Hemingway on Hunting
by Ernest Hemingway
edited by Sean Hemingway
Published by The Lyons Press
320 pages, 2001
Buy it online
Reviewed by Aaron Blanton
I once read that, with an assignment to write a short article on bullfighting for Life magazine, Ernest Hemingway overwrote just the teensiest bit. The story he foisted on his unsuspecting editor was over 100,000 words long. 100,000 words. The word count -- and I don't exaggerate -- of the average longish modern novel.
Same author, different story. Near the end of his life, Hemingway wanted to write about his experiences in Africa. The beast grew beyond all reckoning. When Hemingway threw in the towel on that particular project, it was over 200,000 words long. (Those 200,000 words were whittled down to size by the author's son, Patrick Hemingway, and published as True At First Light in 1999.)
My point is that, despite the fact that Hemingway is noted for his sparse, clear prose, he wrote a lot. He wrote an awful lot. And he edited a lot. And, on occasion and like all good writers must, he wrote stuff that he felt was so dreadful he presumably put it in a drawer and forgot about it. And now, it seems, when enterprising offspring or offspring of offspring need a special project, they haul out one of Papa's rejects and start hammering away at it. Or, as I said, so it would seem. I have to surmise, you see, because the reason that much of Hemingway on Hunting has never been published before is not fully explained in the book. And just over 40 years after the author's death and 102 years after his birth and with much of his published prose as fresh and intriguing now as it ever was, we can take the reasons for the work's previous withholding. Whatever it is. In fact, even if Hemingway thought something was simply too terrible to publish, we want to know: facts like these have relevance to us now. They have become, after all this time, historical postscripts to the body of his work.
In Hemingway on Hunting, however, no such explanations are on offer and I miss them. In fairness, fully two thirds of the book is collected from previously published work. Some of this is writing that is easy to find elsewhere. For instance, hunting-related excerpts from A Farewell to Arms and Green Hills of Africa have been included, as well as one essay each from For Whom the Bell Tolls and Across the River and Into the Trees. More difficult to track down are the hunting-related magazine pieces Hemingway wrote -- mostly from the 1930s and the 1950s -- published in periodicals as varied as Look, Esquire and The Toronto Star Weekly. Included, also, are several selections from the aforementioned True At First Light.
Each section of Hemingway On Hunting is prefaced with quotes from letters Hemingway wrote to various people:
"Everybody loses all the bloom -- we're not peaches -- that doesn't mean you get rotten -- a gun is better worn and with bloom off -- So is a saddle -- People too by God."
These vignettes of Hemingway the man add greatly to Hemingway on Hunting: his uncensored thoughts to friends. A pleasing peek inside the private Hemingway.
As a themed collection Hemingway on Hunting works quite well. It's clear from every aspect of the book that hunting was one of the author's great passions, even if this wasn't already something that was widely known about him. The photographs included depict this as well as anything. Shown with lions in Africa, elk and grizzly at Nordquist and teaching various offspring about manly, outdoor things, Papa looks more relaxed than in other less rugged environs.
Another nice touch is "A Brief Hunter's Chronology," which is an outline of E.H.'s life as a hunter and so we learn that on July 30, 1915, Hemingway illegally shot a blue heron and then ran away from a game warden and that, on December 30, 1954, he was appointed an Honorary Game Warden of Kenya. (Though these two tidbits almost side by side seem somewhat ironic, it's still a nice touch.)
In his introduction to Hemingway on Hunting, editor Sean Hemingway -- grandson of Ernest and nephew of Patrick -- writes that, in much of the author's writing on hunting, "Hemingway is trying to get the feeling of the hunt, not just a depiction of it. This includes not only the process of hunting, the actions leading up to the kill, but as many different dimensions as possible: the country, the weather, the element of chance, the hunter's thoughts, and, if conceivable, the perspective of the hunted."
Despite the similarity of titles and covers and the fact that your local library or bookstore would shelve them very close together, Hemingway on Hunting should not be confused with Hunting With Hemingway. The latter is a charming retelling of family adventure stories co-written by Ernest's niece, Hilary Hemingway. The book, originally published in 2000, was published in paperback in mid-2001. Papa's legacy lives on. And on. And on. | January 2002
Aaron Blanton is an expatriate Kentuckian writer and musician living outside of the United States.