Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Existential Emptiness of Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams

The Existential Emptiness of Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams

Here’s an ironic story. While an English major at Princeton, I wrote an earlier draft of this essay in April 1975 as a paper for Prof. Carlos Baker for a class I took with him on American Literature. At that time, Prof. Baker was considered perhaps the leading authority on Hemingway in the country. When he returned the paper to me, he did me the great honor of telling me that I had offered some insights about the character of Nick Adams and Hemingway that were new to him.

Two months later, I learned that Prof. Baker took a quotation from my paper and used it as a question on the English department’s graduate Comprehensive Exams (the Comps, as they were known). Unsuspecting graduate students, when they sat down to take their Comps, were confronted with this test question: “According to Wolcott Wheeler, American literature is populated by a series of escapist males, beginning with Rip Van Winkle and leading up to Natty Bumppo, Ishmael, Huck Finn, and Hurstwood of Sister Carrie, all men who follow the dictum, ‘When in doubt, run away.’ Provide examples to support or invalidate Wheeler’s claim.”

When I learned of this (and I was very honored), I could only laugh, because all I could imagine was troops of English grad students running over to Firestone Library after the Comps to check out the critical works of Wolcott Wheeler to see if they’d gotten the answer right!

Prof. Baker was an interesting and colorful character. He was parodied by Saul Bellow in Humboldt’s Gift (they taught together at Princeton in the Fifties), but I remember him for his brush-cut silver hair, his twinkling eyes, his omnipresent pipe, and his gruff, humorous manner. He was my University Scholar advisor and a terrific mentor. He retired at the end of my senior year, and second semester, senior year, I took his farewell class in Modern Literature; he had been a close friend of Robert Frost’s and interviewed Ezra Pound for his monumental Hemingway biography, Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story (1969).

In a crowded lecture hall, I’ll never forget his amazing recitation of Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium,” about death and transcendence, both topics that were clearly uppermost on his mind as he approached the end of his life.

The poem reads:

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,

Prof. Baker read the poem in his deep, emotional baritone, with rich expressiveness, and when he came to “Soul clap its hands and sing!”, he flung his arms out exultantly at the word “sing!” and gazed up at the heavens like Father Mapple delivering his heartfelt sermon. It was a soaring, unforgettable moment—the man was really expressing his innermost emotions, through great literature—and it showed me what a great teacher is really like.

I’ve long had a soft spot for Hemingway in my heart, ever since reading A Farewell to Arms in high school, but I think there’s no question that The Sun Also Rises is his greatest work and the finest first novel in American literature. The book epitomizes the dictum that action is character, and through dialogue the characters come alive. No one is all good or all bad, and everyone has very understandable reasons for what they do. It’s like real life.

I’ve always been fascinated by the character of Robert Cohn, the sensitive character that everyone picks on, and I’ve always stuck up for him. Many readers don’t realize that Jake Barnes is an unreliable narrator. He opens the book with: “Robert Cohn was once the middleweight boxing champion of Princeton. Do not think that I was very much impressed by that as a boxing title, but it meant a lot of Cohn.”

Hey Jake, if it’s so unimportant, then why do you mention it right off the bat? Jake clearly envies Cohn, because Cohn still retains that sensitivity and caring that Jake lost in the First World War. Cohn is his Conradian secret sharer, his alter ego, the Romantic self that he can never allow himself to be—just as Jay Gatsby is Nick Carraway’s secret sharer in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, published a year earlier in 1925.

The real-life characters of The Sun Also Rises, Pamplona, 1925: Hemingway (Jake Barnes), Harold Loeb (Robert Cohn), Lady Duff Twysden (Lady Brett), Hadley, Don Stewart and Pat Guthrie

I first read The Sun Also Rises during the upheaval of the late Sixties, and the novel’s portrait of a Lost Generation shipwrecked by history resonated strongly to those of who grew up with the JFK assassination, the civil right struggle, and the Vietnam War. It’s the classic fictional portrait of how history can shape a generation’s character and destiny, and it’s one of the most widely imitated novels in American literature. It’s the book I always refer aspiring writers to when they ask me, How do you write a novel? Hemingway shows us.

* * * * *

"Hollow And Happy Inside”: The Personality of Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams

Hemingway's In Our Time marked a revolution in the development of the American short story. It carried realism a step beyond Sherwood Anderson and thrust American literature full-tilt into modernism. But through his autobiographical protagonist, Nick Adams, Hemingway records a multitude of disturbing observations about the hollowness of American character, and his existential depiction of Nick Adams’ emotional and spiritual emptiness is as bleak as anything declared in the work of Samuel Beckett.

When Ernest Hemingway's In Our Time first appeared in print in 1925, D.H. Lawrence reviewed it. I will quote his brilliant and bitter review in its entirety because Lawrence is voicing an interpretation of Hemingway and Nick Adams that will be voiced by critics up to Leslie Fiedler in his influential Love and Death in the American Novel. Lawrence's reaction to this latest stage of the evolution of American literature follows:

In Our Time is the last of the four American books, and Mr. Hemingway has accepted the goal. He keeps on making flights, but he has no illusions about landing anywhere. He knows it will be nowhere every time. In Our Time calls itself a book of stories, but it isn't that. It is a series of successive sketches from a man's life, and makes a fragmentary novel. The first scenes, by one of the big lakes in America—probably Superior—are the best when Nick is a boy. Then come fragments of war--on the Italian front. Then a soldier back home, very late, in a little town way west in Oklahoma. Then a young American and his wife in post-war Europe; a long sketch about an American jockey in Milan and Paris; then Nick is back again in the Lake Superior region, getting off the train at a burnt-out town, and tramping across the empty country to camp by a trout-stream. Trout is the one passion life has left him—and this won't last long.

It is a short book; and it does not pretend to be about one man. But it is. It is as much as we need to know of the man's life. The sketches are short, sharp, vivid, and most of them excellent. (The "mottoes" in front of them seem a little affected.) And these few sketches are enough to create the man and all his history; we need to know no more.

Nick is the type one meets in the more wild and wooly region of the United States. He is the remains of the lone trapper and cowboy. Nowadays he is educated, and through with everything. It is a state of conscious, accepted indifference to everything except freedom from work and the moment's interest. Mr. Hemingway does it extremely well. Nothing matters. Everything happens. One wants to keep oneself loose. Avoid one thing only: getting connected up. Don't get connected up. If you get held by anything, break it. Don't be held. Break it, and get away. Don't get away with the idea of getting somewhere else. Just get away, for the sake of getting away. Beat it! "Well, boy, I guess I'll beat it." Ah, the pleasure saying that!

Mr. Hemingway's sketches, for this reason, are excellent: so short, like striking a match, lighting a brief sensation cigarette, and it's over. His young love-affair ends as one throws a cigarette-end away. "It isn't fun anymore."—"Everything's gone to hell inside me."

It is really honest. And it explains a great deal of sentimentality. When a thing has gone to hell inside you, your sentimentalism tries to pretend it hasn't. But Mr. Hemingway is through with the sentimentalism. “It isn't fun any more. I guess I'll beat it."

And he beats it, to somewhere else. In the end he'll be a sort of tramp, endlessly moving on for the sake of moving away from where he is. This is a negative goal, and Mr. Hemingway is really good, because he's perfectly straight about it. He is like Krebs, in that devastating Oklahoma sketch: he doesn't love anybody, and it nauseates him to have to pretend he does. He doesn't even want to love anybody: he doesn't want to go anywhere, he doesn't want to do anything. He wants just to lounge around and maintain a healthy sta1e of nothingness inside himself, and an attitude of negation to everything outside himself. And why shouldn't he, since that is exactly and sincerely what he feels? If he really doesn't care, then why should he care? Anyhow, he doesn't. (Italics Lawrence’s.) (1)

A critic whose Studies in Classical American Literature remains a standard in its field, Lawrence is accusing Nick Adams of being the most nihilistic character in American literature; unsaid is the idea that he is merely the latest in the series of escapist males that American literature offers, beginning with Rip Van Winkle and leading up to Natty Bumppo, Ishmael, Huck Finn, and Hurstwood of Sister Carrie, all men who follow the dictum, "When in doubt, run away."

The evidence supporting this view is strong. But Lawrence makes another accusation, as will the critics who follow him; he says that Nick is wholly Hemingway and so represents his creator's views. In this, Lawrence makes the most serious insult to Hemingway that can be made to an artist, by insinuating that the artificer is unaware of the significance of the materials he is molding. I will show that Hemingway supplies us with more than enough evidence in his stories to disprove Lawrence's thesis.

In all his novels, Hemingway deliberately romanticized his experience to produce tragedies. In real life, he was unable to seduce Lady Duff Twysden; in The Sun Also Rises, Jake Barnes, standing in for the author, is unable to have sexual relations with his lover, the Lady Brett Ashley, based on Duff Twysden, because his genitals were mutilated in the First World War.

The "key" to the roman a clef of The Sun Also Rises

After being wounded, Hemingway bore an unrequited love for his nurse, Agnes Kurowsky; in A Farewell to Arms, the characters based on them, Lieutenant Henry and Catharine Barkley, carry on an ideal and very sexual love affair.

Yet when he wrote about the very same experience with Agnes Kurowsky in "A Very Short Story," the result was brutal realism, because Hemingway intended his short stories to speak a very different message.

His Nick Adams stories present no romantic, stoic hero; they portray a young American male becoming initiated into his society in an unflinching fashion.

Hemingway makes it clear how Nick develops as a person. Because Nick's mother retires constantly to her bed with psychosomatic headaches, as shown in "The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife," he is raised almost entirely by his father. When Hemingway describes Nick's father, he could be describing his own father (a suicide), as well as himself:

Like all men with a faculty that surpasses human requirements, his father was very nervous. Then, too, he was sentimental, and, like most sentimental people, he was both cruel and abused. Also, he had much bad luck, and it was not all of it his own. He had died in a trap [by committing suicide] that he had helped only a little to set, and they had all betrayed him in their various ways before he died. All sentimental people are betrayed so many times. (2)

Viewed in retrospect, this passage become chilling, if one considers how well it describes its author and why he died by his own hand. One almost wonders if he was being prophetic. When he tells us what education in life he received from his father, Nick is most revealing:

…he was very grateful to him for two things: fishing and shooting. His father was as sound on those two things as he was unsound on sex, for instance, and Nick was glad it had been that way… It [outdoorsmanship] was a passion that had never slackened and he was very grateful to his father for bringing him to know it.

While for the other, that his father was not sound about, all the equipment you will ever have is provided and each man learns all there is for him to know about it without advice; and it makes no difference where you live. (3)

Hemingway goes out of his way to show us what effect this upbringing has had on Nick's sexual attitudes. A little later in the story, "Fathers and Sons," he presents us with Nick's sexual initiation with Trudy, a local Indian girl. After having made love with her several times, Nick gets tired of it and becomes more interested in going out hunting with her brother Billy.

"Got to go home," Nick said.

"No," said Trudy.

"I got to get there for supper."

"All right."

"You can have the squirrel."

"All right."

"Come out after supper?"


"How you feel?"


"All right."

"Give me kiss on the face," said Trudy. (4)

Not only is Nick brushing her off after she has given herself to him repeatedly, he has separated his feelings of affection from his physical passion; when he leaves, Trudy has to ask him to kiss her.

Mr. Adams teaches his son another important lesson: how to ignore what is unpleasant. True, we must all exercise this response at times to prevent ourselves from becoming overwhelmed with horror. But Hemingway tells us how this attitude grows in Nick to, in effect, deaden him to feeling.

In this way Mr. Adams resembles Harry of "The Snows of Kilimanjaro." Referring to those who hurt others, Harry thinks:

He had been contemptuous of those who wrecked. You did not have to like it because you understood it. He could beat anything, he thought, because no thing could hurt him if he did not care. (5)

In Mr. Adams' case it is much the same. In "Indian Camp," he takes Nick with him to deliver the baby of an Indian woman. There, Nick learns how to react to human suffering.

Just then the woman cried out.

"Oh, Daddy, can't you give her something to make her stop screaming?" asked Nick.

"No. I haven't any anaesthetic," his father said. "But her screams are not important. I don't hear them because they are not important." (6)

In "Ten Indians," when Mr. Adams relates to his son the news that he knows will break his son's heart, that he caught his son's sweetheart with another boy, "His father was not looking at him." (7) When his son breaks down into tears, Mr. Adams’ reaction is equally detached.

His father got up from the table and went out the kitchen screen door. When he came back Nick was looking at his plate. He had been crying.

"Have some more?" His father picked up the knife to cut the pie.

"No," said Nick.

"You better have another piece."

"No, I don't want any."

His father cleared off the table.

"Where were they in the woods?" Nick asked.

"Up back of the camp." Nick looked at his plate.

His father said, "You better go to bed, Nick."

"All right.” (8)

Never does Mr. Adams express sympathy to his son. His solution is to offer him another piece of pie, and when that fails, to order him to bed. It is evident that Nick has already begun to absorb this atmosphere of emotional detachment. He never looks at his father to express has hurt feelings. "Nick looked at his plate."

In "The Killers," none of the characters look at each other, and Hemingway holds them up as negative exemplars to the reader. None of them is able to regard each other as human being either, and so they are unable to look into each other's souls.

Max and Al are the ultimate tough guys; they have hardened to the point where they are willing to kill “just to oblige a friend, bright boy." (9) After Al herds Nick and Sam into the back of the lunch counter, Max is unable, or unwilling, to look at George as they begin their conversation. "The man called Max sat at the counter opposite George. He didn't look at George but looked in the mirror that ran along the back of the counter." (10)

Lee Marvin and Clu Culager in the 1964 film adaptation of The Killers

After Max and Al have left, Nick goes to warn their intended victim. Ole Andreson is the tough guy who has given up, and he too is unable to look at Nick. Hemingway emphasizes this point constantly in their conversation. "He lay with his head on two pillows. He did not look at Nick." (10) "He looked at the wall." (11) A little later, "Ole Andreson rolled over toward the wall. ‘The only thing is,’ he said, talking toward the wall..."(13) Then, "He looked at the wall." (14) At the end of the conversation, when Nick realizes that Ole is unwilling to resist his own murder, he decides to leave.

"I better go back and see George." Nick said.

"So long," said Ole Andreson. He did not look toward Nick. "Thanks for coming around."

Nick went out. As he shut the door he saw Ole Andreson with all his clothes on, lying on the bed looking at the wall. (15)

This is Nick's initiation to evil, in the form of violence and murder. He is introduced to a world where, as Yeats said, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity." (16) When faced with these negative adult exemplars, the malevolent Max and Al and the defeatist Ole, Nick follows his father's teachings by blotting the situation out of his mind and running away.

"I'm going to get out of this town," Nick said.

"Yes," said George. "That's a good thing to do."

"I can't stand to think about him waiting in the room and knowing he's going to get it. It's too damned awful."

"Well," said George, "you better not think about it.” (17)

And of course, Nick will follow George's advice, because he has no way of coping with evil. Certainly his father has supplied him with no moral framework with which to face it, and his society has neglected the same. And without resistance, Max and Al and their brothers in totalitarian regimes will go on killing.

Warsaw ghetto uprising, 1944

On a larger scale, this behavior pattern led to the appeasement of the Thirties, which of course resulted in the Second World War. Possibly Hemingway recognized this trend and decided to present it in a microcosmic situation. In any event, he makes his point clear: evil will triumph when good men do nothing.


In "The End of Something," Hemingway records the death of one of Nick's youthful love affairs. Here we can see how his attitudes toward sex have molded his attitudes toward women.

He breaks off his relationship with Marjorie because of the fact that since her outdoors skills are as proficient as his, she has become his equal. This comes out in a segment of revealing dialogue.

"You know everything," Nick said.

"Oh, Nick, please cut it out! Please, please don't be that way!"

"I can't help it," Nick said. "You do. You know everything. That's the trouble. You know you do."

Marjorie did not say anything.

"I've taught you everything. You know you do. What don't you know, anyway?" (18)

In a veiled way, Nick may also be referring to the sexual knowledge he has imparted to her in the course of their relationship; he may be irritated now that he no longer holds the sexually superior position. Whatever the case may be, his pattern of behavior is holding; he cannot look at her.

Nick looked on at the moon, coming up over the hills.

"It isn't fun anymore."

He was afraid to look at Marjorie. Then he looked at her. (19)

The aftermath of the relationship is presented in "The Three-Day Blow," and here Lawrence's analysis of Nick's personality holds up. Nick abdicates all responsibility for having terminated the love affair; and when he does have glimmers of perception to the contrary, he quickly extinguishes them.

"I couldn't help it," Nick said.

"I know. That's the way it works out," Bill said.

"All of a sudden everything is over," Nick said.

"I don't know why it was. I couldn't help it. Just like when the three-day blows come now and rip all the leaves off the trees."

"Well, it's over. That's the point," Bill said.

"It was my fault," Nick said.

"It doesn't make any difference whose fault it was," Bill said.

"No, I suppose not," Nick said. (10)

While they discuss the end of the affair, Bill solidly supports Nick. Raised with the same mentality, Bill serves to reinforce Nick's attitudes.

"So long as it's over is all that matters," Bill said. "I tell you, Wemedge, I was worried while it was going on. You played it right...."

"All of a sudden it was all over," Nick said. "I oughtn't to talk about it."

"You aren't," Bill said. "I talked about it and now I'm through. We won't ever speak about it again. You don't want to think about it. You might get back into it again."

Nick had not thought about that. It had seemed so absolute. That made him feel better.

"Sure," he said. "There's always that danger."

He felt happy now. There was not anything that was irrevocable. He might go into town Saturday night. Today was Thursday. (21)

Just so that we won’t miss it, Hemingway emphasizes that by drifting through this state of blissful numbness (helped, true, by alcohol), Nick will continue to run away.

He felt happy. Nothing was finished. Nothing was ever lost. He would go into town Saturday. (22)

Outside now this Marge business was no longer so tragic. It was not even very important. The wind blew everything like that away. (23)

None of it was important now. The wind blew it out of his head. Still he could always go into town Saturday night. It was a good thing to have in reserve. (24)

The bon vivant hanging out with former heavyweight champion Jack Demsey

The icon of Forties cafe society at the Stork Club

Clearly personal relationships are unimportant to Nick; and in a naturalistic fashion, Hemingway is telling us that by continuing to think in this way, Nick is never going to change. With nothing but himself to hold him secure, Nick cracks up in the First World War in “A Way You’ll Never Be.” In "Now I Lay Me," he is unable to sleep. Of course he does not know why; as we have seen, he is unwilling to examine himself honestly. When John, his Italian orderly, asks him, "What's the matter?", he answers, "I don't know. I can't sleep." Later in the conversation John says:

"Say, Signor Tenente, is there something really the matter that you can't sleep? I never see you sleep. You haven't slept nights since I been with you."

"I don't know. John," I said. I got in pretty bad shape along early last spring and at night it bothers me."

"Just like I am," he said. "I shouldn't have ever got in this war. I'm too nervous." (26)

Nick cannot sleep because his nerves were shattered when he broke down in "A Way You'll Never Be" after confronting the horror of war equipped with no defenses. This is natural, considering how Hemingway informed us in "The Killers" that Nick has no way of facing death, rampant in war. As in "The Killers," John is an adult exemplar, and like George his advice is faulty.

"You got to get all right. A man can't get along that don't sleep. Do you worry about anything? You got anything on your mind?"

"No, John, I don't think so."

"You ought to get married, Signer Tenente. Then you wouldn't worry." (27)

Of course nothing is on Nick's mind. He is only terrified of death, the ultimate nothing.

I myself did not want to sleep because I had been living for a long time with the knowledge that if I ever shut my eyes in the dark and let myself go, my soul would go out of my body. I had been that way for a long time, ever since I had been blown up at night and felt it go out of me and go off and then come back. (28)

But the only way that Nick can shut John up is by promising to get married, and so he does. The story ends with, "...I know he would feel very badly if he knew that, so far, I have never married. He was going back to America and he was very certain about marriage and knew it would fix up everything." (29)

Ironically, after curing himself through necessary isolation once home, in "Big Two-Hearted River," Nick does marry, as we find in "Cross-Country Snow." There we find him skiing with a friend named George (not the same George of “The Killers”). Nick has married presumably because he feels he should, and his wife Helen is pregnant. Yet he still wishes to relinquish his responsibility, a dangerous desire for a family man.

If he could have his way, he would spend the rest of his life skiing with George, and when George says, "Gee, Nick, don't you wish we could just bum together?" (30) he is both voicing Nick's yearning and fitting Lawrence's description: "In the end he'll be a sort of tramp, endlessly moving on for the sake of moving away from where he is."

George also wants to drift, but he knows he must return to college to get an education, in order to fulfill society's expectations of him, which Nick satisfied by marriage. Yet it is clear that both men want to rebel against the responsibilities that they feel have been imposed upon them.

"Is Helen going to have a baby?" George said, coming down to the table from the wall.



"Late next summer."

"Are you glad?"

"Yes. Now."

"Will you go back to the States?"

"I guess so."

"Do you want to?"


"Does Helen?"


George sat silent. He looked at the empty bottle and the empty glasses.

"It's hell, isn't it?"

"No. Not exactly," Nick said.

"Why not?"

"I don't know," Nick said. (31)

By his last remark, Nick makes it obvious that it is hell for him, just as Hemingway makes it obvious that the empty bottle and glasses that George stares at are symbols of their empty lives that they are examining in the scene and that are being revealed to us. At the end of the story the two friends part, knowing they will never see each other again or enjoy each other's company another time. How they might handle their responsibilities in the future, now that they are deprived of one of their few pleasures in life, is an uncomfortable thought.

In "Fathers and Sons," Hemingway allows us to see how the burden of his responsibilities has come to affect Nick. Nick is driving with his young son beside him and reflecting on the relationship he had with his own father. For all of the affectionate reminiscences he indulges in, some to be found in the second and third quotations of this essay, we learn that Nick remembers his father infrequently, and even when he does, the memory soon fades.

Now, as he rode along the highway in the car and it was getting dark, Nick was all through thinking about his father. The end of the day never made him think of him. The end of the day had always belonged to Nick alone and he never felt right unless he was alone with it. His father came back to him in the fall of the year, or in the early spring…. [there follows a series of images which Nick associates with his father] The towns he lived in were not towns his father knew. After he was fifteen he had shared nothing with him. (31)

Then we discover that because of a minor incident, Nick once came close to blasting his father apart with a shotgun. We can see that Nick's relationship with his father was hardly a healthy one, and ended after he was fifteen.

The passage in the above quotation that describes how Nick needs to be alone with himself in his mind suggestss that he is reacting to the weight of his responsibilities by isolating himself psychologically. This hint is borne out after Nick's reverie is broken when his son asks him a question.

"I don't know." Nick was startled. He had not even noticed the boy was awake. He looked at him sitting beside him on the seat. He had felt quite alone but this boy had been with him. He wondered for how long. (33)

He regards his own son as a stranger. Hemingway suggests that he might becoming detached in another way—from hunting, the one thing his father taught him.

And about the other. When you have shot one bird flying you have shot all birds flying. They are all different and they fly in different ways but the sensation is the same and the last one is as good as the first. He could thank his father for that. (34)

This last passage is highly ambiguous, especially the final statement. It would appear that Nick is becoming deadened to the pleasures of hunting; all the birds he shoots seem the same to him. In a flash of insight, has he recognized that he has acquired his detachment from his father, and is he now laying the blame where it is due? It is difficult to say, but considering the antipathetic feelings that he does bear against his father, coupled with his affectionate ones, I would answer in the affirmative.

Although Lawrence was perfectly correct in his assessment of Nick Adams, I disagree with his position that Nick was purely a reflection of Hemingway. If that were the case, Hemingway would not have bothered to supply us with all of the internal evidence I have cited in reconstructing Nick's personality; the clues that Hemingway drops hold together too well to have been unintentional.

Certainly Hemingway drew on his own experience to write about Nick, but he both distorted and added to his own life to create the stories. We know that Hemingway never did many of the things he had Nick do; and as for the parts of their lives they did share, they reacted to them with vastly different interpretations. For instance, as far as we know, Hemingway did not break down in the First World War, and when he married, he did not feel trapped by his responsibilities to a crippling extent. As we can tell from For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway, unlike Nick, learned the lesson of "The Killers" that appeasement is no solution for aggressive evil.

The supremely committed artist: he fought in Spain against the Fascists in the late Thirties

Twice, when Nick feels acute pleasure, Hemingway describes it with the words, "Nick felt hollow and happy inside," first when he is teased about his girlfriend in "Ten Indians,” and second after he has lost his virginity, in the reverie in "Fathers and Sons." Although it is a literal description of how Nick feels, it is also an ironic one, because as Hemingway shows all through the Nick Adams stories. Nick is hollow. He is emotionally empty. And so it is only fitting that when he experiences what joy he does in his barren life, he feels a pleasant emptiness.

Hollywood's 1962 adaptation of the Nick Adams stories, Hemingway's Adventures As A Young Man

Writing the Nick Adams stories was an act of courage on Hemingway's part, because without a doubt, he injected part of his own personality into Nick, to what extent we can never know. He could not have communicated Nick's spiritual vacuum, which he shows is not entirely Nick's fault, without setting to paper his own "desert places," as Frost called them. No doubt he took the dark side of his personality and rounded it into Nick. In writing the stories, he was admitting his own personal flaws and some of the occasions in which he had felt numb or alienated; but by the act of writing about these feelings, he was proving he was conscious of them and had learned from them.

What became of Nick after "Fathers and Sons" is an open question. His future looks bleak. In the course of the stories, we have seen him as a representative of the American character, growing up in a spiritual vacuum with nothing to sustain him through life except himself. In "Cross-Country Snows" and "Fathers and Sons," we have seen him begin to be overtaken by forces beyond his control. In rebellion he might desert his family or suffer a nervous breakdown. Or he might decide to kill himself.

* * * * *


  1. D.H. Lawrence, "Reviews," The Portable D.H. Lawrence, ed. by Diana Trilling (New York, 1947).pp. 644-57
  2. Ernest Hemingway, "Fathers and Sons." The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway (New York, 1938), pp. 489-490.
  3. Ibid., p. 490.
  4. Ibid., p. 495.
  5. Ibid., p. "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," p. 72.
  6. Ibid., p. "Indian Camp." p. 92.
  7. Ibid., "Ten Indians," p. 335.
  8. Ibid., p. pp. 335-6.
  9. Ibid., "The Killers," p. 283.
  10. Ibid., p. 292.
  11. Ibid., p. 287.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid., p. 288.
  16. William Butler Yeats. "The Second Coming," The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats (New York. 1956), p. 185.
  17. Hemingway, "The Killers," p. 289.
  18. Ibid., "The End of Something," p. 110.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid., "The Three-Day Blow," p. 123.
  21. Ibid., p.124.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Ibid., p. 125.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid.,"Now Lay Me,” p 367.
  26. Ibid., p. 368-9.
  27. Ibid., p. 370.
  28. Ibid.,p. 363.
  29. Ibid.,p. 371.
  30. Ibid.,"Cross-Country Snow," p. l86.
  31. Ibid., p. 187..
  32. Ibid.,"Fathers and Sons," p. 495-6.
  33. Ibid..p. 497.
  34. Ibid.,p. 498.
  35. Ibid., "Ten Indians," p. 332.
  36. Ibid., "Fathers and Sons," p. 493.

Letter to publisher Horace Liveright, 1926, about the forthcoming publication of In Our Time

Some editions of The Sun Also Rises were published under the title Fiesta


Hemingway, Ernest. The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. New York, 1938.

Lawrence, D.H. The Portable D.H. Lawrence, ed. by Diana Trilling. New York, 1947.

Yeats, William Butler. The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats. New York, 1956.

1 comment:

madeline said...

Interesting analysis, Nick Adams's future especially seems dark when viewed in the context of Ernest's own suicide.