Printer Friendly


TRUE AT FIRST LIGHT begins, "[t]hings were not too simple." Although the line ostensibly refers to the Hemingways' 1953-54 East African safari, it also proves to be the crucial lesson of the novel for both Hemingway and his critics. Hemingway is a peculiar literary figure. He is indisputably one of the most popular American writers of the twentieth century, yet there is far from universal consensus, especially within the academic community, regarding his level of skill or status as an artist. This dissonance between his academic and popular reception may be the result of his attempt to court both audiences. As one of the first authors to actively and purposefully straddle the high/low cultural divide of the twentieth century, Hemingway inspires a certain degree of anxiety in the literary establishment: Recently, however, critics have profitably re-visited this issue. What has emerged is an understanding of Hemingway as a transitional figure--a promising writer caught up in a cycle of fame and popularity (as the twentieth century would (re)invent those concepts) while trying to maintain his ability to write significant prose.)

The blur between the man and his writing began as an orchestrated public relations tactic promoted by Scribner's, and by Hemingway himself, but the tactic was so successful that it became nearly impossible to extricate the man from the Work or, for that matter, the man from the persona. This confusion between the writing, the persona, and the man has resulted in innumerable credibility issues for critics, to the extent that one's critical opinion of Hemingway is often elided with the degree of one's sympathy for his "way of life" and/or for Hemingway himself. For example, at some point in the recent past, Hemingway became what he, at least in part, was--"a white man with a gun"--with all the connotations that image evokes. He has served as one of the most prominent scapegoats of a trend in literary criticism which, for valid reasons of its own, rejects the masculine image and paternalistic style of which Hemingway was one of the prime practitioners. As the things the man did--drinking, hunting, shooting--and stood for--paternalism and bravado--became unfashionable, so did his writing.

True At First Light, however, may inaugurate a shift in Hemingway criticism. Some early reviews, despite their tongue-in-cheek titles (i.e., The New York Times Book Review cover story: "Papa's Got a Brand New Book"), express a surprising degree of sympathy and understanding for Hemingway and his writing. Although they rightly note that the style is weak, with only occasional flares of genius, they also readily forgive the novel's shortcomings. "What can we expect," they seem to ask, "when we intrude upon an author's unfinished work?" The reviews almost unanimously seem invested in presenting an image of a vulnerable Hemingway, choosing photographs of Hemingway as a very young boy or as a very old man to frame the articles,(1) Part of this sympathy most likely stems from the circumstance of the manuscript's publication. Unlike The Garden of Eden or some of the other posthumously published novels, the intimate and unedited material contained in True At First Light, more memoir than fiction, has occasioned some qualms on the part of critics and readers who are deeply conflicted and self-conscious about their interest in reading and responding to the book.

Another reason for this more compassionate view of Hemingway may have to do with the content of the novel. In addition to the typical trademarks of Hemingway fiction such as an edenic setting and adherence to a code of honor, there are numerous self-conscious and often deeply ironic digressions about his life, image, and insecurities. What is most surprising is his self-awareness of his own biases and limitations. Throughout the novel, he expresses respect for Africans and sensitivity to different religious, cultural, and sexual practices, but he does not attempt to adopt them or sympathize with them. He speaks candidly about homosexuality and his problematic love of Africa, a country that in his own words he "want[ed] to know more about than [he] had any right to know" (39). Yet, while drawn to Africa so intensely that he wishes to be African, he is aware of the limitations of his position and body. He even allows himself to appear ludicrous in his pursuit of a beautiful, but very young African woman with whom he cannot really communicate.

Although most of the novel is overtly a testimony to Hemingway's personal bravery and prowess, albeit occasionally delivered in a self-ironic tone, the story is given what cohesion and depth it has by a powerful undercurrent of fear. "Ernie," the narrator, does not poetically cry himself into insomnia as did Jake in The Sun Also Rises. There is no more philosophizing about long, sleepless nights, but merely a quiet, ever-present dread of sleep and nightmares. When Mary wishes to venture beyond their safari area to see the Congo, Ernie indefinitely postpones the trip, His claims that he is not interested in seeing new places, in Africa or anywhere else when their camp is so well ordered, familiar, and happy thinly mask a deeper fear of new experience and uncharted territory. Finally, and perhaps most devastatingly, Ernie also seems to fear writing. More than once, Mary exhorts him to write in her absence to no avail. Ernie, more directly, confronts this fear when he catalogs the receipt of a letter from a "bitch in Iowa." The letter chastises not only his personal life, but also his inability to write anything of significance, to which he can only respond that he has and will again.

It may be, finally, Hemingway's indirect acknowledgment that his writing has been consumed by his popularity and by his need to make a living at it that most inspires compassion. In fact, money and making a living color the background of most of Hemingway's works. Although he tends to create edenic situations where money is either not required or loses its value, there is always an underlying awareness of its importance. It is the awareness that trips to Pamplona and Africa cost money, that the experience of Eden in the modern world is a privilege for which one pays. True At First Light is no exception. Hemingway continually stresses that, in general, the safari, as he practices it, exists outside the flow of money. He takes particular pride in the fact that his safari is not one of those expensive, "White-Hunter-chaperoned" ordeals, that he is working for the government to control the animal population, and that the camp literally sends its "warriors" out to kill animals for the food it needs to survive. His actual interaction with money, which is kept, with some degree of ritual, in a safe at the camp, is rare and only for necessities. Yet, there is a regular tallying of finances as Ernie and Mary count the cost of bringing planes into camp or taking other excursions.

The real significance of money in True At First Light, however, is revealed when Hemingway mentions with some disgust that this safari is, in part, paid for by his work for Look magazine which ran a story on the Hemingways' safari The Look connection dramatizes the tension in Hemingway between making money, perpetuating persona, and writing significant prose. This glimpse into one of the central contradictions that define Hemingway reveals him to be a man who liked to live by a very personal and elite code of honor and behavior, and yet made his living by making that code, if not accessible, at least known to large numbers of people. The reality is that Hemingway played no small role in glamorizing the safari as a pastime for rich tourists. The same rich tourists he condemns for overrunning Africa, scarring her landscape, and practicing poor sportsmanship in the hunt. Hemingway makes it clear that both he and his White Hunter friend, Pop, are different. They are both initiated into the "secrets" of the code and therefore comport themselves honorably.

Nonetheless, it is not simply coincidence that Hemingway's deepest reflection of this contradiction in his life and work should use the vehicle of the safari. True At First Light begins, "[t]hings were not too simple ... things had changed very much in East Africa" (13). The safari, like Hemingway himself, had suffered from commercialization and popularity and found itself involved in the odd economy of trying to preserve its landscape and character in order to appeal to the very tourists who came to destroy it. As POP candidly reveals, "[a]ll Great White Hunters were touching about how they loved game and hated to kill anything, but usually what they were thinking about was preserving the game for the next client that would come along" (210). The self-destructive cycle of the safari, which operates through the exploitation of the pure and the pristine, is very similar to Hemingway's own conundrum. He too sought to maintain a pristine way of life, living by the code, while also seeking to make an extravagant living by exploiting this code in his work; a living which was, of course, predicated upon commercial success.

True At First Light is a superb choice of title. It comes froth a passage in the novel where Hemingway writes "[i]n Africa a thing is true at first light and a lie by noon." Perhaps he feared that this line applied to his own career as well.


(1.) Here I am thinking of reviews in Harper's (Tom Jenks), The New York Times (James Wood), and Times Literary Supplement(Mark Greenberg).

SUZANNE DEL GIZZO Tulane University
COPYRIGHT 1999 Ernest Hemingway Foundation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:'True at First Light'
Publication:The Hemingway Review
Date:Sep 22, 1999

Related Articles
Daily Post comment: Baby boom highlights city's rebirth.
Bies addresses challenges in retirement savings.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters