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Narrative 12.2 (2004) 167-177



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Hemingway's Early Illness Narratives and the Lyric Dimensions of "Now I Lay Me"

Miriam Marty Clark


I want to begin with a claim so basic it scarcely needs to be made: Hemingway's early stories—those of In Our Time and Men Without Women—are full of sick and injured characters, from the laboring woman of "Indian Camp" to bullfighter Manuel Garcia Maera, drowning from pneumonia in "A Banal Story"; from boyish Nick with his shin barked, his eye banged, and his heart broken to war-wounded Nick, propped bleeding against a church wall or working his damaged leg every afternoon at the hospital or lying awake at night in a state that can only be called post-traumatic stress. There are more ill bodies than sexual ones in these stories, more characters in attitudes of suffering than in virtually any other state, of body or soul. There is Ole Andreson stretched on his bed in "The Killers" and Jack Brennan "all busted inside" at the end of "Fifty Grand"; there is William Campbell, concealed by a self-made shroud and talking through his rising nausea in "A Pursuit Race," and Joe Butler's father, "white and gone" by the side of the track in "My Old Man." There are boys holding their heads in their hands as though they were sick in one bar after another, and of course there is Nick himself, laid low in war. Treatment of illness also figures importantly in the development of plot and character. Doctoring is one way Nick knows his father. Like hunting—with which it is elided under the sign of the pocket knife and the arrowhead—it signifies power, responsibility, unsentimentality, even a "necessary" cruelty. Doctoring is the turf, if not terrain, of Nick's parents' conflict—he's a doctor, she's a Christian Scientist—where medicine's claims to power are always vitally at stake.

Through recurrent stories of illness and suffering, Hemingway marks several transformations. In the stories of Nick's boyhood, Nick believes that illness belongs to, even stigmatizes, the racially and socially other—the Indians in states of pneumonia, [End Page 167] despair, or drunkenness. In time, first metaphorically, with his heart broken and his "feelings" sick, and then in the flesh, Nick comes to understand how illness and pain touch on—how they can, in a single moment, implode—his own life and the lives of others like him. Hemingway's accounts of medical care also trace the emergence of modern biomedicine, emphasizing in contrast to the primitive caesarian Nick's father performs in "Indian Camp" the medical technologies offered to the injured Manuel Garcia Maera—the anesthesia mask, later the tube in each lung—or to the boys at the hospital in Milan, the first ever to use machines for rehabilitation.

I want to go a step further here, arguing that to read Nick's woundedness as the central feature of these two volumes is to enable a reading of these stories as "illness narratives."1 The usefulness of "illness narratives" within the field of bioethics is now well established by scholars including Arthur Kleinman, Kathryn Montgomery Hunter, Rita Charon, Arthur Frank, David Morris, and others. But my argument also takes part in a long conversation about wounds in Hemingway's fiction—one that runs from Malcolm Cowley's introduction to Hemingway and Philip Young's Ernest Hemingway to more recent considerations by Paul Smith, Michael Reynolds, Debra Moddelmog, and Margaret Sempreora, among others. Unlike many of these earlier discussions, my essay is not psychoanalytic in focus, arguing an original or primary trauma or tracing in images of woundedness a particular set of individual or cultural anxieties; nor are my aims historical or biographical. Instead, I want to consider the structural logic illness narratives bring to the stories, the generic complications they introduce—particularly in the relation of narrative and lyric passages—and the ethical imperatives they advance.

It may be useful to begin by contrasting Hemingway's early illness narratives with...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-974X
Print ISSN
1063-3685
Pages
pp. 167-177
Launched on MUSE
2004-04-13
Open Access
No
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