I hiked beside Nick Adams through the charred countryside of northern Michigan to the Big Two-Hearted River, where he camped for the night, woke up and caught grasshoppers for bait, and fished for trout, leaving the waters of the swamp for another time.
I traveled with Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley to Spain, where they fished, drank, argued and attended bull fights, as part of the lost generation of artists and writers who descended upon Paris after World War I. I was also there in the Gulf Stream with Santiago, the old Cuban fisherman, when the sharks came in for the huge blue marlin he fought so stoically on a handline for three days.
I am a fan of Ernest Hemingway. I like his lean, spare prose and his descriptions of the outdoor world — from streams and woodlands to the white-capped Gulf Stream and the bright shallows. His sentences hum with authenticity. It was easy to believe that this writer knew the characters, places, conflicts and fishing that he wove through his work. For this adolescent reader, discovering the multiple layers in his fiction was like finding a secret room in a familiar house.
Journalist, short-story writer, novelist and avid outdoorsman, Hemingway was a complex, larger-than-life character (like those in his fiction) who saw action in World War I and WWII. He was married four times and lived in Paris, Key West and Cuba. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953 for Old Man and the Sea and the Nobel Prize one year later. No one wrote about the sea and the natural world better.
He was also a formidable, innovative offshore angler and amateur naturalist who contributed to advances in tackle and sportfishing boats. He once served as a vice president of the International Game Fish Association.
Standing 6 feet tall and weighing 222 pounds, with the agility of an athlete, Hemingway helped change big-game fishing from a passive to an active sport. He promoted the technique of pumping fish — raising and lowering the rod tip and reeling in the slack, using your back and legs to pressure and beat the fish (see Anglers Journal, Spring 2017).
Although he took his life 60 years ago, I’ve hardly said farewell. I often return to Hemingway when I am between books or looking for writing with the distinct rhythm and voice that only he can conjure. With Hemingway at the helm, I am happy to reopen one of his books and climb aboard. Last year, I reread A Moveable Feast and The Last Good Country, an unfinished short story.
More Hemingway is now here. On April 5, award-winning documentarian Ken Burns and Lynn Novick debuted Hemingway, a three-part, six-hour documentary on PBS about the life and work of the iconic writer. The film (still to be screened as of this writing) promised to “reveal the complicated man behind the myth.”
A man’s man, Hemingway didn’t age particularly well. A lifetime of drinking, womanizing and brash adventuring, including two plane crashes in Africa, took a toll on body and mind. Had he lived today as he did in his prime, he surely would have run afoul of modern sensibilities. The writer committed suicide with his shotgun in Ketchum, Idaho, in 1961 at age 61.
Despite the contradictions that Hemingway invariably raises today, I was excited last June when The New Yorker ran a previously unpublished fishing story from the writer, “Pursuit as Happiness.” It’s vintage Hemingway in subject matter — a monster marlin — tone, style and Cuban setting. Hemingway’s grandson Seán Hemingway discovered the unpublished manuscript going through his grandfather’s papers, letters and fishing logs in the Ernest Hemingway Collection at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston.
It’s not clear whether the story, set in the summer of 1933, is fictional, autobiographical or a bit of both. The captain in the story is named “Mr. Josie” — Hemingway’s name for his good friend Joe Russell, a charter captain and the owner of Sloppy Joe’s bar in Key West. The first mate is Carlos Gutiérrez, Hemingway’s original first mate. And the sportfishing boat is named Anita, the actual name of Russell’s vessel.
In the story, they hook a big fish in the Gulf Stream just outside Morro Castle. The great fish ran off 200 yards of line before the aerial show began. The description of the fight is vintage Hemingway:
“He looked as big around as a wine barrel when he jumped. He was silver in the bright sun and I could see the broad purple stripes down his sides. Each time he jumped he made a splash like a horse falling off a cliff and he jumped and jumped and jumped. The reel was too hot to hold and the core of line on it was getting thinner and thinner in spite of the Anita going full speed after the fish.”
Hemingway’s writing still makes me want to be in the cockpit, beside the stream or campfire, in the bar ordering another round of frozen daiquiris, the evening still young, adventure beckoning.