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166 robert paul lamb 12 The Currents of Memory Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River” as Metafiction Robert Paul Lamb • Hemingway began “Big Two-Hearted River” in Paris in mid-May 1924 and completed 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 with John Dos Passos and Robert McAlmon, 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 he decided to divide it formally into two parts. In October, in response to Gertrude Stein’s commentsthat“remarksarenotliterature”(207),hedeletedthefinalninepages 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 full story of In Our Time in October. In a letter to Ernest Walsh and Ethel Moorhead, Hemingway claimed it was by far the best fiction he had yet written (SL 144).1 Others shared this assessment, and “Big Two-Hearted River” quickly assumed an important place in the Hemingway canon, a rank forever secured when Malcolm Cowley, in his introduction to The Portable Hemingway, 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 consciousnesses of his protagonists, and their attempts to escape a world of 166 Cirino & Ott.indb 166 3/23/10 9:34:54 AM the currents of memory 167 danger and pain through “the faithful observance of customs they invent for themselves” (48)—implicitly linked “Big Two-Hearted River” to Nick Adams’s experience of war. Eight 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 his fiction, as the author, acting under a repetition compulsion, returned to it continually in his writing. 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 (Young 165–71). 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, Young’s thesis went unchallenged by 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 with Young 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’slesbian-leaning,emotionallyconflicted mother dominated his youth 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” (10). In “Big Two-Hearted River,” Lynn suggested, Nick is escaping not from war memories but from “a need to please his mother”; his tent is a sort of alternative home (his mother had thrown him out of the family’s Michigan summer home on Walloon Lake in July 1920); and “the activity of his mind that keeps threatening to overwhelm his contentment could be rage” (103–04). For Lynn, the war was a surrogate issue imposed on Hemingway criticism first by Edmund Wilson, then by Cowley, and finally, fully elaborated, by Young. Once this thesis had taken hold, Hemingway embraced...


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