Thursday, September 8, 2011

A man, a boy, a fish: Hemingway's final triumph

Today marks the anniversary of the publication of The Old Man and the Sea, released in book form by Charles Scribner's Sons for $3 a copy in 1952.  Though these types of "birthdays" are arbitrary and artificial, they do give us reason to pause and reflect on the people, things and events which have shaped our culture.  And, in this case, if you've never read The Old Man and the Sea, it gives you a convenient excuse to finally crack open what many regard as Ernest Hemingway's masterpiece. It's short enough that you can read it in one sitting while everyone else is in the other room eating the marlin-shaped birthday cake.

Hemingway's slimmest novel certainly qualifies as a culture-shaper.  No matter how you feel about the man's work and reputation, whether you think he was the greatest or most overrated writer of the mid-20th century, it's hard to deny the powerful craft we find in the opening paragraphs of The Old Man and the Sea:
      He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But after forty days without a fish the boy's parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week. It made the boy sad to see the old man come in each day with his skiff empty and he always went down to help him carry either the coiled lines or the gaff and harpoon and the sail that was furled around the mast. The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat.
      The old man was thin and gaunt with deep wrinkles in the back of his neck. The brown blotches of the benevolent skin cancer the sun brings from its reflection on the tropic sea were on his cheeks. The blotches ran well down the sides of his face and his hands had the deep-creased scars from handling heavy fish on the cords. But none of these scars were fresh. They were as old as erosions in a fishless desert.
      Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated. 
I particularly love those three symbolic images Hemingway uses to close each paragraph: the permanently-defeated sail, the scars like erosions "in a fishless desert," the eyes like the "cheerful and undefeated" sea.  These are the sentences around which entire graduate-school theses can be written.  They are further proof that, at the most elemental level, Hemingway's words were as fine and potent as distilled whiskey.

Spencer Tracy and his Moby Dick in the 1958 film

The Old Man and the Sea came late in the writer's career when many readers and critics thought his best books had already been published.  The previous novel, Across the River and Into the Trees in 1950, was largely panned by critics and hadn't sold well.  Hemingway was living in Cuba at the time and had begun work on an epic novel about the sea, but he couldn't quite get it right. So he decided to publish a small piece of it which he called The Old Man and the Sea in the September 1, 1952 issue of Life magazine.  You could have picked up a copy at the newsstand for 20 cents on that day, taken it home to read, and been transformed by the fable-like story of a man, a boy, and a giant fish.

The novel was Hemingway's final triumph.  He would never publish another book before his suicide in 1961.

But what a final blast of the trumpet it is.  The Old Man and the Sea won the Pulitzer Prize, and two years later, Hemingway won the Nobel Prize. I particularly like what he had to say in his acceptance speech:
Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer's loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day. For a true writer each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed. How simple the writing of literature would be if it were only necessary to write in another way what has been well written. It is because we have had such great writers in the past that a writer is driven far out past where he can go, out to where no one can help him.
I like to think of writers (myself included) wandering in fishless deserts--hoping, waiting, longing for the right words to show up.  Sometimes, as in Hemingway's case, they arrive at an oasis, drop their line in the pool of miraculous water, and land a big one.

1 comment:

  1. A few years ago my apartment was robbed. The usual things were stolen, and one book - The Old Man and the Sea.