Our first story of 2017 is Ernest Hemmingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River,” one of his most widely anthologized short stories. First published in 1925 when Hemmingway was twenty-six years old, the story is perhaps the most technically pure example of Hemmingway’s “iceberg theory” of modernist prose, which proposes that, just as the visible tip of an iceberg is moved by its greater, invisible mass submerged below the water line, the concrete details of a narrative, when guided by an omitted mass of feeling that still resonates in the story, can evoke profound truths linked to themes and symbols that are never explicitly referenced. All of which can, in turn, make for a very unique experience for a dedicated reader, who must look beyond the hard facts that float above the water in an effort to peer into the deeper depths below, where the big fish are.

The hard facts of “Big Two-Hearted River” are clear: Nick (Adams, we assume, Hemmingway’s recurrent autobiographical character) goes to northern Michigan to camp and fish, alone, along a river that he knows well. He disembarks the train near the town of Seney, which has been burned to the ground, leaving nothing except a generation of grasshoppers stained black. Nick moves out into the country, happy for what seems like the first time in a while. He pitches camp, eats hungrily and well, then sleeps deeply. The next day he goes fishing in the river. He is clearly a skilled fisherman. He hooks four trout; he catches three. The first one he releases, as it’s too small; the second is massive and stunning, and breaks the line to escape; the last two he keeps, kills, and guts.

This is the basic action of the story; this is what we can see and experience. However, the larger meaning of these things is only visible at a remove, a posteriori. Nick’s reaction to hooking and losing the big trout is revealing, since it seems to disable him in a way that is disturbing yet seemingly familiar. It introduces a sense of chaos and conflict into the tranquility of what, in retrospect, is clearly a trip taken in order to undergo some kind of rehabilitation, be it physical, mental, spiritual, or all three. The rituals of camping and fishing offer a refuge of sorts to Nick, whose fragility, we can extrapolate from the story’s publication date and our knowledge of Hemingway’s life, is due to his experience in World War One. Fishing, and all of the details and demands it encompasses, allows Nick the possibility of escape and rejuvenation. This interpretation is further justified by Nick’s reluctance to enter the swamp at the story’s end. Hemingway was seriously wounded in a swamp of the Piave River in Italy. For Nick, fishing in the swamp would be “a tragic adventure.” In the end he returns to camp with the knowledge, and the confidence, that there would be time in the future to fish the swamp. He is beginning to heal.

One point I would like to address in our session next Tuesday is the story’s title. The river that runs near Seney, Michigan is the Fox; there is a Two-Hearted River in Michigan, and we can assume that Hemmingway perhaps chose to use that name because of its poetic quality. But why add the modifier “big”? And is there more to say about this than it at first might seem? As a rule with Hemmingway, the answer to this question should always be yes. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this and other aspects of the story next week.

Happy reading,

Andrew Bennett

One Comment


    6 años ago

    Andrew, you are certainly an excellent summarizer and very well knowler about the dark and deep Hemingway´s soul
    Thank you for teaching us
    See you

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