The Old Man and the Sea
by Ernest Hemingway
#I won’t say you have to be old to appreciate Ernest Hemingway’s 1952 classic, The Old Man and the Sea. But it certainly requires more wear and tear, more patience with imperfections, and more willingness to persevere in the face of inevitable disappointment than I could muster when first reading it in my teens.
I was interested to compare my recent re-reading of Old Man and the Sea to that of Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki adventure, discussed in my August 1 blog. Writing only a few years apart, both authors lovingly detail the sea they observed at close view -- Heyerdahl from atop his raft, Hemingway from the vantage of small fishing boats. Heyerdahl’s account brims with joy, Hemingway’s with resignation.
In his biography, Hemingway, the late Kenneth S. Lynn says The Old Man and the Sea was not only “a profoundly personal statement on the part of an author who was deathly afraid that he wasn’t any good any more, it expressed a collective mood of disillusionment no less surely than had (his first novel) The Sun Also Rises.”
For a United States immersed in conflict in Korea, with Second World War hero General Douglas MacArthur publicly fired and disgraced, “the American hero was perceived to have changed,” Lynn writes. “He was experienced, but older now. . . There was no longer any common agreement about what the meaning of winning was, so that no victory ever brought unalloyed satisfaction.”
Little wonder the old Cuban fisherman Santiago takes his own heroes, not from the ranks of soldiers or politicians, but from baseball, where winning is easier to define.
“Think of the great DiMaggio,” he says, setting out after eighty-four days without taking a single fish. But of the great marlin he catches, only the shark-ravaged skeleton will
remain to testify to his prowess by the time he reaches shore again.
The book was an immense popular and critical success, soon receiving the Pulitzer Prize. When rumors of the Nobel Prize circulated, Lynn reports Hemingway was pleased but also wary, telling a friend “no one who had ever won had ever written anything worth reading afterward.”
Hemingway had reason to fear. Although only in his early fifties, he realized too well his powers were fading. The Old Man and the Sea had been written as he worked on an intended trilogy of sea novels. In the end, it was the only portion he was willing to put his name on. Within the next decade, he would follow his father’s example and end his life, leaving his widow Mary to combine the previously unpublished works under the title Islands in the Stream.
Hemingway’s health prevented him from traveling to Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize, but he sent a statement which was read aloud at the awards banquet. “Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. . . (A writer) does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.”
(Next Wednesday Adventure classics continues a month at sea with Ursula LeGuin’s fantasy of a world covered with water, A Wizard of Earthsea.)