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Hemingway's "big two-hearted river": nick's psychology of mental control.

At this point in Hemingway studies, it is well understood that in "Big Two-Hearted River" Nick Adams seeks a return to simplicity after his harrowing experience in World War I and that Hemingway's prose replicates the veteran's internal quest for manageable simplicity. At story's end, Nick avoids the physical swamp at the edge of the stream, and by doing so keeps at bay the metaphorical swamp of his own psyche. But as we enter the eighty-fifth year of "Big Two-Hearted River" exegesis--a practice begun by Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Hemingway himself--a crucial question remains unasked: Is Nick's strategy--to return to the Michigan woods of his youth, by himself, systematically replacing the thoughts of the trauma of the war with immediate stimulation from nature and camping--benign and productive or self-defeating and doomed from the start?

Just as with former New York Giants football star Lawrence Taylor's notoriously dubious scheme of battling withdrawal from drug addiction by playing innumerable hours of golf, a program of self-treatment he asserts "literally saved his life" (Newport 3), Nick's strategy of rehabilitation depends upon focused self-distraction--to consider a more agreeable topic instead of confronting the source of his unpleasant memories. "Big Two-Hearted River" is a drama of metacognition; in his solitude, Nick's thoughts are occupied by his own thoughts. Therefore, the condition of Nick's consciousness becomes the narrative's primary concern. In ways unsurpassed in all of Hemingway, the text presents extended external metaphors to illuminate psychological corollaries.

Mental control, a slippery concept in the philosophy of mind, describes when people "suppress a thought, concentrate on a sensation, inhibit an emotion, maintain a mood, stir up a desire, squelch a craving, or otherwise exert influence on their own mental states" (Wegner and Pennebaker 1). Inherent in this definition is an implicit anxiety with the way a person feels, has felt, or soon might feel. If a person knew he would remain permanently and unalterably content, he would not exert energy trying to maintain positive feelings or alter negative ones. Likewise, in the unconscious thought avoidance that Freud analyzed, he found that "the motive and purpose of repression was nothing else than the avoidance of unpleasure" (153). Therefore, in their endeavors to control their mental states, Hemingway's heroes possess a level of introspection and self-awareness not always granted them. "Big Two-Hearted River" demonstrates the subtlety and complexity with which Hemingway understood mental control in that Nick wishes to adjust his cognitive activity as neatly as one might manipulate sound levels on the equalizer of a stereo. In his metacognitive drama, Nick is forced to ask: Am I satisfied with my thoughts? Are they pleasant? Are they productive? If so, how I can I sustain them? Or, are they painful and harmful? If so, how might I eliminate them?

Once Nick disembarks the train in Seney, he is not just able to access the actual stream that is full of trout, but he can also better monitor the internal stream of his thoughts. Beside the helpful baggage man, who is referred to but unseen, and his old friend Hopkins, who appears only in the story's single extended reminiscence, Nick is alone. The only other characters spring from nature, and Nick relates to each one differently: grasshoppers, trout, a mosquito, a mink, a kingfisher. These creatures elicit telling reactions from Nick, but he has made the crucial decision to fish and camp alone. In an early draft of the story, which more closely adheres to its autobiographical inspiration, Nick is accompanied by a group of friends. By changing the narrative to one man's solo journey, Hemingway allows Nick to focus more meticulously upon his stated objective: escaping "the need for thinking, the need to write, other needs" (Short Stories 210). Nick's quest to control his surroundings and his preference for solitude is clear: "Nick did not like to fish with other men on the river. Unless they were of your party, they spoiled it" (225). And in this extreme setting, even if they were members of his party, they would not be a welcome distraction but an unpredictable variable to which he was not willing to expose his vulnerable state of mind.

In a note to himself during the 1924 drafting of "Big Two- Hearted River," Hemingway sketched the story, tracing the protagonist's crisis: "He thinks [...] gets uncomfortable, restless, tries to stop thinking, more uncomfortable and restless, the thinking goes on, speeds up, can't shake it--comes home to camp--hot before storm--storm--in morning creek flooded, hikes to the railroad" (qtd. in Reynolds 209). As Hemingway's outline makes apparent, and as the published narrative bears out, the story's concern was never the setting, the contrived antagonists of the trout, the chores of hiking and cooking, or conforming to any kind of behavioral code for constructing a proper camp. There is hardly a narrative to speak of. Hemingway confessed to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas that "nothing happens" (Selected Letters 122). (1) The issue that does justify the narrative is Nick's tortured consciousness, his struggle to control it--Nick "tries to stop thinking"--and the depiction of his failure when he "can't shake it." This description suggests a psyche out of control.

In the published story, Nick feels his mind begin to activate, but he "knew he could choke it" (Short Stories 218), having sufficiently exhausted himself. Although Nick is comforted to know he can ultimately dominate his thoughts, it is nevertheless revealing for a man to view his own mind so antagonistically, and even violently. Healthy individuals do not need to choke their thoughts to control them. "One of the most compelling occasions for mental control is in the face of mental turmoil," write Daniel M. Wegner and James W. Pennebaker. "When the mind is reeling in response to some traumatic event ... it is natural to attempt to quell the storm by dimming sensation, stopping thought, or blocking the emotion" (5-6). To appreciate the ominous use of "choking" in Hemingway, one need only to be familiar with A Farewell to Arms, in which choking causes the stillbirth of Frederic Henry's son and is also the verb that describes the bombing death of Passini as well as Frederic's succumbing to general anesthesia (327, 55, 107).(2)

In "Big Two-Hearted River," Nick Adams's journey to the woods and the river is a retreat to a setting filled with happy distractions, a quest for familiar simplicity and manageable complexity. Nick's hope is that if the external world can be managed, it will grant a period of stability to the chaotic thoughts and traumatic memories that persistently plague his mind. Nick's project should not be imputed to reflect Hemingway's philosophy of life, a systematic renunciation of thought, or devaluation of consciousness. Nick, after all, is in an emotionally extreme situation that is so compelling to explore in fiction. Philip Young speaks forcefully to this point, describing Nick's compulsive routine as suggesting "much less that he is the mindless primitive the Hemingway hero was so often thought to be than that he is desperately protecting his mind against whatever it is that he is escaping" (45). Sheldon Norman Grebstein seconds this view of "Big Two-Hearted River," confirming that the style "has sometimes been interpreted or misconstrued by hostile critics as the writer's incapacity for complex thought and his distrust of intellection" (83). To extend Grebstein's point, the prevailing premise that a protagonist who avoids thought is therefore uninterested in thought is utterly illogical. If Nick Adams were not predisposed to think, then the narrative would have no tension and no point. If a non-thinker chooses to abandon thought, it is a non-story. Nick, however, has a fiction writer's curiosity and sensitivity to experience. The simmering conflict in "Big Two- Hearted River" stems from Nick's powerful impulse to think and his determination to restrain himself. When Nick prepares his tent before dinner, Hemingway's

When Nick prepares his tent before dinner, Hemingway's language eerily mimics his protagonist's consciousness.

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. Now he was hungry. (215)

In this extraordinarily crafted passage, sixty-three of the sixty-seven words (94%) are monosyllabic. Twelve of the thirteen sentences (92%) have zero punctuation marks other than a period at the end, and the other has but one comma. The first twenty-two words of the excerpt are monosyllabic; before the "hungr" that ends the excerpt, there is another stretch of thirty. The four disyllabic words are themselves far from complex: "very," "settled," "nothing," and "hungry"(3) Matthew Stewart comments on the above passage, concluding similarly: "Here style is in absolute service to content, the short declarative sentences echoing both Nick's methodical construction of the camp and his continued need for simplicity and controlled action. By keeping things simple, the repetitions drive home Nick's self-created domestic ease" (91). The omission of advanced vocabulary gestures towards the central omission of the story, which Hemingway would explain later in his career. In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway refers to "Big Two-Hearted River" as a story "about coming back from the war but there was no mention of the war in it" (72). Even Hemingway's sentence summarizing "Big Two-Hearted River" contains the word "war" two times, which is twice more than it appears in the story. In "Soldier's Home," a story almost three times shorter than "Big Two-Hearted River," the word "war" is mentioned nine times, including in the first sentence.(4)

Although William Faulkner would later charge that Hemingway "never used a word where the reader might check his usage by a dictionary" (Blotner 2: 1233),(5) readers can imagine how ridiculous a narrative about a quest for simplicity would be if it were described in the vocabulary of Faulkner's Quentin Compson (or his father), or Joyce's Stephen Dedalus. In "Big Two-Hearted River," with its thematic focus on mental control, a similar control had to be mimicked by the vocabulary, syntax, and grammar of the writer. The avoidance of even a single exclamation point suggests that the vulnerable mind of the protagonist could not withstand such excitement.

Nick's fishing expedition as an exercise in mental control is represented vividly from the moment he steps off the train. All his activities and sensations become modulated, measured, and analyzed as being not enough, too much, or just right. Mostly, Nick is guarding against excess, against any unwieldy stimulation that will overwhelm the makeshift defenses erected to guard his fragile psyche. Readers are prepared for this cautious behavior at the beginning of Part Two of the narrative, when Nick finds "plenty of good grasshoppers" that will serve as bait. Out of all those grasshoppers, his selection is telling: "Nick picked them up, taking only the medium-sized brown ones, and put them into the bottle" (221). After Nick lifts a log and sees several hundred more grasshoppers, he repeats the behavior: "Nick put about fifty of the medium browns into the bottle" (221). Virtually every activity on the camping trip follows this approach, a hypersensitivity to the necessity of his tentativeness. Nick controls his excitement and eagerness to fish immediately by not skipping breakfast; he decides against the more flamboyant technique of "flopping" flapjacks; although he makes two big flapjacks and a third small one, he only eats a big and a small, saving the second big one until later; he is content to secure one trout as opposed to many; and most significant--and this may be the insight Nick gleans from the camping trip--Nick concludes that it would be reckless to enter the swamp.

Whenever Nick acts contrary to this compulsively controlled, carefully modulated behavior, he gets a harsh reminder of his current incapacities. When he ventures into the Big Two-Hearted itself, the description is unambiguous: "He stepped into the stream. It was a shock. ... The water was a rising cold shock" (224). Surely, the word "shock" is not used--much less repeated--to describe Nick without the added psychological connotation attached to the physical sensation. Furthermore, the specificity in narration is telling, that the water is responsible for the shock and not anything more abstract or internal. After catching and releasing a too-small trout, Nick leaves the shallows, knowing he could catch no big ones there. Predictably, when Nick leaves the sure terrain of the shallows, he is at the mercy of the rude stream and, hence, the anarchic rapids of his own stream of consciousness. Nick hooks the biggest trout he has ever seen, which ends up breaking his leader and escaping. As the too-cold water provides too-heightened emotions, so does this battle that was unwise, an anathema to Nick's prior (and subsequent) self-control during the camping trip: "Nick's hand was shaky. He reeled in slowly. The thrill had been too much. He felt, vaguely, a little sick, as though it would be better to sit down. ... He went over and sat on the logs. He did not want to rush his sensations any" (226-27). A "reeling" Nick's corrective behavior is to traverse the logs "where it was not too deep" (227).

The discourse of measurement and excess is made evident by Nick's acute awareness to the several similar occasions when things are too much. Readers are told when Nick's backpack is "too heavy ... much too heavy" (210); the inefficacy of looking "too steadily" at hills in the distance (211); the river running "too fast and smooth" to make a sound (213); the beans and spaghetti being "too hot" and, even after ketchup, "still too hot" (216); he knows when the coffee is "too hot to pour" (217); in the morning he is "really too hurried" (221) for breakfast; with the big trout, the line rushes out "[t]oo fast" (226); battling the trout, Nick feels when "the strain was too great; the hardness too tight," and sums up the ill-advised encounter: "The thrill had been too much" (226). The solution to this entire adventure, during which he must guard against too much of everything and too much of anything, soon emerges: to carry on fishing in waters "where it was not too deep" (227). The story enacts the aphorism from Blake's "Proverbs of Hell": "you never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough" (37). By the end of the narrative, Nick knows his limits and will not risk ceding mental control to the Big Two-Hearted River or to the similarly unpredictable stream of his consciousness.

The notion of modulation, of Nick's incessant gauging of the volume of his sensory intake and emotional reactions, is extended into the gauging of mental activity, of the psychological exertion of a brain, an act of self-monitoring that calls for intense introspection, self-scrutiny, and self-knowledge. When Nick notices the "sooty black" grasshoppers (211), he identifies with their traumatized state, the grasshoppers having "turned black from living in the burned-over land" (212). Despite this grim realization, Nick must maintain the objective of his mission to avoid thoughts of war and the "need for thinking" entirely (210). Nick is focused on mental control so intensely, however, that he finds a way to process his observation about the grasshoppers: "Nick had wondered about them as he walked, without really thinking about them" (211). He continues, comprehending their state and the cause, but never brooding over it, or responding in an overly emotional way: "He wondered how long they would stay that way" (212). For Nick, to "wonder" equals thinking diminished. It skims the surface of a perception, taking notice of it with innocent, superficial speculation and quickly processing it, without allowing it the full depth of exploration that the topic might ordinarily merit.(6)

In the long chapter devoted to "Will" in The Principles of Psychology, William James describes the concept of thought avoidance. James outlines a behavioral phenomenon that is consistent with Nick's central struggle in the story. James argues that for a man who is in a dominant frame of mind it takes an overwhelming "effort of attention" (2: 562) to undo the body's tendency to sustain the prevailing mood. "When any strong emotional state whatever is upon us," James writes, "the tendency is for no images but such as are congruous with it to come up. If others by chance offer themselves, they are instantly smothered and crowded out" (563). In this sense, the short story treats the challenge posed to Nick's will, his determination to break out of the mental condition that has suffocated him since his return from the war. A central difference between "Soldier's Home" and "Big Two-Hearted River" is that Krebs's victory comes when he ultimately decides to move to Kansas City, a change in environment that will afford him the opportunity to recuperate on his own terms; in "Big Two-Hearted River," Nick arrives in the temporary sanctuary of his choosing, and the limit of his mental willpower plays itself out.

The confrontation between focusing on external or internal objects calls to mind philosopher Henri Bergson's analysis of the idea of "nothing." Although Nick's temporary ideal would be to think about nothing--to be completely beyond "the need for thinking" and literally to have it "all back of him" (210), a complete annihilation of thought, memory, sensation, and perception is impossible for any thinking organism. Bergson describes an experiment where he tries to reduce his thoughts to nothing, to eliminate his sensations and recollections, and to reduce the consciousness of his body to zero. Ultimately, Bergson realizes the project's futility:

But no! At the very instant that my consciousness is extinguished, another consciousness lights up--or rather, it was already alight: it had arisen the instant before, in order to witness the extinction of the first; for the first could disappear only for another and in the presence of another. I see myself annihilated only if I have already resuscitated myself by an act which is positive, however involuntary and unconscious. So, do what I will, I am always perceiving something, either from without or from within. ... I can by turns imagine a nought of external perception or a nought of internal perception, but not both at once, for the absence of one consists, at bottom, in the exclusive presence of the other. (278-79)

Bergson is affirming William James's first fundamental rule of consciousness, which is that thought is constant and unavoidable. Although seemingly intuitive, establishing consciousness as a perpetual feature of a sentient being must be accepted as a given. Bergson has described a volatile competition between internal and external stimuli, but this interplay is not typically a centerpiece for an entire work of fiction. Hemingway's confession to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas that "nothing happens" in "Big Two-Hearted River" is self-deprecatory and misleading, because something does happen; the arena of activity has merely turned inward from the Italian front to the consciousness of a shell-shocked veteran.

James also imagines a situation similar to Bergson's, of the complete eradication of thought. "It is difficult not to suppose," James writes, "something like this scattered condition of mind to be the usual state of brutes when not actively engaged in some pursuit. Fatigue, monotonous mechanical occupations that end by being automatically carried on, tend to produce it in men" (1: 404). James's image is precisely the accusation that has been incorrectly applied to Hemingway's characters. Hemingway is unequivocally not writing about unthinking brutes. Hemingway's sensitive, introspective characters often perversely envy and emulate the limited mental state of brutes because they feel that their own excessively cognitive inclinations distract and impede them from completing a task or maintaining a pleasant existence. They are unable to reconcile the competing demands of the internal and external worlds. In the reductive, false dichotomy between the "man of thought" and the "man of action," Hemingway posits the unhappy compromise that the man of action can only act effectively by pretending that he is not a man of thought. The man of thought can only protect himself by immersing himself in action that will absorb his attention.

The idea of "nothing" introduces two integral aspects of Hemingway's writing: his "iceberg principle" of writing, in which whatever the writer knows is omitted in order to provide the unseen tension of the story, and also the theme of "nada," the depressed, nihilistic state that haunts the characters in "A Clean Well-Lighted Place" and other narratives. Bergson argues that the concept of nothing "is, at bottom, the idea of Everything, together with a movement of the mind that keeps jumping from one thing to another, refuses to stand still, and concentrates all its attention on this refusal by never determining its actual position except by relation to that which it has just left" (296).(7) Bergson's point introduces a whole new slant to the old waiter's "nada" prayer in "A Clean Well-Lighted Place": if the old waiter is commenting on nothing and giving it a name, can he, by definition, be living in the state of nothing to which critics have always consigned him and he has consigned himself?(8)

In "Big Two-Hearted River," although the word "war" does not appear in the story, the text was preceded by the intentional authorial decision to excise the word, which means it first entered the consciousness of the writer who chose not to write it. By preventing the word from appearing, it becomes pervasive despite its absence and exists as the text's unspoken obsession. Likewise, Nick Adams chose to take the trip to the woods for a specific reason: to avoid thought. But within the motivation itself exists the very thought Nick was determined to avoid in the first place. Thus, just as Hemingway made war more present by omitting its mention, by erasing the unpleasant memories, paradoxically, Nick could have unintentionally made those memories the axis around which his life revolves. By trying to reduce his thoughts and memories to nothing, they risk become everything and all consuming.

One of Daniel M. Wegner's central contributions to the psychology of mental control has been his claim that suppressing a thought often leads to its "hyperaccessibility," an ironic effect whereby, for example, the pleasant distraction of the Big Two-Hearted River might in the future remind Nick that it had served as a distraction for the war and instead become an unhappy reminder. Nick might begin to consider the woods not as an Edenic paradise, but as a secret refuge to avoid thoughts of the war. The distracter creates, Wegner writes, "associations between the unwanted thought and all the various distracters" ("You Can't Always Think" 214). Might a round of golf for Lawrence Taylor now carry new associative baggage and have lost its original innocuousness? As Bergson points out, "To represent 'Nothing,' we must either imagine it or conceive it" (278). It is impossible to suppress a thought without first planning to suppress it (although it could be buried by an unconscious Freudian repression), therefore to plan to avoid a thought must inherently involve thinking of the thought on some level of cognition.

Nick's strategy, however, involves more than turning himself off and entirely eliminating his consciousness. He does not attempt simply to banish the thoughts of war from his mind but more sensibly to replace these unpleasant thoughts. While on the surface "concentration" and "distraction" seem antonymous, the relationship between those words is actually more nuanced. If "concentration" means "to pay attention to one thing," we might usefully define "distraction" as "paying attention to something else," T.S. Eliot's notion in "Burnt Norton" of "Distracted from distraction by distraction" (120). When Nick is paying attention to making coffee, he is in essence tricking himself into paying attention to not paying attention to his war memories. As Wegner phrases it in his study, White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts, "We cannot concentrate well without suppressing, and we cannot suppress well without concentrating" (12). Therefore, when Nick suggests that he stop the need for thinking, it represents shorthand for "unpleasant thinking," or "thinking about the war." Consciousness is not a faucet to be turned off any more than the current of a stream can be stopped. Both can, however, with much effort, be redirected.(9) To extend the metaphor of the stereo equalizer, consciousness is like a stereo where the individual can adjust sound levels on the equalizer but is forbidden to turn the power off.

Wegner writes of psychological experiments that support Nick's project of distraction, of suppressing one thought and concentrating on a more favorable one. Wegner devotes a chapter to the importance of choosing surroundings that are more conducive to thought control. Nick's deliberate trip into the woods confirms Wegner's argument: "we must go to places that will allow us to see and hear what we want to hold in consciousness; we must retain those objects that remind us of what we truly wish to think" (98). Once Nick (like Krebs and Jake Barnes) carries out Wegner's first stage--removal--he fastidiously engages in what Wegner considers to be the best strategy for defending oneself against unwanted thoughts: focused distraction. Since we cannot entirely avoid thought, we must redirect our attention. The title of Wegner's book refers to a famous psychological experiment where the subject is instructed not to think of a white bear, which becomes impossible once the idea is introduced. "If we wish to suppress a thought," Wegner writes, "it is necessary to become absorbed in another thought. The distracter we seek should be something intrinsically interesting and engaging to us. ... The things that interest people most are the things that provide good exercise for their abilities" (70). Nick's engagement in the rudimentary mechanics of camping suggests he has chosen well.

A literary counterpoint might well be the fourth chapter of James Joyce's Ulysses, a veritable textbook for the representation of consciousness in fiction and a novel to which Nick Adams refers explicitly in "On Writing," the excised ending to "Big Two- Hearted River." The Calypso episode of Ulysses depicts Leopold Bloom engaged in a mundane activity--preparing breakfast in bed for his wife Molly. The benefit of habitual behavior is that it frees one 's mind to ruminate. Bloom, therefore, is able to brood about his wife's infidelity, his daughter's emerging sexuality, and his son's untimely death. By performing the routine action, he is able to attend to the thoughts that are troubling him. Nick does precisely the opposite. He, too, is executing a routine that he has done countless times, yet unlike Bloom he does not want to ruminate, so his concentration unnecessarily adheres to the tasks that he performs. He is occupying his consciousness with a challenge he might ordinarily accomplish unconsciously, thus defeating the economizing function of habit.

William James, explaining habit, writes, "The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work" (1: 122). Later, James writes of the automaton: "A low brain does few things, and in doing them perfectly forfeits all other use" (1: 140). Indeed, in discussing "Big Two-Hearted River," Larry Andrews picks up on James's term: "it is through assuming the role of the automaton," he writes, "that Nick hopes to recover" (3). Nick knows the function of habit and the function of mind, and yet it would be his greatest nightmare to allow the higher powers of his mind to be, in James's phrase, "set free." His goal is to choke, not to release. Although consciousness does not exert effort on that which is habitual, Nick luxuriates in the familiar details of the present moment, and he is able to engage in behavior that is not at all risky, as well as to contemplate habitual stimuli that are also comparatively safe. When Leopold Bloom makes tea, for instance, it is hardly the elaborate process that Nick considers crafting a cup of coffee to be. Bloom's summation of the tea-making process: "Cup of tea soon. Good. Mouth dry" (4.14). While he would appreciate Bloom's monosyllabism, Nick's act of brewing a pot of coffee becomes a rare--actually singular--moment of reverie and retrospection.

James calls living creatures "bundles of habits" (1: 104) and explains that "habit simplifies the movements required to achieve a given result, makes them more accurate, and diminishes fatigue" (1: 112, italics original). In "Big Two-Hearted River," however, Nick is not interested in diminishing fatigue. Quite the opposite. Nick intentionally avoids striking the river early in his hike, instead carrying his heavy pack deeper into the woods. As Nick settles down at the end of Part One, he realizes, "He could have made camp hours before if he had wanted to" (216); later, he feels his mind "starting to work. He knew he could choke it because he was tired enough" (218). Nick does not want to consign all his activity to habit, keeping his mind alert and refreshed. He intentionally exhausts himself, increases rather than diminishes fatigue, which he knows will allow him to sleep. James quotes Henry Maudsley10 on this very point. If habit did not exist to simplify a man's behavior, Maudsley writes, "the washing of his hands or the fastening of a button would be as difficult to him on each occasion as to the child on its first trial; and he would, furthermore, be completely exhausted by his exertions. ... [T]he conscious effort of the will soon produces exhaustion" (1: 114, italics mine). For Nick, this scenario does not carry the negative cast that Maudsley intends. By exercising his "effort of attention" in James's words, or "effort of will" in Maudsley's, Nick expends all of his cognitive powers on simple, safe, or irrelevant things so that he will have no mental energy for rumination, retrospection, or introspection.

If Leopold Bloom can reduce his tea-making to monosyllabic grunts, for Nick it is a more complex task. In the superficial puzzle of the narrative, the question becomes how to prepare a pot of coffee in the proper manner. Every other activity was done precisely and expertly, and Nick wants to make sure the coffee will be executed with the same care. At the minimum, Nick invests exaggerated importance in this issue, preferring to engage in an internal debate over coffee preparation rather than face the struggle of coming to terms with his war experience. Furthermore, Hemingway's presentation of Nick's organization of his external surroundings as a metaphor for the desire to replicate that order internally would become a hallmark of his fiction. When a Hemingway character immerses himself in external sensory details, it often signals a desire to avoid the messy business of introspection. In The Sun Also Rises, for example, rather than disclose what Jake Barnes sees in the mirror when he looks at his injured bare body and how he feels about it, he muses about the Frenchness of his room's interior decoration.

The brief coffee-making episode in "Big Two-Hearted River" has attracted so much critical curiosity because it stands as the only reverie in the story. Nick's recollection of Hopkins serves the same narrative function as Santiago's recollection of his arm wrestling exploits against "the great negro from Cienfuegos" in The Old Man and the Sea (69), a brief remembered episode that shows, as Richard Michael O'Brien posits, "the continuity of a consciousness in time ... and the transcendence of isolation in space and time that the very holding of these values entails" (266). The memories in both narratives are rare gems of nostalgia that sneak through carefully controlled censors to provide glimpses of a mind not constrained by the urgent assignment, be it Nick's focus on the mechanics of his fishing trip or Santiago's focus on the capturing and landing of the marlin. As memories go, Nick's reminiscence of Hopkins is fairly unrevealing when compared with the gravity of the thoughts he is trying to avoid. The very inclusion of this memory, though, is telling. Directly leading up to the coffee episode, Nick on three separate occasions forgets to do something with respect to dinner: to eat bread with his first plateful; to get water for the coffee; and to follow the proper procedure to make coffee. "He could remember an argument about it with Hopkins," we are told, "but not which side he had taken" (216-17). This episode that may seem extraneous in fact contains a key to reading Hemingway's career-long obsession with detailing the types of drinks his characters order, how the drinks are made, how his drinkers like them, what food the drinks accompany, who pays for it all, and how much they pay. By investigating the external detail, the character is relieved of performing a similar, more imperative inventory of the mind. The brief passage reveals Nick's glee in trying to recall inconsequential nostalgia as opposed to the struggle of trying to forget a tremendously important traumatic memory.

As Robert Gibb, who refers to the memory of Hopkins as "pleasant but insufficient," phrases it, "nostalgia for the middle past is no match for the horrors of the immediate past" (256). Nick is defusing the power of memory by training it onto a comparatively harmless topic. Psychologist James W. Pennebaker observes a similar phenomenon in his interviews with traumatized subjects: "the interviewee either changes the topic to something superficial or focuses on minutiae surrounding the topic," pointing out that "when under stress, the person focuses more narrowly or superficially on the stressful topic and/or is concerned with superficial issues unrelated to it" (90-91). Therefore, the overemphasis on the unpleasantness of the memory of Hopkins ignores the context; although a marginally unhappy incident in Nick's life, compared to the emotions of being blown up in Italy, it is, as Pennebaker phrases it, "moving to a lower level of analysis" (91, italics original). Hemingway's intuitive grasp of this phenomenon of human consciousness makes the Hopkins memory in "Big Two-Hearted River" so crucial precisely because of its triviality.

The analysis of the proper way to make coffee eventually wanes, and as the coffee boils, Nick eats:

While he waited for the coffee to boil, he opened a small can of apricots. He liked to open cans. He emptied the can of apricots out into a tin cup. While he watched the coffee on the fire, he drank the juice syrup of the apricots, carefully at first to keep from spilling, then meditatively, sucking the apricots down. (217, italics mine)

Hemingway has given Nick Adams his madeleine episode. If what makes Marcel's madeleine moment so quintessentially Proustian is its lavish exploration of involuntary memory triggered by the little cake, then what makes Nick's apricot juice moment so quintessentially Hemingwayesque is its language of omission, the iceberg theory manifest. Assigning the description "meditatively" to the act of drinking is a stunning adverbial choice in this context. Paired with the prior adverb "carefully," they represent the psychological extremes of the camping trip. For the vast majority of the story, Nick's intent is to be careful not to meditate; when Nick eats the apricots, though, Nick surrenders to careful meditation. As in Proust, when the combination of food and beverage provokes an associative memory, Nick is transported to wartime, when consuming canned fruit was a necessity. Unlike Proust, however, Hemingway does not expose the content of the meditation, and refuses to pursue its source.(11) Since Marcel's memory is a warm and wonderful sensation, Proust has no qualms about exploring its source in detail. The involuntary memory in Swann's Way is an "exquisite pleasure" and an "all-powerful joy" (60). Too many of Nick Adams's memories, of course, are dreadful. All Hemingway reveals, therefore, is the meditative quality of the fruit, as in Proust's madeleine. The writer's aesthetic restraint matches the protagonist's mental control by withholding the information from the reader, which mimics the way the character would not verbalize it and instead seeks to refuse its entry into consciousness. Hemingway only gives Nick's judgment of the strictly sensory detail of this drinking: "They were better than fresh apricots" (217). The comment is inane, a wholly inadequate replacement of the content of the memory, which serves Hemingway's thematic purpose.

Nick's attempt to control his cognitive functioning, his endeavor to manage his sensory intake, ultimately determines how "Big Two-Hearted River" is interpreted. In the excised addendum posthumously published as "On Writing," Nick's fragile victory is more explicitly stated. The conclusion of the "mental conversation" that Hemingway (and Stein) deemed extraneous reads, "He was holding something in his head" (Nick Adams 241). This final line echoes another from earlier: "He climbed the bank of the stream, reeling up his line and started through the brush. He ate a sandwich. He was in a hurry and the rod bothered him. He was not thinking. He was holding something in his head. He wanted to get back to camp and get to work" (240). The phrase "holding something in his head" is an apt poetic rendering of mental control; Nick has gained mastery of an idea, harnessed a thunderbolt of inspiration, and he is holding it rather than being held by it. He is controlling it rather than being hostage to it. Furthermore, the significance of Nick "holding" something in his head rather than having to "choke it" demonstrates a less violently antagonistic relationship with his own mind. The verb "hold" signals the holding pattern and demonstrates Nick's confidence that he will eventually have a more stable relationship with his memory, that the "plenty of days coming when he could fish the swamp" promises a period of painful self-searching and reconciliation with the horrors of war (Short Stories 232). "Big Two-Hearted River" is certainly progress, a first step, no matter how tentative. "Big Two-Hearted River" must not be seen as a gloomy example of a young man who has surrendered. Nick's decision to "quell the storm" swirling in his psyche--perhaps the same storm Hemingway drew up in his manuscript sketch of the story's movement--is the equivalent of a surgeon who waits until his patient's swelling subsides before performing an operation.

For Nick to be "not thinking" while also "holding something in his head" in consecutive sentences appears paradoxical. It is apparent, however, that at this moment, Nick equates "thinking" to tortured rumination upon the past, while "holding something" is the Bergsonian idea of acting upon inspiration, of thought as action. The "work" Nick is anxious to begin is the quest to compose immortal fiction. If "On Writing" might be considered as a conclusion to In Our Time, the accepted reading of the collection as a Bildungsroman must be modified to consider the volume a Kunstlerroman, the narrative of an artist's maturation. This artistic exorcism gestures towards a more clinical way to avoid painful cognition over a traumatic event. Daniel Gold and Wegner explain that "ruminations often occur following traumatic events. We think and stew, trying to make sense of the unsensible. Based on a cathartic view of expression, until we talk about and release those thoughts, they will continue. Like a pressure cooker that needs to let off steam, it is beneficial, if not necessary, to express our thoughts" (1251).(12) This human need, after all, brought forth psychotherapy, and probably confession in general.(13)

The last line of "Big Two-Hearted River"--"There were plenty of days coming when he could fish the swamp" (232)--signals knowing discipline. Nick understands he has a future, and one that promises more than his current capabilities permit. The last line is not naive and a signal of the futility of the journey to the river. The acknowledgement of the "plenty of days coming" is something Nick could not have asserted during the war. His present belief that in the future he will be capable of more adventurous, unpredictable activity is the most self-aware, mature moment any Hemingway protagonist experiences. The camping trip serves as a gauge to test Nick's limits, the capacity of his sensations, emotions, and thought. It may be a disappointment, but it is not a defeat to find that his limitations are more constricting than they were when he was a boy, or will be in the future. "Big Two-Hearted River" represents progress toward the final destination, not an easy answer that solves all Nick's problems.

As a first step, however, Nick is on dangerous ground even as he walks his familiar paths. He has unwittingly created associations between his reliable childhood hangout and World War I. Furthermore, by suppressing his thoughts, he has exacerbated them. Psychologists studying mental control show that subjects derive an initial excitement by suppressing "exciting thoughts" and then receive a more powerful effect by those thoughts when they eventually resurface (Wegner et al. 409). The phenomenon of sexual suppression leading to flamboyant and unexpected articulations of these submerged emotions has become commonplace, even in Hemingway's work; the same phenomenon is produced by the suppression of trauma. The cautionary tale of this story, then, is that Nick has left plenty of unfinished business and has not left this business in the most secure position. Just as Lawrence Taylor's problem requires professional help rather than self-diagnosis, Nick cannot fish his way out of his shock. Nick knows that there are plenty of days coming when he will be able to fish the swamp, but he may not understand that there are plenty of days coming when he must.


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(1) Likewise, when Hemingway submitted the piece to This Quarter in 1925, Christian Gauss and F. Scott Fitzgerald accused Hemingway of "having written a story in which nothing happened" (Baker 125).

(2) The manuscript of A Farewell to Arms is even more harrowing. In the description of emerging from general anesthesia, Frederic recalls, "My legs hurt so that I tried to get back into the choked place I had come from but I could not get back in there and threw up again and again and nothing came" (JFK 64). To further illustrate the grave connotations of this word in Hemingway: in "A Way You'll Never Be" Nick recalls his wounding, "the white flash and clublike impact, on his knees, hot-sweet choking, coughing it onto the rock" (Short Stories 414). Also, in one of Hemingway's most memorable adverbial choices, Mrs. Krebs in "Soldier's Home" is described as responding "chokily" when Harold's apologizes for saying he does not love her (Short Stories 152). In For Whom the Bell Tolls, upon having lusting thoughts of Maria, Robert Jordan notices that "his throat was choky" (44).

(3) Elizabeth Wells, using her own statistical criterion of "substantive words only" (62), calculates that "Big Two-Hearted River" is comprised of 72% monosyllabic words and 4% words over two syllables (62, 67).

(4) In Hemingway's obnoxious essay "The Art of the Short Story," he describes "Big Two-Hearted River" as being "about a boy coming home beat to the wide from a war. Beat to the wide was an earlier and possibly more severe form of beat, since those who had it were unable to comment on this condition and could not suffer that it be mentioned in their presence. So the war, all mention of the war, anything about the war, is omitted" (88).

(5) AE. Hotchner reports Hemingway's response: "Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don't know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use" (69-70). In Lillian Ross's extended piece on Hemingway, she quotes him: "People think I'm an ignorant bastard who doesn't know the ten-dollar words. I know the ten-dollar words. There are older and better words which if you arrange them in the proper combination you make it stick" (61). In a 1953 letter, Hemingway writes, "Actually if a writer needs a dictionary he should not write. He should have read the dictionary at least three times from beginning to end and then have loaned it to someone who needs it" (Selected Letters 809).

(6) For an even more thorough dramatization of the distinction between "thinking" and "wondering," see Jake Barnes's long, self-conscious prayer in The Sun Also Rises:
  I wondered if there was anything else I might pray for,
  and I thought I would like to have some money, so I
  prayed that I would make a lot of money, and then I
  started to think how I would make it, and thinking of
  making money reminded me of the count, and I started
  wondering about where he was, and regretting I hadn't
  seen him since that night in Montmartre, and about
  something funny Brett told me about him, and as all the
  time I was kneeling with my forehead on the wood in front
  of me, and was thinking of myself as praying, I was a
  little ashamed, and regretted that I was such a
  rotten Catholic ... but realized there was nothing I
  could do about it, at least for a while.
  (103, italics mine)

More revealing, see an exchange between Frederic Henry and Catherine Barkley in A Farewell to Arms:

"Sometimes I wonder about the front and about people I know but I don't worry. I don't think about anything much."

"Who do you wonder about?"

"About Rinaldi and the priest and lots of people I know. But I don't think about them much. I don't want to think about the war. I'm through with it."

"What are you thinking about now?"


"Yes you were. Tell me."

"I was wondering whether Rinaldi had the syphilis." (298, italics mine).

In Islands in the Stream, a curious meditation by Thomas Hudson is described: "Sometimes he could think about the stars without wondering about them and the ocean without problems and the sunrise without what it would bring" (369). With this articulation, Hudson's "thought" is an almost Zen-like acceptance, as opposed to "wondering," which in this instance expends mental energy, attempting to solve mysteries and perhaps dredge up dormant memories and sensations in a troubled mind.

(7) Bergson's description of a mental "jumping from one thing to another"--or, "qui saute indefiniment d'une chose a une autre" in the original ("L'evolution creatrice" 320)--echoes Jake's solitary meditation in The Sun Also Rises: "I lay awake thinking and my mind jumping around. Then I couldn't keep away from it, and I started to think about Brett and all the rest of it went away. I was thinking about Brett and my mind stopped jumping around and started to go in sort of smooth waves" (39).

(8) This argument echoes Edgar's point in Shakespeare's King Lear: "the worst is not / So long as we can say 'This is the worst'" (IV.i.27-28).

(9) An exchange between Catherine Barkley and Frederic Henry in A Farewell to Arms exemplifies the difficulty of "not thinking" when there is no distracter:

"Don't think about me when I'm not here."

"That's the way I worked it at the front. But there was something to do then" (257).

In Across the River and Into the Trees, Colonel Cantwell tells Renata, "I'm not lonely when I'm working. I have to think too hard to ever be lonely" (99). Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet also has a wonderful example, in an early conversation between Benvolio and a lovesick Romeo:

BENVOLIO: Be rul'd by me, forget to think of her.

ROMEO: O, teach me how I should forget to think.

BENVOLIO: By giving liberty unto thine eyes;

Examine other beauties (I.i.225-228).

Like Frederic and Cantwell, Benvolio is distinguishing between the difficulty of "not thinking" compared to the ease of a pleasant distraction.

(10) James is quoting from Maudsley's Physiology of Mind (1876).

(11) Robert Jordan has a decidedly more positive reaction when his drink of absinthe spurs an involuntary memory:
  one cup of it took the place of the evening papers,
  of all the old evenings in cafes, of all chestnut trees
  that would be in bloom now in this month, of the great
  slow horses of the outer boulevards, of book shops, of
  kiosques, and of galleries, of the Parc Montsouris, of
  the Stade Buffalo, and of the Butte Chaumont, of the
  Guaranty Trust Company and the Ile de la Cite, of Foyot's
  old hotel, and of being able to read and relax in the
  evening; of all the things he had enjoyed and forgotten
  and that came back to him when he tasted that opaque,
  bitter, tongue-numbing, brain-warming, stomach-warming,
  idea-changing liquid alchemy. (For Whom the Bell Tolls
  51, italics mine)

In Islands in the Stream, Thomas Hudson has a drink that contains similar powers: "A drink always unlocked his memory that he kept locked so carefully now" (427). One example from that novel comes early, following a drink of gin and tonic with a "few drops of Angostura":
  He stood there, holding the long, pleasantly bitter
  drink, tasting the first swallow of it, and it reminded
  him of Tanga, Mombasa, and Lamu and all that coast and he
  had a sudden nostalgia for Africa. Here he was, settled on
  the island, when he could as well be in Africa. Hell, he
  thought, I can always go there. You have to make it inside
  of yourself wherever you are. You are doing all right
  at that here. (21)

(12) See "A Clean Well-Lighted Place" for what might be Hemingway's most brilliant objective correlative, following the older waiter's cathartic, nihilistic "nada" prayer: "He smiled and stood before a bar with a shining steam pressure coffee machine" (Short Stories 383).

(13) See A Farewell to Arms, in which Frederic says to the priest, "I never think and yet when I begin to talk I say the things I have found out in my mind without thinking" (179). Hemingway's 1920 poem, "A Modern Version of Polonius' Advice," opens, "Give thy tongue no tho'ts, / Nor ever think before you speak" (Complete Poems 19).

MARK CIRINO is an assistant professor of English at the University of Evansville. He is the author of two novels and his critical work has been published by the Hemingway Review, The Mailer Review, Italian Americana, and PMLA. He is the co-editor of Ernest Hemingway and the Geography of Memory (Kent State UP, 2010).
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Date:Mar 22, 2011
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