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What Papa Hemingway Still has to Teach Us

by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

February 2010

"Notice how spare his [Hemingway’s] writing is, adjective-free."

Notice how spare his [Hemingway’s] writing is, adjective-free. Feeling (for me, horror) comes through indirectly by his descriptions. He just describes, leaving the reader free to form his own judgments and feelings. We’re more shocked by the treatment of the refugees because the narrator is so blasé.

Also, Hemingway takes the image of light, which is usually associated with enlightenment as in “Ah ha, I see the light,” and turns it to a dark meaning. The light becomes a weapon against the defenseless.

Studying the construction of the book can help you tie together your own short stories into a collection and/or your poems for a chapbook. It’s composed of two separate texts that form one. The vignette chapters, done in Italics, are all, except for Chapter 6, public events, for example, something that occurred along the road that isn’t part of a story, but part of a troop movement. Chapter 5, another example, shows the execution of six cabinet ministers, again told in that objective way that prevents sentimentality.

One of the ministers was sick with typhoid. Two soldiers carried him downstairs and into the rain. They tried to hold him up against the wall but he sat down in a puddle of water. The other five stood very quietly against the wall. Finally the officer told the soldiers it was no use in trying to make him stand up. When they fired the first volley he was sitting down in the water with his head on his knees.”

". . . the effect of organizing the book the way he [Hemingway]did was to “to give the picture of the whole while examining it in detail."

In 1924, Hemingway wrote to Edmund Wilson that the effect of organizing the book the way he [Hemingway]did was to “to give the picture of the whole while examining it in detail. Like looking with your eyes at something, say a passing coastline, and then looking at it and living in it—and then coming out and looking at it again.”

The stories build on each other. Hemingway’s character, Nick Adams, is developed as a boy in early stories, such as Indian Camp where Nick learns about life and death when he helps his father perform an emergency C-section on an Indian woman. Again Hemingway shows the indifference of the white man toward the suffering of other races. The full story can be found here: http://nbu.bg/webs/amb/american/4/hemingway/camp.htm

“Oh, Daddy, can’t you give her something to make her stop screaming? asked Nick. “No, I haven’t any anesthetic,” her father said. “Bur her screams are not important. I don’t hear them because they are not important.”

At this point, Nick is still a newcomer to suffering and death. By the time you read the beginning of Big Two-Hearted River, Nick has already been to war and the burnt out forest triggers the trauma of the burnt-out towns he saw and the burnt grasshoppers become veterans of the war. Even the trout, not fighting against getting caught, seem like victims to Nick.

"The chapters are not only linked by theme, but by symbols as well. "

The chapters are not only linked by theme, but by symbols as well. For example, the death of a relationship between Nick and Marge is followed by the brief chapter on the execution of the cabinet ministers. My Old Man ends with a character being shot and in the next story begins with a character being killed in a bull fight.

If you have a sheaf of poems or a group of short stories, be sure to take a look at In Our Time for unique ways to connect them. Papa Hemingway will always have something to offer us.

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro




Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is author of Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster) and has published essays in NYT (Lives), Newsweek (My Turn), et. al. Her essay, ESS, ESS, is just out in FEED ME: WRITERS DISH ABOUT FOOD, EATING, WEIGHT, AND BODY IMAGE, ed. by Harriet Brown (Random House, 2009). She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in poetry. She teaches Writing the Personal Essay at UCLA extension.