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Ann Charters edits The Story and its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction. The new Compact Tenth Edition is now available.
It’s always good news when a major work of literature becomes “P.D.” (in the public domain). Almost forty years ago, when I compiled the first edition of The Story and Its Writer, Hemingway’s reputation was such that the amount of money it cost to obtain permission to include one of his short stories in an anthology was determined by the number of words in the story. The lengthy “Big Two-Hearted River” was rarely anthologized. Now that it has entered the public domain, I predict that we will see it included in many short story collections as an example of his finest writing.
Hemingway’s story became so well-known since its initial publication in 1925 that, thirty-five years later, it inspired the San Francisco writer Richard Brautigan to write his spoof “The Cleveland Wrecking Yard,” reimagining the idyllic landscape of “The Big Two-Hearted River” despoiled in a junk yard in Brautigan’s own city. More than a half-century later, we can still find Brautigan’s yard as he described it. I know that whenever I want, I can pay a visit to something like it in a so-called “antique store” close to where I live in rural Connecticut.
Why was Nature in such a serious state of decline during the years between Hemingway and Brautigan’s time? An alert reader of “Big Two-Hearted River” can spot the compulsive and ecologically destructive behavior in Nick Adams’ actions after he jumps off the train to fish the trout-teeming stream. In the story, Nick, of course, is Hemingway’s persona. In A Moveable Feast, he wrote that “the story was about coming back from the war [World War One] but there was no mention of the war in it.” The critic Jackson Benson wrote that like much of Hemingway’s fiction at that time, the narrative was dream-like, “a compulsive nightmare,” steaming from the author’s experience of trauma after being wounded on the Italian front at the age of nineteen when a mortar exploded between his legs.
As I read “Big Two-Hearted River,” I recognized that an aspect of Nick’s traumatized behavior is his addiction to canned comfort food. He has filled his backpack with canned goods. He carries a can opener as one of his essential tools. His eyes and his stomach delight in the sight of his red-hot frying pan over the campfire, and in the smell of its bubbling, sizzling mixture of cooked macaroni and beans dumped from two of these cans.
Nick may be a scrupulously disciplined trout fisherman, but he has a fatal flaw as a human being. His emotional dependence on his immediate gratification from the carbohydrate-rich, heavily salted, sugar loaded, prepared food produced by factories operating in his over-industrialized society eventually will contribute, in the following centuries, to the ecological disaster mankind has made of our forests and trout streams and our entire planet. Probably Nick has responsibly disposed of his empty tin cans when he left his camp, but how many eons must pass before they bio-degrade? Does the later creation of the National Wildlife Refuge in Seney, Michigan – the location of Hemingway’s story – compensate for his ecological damage?
Zora Neale Hurston’s story “The Country in the Woman” is also a comparatively early American story that is new to this edition of The Story and Its Writer. Published nearly a century ago and rescued from oblivion by a Hurston scholar after its initial appearance in 1927 in the Pittsburgh Courier, it is far less troubling than Hemingway’s long story. Hurston is at her finest when championing the underdog. Without spoiling this resurrected story for the reader by describing it, I merely say that we find the author at her best here.
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