Saturday, September 8, 2012

This Day in Literary History (Hemingway’s ‘Old Man and the Sea’ Published)

September 8, 1952—Scribners’ fondest hopes for the novella The Old Man and the Sea were realized as soon as it was published. Life Magazine had sold 5.3 million copies when it published the full text the week before; the Book-of-the-Month Club made it a main selection; it remained on the bestseller list for half a year; and, most of all, it propelled author Ernest Hemingway, confronted with the worst reviews of his career only two years before, with the momentum to gain a long-denied Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize.

What few, if any, people realized at the time was that The Old Man and the Sea was not part of the author's revival, but another part of the evidence of his waning powers. It had been the only relatively useable part of a major endeavor he was nowhere close to completing. Hemingway was engaged in a creative project and personal struggle that, in its immensity, was similar to one engaging another American literary titan, Eugene O’Neill. The parallels are startling and tragic:
*   *Both the playwright and the novelist, at the height of their fame and ferocious self-discipline, had embarked on what would have been the most ambitious works of their remarkable careers. From 1935 to 1939, O’Neill worked feverishly on what he expected to be an 11-play cycle, to be performed on 11 consecutive nights, about the corruption of a single New England family across several generations, “A Tale of Possessors Self-Dispossessed." In the 1940s, Hemingway planned a massive “Land, Sea and Air Trilogy.” 

·         *Both O’Neill and Hemingway, in the midst of their labors, suffered severe physical and psychic declines. By the early 1940s, O’Neill’s worsening hand tremor was (mistakenly) diagnosed as Parkinson’s. The neurological disease (not correctly diagnosed until an autopsy was conducted) left him unable even to hold a pencil. Though death did not claim him until 1953, he had, in effect, given up almost a decade before. Hemingway’s bad health did not trace to a single devastating medical condition, such as O’Neill’s, but rather a constellation of them: weight gain, high blood pressure, two concussions from head injuries as a WWII correspondent, edena, high cholesterol, arteriosclerosis, and cirrhosis of the liver.

·        * Both O’Neill and Hemingway saw their creative output fall in the 1940s. The one O’Neill play to make it to Broadway, The Iceman Cometh, closed quickly in the middle of the decade. Otherwise, American theater largely ignored the man who had virtually single-handedly brought it to maturity in the early 1920s. After For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), Hemingway did not publish another novel until Across the River and Into the Trees a decade later. The latter was considered so bad that it verged on self-parody.

·        *  Both O’Neill and Hemingway could only complete a small portion of their massive projects. By 1939, O’Neill abruptly ceased the obsessive pursuit of his play cycle, having only completed one work, A Touch of the Poet, to his satisfaction. He then concentrated on Long Day’s Journey Into Night and The Iceman Cometh. He nearly destroyed all the work he had struggled to complete, with only Touch of the Poet and More Stately Mansions surviving either accidentally or in defiance of instructions to his widow to  burn it. As for Hemingway, he had abandoned his massive project by 1951, after a five-year struggle that produced more than 1,000 pages. But the diamond-hard concentration that had enabled him to crack the ending to A Farewell to Arms, after more than 70 attempts, was missing. What was eventually mined from the trilogy was Islands in the Stream, heavily edited and published nine years after his death, and The Old Man and the Sea.
           * Both O’Neill and Hemingway grew estranged from their children and at odds with their wives. O’Neill’s last years were darkened by the suicide of one son, the emotional instability of a second, and his estrangement from daughter Oona for marrying the much older Charlie Chaplin. Quarrels with wife Carlotta, once his muse, now his caregiver, grew so bitter that at one point only a stranger’s intervention saved the playwright from abandonment. Hemingway’s relations with his family took a similar turn. A year before publication of The Old Man and the Sea, the arrest of youngest son Gregory led to a shouting match between the writer and the youth’s mother, Hemingway's second wife, Pauline, who suffered a fatal heart attack after getting off the phone. A series of letters escalating in acrimony led to father and son not seeing each other for the last decade of the author’s life. His fourth wife Mary had come close to leaving him over his escalating humiliations, including public insults and parading before her and a visiting cousin a young prostitute. By the end of the decade, the woman who had once hoped to bear another child of his had devolved into more like his full-time nurse.

Over the years, opinions concerning The Old Man and the Sea have become far more divided than they were at the time of its release. It has become the de facto first exposure that early teens have to Hemingway. Its material can be taught (e.g., Christian symbolism), without running afoul of contemporary attitudes toward women, Jews or gays the way that the more tautly written The Sun Also Rises does. Rough language and the depiction of sexuality that in some quarters make The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls fodder for the culture wars are also missing. Nor is there the need to explain World War I and the Spanish Civil War that would help students truly understand these three novels.

When I first read The Old Man and the Sea in the eighth grade, I didn’t care for it much; it seemed so obvious. It would take several years later before I understood what Hemingway could be at his best. The magical aura surrounding his early books is surely part of what led a number of critics in 1952 to want a return to form from him, in much the same way that every once in awhile, afictionados of Bob Dylan have hailed flickering flashes of form (e.g., Oh Mercy in 1988) as revivals of the genius that probably last appeared unmistakably in Blood on the Tracks.

And yet, I don’t think it’s fair to leave The Old Man and the Sea entirely in the hands of biographer Kenneth Lynn, who asked peevishly how a book “that lapses repeatedly into lachrymose sentimentality and is relentlessly pseudo-Biblical…[could] have evoked such a storm of applause from highbrows and middlebrows alike—and in such overwhelming numbers?”

British novelist (A Clockwork Orange) Anthony Burgess calls the novel “a small masterpiece.” I'm not sure I would go that far, but it is an honorable work, and it contains some of his purest examples of lean, powerful prose, including this passage:

“The line rose slowly and steadily and then the surface of the ocean bulged ahead of the boat and the fish came out. He came out unendingly and water poured from his sides. He was bright in the sun and his head and back were dark purple and in the sun the stripes on his side showed wide and a light lavender. His sword was as long as a baseball bat and tapered like a rapier and he rose his full length from the water and then re-entered it, smoothly, like a diver and the old man saw the great scythe-blade of his tail go under and the line commenced to race out."

There was, finally, the message of the novel.The Cuban fisherman Santiago must first overcome the self-doubt that has crept in after more than 80 days without a catch, then summon the experience of a lifetime to haul in a large marlin. Then, he must cope with the loss of the great fish, whose blood on the open seas attract sharks that consume it before the fisherman can bring the catch to shore. (The sharks, in their predatory fashion, have reminded more than a few of Hemingway's critics.) Santiago might be a simpler character than Jake Barnes, Frederic Henry, or Robert Jordan, but like them he is a proud loser in the face of overwhelming fate. 

So, for all his fame, friends, women, and material success, was the author who created these fictional manifestations of himself. Maybe the only way he could continue to survive as long as he did, given his mounting physical and mental ills, was to repeat to himself the novella’s most memorable line, one that thousands of readers worldwide have embraced as their own credo: “A man can be destroyed, but not defeated.”

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