Ernest Hemingway's "Big Two Hearted River"
“Big Two Hearted River,” published in 1925.
Written after the Great War and published in 1925 as part of Hemingway’s In Our Time collection, “Big Two-Hearted River” takes place off of a railway line near Seney, in the forests of northern Michigan a year or two after the end of World War I.
The only character in this story is Nick Adams, who we know from previous tales in the Nick Adams series. He has recently returned from the War and its unimaginable and thus unspeakable horrors.
Nick goes to a river in these northern pine and riparian woods, where he grew up as a boy, planning to camp and fish. As the story begins, he is dropped off in an abandoned logging town that has been burned to the ground and then he sees the forest and its adjacent river a mile away.
human connections to the landscape
From the time he had gotten down off the train and the baggage man had thrown his pack out of the open car door things had been different. Seney was burned, the country was burned over and changed, but it did not matter. It could not all be burned. He hiked along the road, sweating in the sun, climbing to cross the range of hills that separated the railway from the pine plains.
Ahead of him, as far as he could see, was the pine plain. The burned country stopped off at the left of a range of hills. All ahead islands of dark pine trees rose out of the plain. Far off to the left was the line of the river. Nick followed it with his eye and caught glints of the water in the sun.
There was nothing but the pine plain ahead of him, until the far blue hills that marked the Lake Superior height of land. He could hardly see them faint and far away in the heat-light over the plain. If he looked too steadily they were gone. But if he only half-looked they were there, the far-off hills of the height of land.
He did not need to get his map out. He knew where he was from the position of the river.
A kingfisher flew up the stream. It was a long time since Nick had looked into a stream and seen trout. They were very satisfactory. As the shadow of the kingfisher moved up the stream, a big trout shot upstream in a long angle, only his shadow marking the angle, then lost his shadow as he came through the surface of the water, caught the sun, and then, as he went back into the stream under the surface, his shadow seemed to float down the stream with the current unresisting, to his post under the bridge where he tightened facing up into the current.
Nick's heart tightened as the trout moved. He felt all the old feeling. He turned and looked down the stream. It stretched away, pebbly-bottomed with shallows and big boulders and a deep pool as it curved away around the foot of a bluff.
"'Go on, hopper, 'Nick said, speaking out loud for the first time. 'Fly away somewhere.'
He tossed the grasshopper up into the air and watched him sail away to a charcoal stump across the road."
Contrast of open spent land
rich, densely tangled, woodland and swamp
river is cold, forbidding, swift, home to the trout bearer of life, refuge and respite
a retreat into the uncontrollable river, forested banks, and the world of insects, birds and fish -- in spite of the railway that gets us there as it runs through a ruined landscape of burned trees and stumps where the grass hoppers thrive.
He is at rest or able to be at rest in this place – a kind of time-space, an opening in both the imagination and the countryside, not unlike Irving's Sleepy Hollow, but devoid of people. But it is more than a mere fishing story of a flight from urban pressures to experience country in the sense of Terry Tempest Williams' "open space" of democracy. On the way into the wild countryside, Nick Adams confronts his memory, his ambitions and his capacity for self-perception and nourishment (compare this story to William Cullen Bryant's depiction of Nature as the democratic grave that actual living nature is made from). Later, also compare Nick's refuge to Joyce Carol Oate's description of the material conditions of our existence. Like Faulkner, both contemporary writers are using time to tell these fishing & hunting stories in a way that it is not traditional, as used by Frost or Irving.
" Around the grove of trees was a bare space. It was brown and soft underfoot as Nick walked on it. This was the over-lapping of the pine needle floor, extending out beyond the width of the high branches. The trees had grown tall and the branches moved high, leaving in the sun this bare space they had once covered with shadow. Sharp at the edge of this extension of the forest floor commenced the sweet fern. "
"Nick slipped off his pack and lay down in the shade. He lay on his back and looked up into the pine trees. His neck and back and the small of his back rested as he stretched. The earth felt good against his back. He looked up at the sky, through the branches, and then shut his eyes. He opened them and looked up again. There was a wind high up in the branches. He shut his eyes again and went to sleep."
Hemingway created a place where his character Nick reconnects to his senses:
"As Nick watched, a mink crossed the river on the logs and went into the swamp. Nick was excited. He was excited by the early morning and the river."
The self-reliance of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the noted early American philosopher, is embodied in Nick's actions. "The sun was nearly down. His pack was heavy and the straps painful as he lifted it on. He leaned over with the pack on and picked up the leather rod-case and started out from the pine trees across the sweet fern swale, toward the river. He knew it could not be more than a mile." It is as if the landscape brings this independence out in him, as he rises to meet the literal contours of the hills and dell in which he find a place to camp, cook, and fish beside the swamp.
Nick walked back up the ties to where his pack lay in the cinders beside the railway track. He was happy. He adjusted the pack harness around the bundle, pulling straps tight, slung the pack on his back got his arms through the shoulder straps and took some of the pull off his shoulders by leaning his forehead against the wide band of the tump-line. Still, it was too heavy. It was much too heavy. He had his leather rod-case in his hand and leaning forward to keep the weight of the pack high on his shoulders he walked along the road that paralleled the railway track, leaving the burned town behind in the heat, and he turned off around a hill with a high, fire-scarred hill on either side onto a road that went back into the country. He walked along the road feeling the ache from the pull of the heavy pack. The road climbed steadily. It was hard work walking up-hill. His muscles ached and the day was hot, but Nick felt happy. He felt he had left everything behind, the need for thinking, the need to write, other needs. It was all back of him.
Ahead the river narrowed and went into a swamp. The river became smooth and deep and the swamp looked solid with cedar trees, their trunks close together, their branches solid. It would not be possible to walk through a swamp like that. The branches grew so low. You would have to keep almost level with the ground to move at all. You could not crash through the branches. That must be why the animals that lived in swamps were built the way they were, Nick thought.
Nick did not want to go in there now. He felt a reaction against deep wading with the water deepening up under his armpits, to hook big trout in places impossible to land them. In the swamp the banks were bare, the big cedars came together overhead, the sun did not come through, except in patches; in the fast deep water, in the half-light, the fishing would be tragic. In the swamp fishing was a tragic adventure. Nick did not want it. He didn't want to go up the stream any further today.
He took out his knife, opened it and stuck it in the log. Then he pulled up the sack, reached into it and brought out one of the trout. Holding him near the tail, hard to hold, alive, in his hand, he whacked him against the log. The trout quivered, rigid. Nick laid him on the log in the shade and broke the neck of the other fish the same way. He laid them side-by-side on the log. They were fine trout.
Nick stood up on the log, holding his rod, the landing net hanging heavy, then stepped into the water and splashed ashore. He climbed the bank and cut up into the woods, toward the high ground. He was going back to camp. He looked back. The river just showed through the trees. There were plenty of days coming when he could fish the swamp.
Entire text of the short story, pp. 177-199. [PDF file]
Themes in this story are complicated despite the apparently simple dualism suggested by Adam in paradise, or Nick Adams fishing along a stream in the Garden of Eden, so to speak.
Consider these dualistic themes:
1. Reveals the human psychological condition in the actual immersion of a person in the circumstances of our physical existence.
1.1 Artificial versus natural selection
1.2 man and fish are one entity in a dance of (humans must embrace physical existence)
A. reverence for life of the planet's creatures
B. need; for sustenance and rehabilitation
C. terminus; the places & behaviors we to which we always return.
2. A contrary theme also is present of:
Christianity, recovery, rebirth, fish, teleos 1 is ----> self reliance
3. Another corollary theme is that
the phrase two hearted means - natural or regenerative as opposed to human (Seney, Michigan) perishable.
Thus the story is a metaphor about (War & Peace)
4. Capable of being two minds
Now & memory, recovered memory, sadness \ realization of life
In the use of Nick's recall and memory of earlier times we see a recapitulation of the past that can act as a guide to recovery.
How the story is constructed reveals:
Many parallels, such as:
war & death \ catch & release
parallel construction vs. premonitions
Nick Adams is a veteran of the Great War (1914-1918) & narrator. ____________________
The narrator recounts his own exploits in returning to a familiar place. That setting is a forest beside a river flowing from a swamp through the countryside, where he will camp and fish.
How he fishes is as important as his attitude about scenery, loss, recovery of forgotten memories and ritual behavior in sustaining his camp.
The second part of the story, after he awakens in the morning from his tent, reveals that Nick is seeking out and perhaps come to some reconciliation.
teleos - means the purpose, end, or eventual outcome of a process.
Consider the purpose or end for fish it is survival, for humans the purpose is complicated by our capacity for choice, for Christians the purpose of such choices is redemption, for soldiers in battle it is not to become a casualty of war.