Hemingway’s Dante Revisited: In Our Time and the Mythical Method

Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time has all the traits of a great work of modernist literature except for widespread recognition as such. One trait in particular has been vastly underestimated: the text’s implementation of what T.S. Eliot called the “mythical method.” Although Eliot’s term has more or less been consigned to the footnotes of literary history, its enduring associations with the myth-inflected school of high modernism typified by Eliot, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound, affords us a serviceable description of In Our Time’s submerged intertextual relationship with Dante’s Divine Comedy. While critics have observed in several of the collection’s short stories allusions to the same Grail legend that Eliot references in The Waste Land, they have persistently overlooked the extensive Divine Comedy parallels which form an indispensable component of In Our Time’s mythical method. This oversight regarding Hemingway’s “highly literate approach” (Sylvester, “Italian Waste Land” 92) to his early fiction has hindered our appreciation of In Our Time’s achievement as a work of modern literature and contributed to the occasional discounting of Hemingway’s status as a literary modernist.

The discrediting of Hemingway as a modernist has been tied in no uncertain terms to his knowledge of Dante. A combination of factors, including the author’s lack of formal education beyond high school, the subtlety of his allusive technique, and the poor critical reception of the novel Across the River and into the Trees, which cites Dante often, have left Hemingway to be accused sometimes of dilettantism. Nowhere is this line of thinking better exhibited than in Kathleen Verduin’s essay “Hemingway’s Dante: A Note on Across the River and into the Trees.” Comparing Hemingway’s interest in Dante against that of his peers, Verduin concludes that his reading was short and superficial at best:

Hemingway’s attention to Dante, for a writer in his generation, is hardly unique: but unlike Eliot, Pound, and Joyce, all of whom (perhaps owing to their superior education) discovered Dante early, Hemingway does not reflect the Dante influence until relatively late in his career, nor does he resemble his contemporaries in their attraction to the Commedia itself. (635)

For Verduin, Hemingway’s is the Dante of popular imagination, a “Byronic hero” known less for his art than the Saturnine sneer of his bust, “once ubiquitous in pretentious interiors and university libraries” (636). While other scholars have detailed references to the Commedia in a number of Hemingway’s works, including Death in the Afternoon, True at First Light, and The Garden of Eden, the question of when his interest began remains an open one, and as of now, Verduin’s note remains one of the most-cited sources on the subject. Thus, this essay’s discussion of Dantean influence in In Our Time’s mythical method offers a timely response to the eminent Hemingway scholar Hilary Justice’s invitation for “speculation that Dante figures earlier and more centrally in [Hemingway’s] thinking than his critics have considered” (9).

T.S. Eliot coins the term “mythical method” in his essay “Ulysses, Order, and Myth” to describe James Joyce’s innovative employment of Homeric parallels in Ulysses, announcing that “maintaining a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity…is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history” (480). This technique was not exactly a new discovery, as Eliot suggests, “but rather a re-discovery of the method by which art has always made sense of the disordered futility that contemporary history always seems to present,” writes Richard Adams. “But Eliot’s insistence on its value was more than justified at a time when exaggerated reverence for a naïve version of scientific method in the experiments of the naturalists had demonstrated that something other than documentation was needed to give artistic form to a literary work” (Adams 124). Furthermore, Adams notes, “anyone who had read as much as the first note to The Waste Land must have seen that Eliot had used the method himself before recommending it to others” (124).

The (in)famous aesthetic and symbolic complexity of Eliot’s poem responded to an urgent tension broadly felt by post-War modernists: they needed a new form capable of representing historical consciousness amid chaos, and the mythical method appeared to offer, in Eliot’s words, “a step toward making the modern world possible for art” (480). In recent decades, however, The Waste Land’s self-conscious erudition has become a lightning rod for post-modernist criticism. With this in mind, there are advantages in attending to In Our Time’s experiment with the mythical method. From a pedagogical perspective, In Our Time’s clear and approachable prose offers a solution to what Malcolm Cowley calls “the dilemma of The Waste Land.” Despite satisfying “all our recipes and prescriptions of what a great modern poem should be,” Cowley writes, The Waste Land’s “postwar mood of aristocratic disillusionment” rubs many readers the wrong way: “in a purely emotional fashion, we didn’t like it” (112-13). Considering the critiques of elitism and inaccessibility often leveled against literary scholarship in general, and modernism in particular, there is potential profit in teaching the methods of great modern literature as they appear in Hemingway’s slim volume of short stories. Perhaps In Our Time can help us to demystify the mythical method.

Consideration of In Our Time’s mythical method as such has been limited, while commentary on the text’s Dantean parallels is almost nonexistent.1 In his essay “Waste Land Parallels Unifying In Our Time,” Bickford Sylvester argues that “It was with In Our Time, rather than with The Sun Also Rises, that Hemingway made his hitherto unacknowledged debut as the manipulator of ‘a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity’” (11). Sylvester asserts “certain parallels between the overall structure and central theme of Eliot’s poem and those of the book” (11), which subsequent close readings—of the Fisher King allusions in “Big Two-Hearted River,” for example—have long since elevated to commonplace status. His likening of these parallels to the mythical method, however, did not gain the same widespread acceptance, perhaps because, taken by themselves, In Our Time’s Waste Land parallels seem derivative—the work of an apprentice, promising, but not rising to the level of the masterworks more readily associated with the term. Sylvester also laments “what amounts to a widespread bias against…seeing Hemingway as the modernist he was, the student of Pound and rival of Joyce and Eliot, who craftily demonstrated (too craftily, perhaps) that he could adapt to his unique style the allusive narrative approach and much of the vision and perspective that brought Joyce and Eliot the enviable respect of the intelligentsia” (11). Too crafty indeed, because despite the considerable exegesis of In Our Time’s waste land motif, significant dimensions of the text’s metaphorical architecture have remained submerged. Perhaps by illuminating new depths of its mythical method, we may encourage a reappraisal of its status relative to the modern and medieval masterpieces it reinterprets and re-presents.

Hemingway’s “fragmentary novel,” as an early review by D.H. Lawrence calls it (72), arranges fourteen short stories and sixteen prose vignettes in alternating order, producing complementary and contrasting effects like facets in a collage of modern life. As the “time” of the narrative’s concern spans the decade or so before, during, and after the First World War, these fragments represent the disillusionment, trauma, and alienation of the modernist period. If In Our Time’s short stories and vignettes are like facets of a collage, the mythical method, i.e. the text’s subtle but persistent use of allusion, is the glue that connects them. The result may be seen, insofar as we are focusing on its Dantean dimensions, as a modernist mosaic revision of the pilgrim’s journey through Hell and Purgatory—Dante’s “journey of our life,” rendered in and for our time. Prioritizing ethics and catharsis over moral order and salvation, the narrative also begins to develop the ethic of resilience, self-mastery, and enjoyment of living that would come to be known as the Hemingway code.

In Our Time has a more complicated publication history than we need cover here. Suffice it to say that the vignettes were published in a small 1924 collection with the lower-case title in our time, and that the addition of the stories for the 1925 book marked Hemingway’s first major publication, often regarded as the capstone project of his literary apprenticeship in Paris. Fittingly, it reflects the influences of several major artists who shaped Hemingway’s early career, including Eliot, Joyce, Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein, and Ezra Pound. It is well worth evaluating the potential significance for Hemingway of The Waste Land’s allusions to the Divine Comedy or Eliot’s essay on Dante in The Sacred Wood,2 but for our present consideration of Hemingway’s Dante, Pound is a person of particular interest. “It is perhaps too easy to belabor the resonance between Eliot’s work and Hemingway’s,” writes Matthew Nickel, “and though Eliot’s influence is certainly an important subject, Ezra Pound was far more important to the young writer, not only by introducing The Waste Land to Hemingway…but also by giving to Hemingway an artistic vision” (65) which finds its fullest expression in In Our Time. As Hemingway’s friend and “tutor” (Hurwitz 469) during the years of In Our Time’s composition, and as a lifelong scholar and enthusiast of Dante who once memorably stated that “anyone who don’t know the Commedia is thereby ignoramus” (Literary Essays 203), Pound presents an exceedingly likely source of influence on Hemingway’s interest in and understanding of Dante.

While Hemingway never had a personal relationship with Eliot, he was personally and professionally close with Pound, who commissioned and edited the 1924 in our time as part of a series released by Bill Bird’s Three Mountains Press (Beall 174). As John Beall notes, “Bird’s plans for publishing Hemingway’s in our time were preparatory to his publication of what he called, in a letter to Hemingway dated 4 September 1923, ‘the great folio edition of the modern divina commedia’—that is, Pound’s Draft of XVI Cantos” (174). Beall adds that “Hadley and Ernest Hemingway joined the Pounds for a walking tour of Italy while Pound was working on the Malatesta cantos,” that the “tour included Sigismondo’s battlefields in Tuscany,” and that “Hemingway must have seen—or at least heard about—Pound’s work in the libraries diligently researching his sources for these cantos” (182). It is also worth noting that Sigismondo Malatesta is “the first ‘historical’ (as opposed to mythic or literary) figure to be included” in Pound’s Cantos because Pound regarded Malatesta as “the first attractive personality to live after Dante” (Sicari 9). Judging from Pound’s comments on Dante and Malatesta—“Dante has said everything there is to be said, so I start with Malatesta” (qtd. Sicari 9)—it is almost inconceivable that he and Hemingway could have walked and talked in Malatesta’s footsteps without Dante coming up.

Although Pound’s editorial role subsided after the 1924 in our time, his work continued to exert an influence on both In Our Time and Hemingway’s Dante. Two structural correspondences between In Our Time and A Draft of XVI Cantos may be observed here in brief, while a third correspondence, in the parallel portrayals of a Dantean figure in the story “The Battler” and Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, will command further consideration during our eventual discussion of that story. For now we should note that there are significant parallels between the first and last cantos of Pound’s Draft and the first and last stories of In Our Time. Pound’s first canto begins in medias res—“And then went down to the ship”—with an Anglo-Saxon-inflected translation of the nekuia episode from book eleven of the Odyssey, in which Odysseus and company sail to the edge of the ocean, past “the Kimmeranian lands,” where “swartest night stretched over wretched men,” to visit the underworld and seek counsel from Tiresias (Cantos I/3). In beginning his poem with a descent to Homer’s underworld, as opposed to Dante’s, Pound “follows Dante’s example not in a superficial borrowing of general outline but in constantly indicating his poem’s changing relation to previous epic journeys” (Sicari 8). Using this method, Pound’s Draft concludes with “a Purgatorial landscape” in the sixteenth canto: “a Dantescan passage, the images clear-cut,” writes William Cookson (22). Pound lifts some of these images straight from Dante’s Purgatorio—“the rush with which he is to ‘gird’ himself, the screw-like path” (Preda 1)—while inventing others in a manner consistent with the purgatorial theme, such as the names of his contemporaries whom he finds there. Hemingway could not have failed to know that he appears as one such contemporary, albeit under the pseudonym “Cyril Hammerton” (Preda 38).

Using much the same method, Hemingway bookends In Our Time with a water-borne visit to a dark, underworld-like scene in “Indian Camp,” and an unmistakably purgatorial landscape in “Big Two-Hearted River.” “Indian Camp” follows a young boy named Nick Adams as he accompanies his uncle and his father, a doctor, who has been summoned in the middle of the night to perform an emergency caesarian section at a decrepit Ojibway logging camp across the lake from the campsite where the three men have been fishing. The first line of the story distinctly recalls that of Pound’s first canto—“At the lake shore there was another rowboat drawn up” (IOT 15)—just as the scene Hemingway constructs of a wretched people, seen only in darkness, fairly mirrors the mood and setting of canto one. The nekuia metaphor comes full circle as Nick observes the brutal delivery (Dr. Adams’ surgical equipment is limited to fishing gear—a jack-knife and fishing line) as well as the death of the woman’s husband, who silently commits suicide on a nearby bunk bed during the operation. The story concludes with Nick asking his father a series of questions as they row back across the lake:

‘Where did Uncle George go?’
‘He’ll turn up alright.’
‘Is dying hard, Daddy?’
‘No, I think it’s pretty easy, Nick. It all depends.’ (IOT 19)

Although Nick is too young to fully understand, the story’s subtext is clear, echoing Pound’s first canto: “Lose all companions” (Cantos I/5). Indeed, with Uncle George’s apparent disappearance, Nick has already lost one companion, and when he returns to the same northern Michigan woods for another fishing trip in “Big Two-Hearted River,” he does so alone. The narrative arc between these two stories is as far flung as the journey of Odysseus himself, but it concludes with a distinctly purgatorial landscape, as Nick hikes up a winding road through sunny, fire-scarred hills, eventually reaching an Edenic forest setting: “The road ran on, dipping occasionally, but always climbing…Finally the road after going parallel to the burnt hillside reached the top…There was nothing but the pine plain ahead of him, until the far blue hills that marked the Lake Superior height of land” (IOT 135). As we shall see in our concluding discussion of “Big Two-Hearted River,” Hemingway accentuates these landscape-based parallels with a number of remarkably subtle yet specific allusions to Dante’s Purgatorio.

Appearing in fewer than half of In Our Time’s stories, Nick Adams is not so much a traditional protagonist as he is the central nexus of a composite protagonist. In his essay “In Our Time: Hemingway’s Fragmentary Novel,” Carl Wood demonstrates that the text “is unified by a discernible plot development centering around a single composite personality represented in several characters” (716), but he does not link Hemingway’s composite protagonist to those modeled by Dante and Pound. Similarly, Stephen Sicari traces the Dantean influence in The Cantos’ use of a “composite wanderer,” and in the general shape of the mythical methods employed by Pound, Joyce, and Eliot alike, but excludes Hemingway:

It is no mere coincidence that Pound, Joyce, and Eliot, who do so much to determine the artistic sensibility of the modern period, each claim Dante as their most important and lasting literary influence. For in Dante they find expression of their own most basic and urgent need, the need to give unity to a world in fragments. (219)

It also bears reiterating here the extreme subtlety of In Our Time’s allusive techniques. “One of Hemingway’s major tactical problems in his early fiction,” George Dekker and Joseph Harris explain, “is to make [his] allusions count—and thus place his characters and actions in a timeless perspective—without ruffling the quotidian vernacular surface of his narrative. Sometimes he exercises so much tact or indirection that he nearly defeats his own complex purpose” (311). In seeking to “make people feel something more than they understood,” Hemingway risked sacrificing the recognition his ego craved, as the bitterly ironic comments in A Moveable Feast seem to suggest: “they will understand the same way that they always do in painting. It only takes time and it only needs confidence…Oh sure, I thought, I’m so far ahead of them now I can’t afford to eat regularly. It would not be bad if they caught up a little” (71). By examining the use of these techniques in a representative handful of stories, we may begin to outline the submerged structure of In Our Time’s mythical method, and perhaps belatedly reward the author’s confidence. While this reading, limited in length, must elide certain areas, and certainly will prove flawed in others, it is an exciting prospect that it may engender further discussion.

It stands to reason to start with the story in which Nick Adams states, “I feel as though everything was gone to hell inside of me” (In Our Time 34). “The End of Something” marks Nick’s fall from innocence—his statement comes in the context of breaking up with his girlfriend—and the beginning of his metaphorical journey through Hell. “The Three-Day Blow” directly follows the action of “The End of Something” and is replete with imagery of the Fall: “The fruit had been picked and the fall wind blew through the bare trees” (IOT 39). It takes place on a Thursday night, just as Dante’s Inferno begins on the night of Maundy Thursday. Its title also suggests the length of the pilgrim’s journey through Hell. More specifically, the story’s heavy winds allude to the infernal storm of the lustful in Inferno’s second circle. Drinking excessively, taking questionable relationship advice from his friend Bill, and engaging in willful self-deception—“He felt happy. Nothing was finished. Nothing was ever lost” (IOT 48)—Nick in this story exemplifies the vice of Inferno’s upper circles: subjecting reason to desire. Discussing such books as Maurice Hewlett’s Forest Lovers and Hugh Walpole’s The Dark Forest, the boys not only parallel Dante’s Francesca and Paolo, but also perhaps allude to the dark wood of Inferno’s first canto. Perhaps not coincidentally, In Our Time’s very next story sees Nick come to himself ‘within a dark wood where the straight way was lost.’

“The Battler” is set on a remote stretch of railroad between the towns of Kalkaska and Mancelona in Michigan’s northern peninsula. It depicts a strange encounter between Nick and two socially outcast men living as vagabonds: Ad Francis, a disgraced and disfigured former prizefighter, and Bugs, his African-American traveling companion and de-facto caretaker. The story begins in darkness with Nick picking himself up after being thrown off a freight train as a stowaway, watching “the lights of the caboose going out of sight around the curve” (IOT 53). Aching, hungry, and humiliated, Nick walks some distance along the embanked tracks through a woody swamp before seeing Ad’s campfire in a clearing. His cautious approach is a typical example of Hemingway’s ability to manipulate narrative tension with concise sentence structure:

The fire was bright now, just at the edge of the trees. There was a man sitting by it. Nick waited behind the tree and watched. The man looked to be alone. He was sitting there with his head in his hands looking at the fire. Nick stepped out and walked into the firelight. The man sat there looking into the fire. (IOT 54)

Hemingway’s allusive technique operates here by a series of landscape parallels akin to those outlined earlier in “Big Two-Hearted River.” Let us compare Nick’s path through a dark wood and a “ghostly” swamp (IOT 54), and his descent from the embanked track, through a beechwood forest, and into the clearing beyond the trees where Ad sits by his fire, to Dante’s journey through Hell. From the dark wood in canto I, Dante travels across the swamp of Styx in canto VIII and down to the circle of the violent in canto XII. Inferno’s seventh circle is divided into three sub-circles for the violent against others, the violent against themselves (suicides and spendthrifts), and the violent against God (blasphemers, perverts, usurers). Dante’s way through this circle involves descending a rock face (embanked track), walking through the forest of the suicides (beechwood forest), and arriving at a clearing where fire rains down on the souls of the violent (Ad’s campfire in the clearing). Finally, Dante’s backward look “at the pass which never yet let any go alive” (Inf. 23)3 resonates in the last line of “The Battler”: “Looking back from the mounting grade before the track curved into the hills he could see the firelight in the clearing” (IOT 62).

Making his living through violence against others before falling out with his wife and spending himself broke (so we eventually learn from Bugs), Ad Francis certainly would qualify for Dante’s first two categories of violence. Ad’s strongest association, however, is with Capaneus, one of the chief figures of Inferno XIV. Dante’s Capaneus derives from the Thebaid of Statius, in which he appears as a noble but hubristic warrior king who is struck down by the gods for his defiance (Barolini 14). Dante and Virgil find Capaneus set apart from the other blasphemers, lying in a posture of defeat. He makes a show of his continuing defiance, however, touting his fateful stand against the gods: “What I was living, that I am dead. Though Jove wear out his smith from whom in rage he seized the keen bolt…and hurl his shafts at me with all his force, he should not so have the joy of vengeance” (Inf. 183). Sitting alone by a fire with his head in his hands, Ad Francis strikes a similar appearance, and his boasts to Nick about outlasting his opponents echo those of Capaneus: “‘They all bust their hands on me,’ the little man said. ‘They couldn’t hurt me’” (IOT 56).

Shortly after Ad’s boast, his companion Bugs returns to the campsite carrying a package of food. Bugs’ manner provides an important contrast to Ad’s. His performative politeness masks his circumspection as he inquires about who Nick is and where he came from—questions the addle-brained Ad never raises. Soon the seriousness of Ad’s mental instability becomes clear, as does Bugs’ responsibility as his de-facto caretaker. Triggered by the sight of Nick’s pocketknife, Ad turns violent, threatening Nick until Bugs intervenes by knocking him unconscious with a practiced thump on the skull with a cloth-wrapped blackjack. Bugs then recounts Ad’s downfall, partially attributing his “craziness” to his career as a boxer: “He took too many beatings, for one thing…But that just sort of made him simple” (IOT 60). The true cause of Ad’s mental break, as Bugs tells it, was his falling out with the woman said to be his sister, his manager, and his wife: “He was busting people all the time after she went away and they put him in jail” (61). Bugs states that while they looked enough alike to be twins, “they wasn’t brother and sister no more than a rabbit” (61), but the perceived scandal of their marriage led to their falling out regardless.

Even before this information is revealed, the story’s structure lends credence to Bugs’ theory. Before Ad’s violent snap, he and Nick have an oddly intimate interaction. Ad insists on having Nick count his pulse in order to prove his slow heartbeat, which he claims enabled him to outlast opponents in the ring. The result is a prolonged moment of unmistakable closeness:

The little man’s wrist was thick and the muscles bulged above the bone. Nick felt the slow pumping under his fingers.
‘Got a watch?’
‘Neither have I,’ Ad said. ‘It ain’t any good if you haven’t got a watch.’
Nick dropped his wrist.
‘Listen,’ Ad Francis said. ‘Take ahold again. You count and I’ll count up to sixty.’
Feeling the slow hard throb under his fingers Nick started to count. He heard the little man counting slowly, one, two, three, four, five, and on—aloud.
‘Sixty,’ Ad finished. ‘That’s a minute. What did you make it?’
Forty,’ Nick said.
‘That’s right,’ Ad said happily. ‘She never speeds up.’ (IOT 56-57)

Ad remains stable as he describes to Nick the many beatings he withstood as a boxer; the narrative structure prepares us to receive the notion that physical blows alone did not bring down the prizefighter. Instead, his violent snap comes unexpectedly, triggered by the sight of Nick’s knife—a symbol for his Fall, the severance of his Adam-and-Eve-like relationship.

Seeing Ad, the former boxer, knocked out with a blow to the head—a procedure Bugs evidently has administered many times before—calls to mind the sinner’s experience of Hell: “Over and over, the sinner performs the spiritual condition that led him or her to Hell” (Barolini 14). What Ad repeatedly performs, however, is less a spiritual condition than a darkly ironic parody of his downfall. With this in mind, our sense of Ad might take on a sympathetic tone. He stands as a warning to Nick of what life entails—even his threats have a prophetic quality: “You’re going to take a beating, see?” (IOT 59). In this way, “The Battler” begins to develop a theme that resonates throughout Hemingway’s career, from A Farewell to Arms—“If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them” (249)—to The Old Man and the Sea: “A man can be destroyed but not defeated” (103). The story’s most masterful allusion becomes apparent as Ad’s face recedes into darkness under the brim of his cap, symbolizing his descent into madness. The word “cap” is used twice when Nick meets Ad (55, 56), and three times in quick succession when Ad turns against Nick:

Ad kept on looking at Nick. He had his cap down over his eyes. Nick felt nervous.
‘How the hell do you get that way?’ came out from under the cap sharply at Nick.
‘Who the hell do you think you are? You’re a snotty bastard. You come in here where nobody asks you and eat a man’s food and when he asks to borrow a knife you get snotty.’ He glared at Nick, his face white and his eyes almost out of sight under the cap. (59)

The use of “hell” should not be ignored, but the repetition of “cap” is most striking, especially considering that the word appears five times in this story alone and only twice more in the entire book. It is an extremely subtle way to underscore his Capanean allusion, but Hemingway’s famous precision and economy of diction allow us to treat the occurrence seriously.

These allusions to Capaneus in “The Battler” may be linked to Pound’s invocation of Capaneus in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley. The strands of influence in Hemingway’s work stemming from Dante, as opposed to Dante via Pound, are not always easily untangled, but “The Battler” represents an instance where one of Pound’s more idiosyncratic interpretations of the Divine Comedy emerges in Hemingway’s work, allowing us to highlight Pound’s influence on Hemingway’s Dante. Dante’s Capaneus is not generally seen as a sympathetic character—it is only in Pound’s reading that he becomes so. Teodolinda Barolini explains that Capaneus enunciates a foundational principle of Dante’s vision: “It is nothing less than a declaration of how Dante’s Hell functions overall…If Capaneus’ greatest punishment is his own arrogance, then in effect Capaneus creates his own Hell” (14). In Dante’s moral order, punishments do not merely fit their crimes; crimes beget their own punishments. In order for Inferno’s moral system to work, we must believe that Capaneus deserves his punishment: “this kind of information is best absorbed vis-à-vis a character like Capaneus, a character whom Dante does not seek to make sympathetic” (14). Therefore Hemingway’s sympathetic treatment of his Capanean character may be seen to reflect the same distinctly Poundian sentiment shown in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley’s empathetic identification of Capaneus:

For three years, out of key with his time,
He strove to resuscitate the dead art
Of poetry; to maintain “the sublime”
In the old sense. Wrong from the start—

No, hardly, but, seeing he had been born
In a half savage country, out of date;
Bent resolutely on wringing lilies from the acorn;
Capaneus; trout for factitious bait: (1-8)

Pound invokes Capaneus here to elevate E.P.’s posture of defiance against the mediocrity of modern literary culture. Pound’s other writings make his view of Dante’s Capaneus explicitly clear, explains Larry Scanlon:

In The Spirit of Romance, Pound notes with approval that Dante portrays Capaneus as ‘unrelenting in his defiance of the supreme power’…Pound’s use of this figure in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley makes the point that E. P. was of the devil’s party and a true poet. That makes Capaneus a recherché stand-in for the much more obvious figure of Milton’s Satan and his ‘unconquerable will.’ (848)

Yet in “offering a citation of Villon as the closing bracket to the citation of Dante’s Capaneus,” Pound also acknowledges that the unstoppable passage of time “threatens to render the very implacability of his rebellion merely irrelevant in the eventual inevitability of his death” (849-50). One would be hard pressed to create a better metaphor than Ad Francis counting his heartbeats against the march of time.

Just as “The Battler” represents Nick Adams’ journey through Hell, “Cross-Country Snow” signifies his passage out. The story shows Nick, now a veteran of the First World War, and his friend George skiing down an icy, gale-scoured mountainside in the Alps. Their movements parallel Virgil and Dante’s passage out of Hell at the end of Inferno. Whereas Virgil and Dante make a 180-degree rotation as they climb down through the bottom of Hell (located at the center of the Earth) and up into the opposite hemisphere, Nick takes a tumbling fall while skiing, “over and over in a clashing of skis” (IOT 107), before recovering for a sharply pivoting Christy turn at the bottom of the mountain face, “turning his body like tightening a screw” (108). He and George ski on to a dark, “long, low-eaved, weather-beaten” (108-109) inn resembling the place Dante and Virgil arrive upon: “no palace hall where we were…ill-floored and scant of light” (Inf. 427). From there, Dante and Virgil leave “to return into the bright world” (427). Nick and George likewise depart to a ‘brighter’ world, after we learn—through meaning-laden diction—that Nick must return to America because his wife, Helen, is pregnant:

‘It’s hell, isn’t it?’ he said.
‘No. Not exactly,’ Nick said. (IOT 111)

With Nick and his friend discussing sports and women over a bottle of wine, “Cross-Country Snow” marks an unmistakable parallel to “The Three-Day Blow,” yet Nick and George’s maturity contrasts their younger counterparts’ lack thereof. Where Nick once willfully deceived himself, he now avoids making promises he cannot keep:

‘I wish we could make a promise about it,’ George said.
Nick stood up. He buckled his wind jacket tight. He leaned over George and picked up the two ski poles from against the wall. He stuck one of the ski poles into the floor.
‘There isn’t any good in promising,’ he said. (112)

Nick’s wind jacket symbolizes his maturation—having gone through Hell, his experience now acts as protection against the flights of fancy that once drove him.

The remarkable thing about these allusions is that Hemingway does not have to go out of his way to make them happen. That is not to say he did not construct them with great care, but rather that the triumph of his sub-surface symbolic technique is that it fuses seamlessly with the surface level’s naturalistic depiction. As Carlos Baker puts it in his authoritative study Hemingway: The Writer as Artist, “Although Hemingway had rigorously trained himself in the accurate observation of natural objects, his precision of rendering did not prevent these objects from being put to symbolic use” (68). It is therefore “necessary to distinguish Hemingway’s method from such ‘mythologizing’ as that of Joyce in Ulysses, or Eliot in The Waste Land,” Baker adds. “For Hemingway early devised and subsequently developed a mythologizing tendency of his own which does not depend on antecedent literatures, learned footnotes, or the recognition of spot passages” (87). Instead, Hemingway’s method derives from a combination of naturalistic and imagistic (i.e. Poundian) influences, as Alex Shakespeare explains in reference to “Big Two-Hearted River”:

Working in light of Pound’s influence, Hemingway builds his allusion to the Fisher King (and to the kingfisher’s halcyon calmness) into the perfectly natural fact of a kingfisher flying above the surface of the river. The high modernist strategy of allusion is accomplished in “Big Two-Hearted River” by Nick’s keen Agassizian (and Poundian) attention to noting exactly the sequential movements of kingfisher and trout. (50)

The confluence of wasteland and Purgatory symbolisms in “Big Two-Hearted River” offers an illustrative example of the simultaneity of metaphor made possible by Hemingway’s technique.

In “Big Two-Hearted River,” Nick Adams returns to the northern Michigan woods of his childhood for a solitary fishing trip. The story’s uncomplicated plot belies its rich sub-surface structure, as its action comes not from a traditional pattern of conflict and resolution, but from the vitality of its representation of Nick’s peaceful and restorative experience hiking from a burnt-over town to an untarnished wilderness oasis. As Debra Moddelmog explains, restoration is the standard interpretive paradigm of this story: “That Nick takes his trip to upper Michigan to restore both his mind and spirit debilitated by war has, of course, been the accepted reading of ‘Big Two-Hearted River’ ever since critics began to assess the story formally” (600). The restorative paradigm dovetails with the story’s waste land metaphor. Since “Malcolm Cowley’s 1943 revelation that Hemingway had used the same mythic materials that T.S. Eliot had in The Waste Land to create a Fisher King motif in The Sun Also Rises,” explains Peter Hays, “critics have found referential details in ‘Big Two-Hearted River,’ opening on a burnt-over, war-like landscape, featuring a wounded fisherman, and, lest we miss the allusion, even a kingfisher” (108). As Hays indicates, Hemingway uses an easily discernible symbol, a kingfisher, to signal his allusive intentions. But that is not the whole story of “Big Two-Hearted River.” In fact, beneath this ostensibly simple waste land metaphor resides a somewhat more subtle pattern of allusions to Dante’s Purgatorio.

For example, just as Virgil girds Dante’s pilgrim with a “slender reed” and anoints him with dew for his ascension (Purgatorio 25), Nick places fern sprigs under his bag’s shoulder straps (IOT 136) and gets covered in dew walking through a meadow (137).4 Also in Purgatorio I, Dante sees the morning star, Venus, and the constellation Pisces, “the Fishes” (Pur. 19), whereas Nick recollects the nickname of an old friend’s girlfriend, “the Blonde Venus” (IOT 141), and observes the river’s trout in almost celestial imagery: “many trout in deep, fast moving water, slightly distorted as he watched far down through the glassy convex surface of the pool” (134). Throughout his hike and his day of fishing, Nick throws or casts out seven grasshoppers (136, 148, 149, 152, 153), like Dante casting off seven Ps from his forehead as he is purified of the seven capital vices.5 Even the story’s title may subtly allude to the Earthly Paradise’s twin rivers, Lethe and Eunoe. Finally, when Nick first sees the river’s trout, his reaction—“Nick’s heart tightened as the trout moved. He felt all the old feeling” (IOT 134)—recalls Dante seeing Beatrice for the first time: “And my spirit, which now so long had not been overcome with awe, trembling in her presence…through hidden virtue that came from her, felt old love’s great power” (Pur. 395).

Hemingway’s implicit equation of fishing and divine love may seem unserious at first blush. The original ending to “Big Two-Hearted River,” posthumously published as “On Writing,” addresses this point directly. In a lengthy internal monologue about fishing, art, and other writers (including Pound and Joyce), Nick, revealing himself as the book’s meta-fictional author, reflects on his relationship to the sport, calling it his first marriage: “Ezra thought fishing was a joke. So did most everybody. He’d been married to it before he married Helen. Really married to it. It wasn’t any joke” (Nick Adams Stories 234). In this context, fishing emerges as a craft one might love virtuously, in the sense of philia, as the writer loves writing. Moreover, Hemingway’s celestially imaged fish may, like Dante’s stars, symbolize virtuous love—Nick’s guiding lights. As John Sinclair’s commentary on his translation of Purgatorio XVIII explains, the interplay “of ‘natural’ love, shared with the stones and the beasts and innocent, and love deliberate, committing the soul to good or to evil” (241-42), is a central aspect of Dante’s purgatorial vision, wherein souls are purged of sinfulness rather than punished for sin, and their desires are reoriented toward virtue.

The word Dante uses for the penitents of canto XVIII is accidia, commonly translated as sloth (Sinclair 242). It “connotes spiritual ennui, a state of aversion and embitterment with regard to worship and all that belongs to the religious life,” explains Sinclair. “Their ‘little love’ has so far disabled these souls for prayer that until grace blooms again in them they have not the power to pray” (242). Incidentally, this term could well apply to a number of characters in In Our Time, such as the maladjusted veteran Harold Krebs in “Soldier’s Home,” whose mother prays for him when he claims to be unable to do it himself. Since they cannot pray, the souls in Purgatory’s fourth terrace engage in a form of embodied devotion: they are seen running with great energy and chanting “zeal in well-doing may make grace come green again” (Pur. 237). Zeal in well-doing is a fine summation of the deep contentment Nick Adams feels in exerting himself on his hike, and the fulfillment he gets from knowing he has set up his campsite and gone about his fishing in the right way. Right action emerges as a substitute for righteousness. With this in mind, we may begin to understand the ways in which Hemingway’s mythical method not only supplies an organizing principle for In Our Time’s narrative form, but also an ethical principle analogous to, and perhaps taking the place of, the traditional moral or anagogical orders. Writing in the wake of the First World War, Hemingway understandably departs from Dante’s Paradiso on the accessibility of the divine; In Our Time concludes not with a vision of God’s kingdom or the rose of divine love, but with a visit, in “L’Envoi,” to a cynically jolly Greek king, seen tending to his rose bushes and dreaming of America.

In this light, Hemingway’s decision to remove Nick’s internal monologue on writing becomes all the more significant. Instead of situating Nick as a writer who has had a part of the divine vision which he now must share with the world for its betterment, the narrative is allowed to focus on Nick’s restorative experience—“just the straight fishing,” as Hemingway puts it to Robert McAlmon (Selected Letters 133). Hemingway does not dictate an ethical message in his writing so much as transmit an ethical principle through his prose. The prose itself embodies the principle even as it alludes to it at a deep structural level. There is an important psychological dimension in this approach, which Baker well summarizes: “his own esthetic opinions carried him away from the literary kind of myth-adaptation and over into that deeper area of psychological symbol-building which does not require special literary equipment to be interpreted” (Baker 88). We are born with the only equipment we need, what Baker calls the “sabidurian” sensibility of the subconscious:

As one watches the establishment and development of the sabidurian images in his novels or the more ambitious short stories, one comes to see, as Mr. Theodore Bardacke has recently noticed, ‘this underlying use of associations and emotional suggestion,’ visible and even audible through the ‘objectively reported details.’…We respond to it as naturally as savages to thunder, or as Dr. Jung’s patients to the recurrent opposed symbols of the ‘Wise Old Man’ and ‘the Shadow.’ (72-73)

Hemingway’s mythical method, therefore, does not operate by the traditional use of direct literary allusion, but rather by combining submerged parallels with a pattern of extremely subtle or oblique allusions, hidden in plain sight as if to arouse, in their cumulative effect, a sort of subconscious recognition. In combining the deepest level of his allusive technique with an intense narrative focus on, for example, the vitality of a character’s lived experience, Hemingway’s prose approaches what he would later call the “fourth and fifth dimension that can be gotten” (Green Hills of Africa 20).6

Perhaps it is a testament to the efficacy of this psychological dimension of In Our Time’s method that several of its critics have commented on the purgatorial quality of “Big Two-Hearted River” even without excavating its Dantean allusions. For example, in his 1944 introduction to the Viking Portable Hemingway, Malcolm Cowley insists that Nick’s fishing trip is not an escape, but rather “an incantation, a spell to banish evil spirits” (xix), while H.R. Stoneback identifies the story as Hemingway’s “earliest pilgrimage tale” (58). With this in mind, it is worth recalling Hemingway’s observation about his book’s relation to other “modern” literature in a March 31, 1925 letter to his publisher, Horace Liveright:

The classic example of a really fine book that could not sell was E.E. Cumming’s Enormous Room. But Cumming’s book was written in a style that no one who had not read a good deal of ‘modern’ writing could read. That was hard luck for selling purposes. My book will be praised by highbrows and can be read by lowbrows. (Selected Letters 155)

The letter has a fateful feeling about it. In Our Time was not a sensation like The Sun Also Rises, and Hemingway’s high hopes for its commercial performance were not met, although it earned a measure of highbrow praise that any author would be proud to receive. Still, one cannot help but wonder how Hemingway would have judged the success of a method meant to be felt rather than observed when it was not, after all, observed by his reviewers. As Bickford Sylvester muses, “had he left more conspicuous evidence of the alternate worlds empowering his surfaces, readers might have appreciated during his lifetime the extent of his accomplishment” (“Italian Waste Land” 91). At any rate, perhaps the greatest appeal of In Our Time is that it does just what Hemingway promised for the lowbrows. It is an exquisitely wrought modernist compression of the epic tradition, and it is much easier to read than The Cantos, The Waste Land, or Ulysses.


1 Bates Hoffer briefly discusses the infernal symbolism and descent-and-rise motif of “The Battler” in a pedagogically oriented entry on the story: “The Battler,” Language and Literature vol. 29, 2004, pp. 31-34. Ellen Andrews Knodt dismisses an infernal reading of “Out of Season” in “Hemingway’s Commedia Dell’arte Story?: ‘Out of Season.’” The Hemingway Review vol. 31, no. 1, Sept. 2011, pp. 107-17.
2 Of Eliot and Dante, Michael Reynolds writes in Hemingway’s Reading: “Ernest packed all the poems and the criticism—even the Dante essay. In another crate, he took The Divine Comedy. Maybe, just maybe, Hemingway knew more Dante than most of us” (30).
3 Inferno and Purgatorio citations refer to page numbers in John Sinclair’s prose translations (First Paperback Edition, Oxford University Press, 1961).
4 It is also worth noting here The Cantos’ parallel reed allusion: “and from the bank, the stiff herbage” (XVI/69).
5 I am indebted to the brilliant Diana L. Senechal for noticing this allusion.
6 Larry Grimes makes a similar claim about “Hemingway’s success at writing into the ‘fifth dimension’” while “trac[ing] out a discernible religious design in the early fiction” (iv).

Works Cited

Adams, Richard P. “Sunrise Out of the Waste Land.” Tulane Studies in English, vol. 9, 1959, pp. 119-31.

Alighieri, Dante. Inferno, translated by John D. Sinclair, First Paperback Edition, Oxford University Press, 1961.

—. Purgatorio, translated by John D. Sinclair, First Paperback Edition, Oxford University Press, 1961.

Baker, Carlos. Hemingway: The Writer as Artist. 4th Edition, Princeton University Press, 1972.

Barolini, Teodolinda. “Inferno 14: We Are Our Own Hell: sunt lacrimae rerum,” Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante, Columbia University Libraries, 2018. https://digitaldante.columbia.edu/dante/divine-comedy/inferno/inferno-14/

Beall, John. “Pound, Hemingway, and the Inquest Series.” Paideuma, vol. 44, 2017, pp. 173-204.

Bolton, Matthew. “Memory and Desire: Eliotic Consciousness in Early Hemingway.” Ernest Hemingway and the Geography of Memory, edited by Mark Cirino and Mark P. Ott, Kent State University Press, 2010, pp. 37-56.

Cookson, William. A Guide to the Cantos of Ezra Pound. Croom Helm, 1985.

Cowley, Malcolm. “The Dilemma of The Waste Land.” The Waste Land: Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism, edited by Michael North, Norton, 2001, pp. 163-166.

—. “Introduction.” Hemingway, edited by Malcolm Cowley, Viking, 1944. vii-xxiv.

Dekker, George, and Harris, Joseph. “Supernaturalism and the Vernacular Style in A Farewell to Arms.” PMLA, vol. 94, no. 2, Mar. 1979, pp. 311-18.

Eliot, T.S. “Ulysses, Order, and Myth.” The Dial (1880-1929), American Periodicals Series III, Nov. 1923, pp. 480.

Grimes, Larry. “The Religious Design of Hemingway’s Early Fiction.” PhD diss., Emory University, 1974.

Hays, Peter. “Hemingway’s “‘Now I Lay Me,’ Prayer, and The Fisher King.” The Hemingway Review, vol. 37, no. 1, Sept. 2017, pp. 108-13.

Hemingway, Ernest. In Our Time. First Paperback Edition, Scribner, 2003.

—. A Moveable Feast, edited by Sean Hemingway, Restored Edition, Scribner, 2010. 

—. Ernest Hemingway Selected Letters, 1917-1961, edited by Carlos Baker, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1981.

—. Green Hills of Africa, edited by Sean Hemingway, Hemingway Library Edition, Scribner, 2015.

—. The Nick Adams Stories, edited by Philip Young, First Paperback Edition, Scribner, 2003.

Hoffer, Bates. “The Battler.” Language and Literature, vol. 29, 2004, pp. 31-34.

Hurwitz, Harold M. “Hemingway’s Tutor, Ezra Pound.” Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 17, 1971, pp. 469-82.

Justice, Hilary K. The Bones of the Others: the Hemingway Text from the Lost Manuscripts to the Posthumous Novels. Kent State University Press, 2006.

—. “The Lion, the Leopard, and the Bear.” Hemingway Review, vol. 19, no. 1, Oct. 1999, pp. 39-42.

—. “The Necessary Danger: Hemingway and the Problem of Authorship.” PhD diss., University of Chicago, 2001.

Knodt, Ellen Andrews. “Hemingway’s Commedia Dell’arte Story?: ‘Out of Season.’” The Hemingway Review, vol. 31, no. 1, Sept. 2011, pp. 107-17.

Lawrence, D.H. “Review of In Our Time.” Calendar of Modern Letters, vol. IV, April 1927, pp. 72-73.

Moddelmog, Debra A. “The Unifying Consciousness of a Divided Conscience: Nick Adams as Author of In Our Time.” American Literature, vol. 60, no. 4, Dec. 1988, pp. 591-610.

Nickel, Matthew. “Hemingway’s Dark Night: Catholic Influences and Intertextualities in the Work of Ernest Hemingway.” PhD diss., University of Louisiana-Lafayette, 2011.

Pound, Ezra. The Cantos of Ezra Pound. New Directions, 1994.

—. Hugh Selwyn Mauberley. Poems and Translations, edited by Richard Sieburth, Library of America, 2003, pp. 548-63.

Pound, Ezra, and Eliot, T. S. Literary Essays of Ezra Pound. New Directions, 1954.

Preda, Roxana. “Companion to Canto XVI.” The Cantos Project, 4 August 2017. http://thecantosproject.ed.ac.uk/index.php/a-draft-of-xvi-cantos-overview/canto-xvi/companion-to-xvi

Reynolds, Michael. Hemingway’s Reading, 1901-1940: An Inventory. Princeton University Press, 1981.

Scanlon, Larry. “Modernism’s Medieval Imperative: The Hard Lessons of Ezra Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.” American Literary History, vol. 22, no. 4, pp. 838-62.

Shakespeare, Alex. “The Names of Rivers and the Names of Birds: Ezra Pound, Louis Agassiz, and the ‘Luminous Detail’ in Hemingway’s Early Fiction.” The Hemingway Review, vol. 30, no. 2, Spring 2011, pp. 36-53.

Sicari, Stephen. Pound’s Epic Ambition: Dante and the Modern World. State University of New York Press, 1991.

Smith, Paul. “From the Waste Land to the Garden with the Elliots.” Hemingway’s Neglected Short Fiction, edited by Susan F. Beegel, UMI Press, 1989, pp. 123-29.

Stoneback, H.R. “Pilgrimage Variations: Hemingway’s Sacred Landscapes.” Religion and Literature, vol. 35, no. 2-3, 2003, pp. 49-65.

Sylvester, Bickford. “Hemingway’s Italian Waste Land: The Complex Unity of ‘Out of Season.’” Hemingway’s Neglected Short Fiction, edited by Susan F. Beegel, UMI Press, 1989, pp. 75-98.

—. “Waste Land Parallels Unifying In Our Time: Hemingway’s Confirmation as a Modernist.” Up In Michigan: Proceedings of the First National Conference of the Hemingway Society, edited by Joseph Waldmeir and Joseph Marsh, The Hemingway Society, 1983, pp. 10-19.

Verduin, Kathleen. “Hemingway’s Dante: A Note on Across the River and into the Trees.” American Literature, vol. 57, no. 4, Dec. 1985, pp. 633-40.

Wood, Carl. “In Our Time: Hemingway’s Fragmentary Novel.” Bulletin of the Modern Language Society, vol. 74, 1973, pp. 716-26.

William Parker Stoker

William Parker Stoker

William Parker Stoker is a second-year Ph.D. and Graduate Teaching Assistant in the Department of English at the University of South Carolina. His research interests include modernism and its antecedents, the life and work of Bram Stoker, and Southern literature, among other things. He received his MA from the George Washington University and his BA from the University of the South.
William Parker Stoker

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Author: William Parker Stoker

William Parker Stoker is a second-year Ph.D. and Graduate Teaching Assistant in the Department of English at the University of South Carolina. His research interests include modernism and its antecedents, the life and work of Bram Stoker, and Southern literature, among other things. He received his MA from the George Washington University and his BA from the University of the South.