Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Books: Ernest Hemingway's Classic "Big Two-Hearted River"

Big Two-Hearted River: The Centennial Edition

By Ernest Hemingway

Mariner Classics; hardcover, 112 pages, illustrated; $25.00; available today, Tuesday, May 9th

One of Ernest Hemingway's classic works that was released nearly a century ago, in 1925 as part of the collection In Our Time, was a short story of a veteran's solo fishing trip in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. It has been called "the finest story of the outdoors in American literature" by Sports Illustrated.

Now, for the first time ever, Big Two-Hearted River us being published as a stand-alone work, illustrated with specially commissioned original artwork by master engraver Chris Wormell, with a foreword by John N. Maclean.

It is one of three stories Hemingway wrote about Nick Adams and his love affairs that end badly. They are all based on real events at the time of the 1919 fishing trip to the Upper Peninsula.

Maclean is the author of Home Waters, a memoir of his family's four-generation connection to Montana's Blackfoot River, which his father, Norman Maclean, made famous in A River Runs Through It. His father introduced him to "Big Two-Hearted River," and he writes, "We were both deeply pleased that fishing and literature could be successfully combined, and in future decades we would strive to do the same thing as writers. 

Maclean spent thirty years at the Chicago Tribune, then wrote five nonfiction books about wildland fire that are considered a staple of fire literature. He is an avid fly fisherman who lives in Washington, DC, and at a family cabin in Montana.

In the foreword, Maclean writes, "A century on, 'Big Two-Hearted River' has helped shape language and literature in America and across the globe, and its magnetic pull continues to draw readers, writers, and critics. It's the best early example of Ernest Hemingway's now-familiar writing style: short sentences, punchy nouns and verbs, few adjectives and adverbs, and a seductive cadence. Easy to imitate, difficult to match.

"The subject matter of the story has inspired generations of writers to believe that fly fishing can be literature. More than any of his stories, it depends on his 'iceberg theory' of literature, the notion that leaving essential parts of a story unsaid, the underwater portion of the iceberg, adds to its power. Taken in context with his other work, it marks Hemingway's passage from boyish writer to accomplished author: nothing big came before it, novels and stories poured out after it...

"'Big Two-Hearted River' is not simply a luminous fishing tale; it's also an unsolved mystery. Like the title, the story has two sides, an outdoor adventure and the never-explained metaphors that accompany it, which have kept critics arguing ever since. As the narrative opens, Nick Adams steps off a train and discovers to his surprise that the old logging town of Seney has been burned over. Just what the scorched earth stands for is never stated, but it's not utter destruction. 'It could not all be burned,' Nick reflects as he hikes beyond the fire's black footprint into a meadow carpeted with sweet ferns and marked by hillocks with still-standing pines.

"The great fires of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries burned across the north woods, supercharged by the wasteful logging practices of the day. Huge swaths of white pine were clear-cut and towns built on foundations of sawdust, perfect beds for the flames that followed, which indeed gutted several towns. Stumps from the logging remain visible to this day, poking up among the ferns. Several smaller fires burned around Seney just before Hemingway's 1919 trip, and he almost certainly walked through their black footprints."

Ernest Hemingway was one of the greatest American writers, and the delicacy with which Maclean and Wormell present this landmark essay should give even more appreciation for how Hemingway captured the world around him.

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