- Hemingway Confirms the Importance of the Taurine Baptism: Fictional and Historic Case Studies 1
In Death in the Afternoon, Ernest Hemingway posits a body of fictional narratees, innocent of bullfighting and clearly intended to represent his audience of English-speaking readers, whom he carefully prepares for their first bullfight. Unfortunately but not unexpectedly, most of these in-text narratees are appalled by what they see at their first corrida: only the spunky Old Lady and the narrator himself are pleased by the “most valorous and manly chaps” who performed that day. By providing their names (Nicanor Villalta, Luis Fuentes Bejarano, and Diego Mazquiarán [Fortuna]), 2 Hemingway enables us to date the corrida to Wednesday, 17 June 1931, and thus to identify it as the inaugural bullfight of Madrid’s new bullring, Las Ventas, a historic event and the proper occasion for the Old Lady’s initiation into the taurine arts. 3 When the narrator learns that the Old Lady particularly “liked to see the bulls hit the [End Page 145] horses”—this is the pic-ing, the tercio which is most difficult for novices to appreciate—he approvingly calls her “a mystic” and takes her to the very taurine Café Fornos, crowded with professional “bullfighters at every table,” where aficionados can “discuss the fight” properly (p. 64). The Old Lady’s initiation has been a success.
Hemingway introduced historic as well as fictional personages to “the integral Spanish bullfight” and, in an Appendix to Death in the Afternoon, he reported their reactions at the time “at which they first saw bullfights” as carefully as, in the main body of that book, he recorded his own and the Old Lady’s. Hemingway obviously treated everybody’s first bullfight, like any initiation, as a noteworthy event, and he just as obviously considered the initiate’s reaction, regardless of his or her age, as a significant indicator of character. Knowing how his fictional narratees responded to the crucial event, the narrator of Death in the Afternoon is able to single out the Old Lady for affectionate albeit short-lived friendship. Observing his relatives’ and friends’ reactions, he can solidify his impressions of their characters and, not incidentally, reveal his own standards and biases.
Although these biographical sketches are short, almost all of them include a remark about the subject’s familiarity with horses. In about half of them (those of his sons, his two wives, his sister-in-law, and his friends Dorman-Smith and Archibald MacLeish), he indicates that the person, like the Old Lady, appreciates the pic-ing, when the bull charges the horses and when the foreign or uninitiated spectator is most likely to look away. This focus indicates not only Hemingway’s understanding of this tercio but also his requirement that his intimates understand it as well and that they conform to his own correct standards even if these contradict their backgrounds and inclinations.
Similarly, when he mentions the academic backgrounds of almost all of the thirteen adults whom he features in “Some Reactions,” Hemingway reveals his sensitivity about his own lack of academic degrees. His parents, aunts, uncles, wives, siblings, and most of his friends had more formal education than he did. Although going to work instead of college was Hemingway’s own choice, in later years he felt defensive about his lack of academic credentials. Probably to increase his authority, then, Hemingway repeatedly presents himself as older, and most of the people around him as younger, than their actual ages. Clearly, this Appendix is as artful, personal, and psychologically complex as any other part of Death in the Afternoon. It is an integral part of the book.
The fifteen people whom Hemingway portrays include his children, his former and current wives, a sister-in-law, and several literary rivals, friends, former friends, and soon-to-be-former friends. He presents them not by name, but by initials, some of them difficult to decipher. They appear here in the order in which Hemingway presents them in Death in the Afternoon, pp. 495–501 in the Scribners hardcover edition, and pp. 465–471 in the Scribners paperback.
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P.H. is Patrick Hemingway, Hemingway’s...