Chapter 24: Higher Mathematics

“Mr. Hemingway, the years from 1940 to 1950 look like a long dry spell in your career, with nothing published other than the Men At War anthology you edited and the journalism you did for PM and Collier’s. Did this long dry spell worry you?”

“Of course it did. I had lost five years of my career.”

“Five? Not ten?”

“I didn’t publish for ten years, but the only time lost was from 1940 to October, 1945, when the mechanism started working again. I was hoping to write about the war, but I couldn’t start there. I needed to reconnect with the man I had been before the war. So I went back to a story I had started years earlier, that was set in Bimini in 1936. It centered on two friends, a writer named Roger Davis and a painter named Thomas Hudson. They were middle-aged men living with what life and their own errors had left them.

“Roger Davis was a writer who had prostituted his talent and wasted a good deal of his life in Hollywood. Visiting Thomas Hudson, he resolves to try again to get his life straight. Thomas Hudson was a good painter, and he had not prostituted his talents. But he had lost plenty too, especially including his wives, one of whom he still loved. He was trying to keep himself in harmony by a careful routine. He worked, he read, he fished, he drank. He had lost plenty, but he still had the world, and the use of his talents, and sometimes his three children.

“I had Roger and his girl fly to Miami, intent on driving to Thomas Hudson’s place out West so Roger can write. He drives and observes himself and observes the countryside. He is politically aware, and he reads about the revolt in Spain and thinks he is going to have to go fight fascism at some point. But I couldn’t figure out what to do with Roger. I got them as far as New Orleans, but all I could think to do was set that part aside and return to Thomas Hudson. Maybe Roger was going to be killed in Spain. Spain killed enough idealists, God knows, even cynical ones. But I had already written about Spain.

“Hudson’s part of the story is pretty happy, and then it turns, in the abrupt and sickening way life can, sometimes. He gets a telegram telling him that the younger two boys have been killed in an accident.”

“So now Thomas Hudson has lost two out of three of his sons.”

“Yes. That’s what the story is about, loss and carrying on after loss. From that prewar scene, I went to Thomas Hudson in wartime Havana, trying to live with his emptiness and grief after young Tom got killed flying Spitfires. I had wanted to write about air warfare, but I needed more experience than a few hours in the air. I didn’t have it and couldn’t get it. So young Tom died off-stage. I could imagine his emotions easily enough, from the time I had heard that Jack had been shot and captured and maybe killed. Then I wrote up a sea chase in a Q-boat, with Thomas Hudson and his men pursuing the survivors of a sunken U-Boat. These were things I knew.

“I worked on that book on and off for years, and finished it mostly to my satisfaction, but I never quite found a way to make the transition between the prewar section and the war years. It’s a manuscript sitting in my bank, ‘The Island and the Stream.’ I thought I’d have another 10 or 15 productive years, so there wasn’t any hurry about getting it right. I didn’t count on Max dying, and Charlie Scribner.”

“This trial centers on you and not your work, but your stories help make certain things clear. In 1936, Roger Davis sees the absolute danger that fascism represents, and believes he has a duty to oppose it. In 1943, Thomas Hudson wasn’t engaged in the world war with his heart, only with his head.”

“Maybe Thomas Hudson was Roger with fewer illusions.”

“In any case, both men are different aspects of yourself.”

“Let’s say both men are aspects of the way I sometimes experienced myself.”

“You did not publish ‘The Island and the Stream,’ but you did publish Across The River And Into The Trees, your story about land warfare.”

“Yes, and apparently it didn’t please anybody but the public. It did make the best-seller lists.”

“Perhaps after that long wait for a new Hemingway novel, the critics expected another epic.”

He shrugged. “Possibly. They would have loved set-piece battles, I imagine, and I could have written them. But why would I want to do the same thing twice? That wasn’t what I was after. I wanted to write about a heart-sick soldier looking back at his life. He was sick of war, sick of stupidity and suffering, even sick of himself. I was showing a dying man in love with a young woman – Beatrice to his Dante – seeking absolution for the things he had done and not done. I showed him touching painful  memories and then backing away, and then finding healing in her understanding. But a lot of people seemed to miss the point. Maybe the book wasn’t right for the times. Maybe a worn-out soldier was not everybody’s idea of a hero. But my old buddy Chink was a career soldier, and when he read it he said why hadn’t I ever told him that I understood sorrow.”

“Do you think maybe you pushed your iceberg theory too far in this book?”

“Well, maybe. It shouldn’t have been too far. Readers should have been able to get it, and, after all, many of them did. Maybe it’s just that fewer people can do trigonometry than can do simple math. But anyway, it was worth doing for its own sake. The indirect description of the aftereffects of battle and warfare was as well done as I could. If it was too far for my critics, I can’t help that. In time the book will rise or sink, and it won’t have much to do with the judgment of the critics of 1950.”

“Then let us proceed to Colonel Richard Cantwell and you.”

“You aren’t taking my stories as biography, I hope.”

“Hardly. But this is a convenient way to examine certain aspects of the writer and the man at the mid-century mark. Across the River and Into the Trees. Autobiography? Wish-fulfillment? What?”

Across the River was the most misrepresented of all my stories, and perhaps the one the most underrated. I told people, I was trying to achieve the fourth dimension in my writing. I suppose nobody knew what I was talking about. Instead of reading the story as a story, the critics practiced psychiatry without a license on me. They couldn’t seem to grasp what I was doing.”

“Here’s your chance to enlighten us.”

“I was telling the story not quite from inside Colonel Cantwell’s point of view. It was more like God was showing you Cantwell’s mental world. So you see things that Cantwell could never have explained, and you see other things he couldn’t see in himself. Within his mind, he remembers his past, both what he has experienced and what he has experienced second-hand from reading, say, or from other instruction or from appreciating a painting. I was trying to achieve a viewpoint beyond viewpoint, you see, what I called the fourth dimension. You can’t actually do it, but even hinting at going beyond viewpoint is difficult. I believe I came pretty close to achieving it there, and it was disappointing to have it not recognized. And here is something nobody saw. A couple of years later, in The Old Man and the Sea, with Santiago, I achieved the fifth dimension.”

“How did you do that?”

“I got the reader beyond time, by sitting on the very edge of the moving line. There are other ways – Tolstoy did it on a mammoth scale – but this was how I did it. By carefully recounting his actions, his thoughts, his memories, his emotions, moment by moment, I stayed so close to the moving present that we got beyond time to the timeless. That’s where that strange aura around the story came from. It wasn’t told from Santiago’s viewpoint, or from Manolin’s. It may be said to be narrated by God, in a way. It was life described from neither within life nor outside of life. Beyond the story itself, there is something that people feel but don’t quite understand.”

“That story came as a gift to you, perhaps.”

“Oh, I’m clear on that. I had been honing my skill for decades, but I could not have produced the story to order. As you say, it was a gift. I had been thinking about The Old Man and the Sea that for 15 years, but I wrote it in the first six weeks of 1951, and it came to me as nothing else ever did. It was a gift from somewhere. The people who thought it was simple or simpleminded are the ones who couldn’t sense the presence of that extra dimension.”

“It was the most successful love story you ever published.”

“Yes it was, the one that finally shamed the committee into giving me the Nobel Prize. The old man loved the world, and his life, and everything in his life, including the boy who loved him. He loved the fish he caught, and God who had put him there, and even certain things about the sharks. I called him a tough old man of great unconscious pride and no arrogance. Probably he would have seemed arrogant in his strength in his middle years but he had learned humility, the way a man at night in the ocean might see his place in the world.”

“Because he had learned through defeat, perhaps?”

“No, because he wasn’t defeated. He had been defeated in one specific thing, that’s all. That’s one reason I ended the book with him dreaming about the lions. It was to make clear that he was still himself, in essence undefeated. He had had a full life and it had come down to a few symbols that came to him when he dreamed. He didn’t dream of his wife, or of women he had known, or the Negro he had beaten at arm wrestling. He did not dream of triumphs or defeats, but of lions as he had seen them and heard them on a far-off shore long before when he was a boy, and when he was a young man. They were beyond being taken away by anything that could happen to him. He didn’t know what caused precisely those things to remain, he just knew that this is what he had left. Perhaps the connection could be broken if he were to do something unworthy, but no external event could break it.”

“His life had come down to himself alone, then. Himself and maybe the boy and the baseball scores.”

“No, no, that isn’t it at all. He wasn’t alone, not in the way a secular American would be. That’s why I had him pray a Hail Mary and then add, `Blessed Virgin, pray for the death of this fish. Wonderful though he is.’ The Virgin, the saints, are company for him as they are for all believers. That is what unbelievers do not understand, because they have not experienced it, and because of what they do believe in: science, politics, ideology, whatever. It stops them from understanding that old man. But maybe this story made them feel what they couldn’t understand. I think it did.”

“So what was the point of the talk of beisbol and Joe DiMaggio? Was it to show that Santiago was only a simple man?”

“It was to show that he and the boy were not educated. It also showed a valid aspect of their lives, tied in second hand to Yanqui baseball teams that practiced in Cuba. The old man followed the box scores and sometimes wished for a radio so that he could hear the games. He had heard of DiMaggio having a bone spur and knew that it was painful but didn’t quite know what it was. He used DiMaggio’s bone spur to give himself courage against pain. And that gave American reader a common reference point. The fact that it means something different to the old man reminds the reader that it is a different society. That the boy and others share the obsession and the way of seeing it reminds the reader that it is not the old man’s peculiarity.”

“In 1952 Life magazine published `The Old Man and the Sea’ complete in one issue, and in 48 hours sold six million copies. The following week, Scribner’s published the book and it moved straight to the best-sellers list. The following year, it won you the Pulitzer Prize. Tell the court how you were affected by this concentrated success.”

“There’s a big difference between success and recognition, counselor. The recognition was nice, but it didn’t affect me much. If you let yourself get dependent on people’s reaction to what you write, you put yourself out of business. The success was being able to put that story into words, and I had savored that, months before. By the time everybody got all het up about `The Old Man and the Sea,’ I was living another story I thought of as `The Last Good Country.’ What people don’t realize is that the kick comes not from external success but from the process of getting it right. And you know I’m telling the truth, because I don’t have any choice here.”

“Thank you. I think that gives us a good portrait of Hemingway the artist steadily at work in the postwar years.”


2 thoughts on “Chapter 24: Higher Mathematics

  1. “The kick comes . . . from the process of getting it right.” Exactly. I hadn’t fully gotten it until you put it this way. That’s the deep satisfaction of writing, for me, that kind of knowing.

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