The Young Man and the Lakes
August 14, 2008; Page D7
When Ernest Hemingway was a young writer in the 1920s, he pinned a map of northern Michigan to the wall of his room in Paris. It probably came in handy as he wrote his first batch of short stories. Although he was born and raised in Oak Park, Ill., Hemingway spent the summers of his boyhood in the woods and lakes of what Michiganders call "Up North." They provide the settings for most of his early tales.
|The Granger Collection|
|Ernest Hemingway fishing in Michigan in 1920.|
One of these yarns, however, has traditionally puzzled anyone who reads it and then checks a map. "Big Two-Hearted River" is probably Hemingway's first great contribution to literature, an example of nature writing at its finest and perhaps America's best fishing story, especially for readers who remember that Moby Dick didn't have gills.
The narrative begins with Nick Adams, Hemingway's protagonist and alter-ego, having just gotten off the train in Seney, a town in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. He hikes into the wilderness and fishes for trout. The problem is that the Two-Hearted River lies about 20 miles north of Seney and flows into Lake Superior. On foot, it's virtually impossible to get there with Nick's apparent speed. The Fox River -- a perfectly good stream for brook trout -- runs right through the town, on its way to Lake Michigan.
Hemingway visited Seney with a couple of friends in 1919. Wouldn't he have just fished the Fox?
On the East Coast, every hamlet that can claim "Washington slept here" eagerly does so, for both patriotic and commercial reasons. In parts of Michigan, there's a Hemingway corollary: He slept here (at the family cottage on Walloon Lake), ate here (at Jesperson's Restaurant in Petoskey), and fished here (lots of places).
Michigan is so proud of its ties to Hemingway that the state humanities council has just wrapped up the Great Michigan Read, a literacy initiative that used "The Nick Adams Stories" as its focal point. For the past year, schools and libraries have sponsored discussion groups, a traveling exhibit, and even a Hemingway look-alike contest.
In Seney, a small historical museum includes a display with the gear Nick is described as having brought on his journey, such as a can of pork and beans and a can of spaghetti that he mixes together for a meal. Last month, the museum acquired a rowboat that Hemingway is said to have used. "Some days we won't get a soul in here, and the next day we might get 15," says Candace Blume, the curator.
In a letter to Gertrude Stein, Hemingway described "Big Two-Hearted River" as a story in which "nothing happens." Nick Adams walks out of Seney, makes camp, and goes fishing. Beneath this mundane surface, however, swims a potent personal drama.
Something bothers Nick. The text doesn't say what. As an author, Hemingway routinely withheld what would seem to be key information; his stories are often exercises in decipherment. A close reading of "Big Two-Hearted River" reveals that Nick's trek into the backwoods of Michigan is about much more than hooking trout.
Hemingway was famous for short declarative sentences, and "Big Two-Hearted River" is full of them: "It had been a hard trip. He was very tired. That was done. He had made his camp. He was settled. Nothing could touch him. It was a good place to camp. He was there, in the good place. He was in his home where he had made it."
Nothing could touch him? The good place? Clearly, Nick has issues.
The standard interpretation is that Nick is a shell-shocked military veteran who has returned from the grinding combat of World War I. Kenneth Lynn, one of Hemingway's biographers, has suggested that the author was disturbed by a quarrel with his mother.
The ultimate source of Nick's troubles hardly matters. The interest lies in how he tries to tame them through ritualistic activities: Step by step, Hemingway portrays him pitching a tent, brewing coffee, and collecting grasshoppers for bait.
Anyone who wants to discover precisely where Nick went fishing won't find a conclusive answer in "Big Two-Hearted River." In Seney, however, Don Reed is happy to help with a few ideas. He's the township supervisor and owner of the Fox River Motel. About once a week during the summer, he says, someone calls or drops by and wants to fish where Hemingway did.
"Trout fishermen don't like to reveal their best spots," he says. "Maybe that's why Hemingway named his story after the Two-Hearted. Everyone around here knows he fished the Fox."
That's the local lore. The truth is that in 1919 Hemingway didn't need a fishing license -- and years later he confessed to using literary license: "The change of name was made purposely, not from ignorance or carelessness but because Big Two-Hearted River is poetry."
Opinions still vary about whether he fished the Fox itself, a swampy branch to the east, or both. "All we can do is approximate," says Mr. Reed.
Hemingway once boasted that on his actual trip to Seney, he and his friends reeled in 200 trout. It would be tough to repeat their catch today, given Michigan's daily limit of five keepers. Yet the fishing may have improved: The riverbanks continue to recover from an era of mass logging, and new tree canopies shade the water. The planet may be warming, but the Fox is possibly cooling -- and trout prefer cool water.
Almost a century later, Hemingway's good place arguably has become a better place. Just don't expect a trout fisherman to tell you that.
Mr. Miller writes for National Review.