Look how it is at the start—all juice and kick to the writer and cant convey anything to the reader—you use up the juice and the kick goes but you learn how to do it and the stuff when you are no longer young is better than the young stuff[.]—Ernest Hemingway2
Hemingway began "Big Two-Hearted River" in Paris, in mid-May, 1924, and finished what would become the first part of the story when his work was interrupted by magazine editorial duties and a trip to Pamplona for the bullfights. In Spain, he enjoyed trout fishing on the Irati and discussed writing with John Dos Passos and Robert McAlmon, [End Page 161] but he was also burdened by financial needs, his responsibilities to his wife and small child, and fears that he would not be able to write. Nevertheless, he managed to finish the first version of the full story before returning to Paris, in July, and sometime in late summer decided to divide it formally into two parts. In October, in response to Gertrude Stein's comment that "remarks are not literature" (Stein 207), he deleted the final nine pages of the text, in which he had written directly about actual people and events from his life, and, after several attempts, eventually rewrote the ending to his satisfaction. The story was subsequently published in the first issue of This Quarter in May, 1925 and republished as the last story of In Our Time the following October. Hemingway considered it by far the best story he had written to that point.3
Others shared this assessment, and "Big Two-Hearted River" quickly assumed an important place in the Hemingway canon, a place firmly secured when Malcolm Cowley, in his introduction to The Portable Hemingway (1944), made it the centerpiece of his interpretation of Hemingway's writing. Cowley's essay, which stressed the repetition of themes in Hemingway's works, the haunted consciousness of his protagonists, and their attempts to escape a world of danger and pain through "the faithful observance of customs they invent for themselves" (48), implicitly linked "Big Two-Hearted River" to Nick's experience of war. Five years later in the first major, full-length study of Hemingway, Philip Young further developed this "war wound" thesis. Young's two main arguments were that the Hemingway hero is "pretty close to being Hemingway himself" and that "one fact about this recurrent protagonist, as about the man who created him, is necessary to any real understanding of either figure, and that is the fact of the 'wound,' a severe injury suffered in World War I which left permanent scars, visible and otherwise" (6). Deriving from Hemingway's own wounding, near Fossalta di Piave in July, 1918, it is the "figure in the carpet" of Hemingway's fiction, as the author, acting under a repetition compulsion, returned to it continually in his writing (165-171). Like his creator, Nick too is a shell-shocked veteran, "a sick man" seeking to escape from the experience that has "complicated and wounded" him. That, Young asserted, is "the whole 'point' of an otherwise pointless story" (47).
For thirty years, from the Korean War through the fighting in Vietnam, Professor Young's thesis went unchallenged and was frequently [End Page 162] reiterated by other critics. Then, first in a 1981 essay, and later in a lengthy biography, Kenneth S. Lynn disputed the nature of Hemingway's wound and its place in his work. Concurring that the Hemingway protagonist was usually a thinly-veiled fictional persona for the author himself, Lynn posited a different kind of wound for the figure in the carpet: a troubled childhood. According to Lynn, Hemingway's lesbian-leaning, emotionally-conflicted mother dominated Hemingway's childhood and produced in him a lifelong confusion over his sexual identity and a fear of his own androgynous impulses. "Hemingway's hurt began in childhood," Lynn explained, "and he was compelled to write stories in which he endeavored to cope with the disorder of his inner world by creating fictional equivalents for it" (Hemingway 10). In "Big Two-Hearted River," he suggested, Nick is escaping not...