SOURCE: Summerhayes, Don. “Fish Story: Ways of Telling in ‘Big Two-Hearted River.’” The Hemingway Review 15, no. 1 (fall 1995): 10-26.
[In the following essay, Summerhayes examines Hemingway's use of language in “Big Two-Hearted River.”]
We've reached a stage of modernity where it is very difficult to accept innocently the idea of a “work of fiction”; from now on, our works are works of language; fiction can pass through them, contacted obliquely, indirectly present.
What do I want to communicate but what a hell of a good time I had writing it? The whole thing is performance and prowess and feats of association. Why don't critics talk about those things—what a feat it was to turn that that way, and what a feat it was to remember that, to be reminded of that by this. Why don't they talk about that?
It was really more fun than anything. That was really why you did it. He had never realized that before. It wasn't conscience. It was simply that it was the greatest pleasure. It had more bite to it than anything else. It was so damn hard to write well, too.
Near the end of “Big Two-Hearted River,” as Nick Adams anxiously anticipates fishing in the swamp, we find this passage: “He wished he had brought something to read. He felt like reading. He did not feel like going on into the swamp” (IOT [In Our Time] 211).2 In this moment the mimetic code seems to vacillate: to what voice can we assign these words? We put an asterisk or a question mark in the margin of our text to signify our intention to come back to the passage, because there's something perplexing in the alternatives Nick postulates for himself. There seems to be a misstep or lapse in the tone. Can we imagine Nick saying these words to himself? If so, could he be kidding? Is there a kind of rueful self-mockery at his bookish evasiveness?3
Other passages in “Big Two-Hearted River” similarly outplay obvious or direct meaning with extra possibilities. For instance, the narrator's voice and the character's voice seem sometimes distinct, sometimes merged. Or, now and then, through the migration of particular words or phrases, other voices or traces of voices obtrude from earlier stories in In Our Time or from earlier passages in this story, with confusing or distracting associations. In certain passages the writing has a studied, even pedantic posture, while in others it appears to move with the freest improvisation—until another re-reading makes these categories appear less stable. Finally, this is a text in which both character and narrator seem to be involved in the process of writing as it goes along, self-consciously, often even playfully, trying out phrases and locutions, reaching for ways to conjure verbal consciousness out of feelings and sensations. Every reader feels an unmistakeable energy in this text, an exhilaration that is not necessarily confined to the themes and the author's success in “trying to do country,” but that generates itself over and over in the writing, in the “words you don't remember.”4
Writing is often engaged in numerous other or extra activities besides those required to tell a story, or even to make the reader feel as if s/he's “there,” and these activities in themselves are also what this story is about. From this perspective, the question is not so much ‘what does it mean?’ but ‘what can we make of this text?’ in which “nothing happens and the writing is swell”?5 How can we “perform” it at those moments where the cleft between writing and fiction is most noticeable, and the language as language most high-spirited and playful? Questions like these, irritating or amusing from reader to reader, invite responses that deviate from our usual strategies of interpretive analysis.
What follows is a series of ruminations on passages, like the one where Nick “felt like reading” because he “did not feel like going on into the swamp,” which seem to invite a freer play of association than usual and to attract attention to the self-consciousness of the writing as writing. Reading and re-reading this way—with a kind of perverse distractibility—tends to fragment and disperse the text, of course, and to disrupt narrative sequence. Yet when we rough things up a bit we are more likely to spot those inconvenient details and patterns—loose ends, hiatuses, undecidables—that often embarrass readings that strain after complete coherence and certitude. Re-reading “Big Two-Hearted River” for forty-odd years and layering my margins with questions hasn't helped me to master the text, but it has kept it open and unpredictable and unfailingly fascinating. It so often ingeniously declines to assent to what it so often confidently asserts. Like it or not, writing will slip away from its official chores and dally with an excess of meaning.
At the climax, when Nick has lost the big trout, we read:
He had never seen so big a trout. There was a heaviness, a power not to be held, and then the bulk of him, as he jumped. He looked as broad as a salmon. … That was a trout. He had been solidly hooked. Solid as a rock. He felt like a rock, too, before he started off. By God, he was a big one. By God, he was the biggest one I ever heard of.
The vividness and immediacy of the whole passage surrounding this, including the aftermath of Nick's feeling “vaguely, a little sick” (204), don't escape us. By God, this is writing! But I can't suppress my suspicion that I'm hearing one of the innumerable fish stories I've listened to and told all my life. The biggest ever that got away! The text doesn't acknowledge any awareness of these echoes; and of course can't, like us, anticipate their return in, notably, The Old Man and the Sea. And is there an indication of something just slightly off-stride with the confusion over the narrative voice? Who says, “By God”? If it is “I,” what happened to “he”? Well, the good reader says, who has trouble with this, after all? It's probably a case of the text getting so exuberant it jumps out of the hands of the narrator. Yet that it can do so with (relative) impunity here might make us wonder where else it might be doing it without being noticed.
At its first moment of narrative the text of “Big Two-Hearted River” compromises its autonomy. The opening sentence echoes and partly reiterates the opening sentence of an earlier story in In Our Time. “The Battler” (written later than “Big Two-Hearted River” but inserted earlier into the text to replace the banned “Up in Michigan”) starts, “He looked up the track at the lights of the caboose going out of sight around a curve” (65). “Big Two-Hearted River” starts, “The train went on up the track out of sight, around one of the hills of burnt timber” (177).
The similarity in the language, like the similarity of Nick's standpoint, can't be innocent. Whether Hemingway thoughtlessly or cunningly (mis)quotes himself, any reader of In Our Time still retains some traces of Nick's reaction to being “busted” by the brakeman. And some echo still lingers, unmeasurable, of the meeting with the nightmarish Ad Francis and his companion Bugs. The language, not the narrator, tells us that Nick is not entering an idyllic fishing trip. Or not only idyllic.
The text doesn't openly acknowledge echo or trace. The voice that speaks here, like a voice momentarily booming in on a car radio from some distant station, is heard only through the reader's unwillingness to ignore it.6 Call it the reader's voice, perhaps, since it speaks on behalf of the reader who wants to hear everything a text has to say.7
Further down the opening page, Nick registers delayed shock to the discovery that “There was no town, nothing but the rails and the burned-over country” (177). The text intimates—what, surprise? dismay?—with the timing of the phrase, “The river was there.” We can hear Nick whisper to himself. We can sense the calculating narrator set up a metonymic sequence—“burned-over stretch of hillside … railroad track … bridge … river”—delaying and then delivering the punchline: “The river was there!”
As if the matter were in doubt. The sentence confirms the presence of the river, and it seems to confirm also the nature of Nick's presence. He is there, too. He is really there, and this is no dream. But the sequence that sets up the sentence confirms also the presence of a narrator ordering the language, and manipulating the reader. For the reader's pleasure. Some time later, Nick “was there, in the good place” (186). The text is quoting, the reader remembering.
“Big Two-Hearted River” comes in two “Parts.” “Part One” ends, “He curled up under the blanket and went to sleep” (192). “Part Two” begins, “In the morning …” (195). Nick presumably sleeps between the two parts. When the story appears in anthologies “Part Two” immediately follows “Part One.” In In Our Time, however, the parts are separated by “Chapter XV” (“They hanged Sam Cardinella … [at six a.m.] in the corridor of the county jail” (193-4)). One of five men sentenced to be hanged, Sam has been “like that since about four o'clock in the morning”—“like that” meaning so immobilized by fear that he is unable to keep control of his “sphincter muscles” and has to be carried. He is admonished, “Be a man, my son,” by one of two priests, maybe the one who “skipped” back on the scaffolding just before the “drop” fell.
“Chapter XV” is positioned precisely where we might expect, in a certain kind of story, to encounter a dream. This text, however, will not acknowledge any such design, and leaves readers to speculate independently on whether the account of Sam's death constitutes some of the material Nick Adams's unconscious is working with at the beginning of his fishing trip: “Be a man, my son.”
If so, whose voice can we speak it in? If not, then what can we make of it? Does a trace of the priest's voice linger in other admonitions scattered through the text? Should we search Nick's earlier sleep in the “island of pine trees” (183-84) for possible implications?
Lacking companions, Nick talks to himself. He is speaker and listener, actor and audience. He tosses a blackened grasshopper into the air: “‘Go on, hopper.’ Nick said, speaking out loud for the first time. ‘Fly away somewhere.’” (181) Later, making his meal: “‘I've got a right to eat this kind of stuff, if I'm willing to carry it,’ Nick said. His voice sounded strange in the darkening woods. He did not speak again” (187). Didn't want to hear his voice again? Didn't want to sound “strange”? All the same, one page later, after tasting the hot beans and spaghetti: “‘Chrise,’ Nick said. ‘Geezus Chrise,’ he said happily.” Three times the text distinguishes between Nick's speaking out loud and speaking silently:
1) an idle echo of child-like communion with an insect—(“Ladybug, Ladybug,/Fly away home”) (“Fly away, Peter, fly away, Paul”); or is this a sophisticated writer's self-conscious imitation of child-like communion, an impersonation?
2) a gratuitous self-defence, a peevish reaction to internalized judges and critics: “I've got a right.” (Be a man, my son.)
3) a burlesque blessing on a meal, saying grace by accident—“Chrise.”
The speeches, and the impulse to speak out loud, are part of the story of Nick Adams. Suppose he's taking the kind of pleasure he might take in posturing in front of a mirror, just to find out how he looks or sounds, or might look or sound to an audience. Suppose these little bits of natural behaviour don't merely enhance the narrative's reality illusion, but also provide spot-checks whereby Nick tests and confirms his identity? Or maybe not his identity so much as the high spirits (the “old feeling”) that insist on breaking out. Whose high spirits? Try the narrator too. Try Hemingway. Try language itself.
Earlier, after confirming that the river is there, Nick stands on the bridge and watches the trout “keeping themselves steady in the current” (177). We wait for more than twenty pages for “steady” to confirm its function as a word the text conjures with. When Nick releases the first trout he catches, it pauses on the bottom until Nick reaches down to touch it: “The trout was steady in the moving stream, resting on the gravel, beside a stone” (201). Another few pages on, after he has lost the big one, we read: “He thought of the trout somewhere on the bottom, holding himself steady over the gravel, far down below the light, under the logs, with the hook in his jaw” (204). The repetition of “steady” turns it inward, reinforcing its earned new power, so that it becomes, almost explicitly, a kind of admonition to himself to be steady—for example, not to “rush his sensations any.”
At the same time the repetition discreetly invites the reader to respond to language as language, writing as writing, at play with itself even as it promotes the story's negotiations with meaning. In fact, in our pleasure at the text's ingenuity in generating these recycled words and sentences, we may even forget that we are reading a “work of fiction.” Over and over the text quotes itself, plagiarizes itself, reproduces itself, and dangles invitations to its [re]reader to read it as a “work of language.”
Let's try another cast over that early scene in Seney:
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.
In the fitful, half-perceptible oscillation between voices throughout this text, whereby from time to time we suspect that the character is aware of the language which operates his story, these words register Nick's self-conscious detachment from his activity and his commentary on it. The whole process of looking, as of inscribing the looking, holds off generalization until a series can be laid down that permits the subject to say, “They were very satisfactory,” decanting the word either for its modest precision or for its ironic value to the self-amusement Nick sometimes favors. A term like this—this term, sa-tis-fac-to-ry—is hard to come by; it has to be worried, then tested by being spoken (out loud or in one's head, it doesn't matter), which requires that the speaker choose the tone of its speaking. Like “tightened” at the bottom of the same page it invites a ludic performance, as one might imagine Henry James saying with deliberative pauses, “They were, as you might say, very satisfactory.”
Until it's actually used, there's no way to establish its function. It stays ready in the reader's memory, the first of a series of words by which this text glosses its vocabulary of sensation. Almost immediately it's followed by another “found” word: “He was happy … but Nick felt happy” (179).
At the beginning of “Part Two” Nick crawls out of his tent “to look at the morning”:...
In March, 1959, Ernest Hemingway’s publisher Charles Scribner, Jr. suggested putting together a student’s edition of Hemingway short stories. He listed the twelve stories which were most in demand for anthologies, but thought that the collection could include Hemingway’s favorites, and that Hemingway could write a preface for classroom use. Hemingway responded favorably. He would write the preface in the form of a lecture on the art of the short story.
Hemingway worked on the preface at la Consula, the home of Bill and Annie Davis in Malaga. He was in Spam that summer to follow the mano a mano competition between the brother-in-law bullfighters, Dominguin and Ordóñez Hemingway traveled with his friend, Antonio Ordóñez, and mote about this rivalry in “The Dangerous Summer, ” a three-part article which appeared in Life.
The first draft of the preface was written in May, and Hemingway completed the piece during the respite after Ordóñez was gored on May 30th. His wife. Mary, typed the draft, and, as she wrote in her book How It Was, she did not entirely approve of it. She wrote her husband a note suggesting rewrites and cuts to remove some of what she felt was its boastful, smug, and malicious tone. But Hemingway made only minor changes.
Hemingway sent the introduction to Charles Scribner and proposed changing the book to a collection for the general public. Scribner agreed to the change. However, he diplomatically suggested not printing the preface as it stood, but rather using only the relevant comments as introductory remarks to the individual stories. Scribner felt that the preface, written as a lecture for college students, would not be accepted by a reading audience which might well “misinterpret it as condescension. ” [Scribner to E.H. June 24, 1959-] The idea of the book was dropped.
Hemingway wrote the preface as if it were an extemporaneous oral presentation before a class on the methods of short story writing. It is similar to a transcript of an informal talk. Judging It against literary standards, or using it to assess Hemingway ’s literary capabilities would elevate it beyond this level, and would be inappropriate. Both Hemingway’s wife and his publisher were against its publication, and in the end Hemingway agreed. U appears here because of its content. Hemingway relates the circumstances under which he wrote the short stories; he gives opinion on other writers, critics, and on his own works; he expresses views on the art of the short story.
The essay is published unedited except for some spelling corrections. A holograph manuscript, two type scripts and an addendum, written for other possible selections for the book are in the Hemingway Collection at the John F. Kennedy Library.
Gertrude Stein who was sometimes very wise said to me on one of her wise days, “Remember, Hemingway, that remarks are not literature” The following remarks are not intended to be nor do they pretend to be literature. They are meant to be instructive, irritating and informative. No writer should be asked to write solemnly about what he has written. Truthfully yes. Solemnly, no. Should we begin in the form of a lecture designed to counteract the many lectures you will have heard on the art of the short story?
Many people have a compulsion to write. There is no law against it and doing it makes them happy while they do it and presumably relieves them. Given editors who will remove the worst of their emissions, supply them with spelling and syntax and help them shape their thoughts and their beliefs, some compulsory writers attain a temporary fame. But when shit or merde—a word which teacher will explain—is cut out of a book, the odor of it always remains perceptible to anyone with sufficient olfactory sensibility.
The compulsory writer would be advised not to attempt the short story. Should he make the attempt, he might well suffer the fate of the compulsive architect, which is as lonely an end as that of the compulsive bassoon player. Let us not waste our time considering the sad and lonely ends of these unfortunate creatures, gentlemen. Let us continue the exercise.
Are there any questions? Have you mastered the art of the short story? Have I been helpful? Or have I not made myself clear? I hope so.
Gentlemen, I will be frank with you. The masters of the short story come to no good end. You query this? You cite me Maugham? Longevity, gentlemen, is not an end. It is a prolongation. I cannot say fie upon it, since I have never fie-ed on anything yet. Shuck if off, Jack. Don’t fie on it.
Should we abandon rhetoric and realize at the same time that what IS the most authentic hipster talk of today is the twenty-three skidoo of tomorrow? We should? What intelligent young people you are and what a privilege it is to be with you. Do I hear a request for authentic ballroom bananas? I do? Gentlemen, we have them for you in bunches.
Actually, as writers put it when they do not know how to begin a sentence, there is very little to say about writing shon stories unless you are a professional explainer. If you can do it, you don’t have to explain it. If you can not do it, no explanation will ever help.
A few things I have found to be true. If you leave out important things or events that you know about, the story is strengthened. If you leave or skip something because you do not know it, the story will be worthless. The test of any story is how very good the stuff is that you, not your editors, omit. A story in this book called “Big Two-Hearted River” is about a boy coming home beat to the wide from a war. Beat to the wide was an earlier and possibly more severe form of beat, since those who had it were unable to comment on this condition and could not suffer that it be mentioned in their presence. So the war, all mention of the war, anything about the war, is omitted. The river was the Fox River, by Seney, Michigan, not the Big Two-Hearted. The change of name was made purposely, not from ignorance nor carelessness but because Big Two-Hearted River is poetry, and because there were many Indians in the story, just as the war was in the story, and none of the Indians nor the war appeared. As you see, it is very simple and easy to explain.
In a story called “A Sea Change.” everything is left out. I had seen the couple in the Bar Basque in St.-Jean-de-Luz and I knew the story too too well, which is the squared root of well, and use any well you like except mine. So I left the story out. But it is all there. It is not visible but it is there.
It is very hard to talk about your work since it implies arrogance or pride. I have tried to get rid of arrogance and replace it with humility and I do all right at that sometimes, but without pride I would not wish to continue to live nor to write and I publish nothing of which I am not proud. You can take that any way you like. Jack. I might not take it myself. But maybe we’re built different.
Another story is “Fifty Grand.” This story originally started like this:
“‘How did you handle Benny so easy. Jack?’ Soldier asked him.“ ‘Benny’s an awful smart boxer,‘Jack said.’All the time he’s in there, he’s thinking. All the time he’s thinking, I was hitting him.’ ”
I told this story to Scott Fitzgerald in Paris before I wrote “Fifty Grand” trying to explain to him how a truly great boxer like Jack Britton functioned. I wrote the story opening with that incident and when it was finished I was happy about it and showed it to Scott. He said he liked the story very much and spoke about it in so fulsome a manner that I was embarrassed. Then he said, “There is only one thing wrong with it, Ernest, and I tell you this as your friend. You have to cut out that old chestnut about Britton and Leonard.”
At that time my humility was in such ascendance that I thought he must have heard the remark before or that Britton must have said it to someone else. It was not until I had published the story, from which I had removed that lovely revelation of the metaphysics of boxing that Fitzgerald in the way his mind was functioning that year so that he called an historic statement an “old chestnut” because he had heard it once and only once from a friend, that I realized how dangerous that attractive virtue, humility, can be. So do not be too humble, gentlemen. Be humble after but not during the action. They will ail con you, gentlemen. But sometimes it is not intentional. Sometimes they simply do not know. This is the saddest state of writers and the one you will most frequently encounter. If there are no questions, let us press on.
My loyal and devoted friend Fitzgerald, who was truly more interested in my own career at this point than in his own, sent me to Scribner’s with the story. It had already been turned down by Ray Long of Cosmopolitan Magazine because it had no love interest. That was okay with me since I eliminated any love interest and there were, purposely, no women in it except for two broads. Enter two broads as in Shakespeare, and they go out of the story. This is unlike what you will hear from your Instructors, that if a broad comes into a story in the first paragraph, she must reappear later to justify her original presence. This is untrue, gentlemen. You may dispense with her, just as in life. It is also untrue that if a gun hangs on the wall when you open up the story, it must be fired by page fourteen. The chances are, gentlemen, that if it hangs upon the wail, it will not even shoot. If there are no questions, shall we press on.? Yes, the unfireable gun may be a symbol. That is true. But with a good enough writer, the chances are some jerk just hung it there to look at. Gentlemen, you can’t be sure. Maybe he is queer for guns, or maybe an interior decorator put it there. Or both.
So with pressure by Max Perkins on the editor. Scribner’s Magazine agreed to publish the story and pay me two hundred and fifty dollars, if I would cut it to a length where it would not have to be continued into the back of the book. They call magazines books. There is significance in this but we will not go into it. They are not books, even if they put them in stiff covers. You have to watch this, gentlemen. Anyway, I explained without heat nor hope, seeing the built-in stupidity of the editor of the magazine and his intransigence, that I had already cut the story myself and that the only way it could be shortened by five hundred words and make sense was to amputate the first five hundred. I had often done that myself with stories and it improved them. It would not have improved this story bur I thought that was their ass not mine. I would put it back together in a book. They read differently in a book anyway. You will learn about this.
No. gentlemen, they would not cut the first five hundred words. They gave it instead to a very intelligent young assistant editor who assured me he could cut it with no difficulty. That was just what he did on his first attempt, and any place he took words out, the story no longer made sense. It had been cut for keeps when I wrote it, and afterwards at Scott’s request I’d even cut out the metaphysics which, ordinarily, I leave in. So they quit on it finally and eventually. I understand, Edward Weeks got Ellery Sedgwick to publish it in the Atlantic Monthly. Then everyone wanted me to write fight stories and I did not write any more fight stories because I tried to write only one story on anything, if I got what I was after, because Life is very short if you like it and I knew that even then. There are other things to write about and other people who write very good fight stories. I recommend to you “The Professional” by W. C. Heinz.
Yes, the confidently cutting young editor became a big man on Reader’s Digest. Or didn’t he? I’ll have to check that. So you see, gentlemen, you never know and what you win in Boston you lose in Chicago. That’s symbolism, gentlemen, and you can run a saliva test on it. That is how we now detect symbolism in our group and so far it gives fairly satisfactory results. Not complete, mind you. But we are getting in to see our way through. Incidently, within a short time Scribner’s Magazine was running a contest for long short stories that broke back into the back of the book, and paying many times two hundred and fifty dollars to the winners.
Now since I have answered your perceptive questions, let us take up another story.
This story is called “The Light of the World.” I could have called it “Behold I Stand at the Door and Knock” or some other stained-glass window title, but I did not think of it and actually ’ ‘The Light of the Would’’ is better. It is about many things and you would be ill-advised to think it is a simple tale. It is really, no matter what you hear, a love letter to a whore named Alice who at the time of the story would have dressed out at around two hundred and ten pounds. Maybe more. And the point of it is that nobody, and that goes for you, Jack, knows how we were then from how we are now. This is worse on women than on us, until you look into the mirror yourself some day instead of looking at women all the time, and in writing the story I was trying to do something about it. But there are very few basic things you can do anything about. So I do what the French call constater. Look that up. That is what you have to learn to do, and you ought to learn French anyway if you are going to understand short stories, and there is nothing rougher than to do it all the way. It is hardest to do about women and you must not worry when they say there are no such women as those you wrote about. That only means your women aren’t like their women. You ever see any of their women, Jack? I have a couple of times and you would be appalled and I know you don’t appall easy.
What I learned constructive about women, not just ethics like never blame them if they pox you because somebody poxed them and lots of times they don’t even know they have It—that’s in the first reader for squares—is. no matter how they get, always think of them the way they were on the best day they ever had in their lives. That’s about all you can do about It and that is what I was trying for in the story.
Now there is another story called ’ ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” Jack, ] get a bang even yet from just writing the titles. That’s why you write, no matter what they tell you. I’m g!ad to be with somebody I know now and those feecking students have gone. They haven’t? Okay. Glad to have them with us. It is in you that our hope is. That’s the stuff to feed the troops. Students, at ease.
This is a simple story in a way, because the woman who I knew very well in real life but then invented out of to make the woman for this story, is a bitch for the full course and doesn’t change. You’ll probably never meet the type because you haven’t got the money. I haven’t either but I get around Now this woman doesn’t change. She has been better, but she will never be any better anymore. I invented her complete with handles from the worst bitch I knew (then) and when I first knew her she’d been lovely. Not my dish, not my pigeon not my cup of tea, but lovely for what she was and I was her all of the above which is whatever you make of it. This is as close as I can put it and keep it clean. This information is what you call the background of a story. You throw it all away and invent from what you know. I should have said that sooner That’s all there is to writing. That, a perfect ear-call it selective absolute pitch, the devotion to your work and respect for It that a priest of God has for his, and then have the guts of a burglar, no conscience except to writing, and you’re in gentlemen. It’s easy. Anybody can write if he is cut out for ix and applies himself. Never give it a thought. Just have those few requisites. I mean the way you have to write now to handle the way now is now. There was a time when it was nicer, much nicer and all that has been well written by nicer people. They are all dead and so are their times, but they handled them very well. Those times are over and writing like that won’t help you now.
But to return to this story. The woman called Margot Macomber is no good to anybody now except for trouble. You can bang her but that’s about all. The man is a nice jerk. I knew him very well in real life, so invent him too from everything I know. So he is just how he really was, only, he is invented. The White Hunter is my best friend and he does not care what I write as long as it is readable, so I don’t invent him at all. I just disguise him for family and business reasons, and to keep him out of trouble with the Game Department. He is the furthest thing from a square since they invented the circle, so I just have to take care of him with an adequate disguise and he is as proud as though we both wrote it, which actually you always do in anything if you go back far enough. So it is a secret between us. That’s all there is to that story except maybe the lion when he is hit and I am thinking inside of him really, not faked. I can think inside of a lion, really. It’s hard to believe and it is perfectly okay with me if you don’t believe it. Perfectly. Plenty of people have used it since, though, and one boy used it quite well, making only one mistake. Making any mistake kills you. This mistake killed him and quite soon everything he wrote was a mistake. You have to watch yourself. Jack, every minute, and the more talented you are the more you have to watch these mistakes because you will be in faster company. A writer who is not going all the way up can make all the mistakes he wants. None of it matters. He doesn’t matter. The people who like him don’t matter either. They could drop dead. It wouldn’t make any difference. It’s too bad. As soon as you read one page by anyone you can tell whether it matters or not. This is sad and you hate to do it. I don’t want to be the one that tells them. So don’t make any mistakes. You see how easy it is? Just go right in there and be a writer.
That about handles that story. Any questions? No, I don’t know whether she shot him on purpose any more than you do. I could find out if I asked myself because I invented it and I could go right on inventing. But you have to know where to stop. That is what makes a short story. Makes it short at least. The only hint I could give you is that it is my belief that the incidence of husbands shot accidentally by wives who are bitches and really work at it is very low. Should we continue?
If you are interested in how you get the idea for a story, this is how it was with “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” They have you ticketed and always try to make it that you are someone who can only write about their self. I am using in this lecture the spoken language, which varies. It is one of the ways to write, so you might as well follow it and maybe you will learn something. Anyone who can write can write spoken, pedantic, inexorably dull, or pure English prose, just as slot machines can be set for straight, percentage, give-away or stealing. No one who can write spoken ever starves except at the start. The others you can eat irregularly on. But any good writer can do them all. This is spoken, approved for over fourteen I hope. Thank you.
Anyway we came home from Africa, which is a place you stay until the money runs out or you get smacked, one year and at quarantine I said to the ship news reporters when somebody asked me what my projects were that I was going to work and when I had some more money go back to Africa. The different wars killed off that project and it took nineteen years to get back. Well it was in the papers and a really nice and really fine and really rich woman invited me to tea and we had a few drinks as well and she had read in the papers about this project, and why should I have to wait to go back for any lack of money? She and my wife and I could go to Africa any time and money was only something to be used intelligently for the best enjoyment of good people and so forth. It was a sincere and fine and good offer and I liked her very much and I turned down the offer.
So I get down to Key West and I start to think what would happen to a character like me whose defects I know, if I had accepted that offer. So I start to invent and I make myself a guy who would do what I invent. I know about the dying part because I had been through all that. Not just once. I got it early, in the middle and later. So I invent how someone I know who cannot sue me—that is me—would turn out, and put into one short story things you would use in, say, four novels if you were careful and not a spender. I throw everything I had been saving into the story and spend it all. I really throw it away, if you know what I mean. I am not gambling with it. Or maybe I am. Who knows? Real gamblers don’t gamble. At least you think they don’t gamble. They gamble, jack, don’t worry. So I make up the man and the woman as well as I can and I put all the true stuff in and with all the load, the most load any short story ever carried, it still takes off and it flies. This makes me very happy. So I thought that and the Macomber story are as good short stories as I can write for a while, so I lose interest and take up other forms of writing.
Any questions? The leopard? He is part of the metaphysics. I did not hire out to explain that nor a lot of other things. I know, but I am under no obligation to tell you. Put it down to omerta´. Look that word up. I dislike explainers, apologists, stoolies, pimps. No writer should be any one of those for his own work. This is just a little background. Jack, that won’t do either of us any harm. You see the point, don’t you? If not it is too bad.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t explain for, apologize for or pimp or tout for some other writer. I have done it and the best luck I had was doing it for Faulkner. When they didn’t know him in Europe, I told them all how he was the best we had and so forth and I over-humbled with him plenty and built him up about as high as he could go because he never had a break then and he was good then. So now whenever he has a few shots, he’ll tell students what’s wrong with me or tell Japanese or anybody they send him to, to build up our local product. I get tired of this but I figure what the hell he’s had a few shots and maybe he even believes it. So you asked me just now what I think about him, as everybody does and I always stall, so I say you know how good he is. Right. You ought to. What is wrong is he cons himself sometimes pretty bad. That may just be the sauce. But for quite a while when he hits the sauce toward the end of a book, it shows bad. He gets tired and he goes on and on, and that sauce writing is really hard on who has to read it. I mean if they care about writing. I thought maybe it would help if I read it using the sauce myself, but it wasn’t any help. Maybe it would have helped if I was fourteen. But I was only fourteen one year and then I would have been too busy. So that’s what I think about Faulkner. You ask that I sum it up from the standpoint of a professional. Very good writer. Cons himself now. Too much sauce. But he wrote a really fine story called “The Bear” and I would be glad to put it in this book for your pleasure and delight, if I had written it. But you can’t write them all, Jack.
It would be simpler and more fun to talk about other writers and what is good and what is wrong with them, as I saw when you asked me about Faulkner. He’s easy to handle because he talks so much for a supposed silent man. Never talk. Jack, if you are a writer, unless you have the guy write it down and have you go over it. Otherwise, they get it wrong. That’s what you think until they play a tape back at you. Then you know how silly it sounds. You’re a writer aren’t you? Okay, shut up and write. What was that question?