Friday, November 20, 2009

Forgotten Books: The Nick Adams Stories - Ernest Hemingway

Does anybody read Ernest Hemingway anymore? Is his work still taught in school, or has he gone the way of so many other Dead White Males? I read “Big Two-Hearted River” (which is in this collection) and THE SUN ALSO RISES for high school classes back in the Sixties, but I was already a Hemingway fan and eventually read just about everything he wrote.

And even though I’d read some of the stories separately, I read this collection when it came out in 1972. Like Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, Hemingway’s stories about his sort-of alter ego Nick Adams weren’t written and published in chronological order, so whoever put together THE NICK ADAMS STORIES set out to rearrange them and include some material that wasn’t published in Hemingway’s lifetime to form a somewhat coherent narrative of Nick’s life. While in general I’m not sure that sort of thing is a good idea (L. Sprague De Camp did the same thing with the Conan stories, which as it turns out are much more effective if read in the order in which Howard wrote them, as the recent Del Rey editions have proven), the end result here is to make the stories read more like an episodic novel, and it works very well. Some of them, as the preface points out, make a lot more sense this way.

Of course, the stories are good anyway, no matter in which order you read them. Included are classics like “The Light of the World” (which has one of the all-time great opening paragraphs), “The Killers”, and “Big Two-Hearted River”. The previously unpublished material includes the novella-length “The Last Good Country”, which unfortunately ends in the middle of the action, as if Hemingway couldn’t figure out where to go from there. What we have of the story is really good, though, and it’s a shame he never finished it because it could have been a classic hardboiled adventure yarn.

I had a good time rereading this book, although I did notice one thing. It may be better not to read too many Hemingway stories back to back, because his style is so distinctive that after a while it starts to seem a little like a parody of itself. That’s a minor complaint, though. THE NICK ADAMS STORIES is one of the best books I’ve read this year and one that I highly recommend.

19 comments:

pattinase (abbott) said...

This is my favorite Hemingway-somehow his larger than life persona has not crept in here.

Frank Loose said...

I believe Hemingway is still read in H.S. I have a volume of his collected short stories which featured many Nick Adams titles. I liked Heminway's s.s. more than his books, though The Old Man and the Sea is still worth reading and rereading, IMO.

When my children were young we used to drive 14 hours to the Florida Keys every summer for vacation. During that long drive, my wife would read Old Man aloud to us. It stirs up special memories as i reflect back on that. It can be exciting when the fiction-reading experience and real life intersect to make both all the more rewarding.

Charles Gramlich said...

I don't think he's read in school that much anymore but I still read him. Love a lot of his work.

James Reasoner said...

Frank,

I love it when I can remember where and under what circumstances I read a particular book. Those are special ones.

Ed Gorman said...

Patti said it very well. Before he became the pompous windbag bullshit artist known as Papa Hemingway wrote some excellent stories. "A Clean Well-Lighted Place" is still one of the finest stories about death I've ever read. In fact, I'd say that of the so-called First Fifty there are only a few that are poor. "Soldier's Home" speaks to all wars and all soldiers. And "Indian Camp" is an exemplary piece of writing. It's ironic that Fitzgerald helped get him his first real publisher, Scribners and he then proceeded to diss and diminish Fitzgerald the rest of Fitzgerald's life. Now Fitzgerald is considered the best of his generation, not Hemingway. I don't take any pleasure in saying this. I think Hemingway changed American prose for the better. But he was a poor novelist and a ridiculous exponent of the ridiculous pose called machismo. Hard to think of a sadder writer's life than Hemingways' last few years. Sixty electro shock treatments was it? And he still killed himself anyway.

Laurie Powers said...

In one of my first creative writing classes in college, I asked my professor (who I still hold in very high regard) what Hemingway he recommended. He simply said "The Nick Adams Stories." Nuff said.

David Cranmer said...

The Nick Adams Stories followed by this one:

http://davidcranmer.blogspot.com/2008/08/fridays-forgotten-books-moveable-feast.html

is at the top of my Ernesto list. As a matter of fact I've written a series of stories about a guy named Henry that’s similar to Adams. Yeah, trying to write like Papa. How foolish. Bottom line: I'm a big fan.

Evan Lewis said...

Read some of these here and there long ago, but never encountered a whole book of them. About time, I reckon.

Richard Prosch said...

Who else but Hemingway could keep you interested in campfire cooking and making onion sandwiches for a third of two stories ("Big Two-Hearted River, Part One" and "...Part Two").

I think Robert B. Parker brings Hemingway directly on stage any time Spenser is in the kitchen.

Graham Powell said...

I used to be a big fan of Hemingway, and I guess I still am, but I read his major novels and collected stories years ago and haven't gone back. "The Light of the World" is a terrific story, and I have a theory that it inspired "The Boxer" by Simon and Garfunkel.

George said...

Hemingway's short stories are his best work. The novels are uneven and dated. You're right about reading too much Hemingway in one sitting. The style begins to detract from the story-telling.

Todd Mason said...

Thirty years ago, the HS nod would probably have gone (and did go in my HS in Honolulu) to THE SNOWS OF KILIMANJARO. But THE GREAT GATSBY was already in place, too.

Can't speak for now.

Hemingway, Hammett, Heinlein, and Bloch...who was closest to comparable in bringing lean, contemporary, engaged prose to, say, western fiction at about that time?

James Reasoner said...

Todd,

I can't think of any Western authors from that era comparable to the ones you mention. Luke Short's prose is pretty lean. Not specifically Western, but for the pulps H. Bedford-Jones' writing was also fairly terse.

James Reasoner said...

The only Hemingway novel I've read more than once is THE SUN ALSO RISES, but I've read it about five times and probably could again. Something about that book just works for me.

And I stole the ending of it for a Longarm, too, if you can imagine that. (I mean I, uh, paid homage to it, of course. No stealing. Paid homage. Yeah, that's what it was.)

Iren said...

I read some of the Adams stories because they were set in the UP (as I recall)-- but in high school (were talking late 80s) we only read one of his short stories in the 20th century portion of American Lit. The speech went something like this "when you get to college all you are going to read is dead white males---". Of course the speech in college was "in high school all you read were dead white males--" So I had to make up a lot of that on my own.

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

I read the Nick Adams stories way back when. I was much impressed by the way he described a man fishing for trout.

Rittster said...

Iren wrote: "When you get to college all you are going to read is dead white males."

As a character in a Robert Bloch story might say, "Some of my best friends are dead white males."

Michael Hemmingson said...

Hemingway is still a major force in literature and commerce -- his estate brings in hundreds of thousands in royalties every year, as does Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, and Wolfe. Mainly because he, and others, are still taught in every university and even high school.

Every year there are new Hemingway studies, and there is the annual journal, THE HEMINGWAY REVIEW (which I have an essay in the 2009 issue, shameless plug here, about Gordon Lish publishing an excerpt of ISLANDS N THE STREAM in Esquire in 1970). The International hemingway Society has their annual convention, stand alone as well as panels at the other literature froohahah.

I wrote a few short essays on the Nick Adams stories for the journal, THE EXPLICATOR. One of these days I may do a book on Hemingway interpretation from the lens of self-psychology.

Michael Hemmingson said...

Ed Gorman said it well on the windbag...and after you win the Nobel Prize, how do you top that?

I believe Hemingway wrote his best work when he was in his 20s -- may of these stories, In Out Time, The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, Men Without Women. Why? because he was still struggling to either publish or make a name for himself. When he wrote those books, he was the up and coming young writer, not the institute he later became. Those works have the purity of a writer aiming to do the best he can to get the attention of publishers and readers. Before his first book sale, In Our Time which fetched a mere $1200 advance from Boni & Liveright, he was working as a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star and publishing in the small magazines out of Europe. I think the initial advance on Sun Also Rises was like $3000, which was okay for the 1920s, about $10K in today's money, which tends to be the average advance on hardcovernovels these days (at least for me, my biggest advance has been $25,000 and that was for an anthology, not a novel!)