Words don’t come easily; reading this collection of short stories, I discovered beauty and I unearthed unpleasant attitudes toward others, both express and implied, which I can’t ignore. The book is not exclusively beautiful or exclusively ugly; it’s both.
The collection contains finely crafted scenes in which every bird, tree, or blade of grass is a meditation, and sometimes Nick Adams is characterized as a boy, youth, and man with strengths and insecurities, who loves and trusts his father, his little sister, and his friends very deeply. There are frequent references to Michigan cities and lakes “up north,” in Petoskey, Charlevoix and the Upper Peninsula. I recognized a discussion of the World Series (“he can hit . . . but he loses ball games”) as a conversation which could have occurred between members of my family of origin, all of whom spent the majority of their lives in Michigan.
This thoughtful writing is juxtaposed with explicit racism and implicit, pervasive misogyny, and the existence of beauty and repugnance in one volume is at the root of the struggle to express my thoughts cohesively.
People of color and Ojibwe inhabitants of northwest Michigan are depicted as stereotypes and referred to in derogatory terms. With one or two exceptions, women are barely characterized at all; most of them are cardboard cutouts: sex workers (not the term Hemingway uses), mother, wife, sister. Nick Adams’ sister, age eleven, is the only female who has more than a couple of sentences of dialogue. In contrast to the lovingly painted nature scenes and the interaction between Nick and his sister, the passages demonstrating Hemingway’s bigotry flatten the story – because he is describing flat characters, reduced to a type rather than fully-developed individuals.
Would I read more from this author? No, I don’t think so. I might revisit “Big Two-Hearted River” to reflect again on Nick’s hike in the wilderness between the burned-out town of Seney (I’ve been there) and a river which holds limitless trout – but that’s probably the extent of my time with Hemingway.
If you are interested in learning what others have to say about Hemingway’s attitudes toward people who were not like him (he was noted also for his anti-Semitism and homophobia), just google his name along with your word of choice – or maybe “xenophobia” would cover all bases.