Reading Hemingway for the First Time, Part 3


In celebration of The Letters of Ernest Hemingway, Volume 1, we asked Hemingway enthusiasts and scholars what their first experience with Hemingway was, and how he came to make a place in their hearts and minds. Our series on first Hemingway experiences concludes today with John Sanford, son of Marcelline Hemingway Sanford and nephew of Ernest, and Anton Baer.

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“The first Hemingway that I read was his short story Indian Camp. I was about 14 years old on a summer vacation at our family cottage on Walloon Lake. I immediately recognized the site of the “camp” and I closely identified with Nick Adams and his father.

That story led me to read all of the Nick Adams stories. I was deeply moved by the beauty of Big Two-Hearted River, especially since I had ridden my bike on a camping trip in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and went right through the town where Nick got off the train.

I was surprised how much Hemingway’s stories stirred me emotionally and how simple and poetic were his sentences and rhythms. Later in high school and college I tackled A Farewell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises, To Have and to Have Not and For Whom the Bell Tolls. As part of my English comprehensive senior exams we were asked to comment on and analyze a selection of the inter-passages from “In Our Time.” I immediately recognized the source and wrote a “brilliant” analysis. (Anyway, I passed the exam.)

I was totally unimpressed by Across the River and into the Trees but completely captivated by The Old Man and the Sea, A Moveable Feast and Islands in the Stream. Garden of Eden left me confused and I forgave Hemingway for not finishing it. We are planning a trip to Africa in September 2012 and it will be time to re-read The Green Hills of Africa, The Snows of Kilimanjaro and True at First Light. I still think his early work was his best. Hemingway’s Michigan stories speak to me in a close bond with the land and with the characters.

I became overwhelmed by Hemingway’s talents and put aside my writing dreams to pursue a mundane business career. Now, in retirement, my confidence has returned and I am writing my story in a family memoir, The Going Home Voyage, a Hemingway Odyssey. That voyage ended on a powerful synchronistic note. After 13 months, on a voyage that started with Leicester Hemingway helping me find my yacht in Florida, the date we sailed home under the Golden Gate Bridge would have been Ernest Hemingway’s 80th birthday. It was truly a Hemingway odyssey that also included visits with two of Hemingway’s sisters and the tracing of some incredible family stories with other Hemingway relatives.”

John E. Sanford

“I first heard of Hemingway in high school English class and read him the same hour. It was a bitterly cold day and I had walked to school in the dark punching through hard-crusted snow, and it was still dark out when the teacher, Gord Yakimow, leaning against the corner of his desk, in this beautifully warm and clean and well-lighted classroom, began talking about this writer, Ernest Hemingway. His apologetic tone, his fidgeting and grimacing made me sit up, not something I normally did in English class. As a science student, I had no interest in ‘literature’. Only physics was serious, and science fiction was the only thing worth reading seriously. But this vaguely embarrassing, bearded, elder Hemingway who had killed himself…. As the snow outside the classroom got brighter, we turned the pages of the short-story reader to ‘Cross-Country Snow’, and read it quietly on our own. Every Hemingway reader knows it: the funicular bucked once, then stopped. Knees flexed, toes pushed into clamps on skis. The downhill rush was perfectly true to the sensations of skiing. By the end of the story my physics career had ended too, though it took another three or four years for that truth to sink in. Hemingway’s seriousness was so much more serious. It wasn’t just the accuracy of the kinetics of the skiing, the crispness of the snow and the scene later in the Swiss inn where they drank wine and looked forward to the run home, though; there was male friendship in the story, as there would be in the rest of Hemingway’s writing. The older George looked out for the younger, injured Nick, and admired him too. George liked the way Nick skied, and probably other things. So much was unsaid, off-stage. And there was wanderlust…. ‘Cross-country snow’ – all the years since I have wondered what it meant. I think it means the subtle promise that wherever you go in this world, you can find the snow you want to ski in… That all the world is yours, if you want it and know how to navigate it, if you can learn to read the signs. (Nick rebukes himself for not noticing that the Swiss waitress was pregnant) …. The next text in the reader was a poem by a famous Canadian writer about buying a loaf of bread in a country store. It was actually her husband who got out of the car to buy the bread – a sign over the steps may have said, ‘White Bread Up Here’. The author, serious writer, stayed in the car, observing, vivisecting. It was so lifeless…. Consequence: I took a half-hearted science degree and left Canada for Europe. It was all Hemingway. A great teacher. An invisible friend.

Anton Baer

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