January 28, 2023

The End of Something

Ernest Hemingway, Horton Bay, Michigan in 1919

“Idealists lead a rough life in this world Jim? But like hermit crabs they acquire shells that they cover their ideals with. But sometimes something comes along with a heavy enough tread to crush the shell and the ideals and all.”- Ernest Hemingway, writing to a friend in 1919

Ernest Hemingway wrote the letter to his friend, Jim Gamble, inviting his friend to join him in northern Michigan at the end of World War One. They became friends in the war. World War One crushed the shells of many idealists. The War to End All Wars came to an end on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. War continues, of course, which is why Veterans Day sounds more realistic, even to the hermit crabs, than Armistice Day. Sandra Spanier, an English professor at Penn State, and Robert Trogdon have just published The Letters of Ernest Hemingway, volume 1, 1907-1922. I didn’t know Hemingway fell out of favor in the 1980s and 1990s due to excessive masculinity in the opinion of the academics. All of Hemingway’s “hunting and fishing and killing poor defenseless animals” alienated sensitive professors in the English Departments.

This from the Chronicle of Higher Education:

“One scholar who’s spent a lot of time on Hemingway is Hilary K. Justice, an associate professor of English studies at Illinois State University. ‘There’s been a huge upsurge in masculinity studies as providing the other bookend to gender studies, which used to be conflated with feminism,’ she says. That means there are more scholars who want to put Hemingway and the stereotypes of masculinity he’s associated with in context.”

Hemingway wrote the short story ‘The End of Something” while in Horton Bay, Michigan in 1919. The story begins with the nostalgic..”In the old days Horton Bay was a lumbering town.”

There’s always an end to something, leading to the “back in the old days…” In this short story, Nick Adams and his girl Marjorie break up, go their own ways. Their relationship has become the ruins of an old lumber town. The fish don’t bite.

“There’s our old ruin, Nick,” Marjorie said.

Nick and Marjorie are fishing for rainbow trout. The trout in this story aren’t striking at Nick’s hook. It’s over for Nick and Marjorie, their past in ruins like Europe at the end of the Great War. An estimated 165-188 million died in military conflicts during the 20th century. Only 5% of the dead were civilians in World War One. The average is up to 75% for wars in the 21st century, perhaps requiring another change in name from Veterans Day to Non-Combatant Day.

Much of the violence is blamed on ethnic, tribal conflicts. The masculine traits of an Ernest Hemingway should be safe to read at work, even in a modern day English Department.

Hemingway found a lot of Marjories in his life who had long memories of what he wrote, with this from the New York Times:

”’Hemingway as a person was not much liked around Horton Bay,” wrote William H. Ohle in the town’s definitive history. ”Usually he drew on his lively imagination to deprecate local gentry.’…Paris and Spain, not Michigan, come to mind when one thinks of Hemingway. But Michigan is the setting of much of his early work, which is increasingly appreciated by fans…Miriam B. Mandel, an English professor at Tel Aviv University who traveled to Michigan after presenting a paper at the Oak Park conference on Hemingway’s first bullfight, said that in other places where the author lived, locals were more protective. Three years ago at a conference she attended in Idaho, where Hemingway killed himself in 1961, ‘they bristled if anybody said anything negative,” she recalled. ”But none of them appeared in his fiction.'”

Gossiping about the locals didn’t do much for Hemingway’s masculine side. He was ready to break out, writing this also in the letter to his war time friend, Jim:

“I’m all up in the air about what to do next fall. Wish a war would come along and solve my problems. Now that I don’t have to go to work I can’t decide what the devil to do. The family are trying to get me to go to college but I want to go back to Italy and I want to go to Japan and I want to live a year in Paris and I want to do so damned many things now that I don’t know what the deuce I will do. Maybe we can go over and fight the Yugos. It was very simple while the war was on. Then there was only one thing for a man to do.”

Hemingway preferred the battlefield to a college campus. Words can be more dangerous than bullets, fueling the ethnic, tribal wars. Hemingway also knew if the fish don’t bite, it’s time to move on.


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