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Resources for American Literary Study 27.1 (2001) 65-77

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Courting Exposure: The Composition of Hemingway's "A Canary for One"

Hilary K. Justice
The University of Chicago

The fall of 1926 was one of Ernest Hemingway's many dark periods, and the first to receive concurrent expression in his fiction. Professional and personal events in the previous year had resulted in a radically divided subjectivity that would emerge in his writing and would eventually contribute to his suicide. This schism stemmed initially from problems in his private life--problems that he had created--and introduced a new concern that would eventually run counter to his compulsion to transform personal conflict into fiction: a concern for his privacy in the face of growing public recognition. The writing of the drafts of "A Canary for One" in September, 1926, chronicles this early personal nadir, illuminates a developmental transition in Hemingway's creative process, and marks the beginning of his awareness of himself as a professional author (one who could assume publication rather than hope for it)--a status which, as he recognized immediately, he could manipulate to his own advantage but which, as he long denied, was not without cost.

The story's reliance on images of previously inviolate spaces burst open by catastrophe mirrors and reveals Hemingway's own reliance, in his writing, on publishing (literally, making public) previously private matters; like the burning house, the daughter's engagement, and the wrecked train cars in the story, Hemingway's marriage (and possibly his love affair) had been cracked open and thus destroyed. His was the catastrophic agency in these events; in writing "A Canary for One," he would capitalize on the literary possibilities in this pattern of violation and exposure.

The circumstances of this story's composition reveal that this quasi-autobiographical story is a much more intimate text than critics have recognized. Most commentators agree that the story is based on Hemingway's final train trip with his first wife, Hadley, as they "were returning to Paris to set up separate residences," but critical consideration of the story as autobiography ends there. 1 The fact that the trip provided the story's setting obscures its more subtle (and multiple) purposes for Hemingway, as man, writer, and author. These purposes [End Page 65] are further obscured by several factors: its publication dates, its inclusion in Men Without Women, and the fact that many readers, and perhaps all critics, know more about Hemingway's life than Hemingway did (or could) when he wrote the story.

By considering the compositional context of the story in conjunction with its drafts, one may reconstruct Hemingway's multiple (and, at the time, private) relationships to this text. This text reveals Hemingway in the midst of romantic turmoil and domestic chaos, but ironically (or perhaps not) on the brink of his first major professional success. The distinction among the roles of man, writer, and author, 2 a distinction of which Hemingway became uncomfortably aware during its composition, would have repercussions throughout his writing and his life. The drafts of this story isolate Hemingway's first textual manipulation of his dual professional roles. Prior to 1926, the tension between Hemingway the man and Hemingway the writer was private; with "A Canary for One," it would become public. This was dangerous, for as Spilka writes, "writers are often their best selves in their fictions, if not in their lives" (211). Worse for him personally, but quite the opposite professionally, he was about to become a public figure, a successful author whose life would be news. "A Canary for One" marks the first cracks in what would become a fractured professional subjectivity (Hemingway the writer versus Hemingway the author), one that would play out for the American public in the pages of novels, magazines, and newspapers throughout the mid-twentieth century.

"A Canary for One" stands as the penultimate story in Hemingway's early marriage tale sequence, defined by Paul Smith as "Out of Season," "Cat in the Rain," "Cross-Country Snow," "A Canary...


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pp. 65-77
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Archived 2001
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