Back to the Classics: The Old Man and the Sea

Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (1952)

I’ve never been drawn to reading Hemingway, never got pulled into the mythology around him. I’d heard his language was simple — some said to the point of being a simplistic sort of “he-man” utterance, even though others lauded it as a pillar of modernism. I wasn’t that interested in modernism, and I wasn’t made to read him in school, so I gave him a miss. But when I was compiling my list of Books for Adult English Learners, this one was frequently recommended (it’s also often taught in high school). And I decided to have a look. What was Hemingway all about, anyway? Was he worth reading?

The Old Man and the Sea is not a novel; it’s barely even a story. It’s more of an extended metaphor, based on a tale that Hemingway heard spoiler alert! about an old Cuban fisherman who went on an epic fish-hunt for a giant marlin that was then eaten to the bone by sharks on his way home.

Yes, that’s all that happens. There is little of external interest, unless you are very interested in deep-sea fishing. And at first I thought I would be bored, but the metaphor got a hold of me, through its very limitations. Though I knew how the story would end, thanks to an introduction from the publisher that gives everything away, I was still compelled to keep reading until the man had lost everything he set out for, all his hopes, all his dreams. Yet, “a man can be destroyed, but not defeated,” he says.

It sounds like a macho anthem, man fighting against a hostile world, but the old man also expresses respect and wonder for his fishy prey, and even for the sharks who devour it. They act only according to their nature, while he blames himself for “going out too far.” And there is a young boy who cares for him and admires him and who meets him on his return — without that boy, this would be a bleak and violent fable indeed. But with him, I think it turns into something more; a reminder that we all will be devoured by the forces of nature, down to the bone, and it is only the relationships we have made, the ties of love and connection, that will remain.

The language is indeed simple, but not overly so.  The old man expresses his thoughts (sometimes out loud, for no particular reason) in a sort of peasant poetical style that is not very realistic for a poor Cuban fisherman, but without it there would not be much of a book. I found it readable enough, and I would read Hemingway again — though I understand he can be very uneven.

Have you read Hemingway? What would you recommend?

Back to the Classics: Classic with Nature in the Title


Classics Club: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969)

The publication of Maya Angelou’s autobiography (which eventually took up seven volumes) was a real landmark in many ways. It was a frank and deeply personal exploration of the Black American experience, from the chaos following slavery to our own muddled times. It gave voice to hidden and repressed aspects of experience — abuse, violation, family dysfunction — that were barely acknowledged at the time. It was a woman speaking about human things, universal things, with power and authority, while embracing her own female sensibility.

Today, we could tend to forget how revolutionary this really was. We are flooded with all kinds of personal narratives, including every variety of harm and abuse one person can do another, and from many shades on the spectrum of gender, race, culture, religion. The abundance can be desensitizing, as well as enlightening. But Maya’s brave, brutal telling of her early life still has the power to shock and awaken us; it lifts up the messy and painful stuff of life as only a poet can.

I do not know why I never read this book until now. Published the year I was born, it was always there, hovering at the edges at my attention. I’m not sorry I waited. If it had been thrust upon me in school, even with an extraordinarily sensitive teacher, I think it would have been one of those books I pushed away because it opened up places I did not want to look into. It’s only now that I’ve been through a little bit of the mill of life — though not as much as Maya, who has gone through about 50 times as much as any ordinary human — that I can begin to appreciate some of what she is offering to us, the open wound that became her source of creativity, her song.

(I want to be clear that I am not in favor of censoring any book — the inclusion of this one in school curricula has frequently been protested based on its subject matter. But I’m also not much in favor of required reading for teenagers. Too many books were spoiled for me that way.)

After finally reading Caged Bird, I went on to read the other six books of Maya Angelou’s autobiography. This is the most brilliant, the most poetic, a real cry from the heart; that energy dissipates somewhat in later volumes, though they are still fascinating to read. There you will also find alternate and sometimes contradictory versions of various events — reminding us that memoir writing is not an exact science.

But it’s not for scientific facts that you will read the books. Read them for the chance to slip into another life, to look through the eyes of a woman who saw the greatest pain and suffering the world had to offer, and who responded by becoming a creator, an artist, a speaker of the message of love. That is something we could all stand to learn.

Classics Club list #58


Literary Pilgrimages: Salem, Mass.

As I prepare to leave New England, at least for the time being, there are lots of places I still haven’t visited and would like to. So I’m making an effort to do some of these long-deferred trips, even if it means putting off some other important tasks.

One of these places is Salem, Massachusetts, site of the infamous Witch Trials in 1692. One can’t help but wonder whether the individuals behind that particular episode of persecution would have done so if they’d known it would cause their town to become a tourist mecca focused on occult pursuits, with spooky museums, crystal readers, and body piercing parlors thronging the streets.

It’s a weird twist on that tortured history, for sure. Such kitschiness was not my personal reason for visiting Salem, however. It’s also the hometown of the great American author Nathaniel Hawthorne and contains many memories of his life and work, including the Custom House described at length in his prologue to The Scarlet Letter, and the original House of the Seven Gables.

The House of the Seven Gables is now a museum and Hawthorne’s birthplace has been moved to the site as well, along with several other historic buildings. A tour took us into the labyrinthine depths of the house and its history, which later owners retrofitted to suit Hawthorne’s invented narrative.

Gables that had been removed over the centuries were restored, a “cent shop” was added to represent a scene in the novel, and a secret staircase was even put in to explain the mysterious comings and goings of one of the characters. Literature imitating life, or vice versa?

It made me think some rereading of Hawthorne might be in order during Witch Week. It occurs to me that his dark imaginative vision would be a wonderful subject for this annual celebration, the theme of which this year is Villains.

I also wanted to go to the Peabody Essex Museum, which is one of those small, slightly under-the-radar museums I enjoy the most. There was a lovely special exhibition of American art along with the regular collection. Here I especially liked seeing two paintings by Sophia Hawthorne, Nathaniel’s wife, which she created as an engagement present. In her fanciful views of Italy she included tiny images of the betrothed couple. She had a vivid imagination as well!

Inside the museum is also an entire house that was brought over from China, showing evidence of its eight generations of history. It really felt like being transported to another world.

There would have been much more to see in Salem, but I ran out of time. Still, I’m glad I got at least a glimpse — and I encourage any visitors to New England to give it a look. There’s much to learn and to explore.

Classics Club: Invisible Man

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)

Race is a topic I’m reluctant to even approach here on the blog. I’m mindful of my privileged status and hesitant to make any pronouncements about people whose experience I cannot truly share or comprehend. However, I do not think it’s helpful to isolate ourselves in separate racial camps and decide we can never understand each other. So through reading, I do try to understand, bit by bit. It’s one of the main benefits of reading for me — to be able to enter into the experience of another person who is profoundly different from me, and find our common humanity.

Today more than ever, were are confronted with the profoundly American dilemma of how the rise of one group of people to freedom and dominance has been intrinsically linked with the subjugation of another group. Complacent liberal “colorblindness” does not address this fundamental inequality, nor its persistent hold on our psyche. I’m so grateful for some of the books written out of the black experience that have helped me to have insight into this phenomenon and its implications for our present and future. It’s something we must all wrestle with in our own way, I feel.

Invisible Man is a novel that powerfully explores the rage and dismay and strange triumph that can arise out of such wrestling, making it a key text for our time. I never encountered it in school, somehow, though I saw lots of my friends reading it. To be honest, I would not have gotten much out of it as an adolescent, so I’m glad I waited until now, when it came up for me in the Classics Club Spin. I found it a highly suitable book to read at this time of questioning and searching for how our country’s racial wounds might finally, someday, find healing.

As he travels from his home in the South to New York City, Ellison’s unnamed narrator goes through a mythic, archetypal journey, from unguarded innocence to bitter experience to a hard-won, tenuous sense of integrity. But this modern hero has a harder foe than the dragons and monsters of old. The people around him, both black and white, create an ever-shifting panorama of idealism, deception, promise, betrayal, compassion, violence, suffering, and potential transformation that causes him to question the very nature of reality and of his own self. To all these other people he seems to be “invisible,” merely a function of their own wishes and desires — but can he discover some ground of reality within himself? What is lasting, what is true? And how can he live in a world that seems to only want to manipulate and destroy?

Though Ellison vividly describes many horrific scenes (a wrestling match pitting black boys against one another for the amusement of white men; experiments done on the narrator while in the hospital; the culminating race riot in Harlem) it’s the inner quest for meaning and wholeness that draws us through the nightmare. This is a universal experience, whether we find it in outer trials of segregation and discrimination, or in the inner struggle against such forces in our own being.

There may seem to be little hope or gentle, natural light in the book, which the narrator writes from a basement bunker he’s illuminated for himself with stolen electric power. But as he prepares to return to the world, he shares with us some extraordinary insights: “Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in the face of certain defeat. Our fate is to become one, and yet many — This is not prophecy, but description.”

And nearly at the end, this:

The very act of trying to put it all down has confused me and negated some of the anger and some of the bitterness. So it is that I denounce and defend, or feel prepared to defend. I condemn and affirm, say no and say yes, say yes, and say no. I denounce because though implicated and partially responsible, I have been hurt to the point of abysmal pain, hurt to the point of invisibility. And I defend because in spite of all I find that I love. In order to get some of it down I have to love. I sell you no phony forgiveness. I’m a desperate man — but too much of your life will be lost, its meaning lost, unless you approach it as much through love as through hate. So I approach it through division. So I denounce and I defend and I hate and I love.

This divided consciousness is our modern heritage, and so is the truth that the only way through despair is love. Our fate indeed is to become one, and yet many. By such contradictory, baffling paths as that traveled by Ellison’s invisible man, we may approach this distant goal and find that it is already here.

Classics Club List #64


New Release Review: The Maze at Windermere

Gregory Blake Smith, The Maze at Windermere (2018)

As regular readers of this blog know, I have the joy and honor of being a graduate of Carleton College (model for Blackstock College in the novel Tam Lin – click on the link for a tour). So when I learned one of my favorite professors in the English department there had just published a new novel, I couldn’t wait to read it and share it with you. I’m glad to say that it fully met and exceeded my expectations, and I hope that you’ll welcome it as well.

Set in Newport, Rhode Island, across more than three centuries, The Maze at Windermere takes us through a panorama of history as seen through the eyes of five memorable characters: a washed-up tennis pro, a predatory social climber, a budding novelist, a British spymaster during the Revolution, and an orphaned Quaker girl. Their stories are told in turn through several cycles, slowly revealing the similar themes and motifs that can guide such very different lives. At the conclusion, these narratives begin to meet and merge in a quicker and less orderly alternation, coming together into a whole that closes some gaps, but leaves some still tantalizingly open.

Having been at various overlapping times a bastion of religious freedom, a commercial center, an important military base, a playground for the rich, and a breeding ground for artists, Newport is a small but fascinating location from which to explore American history and culture. Smith’s command of different voices and points of view is dazzling — including writing in the voice of the young Henry James, which would seem quite daunting for any novelist. He moves seemingly without effort from one narrative to the next, writing in sometimes in first person, sometimes in third person, completely changing his tone and style while somehow retaining a sense of the underlying unity of his story. It’s quite an impressive achievement.

Fortunately, Maze never descends to being a mere parlor trick or showing off the writer’s verbal facility. At its heart are questions about life, the world, and our place in it that play out differently for each one of us, yet are always the same throughout the mortal journey we all share. How do we form connections that leave one another free? How do we embody our desires in a way that honors the deepest parts of ourselves, and of the other person? Some of Smith’s characters grow in their progress toward self-knowledge, while others make questionable moral choices. But by means of the healing distance of fiction, all stories can contribute to our own learning.

I was first introduced to the idea of the “nine cities of Newport” through Thornton Wilder’s novel Theophilus North, which remains one of my favorite novels. The Maze at Windermere will go on the shelf alongside it as another marvelous evocation not just of this particular place, but of the puzzling, mysterious, frustrating, exhilarating endeavor we call life. I hope you will enter this fictional maze, and maybe find a new favorite as well.