This morning, I reread “Big Two Hearted River”, a short story by Ernest Hemmingway. It’s probably been thirty years since I last read the story, and it’s always been one of my favorites (note that it is number three on my “list-o-mania” list of favorite short stories). But reading it now, with the passing of time and circumstances, the story resonates even stronger.
On the surface, the story is the straight forward retelling of a man’s fishing and camping trip, a story that, as F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, in which “nothing happened.” But dig beneath that surface and you quickly realize there is much more going on. The story is really about a damaged and traumatized man (Hemingway’s fictional alter ego Nick Adams) searching for something that has been lost.
The story begins with Nick being dropped off of a train in a deserted and burned out town. He has a pack containing his tent and provisions, and a leather rod case. In the town, as described in that distinctive Hemmingway style, he stops by a bridge and looks down to the water below. Note the cadence of the writing.
“Nick looked down into the pool from the bridge. It was a hot day. A kingfisher flew up the stream. It was a long time since Nick had looked into a stream and seen trout. They were very satisfactory. As the shadow of the kingfisher moved up the stream, a big trout shot upstream in a long angle, only his shadow marking the angle, then lost his shadow as he came through the surface of the water, caught the sun, and then, as he went back into the stream under the surface, his shadow seemed to float down the stream with the current, unresisting, to his post under the bridge where he tightened facing up into the current.
Nick’s heart tightened as the trout moved. He felt all the old feelings.”
Nick is one with the trout, as they both “tightened”, and he “felt all the old feelings”. Like the trout, Nick has lost his shadow, his soul, the thing that marked his place in the world. “Big Two Hearted River” is about Nick’s attempts to find his shadow, to reclaim his soul. It’s interesting that Hemingway’s description of Nick’s sensory reactions to what he sees are described in very short and simple phrases (“It was a hot day”, “They were very satisfactory”, “He felt all the old feelings” ) I think this fulfills two purposes. One, it gives the writing a lyrical rhythm, and two; it describes the mental and emotional state Nick is in. Damaged as he is, he is able to process the complex and overwhelming rush of images and memories in only the simplest terms. He longs to return to the simpler time of his youth, before the landscape was scarred and burned, before the incomprehensible complexity of the things he has seen and experienced in war. As he goes on to his campsite, there are more simple descriptions of Nick’s moods and thoughts – “He was happy”, “but Nick felt happy”, “He felt he had left everything behind”, “It was all back of him” – but they somehow seem forced and untrue, and you are left with the sense that Nick is trying a bit too hard to convince himself he is happy and leaving everything behind.
He goes on to pitch his tent and cook his meals, ritualistically and methodically and with great discipline. He is determined to savor every moment and he does so, taking great satisfaction in the work of setting up camp, in the comfort of his tent, the taste of his food, and finally, the following morning, in the trout fishing he has come for. All the while, though, the presence of the dark swamp that is just down river from him looms.
“Ahead the river narrowed and went into a swamp. The river became smooth and deep and the swamp looks solid with cedar trees, their trunks close together, their branches solid. It would not be possible to walk through a swamp like that. The branches grew so low. You would have to keep almost level with the ground to move at all. You could not crash through the branches. That must be why the animals that lived in swamps were built the way they were, Nick thought.
He wished he had brought something to read. He felt like reading. He did not feel like going into the swamp. He looked down the river. A big cedar slanted all the way across the stream. Beyond that the river went into the swamp.
Nick did not want to go in there now …
In the swamp the banks were bare, the big cedars came together overhead, the sun did not come through, except in patches; in the fast deep water, in the half light, the fishing would be tragic. In the swamp the fishing was a tragic adventure. Nick did not want it. He did not want to go down the stream any further today.”
The river, where he camps and fishes, is filled with life and sustenance and purpose. But then it flows into something dark and mysterious and foreboding. As his trout fishing takes him gradually downstream, closer to the swamp, the apprehension grows. It is the fear of death, and also the fear of both the known and the unknown. He has seen terrible things that remain vivid and unresolved in the darkness of his heart and mind. He sees the same darkness in the swamp and fears that not only are the terrible things in there, but so too is their ultimate resolution, and whatever unthinkable conclusions about the nature of the universe those resolutions would reveal.
The story ends with Nick picking up his fishing gear:
“He climbed the bank and cut up into the woods, toward the high ground. He was going back to camp. He looked back. The river just showed through the trees. There were plenty of days coming when he could fish the swamp.”
He isn’t ready yet to confront the darkness. He needs more time to heal the scars that time and fate have carved into his soul.
When I reread the story this morning, I found it even more moving and profound than I had when I read it as a much younger man. I found parallels to my own circumstances, and some of the solitary trips I have made to my northern Wisconsin cabin in the past few years. Like Nick Adams, I have found myself turning to nature and longing to “feel all the old feelings.” (with only varying degrees of success) I also have my own personal swamp that I am afraid to face, that being the late stages of Parkinson’s disease that loom just down river from me. Above all else, the themes of isolation and solitude, and the diminutive stature of the individual against his landscape, resonate with me.
Everybody has an opinion about Hemingway, from literary genius to male chauvinist hack to arrogant self important hypocrite. Aside from the Nick Adams stories, I really haven’t read enough to subscribe to any of these views. But I do know that, with “Big Two Hearted River”, he was capable of true artistry, painting a vivid and complex portrait of both a physical and psychological landscape.