final story in “In Our Time” — “Big Two-Hearted River” — explores Nick Adams’ uneventful fishing excursion to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (based on a trip to Fox River). Monteiro believes the story is a “post-war parable of trauma” and is instructional, proven in the passage in which Nick threads his bait, a grasshopper: “Nick took him by the head and held him while he threaded the slim hook under his chin, down through his thorax and into the last segments of his abdomen.”
The main story Monteiro writes about from “Men Without Women” (1927) is “Hills Like White Elephants,” taught annually in high school and college. This one-scene, sparse story set in a train station in Spain features a boy and girl (Jig) discussing abortion in a nonchalant but melancholic manner: “It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig. … It’s not really an operation at all. ... It’s just to let the air in. … And you think then we’ll be all right and be happy.” According to Monteiro, Hemingway may have received the germ of the story from his friend Robert McAlmon, whose friend had an abortion and her “attitude was very casual,” just like the dialogue of the story. In true Hemingway style, the outcome of the conversation is never divulged.
“Winner Take Nothing” receives the most attention in Monteiro’s study. The author explicates all 14 stories comprising the 1933 collection, including “After the Storm,” featuring an unnamed narrator, an outlaw, who scholars believe is Harry Morgan, the protagonist of 1937’s “To Have and Have Not” — the first novel released after “A Farewell to Arms.” The third story is “The Light of the World” a tramp/hobo tale written in the spirit of the two Jacks: London and Kerouac. It features two teens, Tommy and Nick Adams, who “have taken to the road.” The action takes place in a bar and at a train station in Michigan with “six white men … four Indians … and five whores.”
Monteiro discusses the Christian allusion in the title: “I am the light of the world; he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of love” (John 8:12). Hemingway did not favor scholarly explanation, but a reader might infer that all of the characters in the story are God’s lights of the world. In the most popular story of the lot, “A Clean, Well-lighted Place,” two waiters discuss an elderly patron’s botched suicide. In the story, Hemingway writes that the old man has dignity and, “The old man is clean. He drinks without spilling,” but why does being clean matter? The word clean is in the title, and Monteiro’s book provides the answer. Monteiro also addresses the prayerful blasphemy in the story: “Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada. … ” Nada, after all, is in the title of the collection Winner Take Nothing, so Hemingway may have written it intentionally.
Monteiro’s creation also includes essays about “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” addressing Margot Macomber’s errant bullet, and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” in which Monteiro discusses Hemingway’s philosophy about symbolism. If you are a Hemingway fan, or you cannot find a new author to read, dive into Hemingway’s short stories. Begin with “In Our Time” — the collection that the great British author D.H. Lawrence said is “unified in a unique way.”
Wayne Catan teaches English literature at Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix.
“A Critical Appreciation: The Hemingway Short Story”
by George Monteiro;