Fish story: ways of telling in "Big Two-Hearted River."
What do I want to communicate but what a hell of a good time I had writing it? The whole thing is performance and prowess and feats of association. Why don't critics talk about those things - what a feat it was to turn that. that way, and what a feat it was to remember that, to be reminded of that by this. Why don't they talk about that?
It was really more fun than anything. That was really why you did it. He had never realized that before. It wasn't conscience. It was simply that it was the greatest pleasure. It had more bite to it than anything else. It was so damn hard to write well, too.
Near the end of "Big Two-Hearted River," as Nick Adams anxiously anticipates fishing in the swamp, we find this passage: "He wished he had brought something to read. He felt like reading. He did not feel like going on into the swamp" (IOT 211).(2) In this moment the mimetic code seems to vacillate: to what voice can we assign these words? We put an asterisk or a question mark in the margin of our text to signify our intention to come back to the passage, because there's something perplexing in the alternatives Nick postulates for himself. There seems to be a misstep or lapse in the tone. Can we imagine Nick saying these words to himself?. If so, could he be kidding? Is there a kind of rueful self-mockery at his bookish evasiveness? (3)
Other passages in "Big Two-Hearted River" similarly outplay obvious or direct meaning with extra possibilities. For instance, the narrator's voice and the character's voice seem sometimes distinct, sometimes merged. Or, now and then, through the migration of particular words or phrases, other voices or traces of voices obtrude from earlier stories in In Our Time or from earlier passages in this story, with confusing or distracting associations. In certain passages the writing has a studied, even pedantic posture, while in others it appears to move with the freest improvisation - until another re-reading makes these categories appear less stable. Finally, this is a text in which both character and narrator seem to be involved in the process of writing as it goes along, self-consciously, often even playfully, trying out phrases and locutions, reaching for ways to conjure verbal consciousness out of feelings and sensations. Every reader feels an unmistakeable energy in this text, an exhilaration that is not necessarily confined to the themes and the author's success in "trying to do country," but that generates itself over and over in the writing, in the "words you don't remember."(4)
Writing is often-engaged in numerous other or extra activities besides those required to tell a story, or even to make the reader feel as if s/he's "there," and these activities in themselves are also what this story is about. From this perspective, the question is not so much what does it mean?' but 'what can we make of this text?' in which "nothing happens and the writing is swell"?(5) How can we "perform" it at those moments where the cleft between writing and fiction is most noticeable, and the language as language most high-spirited and playful? Questions like these, irritating or amusing from reader to reader, invite responses that deviate from our usual strategies of interpretive analysis.
What follows is a series of ruminations on passages, like the one where Nick "felt like reading" because he "did not feel like going on into the swamp," which seem to invite a freer play of association than usual and to attract attention to the self-consciousness of the writing as writing. Reading and re-reading this way - with a kind of perverse distractibility - tends to fragment and disperse the text, of course, and to disrupt narrative sequence. Yet when we rough things up a bit we are more likely to spot those inconvenient details and patterns - loose ends, hiatuses, undecidables - that often embarrass readings that strain after complete coherence and certitude. Re-reading "Big Two-Hearted River" for forty-odd years and layering my margins with questions hasn't helped me to master the text, but it has kept it open and unpredictable and unfailingly fascinating. It so often ingeniously declines to assent to what it so often confidently asserts. Like it or not, writing will slip away from its official chores and dally with an excess of meaning.
At the climax, when Nick has lost the big trout, we read:
He had never seen so big a trout. There was a heaviness, a power not to be held, and then the bulk of him, as he jumped. He looked as broad as a salmon.... That was a trout. He had been solidly hooked. Solid as a rock. He felt like a rock, too, before he started off. By God, he was a big one. By God, he was the biggest one I ever heard of. (204)
The vividness and immediacy of the whole passage surrounding this, including the aftermath of Nick's feeling vaguely, a little sick" 204), don't escape us. By God, this is writing! But I can't suppress my suspicion that I'm hearing one of the innumerable fish stories I've listened to and told all my life. The biggest ever that got away! The text doesn't acknowledge any awareness of these echoes; and of Course can't, like us, anticipate their return in, notably, The Old Man and the Sea. And is there an indication of something just slightly off;stride with the confusion over the narrative voice? Who says, "By God"? If it is l," what happened to "he"? Well, the good reader says, who has trouble with this, after all? It's probably a case of the text getting so exuberant it jumps out of the hands of the narrator. Yet that it can do so with (relative) impunity here might make us wonder where else it might be doing it without being noticed.
At its first moment of narrative the text of "Big Two-Hearted River" compromises its autonomy. The opening sentence echoes and partly reiterates the opening sentence of an earlier story in In Our Time. "The Battler" (written later than "Big Two-Hearted River" but inserted earlier into the text to replace the banned "Up in Michigan") starts, "He looked up the track at the lights of the caboose going out of sight around a curve" 65). "Big Two-Hearted River" starts, "The train went on up the track out of sight, around one of the hills of burnt timber" 177).
The similarity in the language, like the similarity of Nick's standpoint, can't be innocent. Whether Hemingway thoughtlessly or cunningly (mis)quotes himself, any reader of In Our Time still retains some traces of Nick's reaction to being "busted" by the brakeman. And some echo still lingers, unmeasurable, of the meeting with the nightmarish Ad Francis and his companion Bugs. The language, not the narrator, tells us that Nick is not entering an idyllic fishing trip. Or not only idyllic.
The text doesn't openly acknowledge echo or trace. The voice that speaks here, like a voice momentarily booming in on a car radio from some distant station, is heard only through the reader's unwillingness to ignore it.(6) Call it the reader's voice, perhaps, since it speaks on behalf of the reader who wants to hear everything a text has to say.(7)
Further down the opening page, Nick registers delayed shock to the discovery that "There was no town, nothing but the rails and the burned-over country" 177). The text intimates - what, surprise? dismay? - with the timing of the phrase, "The river was there." We can hear Nick whisper to himself. We can sense the calculating narrator set up a metonymic sequence - "burned-over stretch of hillside ... railroad track ... bridge ... river" - delaying and then delivering the punchline: " The river was there!"
As if the matter were in doubt. The sentence confirms the presence of the river, and it seems to confirm also the nature of Nick's presence. He is there, too. He is really there, and this is no dream. But the sequence that sets up the sentence confirms also the presence of a narrator ordering the language, and manipulating the reader. For the reader's pleasure. Some time later, Nick "was there, in the good place" (186). The text is quoting, the reader remembering.
"Big Two-hearted River" comes in two "Parts." "Part One" ends, "He curled up under the blanket and went to sleep" (192). "Part Two" begins, "In the morning ..." (195)- Nick presumably sleeps between the two parts. When the story appears in anthologies "Part Two" immediately follows "Part One." In In Our Time, however, the parts are separated by "Chapter XV" ("They hanged Sam Cardinella ... [at six a.m.] in the corridor of the county jail" 193-4). One of five men sentenced to be hanged, Sam has been "like that since about four o'clock in the morning" - "like that" meaning so immobilized by fear that he is unable to keep control of his "sphincter muscles" and has to be carried. He is admonished, "Be a man, my son," by one of two priests, maybe the one who "skipped" back on the scaffolding just before the "drop" fell.
"Chapter XV" is positioned precisely where we might expect, in a certain kind of story, to encounter a dream. This text, however, will not acknowledge any such design, and leaves readers to speculate independently on whether the account of Sam's death constitutes some of the material Nick Adams's unconscious is working with at the beginning of his fishing trip: "Be a man, my son."
If so, whose voice can we speak it in? If not, then what can we make of it? Does a trace of the priest's voice linger in other admonitions scattered through the text? Should we search Nick's earlier sleep in the "island of pine trees" (183-84) for possible implications?
Lacking companions, Nick talks to himself. He is speaker and listener, actor and audience. He tosses a blackened grasshopper into the air: "'Go on, hopper.' Nick said, speaking out loud for the first time. 'Fly away somewhere."' (181) Later, making his meal: "'I've got a right to eat this kind of stuff, if I'm willing to carry it,' Nick said. His voice sounded strange in the darkening woods. He did not speak again" (187). Didn't want to hear his voice again? Didn't want to sound "strange"? All the same, one page later, after tasting the hot beans and spaghetti:"'Chrise,' Nick said.'Geezus Chrise,' he said happily." Three times the text distinguishes between Nick's speaking out loud and speaking silently:
1) an idle echo of child-like communion with an insect - ("Ladybug, Ladybug,/Fly away home") ("Fly away, Peter, fly away, Paul"); or is this a sophisticated writer's self-conscious imitation of child-like communion, an impersonation? 2) a gratuitous self-defense, a peevish reaction to internalized judges and critics: "I've got a right." (Be a man, my son.) 3) a burlesque blessing on a meal, saying grace by accident - "Chrise."
The speeches, and the impulse to speak out loud, are part of the story of Nick Adams. Suppose he's taking the kind of pleasure he might take in posturing in front of a mirror, just to find out how he looks or sounds, or might look or sound to an audience. Suppose these little bits of natural behaviour don't merely enhance the narrative's reality illusion, but also provide spot-checks whereby Nick tests and confirms his identity? Or maybe not his identity so much as the high spirits (the "old feeling"") that insist on breaking out. Whose high spirits? Try the narrator too. Try Hemingway. Try language itself.
Earlier, after confirming that the river is there, Nick stands on the bridge and watches the trout "keeping themselves steady in the current" (177). We wait for more than twenty pages for "steady" to confirm its function as a word the text conjures with. When Nick releases the first trout he catches, it pauses on the bottom until Nick reaches down to touch it: "The trout was steady in the moving stream, resting on the gravel, beside a stone" (201). Another few pages on, after he has lost the big one, we read: "He thought of the trout somewhere on the bottom, holding himself steady over the gravel, far down below the light, under the logs, with the hook in his jaw" (204). The repetition of "steady"turns it inward, reinforcing its earned new power, so that it becomes, almost explicitly, a kind of admonition to himself to be steady - for example, not to "rush his sensations any."
At the same time the repetition discreetly invites the reader to respond to language as language, writing as writing, at play with itself even as it promotes the story's negotiations with meaning. In fact, in our pleasure at the text's ingenuity in generating these recycled words and sentences, we may even forget that we are reading a "work of fiction. Over and over the text quotes itself, plagiarizes itself, reproduces itself, and dangles invitations to its [re]reader to read it as a "work of language."
Let's try another cast over that early scene in Seney:
Nick looked down into the pool from the bridge. It was a hot day. A kingfisher flew up the stream. It was a long time since Nick had looked into a stream and seen trout. They were very satisfactory. (178)
In the fitful, half-perceptible oscillation between voices throughout this text, whereby from time to time we suspect that the character is aware of the language which operates his story, these words register Nick's self-conscious detachment from his activity and his commentary on it. The whole process of looking, as of inscribing the looking, holds off generalization until a series can be laid down that permits the subject to say, "They were very satisfactory," decanting the word either for its modest precision or for its ironic value to the self-amusement Nick sometimes favors. A term like this - this term, sa-tis-fac-to-ry - is hard to come by; it has to be worried, then tested by being spoken (out loud or in one's head, it doesn't matter), which requires that the speaker choose the tone of its speaking. Like "tightened" at the bottom of the same page it invites a ludic performance, as one might imagine Henry James saying with deliberative pauses, "They were, as you might say, very satisfactory."
Until it's actually used, there's no way to establish its function. It stays ready in the reader's memory, the first of a series of words by which this text glosses its vocabulary of sensation. Almost immediately it's followed by another "found" word: "He was happy... but Nick felt happy" (179).
At the beginning of "Part Two" Nick crawls out of his tent "to look at the morning": "There was the meadow, the river and the swamp. There were birch trees in the green of the swamp on the other side of the river" (195). For the briefest moment the text repeats Nick's earlier need to confirm that "The river was there." But immediately in the next sentence after this the passage establishes a rhythm of pleasure and anticipated pleasure, throwing emphasis (as in a line of verse) forward on the nouns strung along the simple connectives - meadow ... river ... swamp .... trees ... green ... swamp ... side ... river - and (presumably) recording the movement of the eyes as they pan across the landscape.
After a few more similar metonymic lists, we read, "Nick was excited." This is the same pattern we have seen, and see repeatedly in this text: a passage of observation, meditation, listing observed details, that culminates in a conclusion about an emotional state, a generalization or signified: first "satisfactory," then "happy," now "excited." As if Nick were teaching himself what he feels, and saying it: "I'm excited, that's what this is!" Also as if the narrator were demonstrating the uses of concrete and abstract, signifier and signified, show and tell.
After Nick has threaded his hook expertly through the grasshopper's body, the grasshopper "took hold of the hook with his front feet, spitting tobacco juice on it" (200). Two pages on Nick "threaded the hopper on the hook and spat on him for good luck" (202). The spitting is a mock ritual, like the "Chrise" Nick said "happily" at his first spoonful of beans and spaghetti; it's also an act of repetition by both narrator and character. Yet if mimicking the hopper parodies a primitive or childish act, it also echoes an uneasiness whose trace still lingers from "The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife," almost 200 pages back in the text of In Our Time: "'Don't go off at half cock) Doc,' Dick [Boulton] said. He spat tobacco juice on the log. It slid off, thinning in the water. 'You know they're stolen as well as I do. It don't make any difference to me"' (27). This trace of Dick Boulton's voice and gesture in "Big Two-Hearted River" is involuntary, unavoidable, part of a viscous textuality that just barely teases our memory of a misery that this final story of In Our Time methodically skirts. But the mimicry itself is a deliberate performance, a kind of play on sympathetic magic, acted out by Nick Adams for himself, signifying high spirits - or else a determination to enact 'high spirits.' Its self-consciousness suggests a rebuff to the symbol-making that has tempted Nick since the beginning of his fishing trip.
After the text registers the happiness that follows Nick's meditative scrutiny of the "steady trout," we read, "He felt he had left everything behind, the need for thinking, the need to write, other needs" (179). The urgency of this exemption may be gathered by the difficulty Nick still has from time to time in resisting his "needs."
The curiously meticulous details of cooking and eating his meal, for example (187-91), slide into silent talking - ". . he was not going to spoil it all by burning his tongue" - then erupt into the burlesque blessing - "'Geezus Chrise,' he said happily" - and the mock announcement that It had been a very fine experience." As the passage proceeds into the coffee-making and an inane inner prattle - "While he waited for the coffee to boil, he opened a small can of apricots. He liked to open cans" - the narrator's writing and the character's inner monologue more and more closely coincide, until as the details about Hopkins come flooding onto the page we (and Nick) gradually realize that he is composing a story. He is writing:
Nick drank the coffee, the coffee according to Hopkins. The coffee was bitter. Nick laughed. It made a good ending to the story. His mind as starting to work. He knew he could choke it because he was tired enough (191).
Who could choke it? The text presents a series of declarative sentences in which the voice of the narrator prevails: "He spilled the coffee . . .. and shook the grounds loose .... He lit a cigarette .... He took off his shoes .... (191) When Nick's voice is audible again, with the "satisfactory hiss" of the mosquito in the match-flame, he echoes the word used earlier, after watching the trout, to signal his equanimity.
But thinking and writing, and "other needs," have not been permanently choked.
A sense of peril is articulated in Nick's response to the "sick" feeling brought on by the "thrill" of almost catching the big trout: "He did not want to rush his sensations any" 204). The "any" is colloquial, giving us the flavor of speech; the sentence has the ring of something said, or remembered, like a kind of learner's formula. But it is also exact, underlining the "danger" that has been intimated once or twice in the passage.
The word "rush" surfaces again two pages on, when Nick fights the next fish:
Holding the rod, pumping alive against the current, Nick brought the trout in. He rushed but always came, the spring of the rod yielding to the rushes, sometimes jerking under water, but always bringing him in. Nick eased downstream with the rushes. The rod above his head, he led the trout over the net, then lifted (206) [italics added].
In other words, rush, rush, rush, the manic variation on steady, steady, steady earlier. A kind of insistent underground idiom whose referent can't be quite determined, operating along the nerves, below "thinking." "Where the Meanings, are-" Emily Dickinson says, in "There's a certain Slant of light," and "None may, teach it - Any
After Nick has caught his first trout the text reverts to the pseudo-stream-of-consciousness that forms its ground narrative: "Nick had one good trout. He did not care about getting many trout." Narrator and character blend - either might be saying/writing this-and then both disappear as discourse takes over.
The discourse takes the form of observations and deductions in which Nick runs over his fishing lore as if quoting from a manual: "The very biggest ones would lie up close to the bank. You could always pick them up there on the Black.... you were liable to strike a big trout anywhere in the current" (207). Speaking to himself ("Of course:" he says, as if anticipating a question or objection), he projects himself into the activity of process informed by memory, losing himself in the collection of metonymic details by which the reader is assured of the accuracy and reality of the scene and the character is able to evade surprises or rushes," and lay down a pattern of calm, neutral predication.
In other words, this kind of inventory-making signifies Nick's mental state in his care to establish the facts. The river was there.
The text of "Big Two-Hearted River" persistently insinuates a concern to establish or defend a moral position. After doing his camping chores punctiliously Nick rewards himself by eating pork and beans and spaghetti, and explicitly defends himself as if answering a rebuke from some purist woodsman: "I've got a right to eat this kind of stuff, if I'm willing to carry it" 187). Similarly, after catching the small trout, he is careful to wet his hand before touching it so as not to "disturb the delicate mucus that covered him" as some other - bad - fishermen do, leaving the trout to die (201-2). Even, curiously, the interrogative of whether or not to fish the swamp twists into an apparent imperative; though "He did not feel like going on into the swamp 211),"he seems to feel, anxiously, that he's obliged to do so.
The moral edge to these matters has been introduced in the odd little passage of stereophonic narration that occurs when Nick first goes into his tent:
Now things were done. There had been this to do. Now it was done. It had been a hard trip. He was very tired. That was done. He had made his camp. He was settled. Nothing could touch him. It was a good place to camp. He was there, in the good place. He was in his home where he had made it (186-7).
The progression of the word "good" here is suggestive: first the simple "good" which vibrates slightly to accommodate a moral nimbus (as "a" changes to "the" - "the good place") and then "he was...in" shifts from "the good place" to "home," picking up the earlier "homelike" from fifteen sentences earlier. These are presumably Nick's own words, though not presumably spoken aloud. The brevity of the sentences may reflect or postulate his fatigue as well as his satisfaction and happiness; he can now venture the word "home" as he earlier ventured "satisfactory" - he has made it. Home is where "Nothing could touch him," the camouflaged anxiety swimming along innocently, almost hidden among the other sentences. Without rehearsing the familiar Hemingway slide from good-pleasant to good-moral we may notice an urgency in the series of brief sentences to reach the designation: good-home. Two pages later, after he has eaten, the word "good" is repeated in a reprise: "There were plenty of good places to camp on the river. But this was good" (188-9). It is like learning a new language, or a new use of language.
The aggressively symbolic grasshoppers are black at the beginning of the story, prompting Nick to wonder how long they will stay "that way" (181). Later, he uncovers "several hundred hoppers" in a "grasshopper lodging house" (196) under a log, and puts about fifty of "the medium sized brown ones" into his bait bottle. The others, warming in the sun, begin to hop and fly: "At first they made one flight and stayed stiff when they landed, as though they were dead" (196).
The next sentence begins a new paragraph - which might register, like the beginning of a new verse paragraph in a poem, a momentary hesitation over the word "dead," which we may note has been carefully avoided up to now - and corrects Nick's false impression: "Nick knew that by the time he was through with breakfast they would be as lively as ever" (196).
Nick has come to the river to experience a "live" feeling. At least the recurrence of that word, along with "life," "lively," "alive," suggests that it's one of the words he/the narrator (and now the reader) says over and over to himself, silently. We have noticed near the beginning, when Nick passes the fire line, the series of images ending in "and the country alive again" (182). Much later, when the first trout strikes, Nick's fishing rod has become "the now living rod" (200). His care to touch and release the fish properly avoids the consequences of bad fishing, where in the past he "had again and again come on dead trout, furry with white fungus" (202). At his next strike, this time of the "biggest" trout, "the rod came alive and dangerous" (203). When he fishes again, again we find "the rod bending alive .... pumping alive" as the trout rushes (206). And yet again, with another strike, "It felt as though he were hooked into the log itself, except for the live feeling" (209). On the following page he spreads the mouth of his sack (as he has done before, on page 207, where, "Inside at the bottom was the big trout, alive in the water") and "looked down at the two big trout alive in the water" (210). Preparing to clean them, he reaches into the sack and brings one out, "hard to hold, alive" (211). When he is finished he washes them both and holds them in the water where "They looked like live fish" (212) before he puts them away to be eaten later.
Grasshoppers that look or act dead but that he "knew" would be lively soon; trout that, when released, remain steady in the water until a touch brings them "alive." A fishing rod that comes "alive," and that can also be "dangerous." And finally dead trout that look "like live fish." Intermittent and casual as these citations may seem, surely they offer a verbal counterpoint to the pronounced deliberateness of the narration of the details of fishing, of walking through the country, and of making camp, as well as to Nick's mental and emotional responses.
It's as if his mind keeps returning to the actual word for encouragement or reassurance: he wills the appearance of death to be no more than appearance, and to be replaced by evidence of "life." He wants (or the language he seeks wants) these categories not to be so distinct, so antithetical. Let there be a chance for negotiation, a little more room for maneuvering oneself back to life after "feeling" dead: some reason to say "satisfactory" or "excited" or "hungry" or "happy" - or "alive."
The text is careful to normalize the fishing trip (and the account of it) by bringing the reader back consistently to fishing lore and expertise, but these verbal repetitions stubbornly establish an anxiety/relief pattern that reinforces and extends the explicit moments of uneasiness that begin on the opening page. As repetition dislodges the signifiers, apparently innocent in their immediate contexts, they gather like an undertow to offer another structure, of therapeutic passage and support. At the same time, maybe also as just of a therapy of writing, they playfully resist systematic consistency.
At the climax of "Big Two-Hearted River," when Nick loses the legendary fish, the voices of character and narrator are inextricably scrambled: "By God, he was a big one. By God, he was the biggest one I ever heard of" (204). Arguably a mere blunder, the irruption of "I" underscores the urgency of the whole episode. Nick's mouth is "dry," his heart is "down" as he reels in the empty line. His hand is "shaky." The "thrill" has been "too much. "He feels "vaguely, a little sick, as though it would be better to sit down." He does not want to "rush his sensations any." Retrospectively the reader may think to understand several other puzzling details, such as his reaction to the burned over town, or his need to "choke" his mind's working, and to find an accessible language for them with this explicit vocabulary of sensation.
Finally, when a "tiny" trout rises to strike the match Nick throws into the water (205) he is able to laugh, and he sifts carefully through a healing series, beginning with his immediate sensations and then ranging out around him and back again:
He sat on the logs, smoking, drying in the sun, the sun warm on his back, the river shallow ahead entering the woods, curving into the woods, shallows, light glittering, big watersmooth rocks, cedars along the bank and white birches, the logs warm in the sun, smooth to sit on, without bark, gray to the touch .... (205)
Now he can name his trouble: ". . . slowly the feeling of disappointment left him. It went away slowly, the feeling of disappointment that came sharply after the thrill that made his shoulders ache" (205). He is (or "it" is, the text says) "all right now," like the trout he released earlier.(8)
Though the reader might be tempted to read Nick's contest and disappointment in heavily symbolic terms, the text itself merely resumes fishing. Nick baits up again and proceeds to catch another trout (rushed, rushes, rushes), with all the satisfaction his close attention embodies - "The trout hung heavy in the net, mottled trout back and silver sides in the meshes.... heavy sides, good to hold, big undershot jaw... " 206-7). The text has recovered its aplomb, the voices continue in medley, we are back to "good"; and the lost trout, with its mythic attributes, is merely the one that got away in every fish story overheard by readers of this text.
"Big Two-Hearted River" closes with a succession of mundane, expert tasks and observations - cleaning the fish and noticing that "Their color was not gone yet" (212) - and the beginning of Nick's return to his camp. As he looks back to the river we read, "There were plenty of days coming when he could fish the swamp" (212), and we might add, "Tomorrow to fresh woods, and pastures new."
Why he would want to fish the swamp might be a puzzle for non-fishers, since he feels "a reaction against deep wading with the water deepening up under his armpits, to hook big trout in places impossible to land them" (211). Still, as we've noticed, there's enough anxiety in the prospect for him to wish he could retreat into a book. We can take it that his mind is "starting to work" (191) again, and that he still hasn't entirely left behind "the need to write" (179):
In the swamp the banks were bare, the big cedars came together overhead, the sun did not come through, except in patches; in the fast deep water, in the half light, the fishing would be tragic. In the swamp fishing was a tragic adventure. Nick did not want it. He did not want to go down the stream any further today (211).
He is surely (to be imagined) muttering these sentences to himself as he authors his own lonely fishing/writing trip, casting a word - tragic - and reeling it back in to cast it again in a slightly altered trajectory, playing it briefly and moving on. How does it play? Is tragic a little too baldly pretentious? Does adventure slide it slightly toward the language of real sportsmen? Or does the repetition of the word set up a series that will inevitably end in self-mockery? The voice will not quite tell us, which is hardly any longer a great surprise to the reader. Traces of this voice have teased us since the opening pages of his story, like superscribed synonyms in a manuscript, revealing the craft of the discourse that lurks behind its apparent transparency and spontaneity. Nick has been putting things into words throughout this text, persistently trying out ways of saying, as if he were writing, or planning to write (as in fact Hemingway's original ending left him about to do),(9) a story, this story. His voice mingles with the narrator's as they collaborate, nowhere more surely than here.
Generations of readers have submitted to what might seem to be innumerable explanations of the symbolic properties of the swamp which make fishing in it tragic and inevitable.(10) Yet similar wording can be found on many newspaper sports pages during baseball season, where we often find sentences like this - "The right fielder took what should have been a routine fly ball Out, and turned it into a tragic adventure by misjudging the wind" - "tragic" being one of those bits of overblown sports lingo that means that the outcome was unexpected and disappointing for the home town fans. Whether something like this is Hemingway's "source" for the odd little piece of textual improvising, "tragic" as applied to trout fishing is oddly inappropriate and inflated and sentimental (maybe like much hyperbolic sports writing of the kind spoofed by Ring Lardner, an early writer/hero of Hemingway), and invites the reader's skepticism, if not amusement. There's pleasure to be found in its cheeky intrusiveness.
The writing of "Big Two-Hearted River" moves doubly, horizontally crossing terrain and collecting images that tuck in beside others without necessarily adding up, and vertically reaching toward metaphorical substitutions that beckon with meanings and decisive conclusions. The metonymic gatherings record Nick's progressive advance into the planned and familiar but not yet reliable terrain of memory and desire. Like an outpatient recognizing his symptoms everywhere, he moves into the country by moving into the discourse of its signifiers strung like beads along a thin narrative line. The reader (and the narrator?) is not obliged to move exactly in tandem with him, however, but may jump ahead or linger or backtrack - in other words, may rewrite the sequence and redistribute its values, choosing to pick up symbolic associations or to glide past them silently, for example. The textual voice is noncommittal, or at least persists in withholding full assent to meaning as it steadily dispenses images and rhythms and sentences. The voice of the character/narrator intermittently dwells on certain words and patterns, as in telling a dream to a therapist, for the sake of finding in it some clue to unravel a personal trouble or confusion.
Suppose what's "dangerous" for Nick Adams is not just losing "the old feeling" or "rush[ing] his sensations," but also seeing everything in radically symbolic terms. Isolated and psychologically fragile, he finds himself in "burned over" country and is immediately assaulted by insistent signs - black grasshoppers, boiled coffee, powerful trout, an impenetrable swamp. From the beginning he practices a series of rehabilitative exercises directed at restoring his composure. Frequently he talks to himself, admonishingly, as if he were performing lessons in concentration and centering. It may be that the text's self-consciousness and playfulness are ways of shifting attention away from the danger spots - the heavy thematic burden that haunts the fishing trip - toward something else that celebrates happiness and high spirits. If we are able to override some inexplicable compulsion to fish in a swamp where fishing is difficult and unproductive, then the swamp ill be only a swamp, and fishing it will not be tragic but merely inappropriate or at most vainglorious.
We hear a narrator's voice that produces images that persistently dissolve their metaphorical suggestiveness into metonymy, and a character's voice we can identify by its insistence on spotting metaphorical connections with his own "case" everywhere he looks. Another voice still, the reader's, repeats and mimics and burlesques and muffles all the other voices at will, as it performs its version of the text. This is the voice that searches out an the shiftings and rustlings of the textual voice, its echoes of other texts in and out of In Our Time, and its persistent modulations of itself - all the while negotiating the text's limits and depths, keeping it open and re-readable: "nothing happens and the writing is swell."
(1.) Roland Barthes, The Grain of the Voice 176; Robert Frost, in Writers at Work 32; Ernest Hemingway, "On Writing," NAS 238. (2.) All quotations are from the 1930 Scribner's edition of In Our Time. (3.) Jake Barnes, after all, indulges himself after fishing with a spot of reading while he awaits Bill's mockery of his use of worms. (SAR 120) (4.) "What I've been doing is trying to do country so you don't remember the words after you read it but actually have the country" (Hemingway to Edward J. O'Brien, 12 September 1924, SL 123). (5.) Hemingway to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, 15 August 1924, in SL 122. (6.) But see Robert Paul Lamb, who regards the story as "textually indecipherable," and complains about critical "considerations of the story's location in In Our Time which fail to treat the story as an autonomous piece of literature" (164-5). (7.) In S/Z Roland Barthes writes of "the displaced voice which the reader lends, by proxy, to the discourse: the discourse is speaking according to the reader's interests. He goes on: "Whereby we see that writing is not the communication of a message which starts from the author and proceeds to the reader; it is specifically the voice of reading itself: in the text, only the reader speaks" (152). (8.) The suspect, at best temporary nature of the condition of being "all right" has been reiterated throughout the stories of In Our Time. See my article, "You Can Say That Again: Some Encounters with Repetition in In Our Time," The Hemingway Review 10.2 (Spring 1991): 47-55. (9.) "He was not thinking. He was holding something in his head. He wanted to get back to camp and get to work.... He went on up the trail to the camp. He was holding something in his head" ("On Writing," NAS 240-1). (10.) See Kenneth Lynn, Hemingway 102-8, for a list of "traumatic interpretations" of the story, beginning with Edmund Wilson. See also Stephen Miko, "The River, the Iceberg, and the Shit-Detector," for a more energetic and richly amusing debunking of the inclination to "find grand symbolic portent in Hemingway's details" (525).
Barthes, Roland. The Grain of the Voice: Interviews 1962-1980. Trans. Linda Coverdale. New York: Hill and Wang, 1985. _____. S/Z: An Essay. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang, 1974. Frost, Robert. In Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews. Second Series. Ed. George Plimpton. New York: Viking, 1963.7-34. Hemingway, Ernest. In Our Time. 1930. New York: Scribner's, 1958. _____. A Moveable Feast. New York: Scribner's, 1964. _____. The Nick Adams Stories. Ed. Philip Young. New York: Bantam, 1973. _____. Selected Letters, 1917-1961. Ed. Carlos Baker. New York: Granada, 1981. _____. The Sun Also Rises. 1926. New York: Scribner's, 1954. Lamb, Robert Paul. "Fishing For Stories: What 'Big Two-Hearted River' is Really About." Modern Fiction Studies 37.2 (Summer 1991): 161-81. Lynn, Kenneth S. Hemingway. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987. Miko, Stephen. "The River, The iceberg, and the Shit-Detector. Criticism 33.4 (Fall 1991): 503-25. Summerhayes, Don. "You Can Say That Again: Some Encounters with Repetition in In Our Time." The Hemingway Review 10.2 (Spring 1991): 47-55.
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|Publication:||The Hemingway Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1995|
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