Hemingway’s Short Stories

Downed Tree in Big Indian Forest

As mentioned in my Now section, I read a collection of short stories from Hemingway, The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, The Finca Vigia Edition. This was my first exposure to his shorter stories; previously, I read the novels.

The novels, like For Whom the Bell Tolls, Old Man and the Sea and especially The Sun Also Rises, are favorites. Hemingway has always been an approachable and fun read, especially when compared to other classics. My first exposure to modern American classics was my junior year in high school. We did Huckleberry Finn, The Sun Also Rises and The Great Gatsby. Another book, A Moveable Feast (I read it while traveling through France) was a fun read, but I didn’t connect with many of the references to the short stories.

As part of George Saunder’s Substack, we read a famous Hemingway short story, A Cat in the Rain, a quick story about an American couple in a hotel room in Italy. The wife spies a cat in the rain and tries to bring it back to their hotel room. Conversation with the husband and wife follows. In the Substack, we learned about Hemingway’s Iceberg method (I probably learned this in high school but had forgotten). This approach is the defining piece of real literature… not beautiful prose or amazing characters, but the subtle things happening beneath the surface. I remember being amazed as my junior-year teacher showed the symbolism and the true meaning between long passages of conversation.

Cat in the Rain inspired me to pick up Hemingway’s short stories. I haven’t gotten through all of them; I focused on the pieces that were mentioned repeatedly as classics. Works like The Killers, My Old Man, The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Three of them really stuck out: The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, Indian Camp and Two-Hearted River. Macomber is damn fine Hemingway, set in an African Safari camp with two rich hunters and their guide. The dialogue, the way women are portrayed, the gossipy spousal cheating, the depiction of the violent hunts, the perspective of the lion were incredible examples of Hemingway at his best. And the title supports a fantastic arc. All of this in 23 pages.

Indian Camp moved me. A super short story about Nick Adams (Hemingway’s semi-autobiographical recurring character) visits a Native American settlement with his father. His father, a doctor, is trying to help a woman in labor. Written with short, declarative sentences, dialogue that sounds slightly off (Hemingway dialogue sounds funny to me, I assume because of the century between when the story was published and now), and Nick Adams as the limited and flawed narrator. The next short story I wrote, about a young boy living on an old landfill, is an homage to this style.

Two Hearted River contains vivid descriptions of the natural world, fishing, making camp. And more icebergs. The story is about the horrors of war and how truly damaged the young men returning from WW I feel. Nick Adams (again!) isn’t referred to as a veteran, but he hikes long distances with a full pack and relates to the world like a veteran would. There is a long passage about a swamp on the other side of the river that must relate to war, although I can’t fully understand it.

I’ve listened to a podcast about Hemingway as a companion to the stories. One True Podcast, a play on the old Hemingway line “Just write one true sentence…” discusses many of these short stories with various guests. The host is quite good, and it’s like a light version of an English Lit class. I’ve found that reading a story once, then listening to opinions/analysis of the story via the podcast or other online resource, then reading the story again is helpful. The stories are quick reads; this is a reasonable task.

Coming back to Hemingway via these short stories has been wonderful. They are quick dives into mastery. I now fall into the camp that Hemingway did his best work early on, these stories and his first real novel, The Sun Also Rises. I like some of his later work as well, but they don’t have the same crispness.

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