Green Hills of Africa, an uncharacteristic foray into literary nonfiction by Ernest Hemingway, was published in October 1935 by Scribners. Despite its author’s belief that it was his best work to date, it sold only moderately and received decidedly mixed reviews.
Eighty years later, this remains a relatively undervalued work for this author far more acclaimed for his novels and short stories. English majors—and especially casual readers of Hemingway—are less likely to read this book than his short stories or the novels that form the bedrock of his reputation: The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Old Man and the Sea. In fact, if they are familiar with any aspects of its contents at all, it is likely to be several pages in the first chapter when the writer opines on the American literary tradition to that point, especially one quote that has become a favorite of professors of English in the years since: “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn….There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”
In 1959, an admirer of Hemingway, Norman Mailer, produced Advertisements for Myself, a collection of picked-up pieces essential to establishing the younger writer’s brilliant but often bumptious persona. He would continue in that vein with The Armies of the Night. But Hemingway had anticipated him, for better or worse, by a generation, both in what some have called "creative nonfiction" and in crafting his own legend.
In his 1954 Nobel Prize-winning lecture, Hemingway observed that with each new book, a true writer “should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed.” In the case of Green Hills, he observed in a short note to the reader when it was first published, he wanted “to see whether the shape of a country and the pattern of a month’s action can, if truly presented, compete with a work of the imagination.”
Another phrase in that note, that the author wanted to create “an absolutely true book,” presents challenges better appreciated by a reader of our time than his. The rise of creative nonfiction in the last two decades has brought to the fore how many liberties with the facts were taken, for instance, by John Steinbeck in Travels With Charlie, Joe Mitchell with Joe Gould’s Secret, and James Frey with A Million Little Pieces. The question becomes especially acute with Hemingway.
Some time after her divorce from the novelist, his third wife, the journalist Martha Gellhorn, exclaimed, while being driven through his leafy suburban hometown of Oak Park, Ill., and having his comfortable Victorian childhood home pointed out to her: “The son of a bitch! He told me he lived in a slum!” His posthumous memoir of starting out in 1920s Paris, A Moveable Feast, included dialogue with people in no position to contradict what he wrote, including the dead (Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald) or those too young to remember (his five-year-old son John, or “Bumby”). Throughout his career, Hemingway’s fiction sprang from actuality, while actuality shaded into fiction. It’s an open question if he could distinguish between the two by the end of his life.
In this particular account of big-game hunting with his second wife, Pauline, and some companions in Africa in 1934, Hemingway gives pseudonyms to two real-life “characters” to whom the book is dedicated: Philip Percival, a famous British hunter (called “Pop”); and Key West buddy Charles Thompson (“Karl”). But that’s not the end of his distortions of reality. Hemingway also downplayed an attack of dysentery bad enough that it required him to be flown out of the area for treatment. We also know, from Pauline’s diary entries (included in a new edition of Green Hills) that the author's rifle fell off a car and fired. (Though he did not include the latter scene in this extended nonfiction, Hemingway used it as the climax for the short story “The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber.”) And did the windy, boozy campfire scenes transpire with so many bon mots on his part?
On the other hand, there is a base reality that Hemingway does reveal. With enough alcohol in his system, he exhibits what he calls “the braggies” before his African guides. Elsewhere in the account, before his English-speaking companions, he becomes quarrelsome, boorish and hypercompetitive to the point of jealousy.
Perhaps contemporary critics reacted against this often unattractive figure. In a 2011 interview with Salon, Hemingway biographer Paul Hendrickson (Hemingway’s Boat) noted, “Why did he write that book rather than a pure novel about Africa? I think in some sense he began to understand that he was losing some fictional power.”
It says something about the inner forces that consumed Hemingway—problems with drinking and depression that, as I explained in a prior post, bedeviled at least four generations of his family—that he might have feared “losing some fictional power” at a point when he was at, or not far removed from, his physical, emotional, and creative peak. The 20th-century answer to Lord Byron, he possessed critical laurels, brisk sales, numerous male friends, women who fell for him, fame, and a penchant for thrusting himself into extreme situations, notably wars.
Green Hills of Africa posed literary, as opposed to physical, dangers for Hemingway. In his novels, he could write from the façades of Jake Barnes and Lt. Frederic Henry, who, despite their frequent cynicism and the interests they share with the author (bullfighting, fishing, male camaraderie), earn reader sympathy as proud losers.
In contrast, the chief character of Green Hills—the author—is not a proud loser but a proud winner, yet another Great White Hunter intent on bagging the beasts that will confirm his masculine prowess; possessor of a wife (P.O.M., or “poor Old Momma”) he helpfully tells the reader is “desirable”; and peddler of an entirely new nickname that will only underscore his standing: “Poppa” "(or, as it would later be refined into, "Papa"--a moniker that the late CBS grump Andy Rooney, who met Hemingway as a war correspondent in WWII, would later speak of disdainfully).
Maybe it was this stance as a winner that would enrage Hemingway so much about Fitzgerald's devastating revelation of what the latter termed “emotional bankruptcy” in the novel Tender Is the Night (1934) and several 1936 Esquire Magazine essays that were eventually assembled into the posthumous The Crack-Up (1945). Hemingway, at his wisecracking worst, wrote his onetime friend and advocate that readers did not care to hear about a writer’s troubles.
It is a fair bet, however, that most modern readers would rather hear about Fitzgerald the failure than Hemingway the success. Particularly when compared with today’s tell-all memoirs of dysfunction, Fitzgerald’s reflections are not specific in recounting the events and people—notably, wife Zelda’s plunge into mental illness—that drained his fortunes and faith in himself.
In contrast, Hemingway goes on and on about himself so much than many readers are likely to find him insufferable. He has not only to bag big game himself, but to bring down a bigger beast than his friend Karl. As the white man on safari, he tends to lord it over the local guides, including one he dismisses as a strutting actor, giving rise to the nickname “Garrick”. At one point, even with one guide that he likes, he becomes so enraged at him for not cleaning his rifle that he holds the weapon up wordlessly—and even the writer’s later announcement that all is right with them again is not enough to overcome the contempt exhibited so brazenly.
None of this is to say that Hemingway had lost any of his considerable gifts. His sensual delight in nature rises to a kind of lean, athletic lyricism here ("It was a green, pleasant country, with hills below the forest that grew thick on the side of a mountain, and it was cut by the valleys of several watercourses that came down out of the thick timber on the mountain.") And what his father had taught him years before when he was a youngster on doing things the right way is reflected here in passages on the importance of gear and how to wait and hunt for one's quarry. But it was also true that a discordant note had begun to ring more loudly in Hemingway's prose, and it was picked up on.
Critic Harold Bloom identified precisely the qualities that made Hemingway’s voice so revolutionary in the early phase of his career: “stoic, grave, eloquent, economical, very American.” If style can be thought of as the union of sense and sensibility, it cannot go unnoticed that all but one of the adjectives used by Bloom—“economical”— relate to sensibility.
Hemingway only dimly understood the true nature of the danger that faced him in Africa. It wasn’t from a bull or lion that could maul him, but rather from the larger-than-life persona that increasingly weakened the power of his voice.