American Fugue: Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River”

Sepulveda Basin

Some scholarly-minded sorts have made a parlor game of trying to identify actual landmarks in Hemingway’s masterful short story, “Big Two-Hearted River.” They complain that the burnt town named as “Seney” in the tale is not really Seney, which never burned; and I have read serious discussions over what actual river posed for its portrait when Hemingway needed a model. The consensus of that long-ago discussion was that it was the Fox River, a few miles from the actual Big Two-Hearted River, both at least in Michigan.

None of this has the least relevance to the experience of reading this story. It is not a roman à clef; it is, rather, a fugue on the theme of re-integration, expressed entirely through a symbolism of quotidian observations.

Almost nothing happens. A young man gets off a train at a village that has burned in a wildfire. He lingers on a bridge over a river briefly, watching the trout swim in its shade. Then he walks a long way along a deserted dirt road to a fishing spot he knows. Once there, he makes camp and eats canned spaghetti. The next day he catches two fish. The story ends with him looking at the darkness that marks a swamp, and his acknowledgment that he would have plenty of time later to fish the swamp.

Yet the story has magisterial currents of its own that proceed through measured changes that would have made Bach proud. It is accepted now that the story is that of a young man who has just returned from devastating experiences during wartime–dealing with what was in effect post-traumatic stress disorder. Hemingway had been blown up by a mortar shell during World War One, and spent a long time recovering physically in Italian hospitals.

None of this is mentioned in the story. All we know is what Nick Adams sees, notes, and very occasionally comments on. The train lets him off at the abandoned town by pre-arrangement. Although the town is part of his past, there is nothing there any more. The only sign of life is the river and the trout hiding under the bridge. He hikes a long way through burned-over country, where there is no shade, no comfort. When he stops to rest, leaning his burden against a burned stump, he notes that the grasshoppers have turned black to match the new landscape. “He wondered how long they would stay that way.” The implication here does not need elaboration. He walks on in a natural solitude for a long way before he comes at last to living country, where the fire has not burned. In the distance he can see faint blue hills that mark Lake Superior, but only when he doesn’t look for them. Mostly he pays attention to the world close at hand. Each observation here, no matter how trivial, is an important note in the fugue. At last he comes to the part of the river where he will make camp and fish.

But before he does fish, he eats food that he carried with him: canned spaghetti and canned pork and beans, industrial products brought from the same civiliation that sent him to war. He says, in a line that is in a small way famous, “I’ve got a right to eat this kind of stuff, if I’m willing to carry it.” They are almost the only words he speaks out loud in the story.

He finishes with coffee, made in the manner an old comrade taught him, which brings on a musing about the old friend, Hopkins. Hopkins became rich in oil and left Nick and his other old friends forever. “The coffee was bitter. Nick laughed. It made a good ending to the story.”

The next day he fishes, using grasshoppers of the normal color for bait. Before he fishes, he makes breakfast. In another step away from civilization, he does not eat canned food this time, but makes buckwheat pancakes, which he eats with apple butter–the sort of dressing that it would be easy to make oneself. He makes onion sandwiches with slices of bread that he cuts himself from a coarse loaf. Only then does he fish. The story notes: “Nick did not like to fish with other men on the river. Unless they were of your party, they spoiled it.” This is perhaps the most obvious statement in the tale.

Nick is utterly alone. He fishes; he catches fish. There follows a long and engaging description of the actual fishing, one that has enthralled me for decades though I neither fish nor eat fish. He catches just enough trout to feed himself. The story implies that from then on he is fed directly from nature.

He views the swamp with trepidation. He knows he will have to wade deeper into the water to fish the swamp. He also knows that he will have to do it. He ends with the observation that he has plenty of time to fish in the deeper, darker waters of the swamp.

Even not knowing that the story refers back to the war, you feel that you have participated in a healing ritual. No more needs to be said than has been said. You do not hear the final chord, but you know what it will be.

And every word has value; every image is clear and just right. You do not need to analyze the story to enjoy it. You do not need to know why or how it makes you feel more alive in your own skin. You certainly do not need to have read this quick little exegesis. While you read it, it is part of you, just as music can be while you hear it.

The healing occurs even if you don’t know you are hurt.

Rick Risemberg