- Reviewed by
The critical winds from New Haven notwithstanding, we continue to be interested in a writer's life, in his art, and in the slippery connections between the two. Hemingway is an excellent case in point. No doubt he too will be deconstructed, his "texts" reduced to what their various signifiers signify; until then, however, we can rejoice that scholars like Sojka and Reynolds prefer the Heminway Collection (at Boston's John F. Kennedy Library) to Diacritics.
But that said, let me hasten to point out that, like Orwell's animals, some scholars are more "equal," more telling, than others. As Sojka would have it, previous scholars have done their homework on the roles that bullfighting, hunting, and wartime combat play in Hemingway's formative experience; what we need now is a book-length study that concentrates on fishing as "an important exercise in ordering and reinforcing an entire philosophy and style of life."
Not surprisingly, Ernest Hemingway: The Angler as Artist is precisely that book. Drawing from Hemingway's articles about fishing, his letters, and his manuscripts—and especially from Philip Young's "code hero" thesis—Sojka dutifully trolls his way through the canon: "Big Two-Hearted River," The Old Man and the Sea, Islands in the Stream. Unfortunately, most of the "bigger," more important fish manage to slip away unhooked. We are told, for example, that "During his life, Ernest Hemingway constantly participated in some type of competitive activity" or that "when the going gets tough in The Sun Also Rises, Robert Cohn starts moaning." Sophomores are likely to find this breathtaking in ways that scholars and stylists alike are not. And no doubt the former will appreciate the generous space allotted to plot summary more than those already familiar with Nick Adams or Santiago.
In large measure Sojka's study is an exercise in putting consensus views between hard covers. Consider, for example, the following passage, one that represents both the texture and the depth of critical discussion in The Angler as Artist:
Hemingway's own maxim, il faut (d'abord) durer, becomes Nick's necessary philosophy. For Nick must participate in activities whose procedures and effects can fill the void of his insufficient moral and philosophical inheritance. Time and time again, Nick falls back upon fishing, whose ordered, ritualistic procedures provide a sporting code with sufficient ethical basis to create a satisfying life; or, when that goal seems too ambitious, fishing at least affords a temporary respite from traumatic memories that could lead to self-pity and mental breakdown.
After Philip Young, after Carlos Baker, after the countless other scholar-critics who have made mighty contributions to the best that has been thought and said about Hemingway, what authentically fresh ground—much less "forgiveness"—is left for the likes of Sojka?
One answer that comes to mind is a book like Michael Reynolds' The Young Hemingway. Reassessments of Hemingway's life tend to focus either on the bombast and self-parody that dominated his last years or on efforts to account for the lean, hard brilliance of his early work. Reynolds' study concentrates on the [End Page 614] latter, but with important differences. Rather than merely retracing Baker's strictly biographical steps, Reynolds yokes new information with fresh questions. He is especially good on the sociocultural world of prewar Oak Park and on the formative books and magazines that shaped the young Hemingway every bit as much as fishing and hunting did.
In large measure, this is a world Hemingway did not write about. As Reynolds shrewdly observes:
When Hemingway invented Nick Adams, he did not give him the vested choir or the cello lessons. Nick never went to church, never listened to his grandfather's war stories, never had an older sister. Nick's parents—the Doctor and the Doctor's wife—never black up for a minstrel show or take Nick to the opera. In Hemingway's fiction, Oak Park remains beneath the surface, invisible and inviolate. It was...