Big Two-Hearted River (Parts I and II)
What begins as a really detailed description of a guy trying to catch a fish is actually one of the greatest American short stories of all time. Hey, maybe it's no coincidence that when Ernest Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for literature towards the end of his career, it was in part for another story about a man trying to catch a fish called The Old Man and the Sea. Maybe you've heard of it. But way back before he was the greatest thing since sliced bread, Hemingway wrote "Big Two-Hearted River," and it was published in 1925 when he was just twenty-six.
When you think of Hemingway stories, you've probably been conditioned to think of the usual cocktail of macho fare: war, hunting, bullfighting, and drinking like all the booze in the world is going to disappear tomorrow. Sure, we've come to expect that of Hemingway, the literary giant who wrote A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises, but "Big Two-Hearted River" was the first big Hemingway story, and it won him some of his first street cred.
Alright, so if it's not just about a guy trying to catch a fish, then what’s it about? "Big Two-Hearted River" is about Nick Adams, a character that appears in many Hemingway stories, like "Indian Camp" and "The Killers." Hemingway takes Nick through various stages of life, from boyhood to adulthood, and in "Big Two-Hearted River" Nick is a young man who has just come back to Michigan on a fishing trip after serving in World War I and is suffering from what was then called shell shock. Only, the war is never mentioned. Like, at all.
How can a story be about war and never mention it, you ask? The genius of the story lies in how Hemingway shows us Nick's condition through the way he interacts with the most mundane of mundane objects—like in the way he opens a can of apricots, or how he feels when he gets close to a swamp. Hemingway famously said that he wanted to be able to convey ideas and feelings under the surface of the writing without actually stating them outright, and "Big Two-Hearted River" is a perfect example of that.
So, how do you talk about something without talking about it? Read the story and find out.
Why Should I Care?
First off, let’s just say that if you are a Hemingway buff in any way, shape, or form, then you must read this story. Fell in love with A Farewell to Arms? Cried at the end of For Whom the Bell Tolls? Took up bullfighting as a hobby after reading Death in the Afternoon? “Big Two-Hearted River” has all of the Hemingway elements: simple prose, vivid settings, and icebergs of human drama. This is another one of those stories that goes right for the heartstrings.
But what about those of you who are just setting foot on the Hemingway road? Well fear not, because “Big Two-Hearted River” has loads to offer you too. You know when something is just a little off with one of your friends or loved ones? Maybe they aren’t talking as much, maybe they just seem… different than they usually are. And when you ask them about it, they tell you that nothing is wrong, but you know, because you’re perceptive. But how do you know? Maybe they do things a little (and we mean a little) differently, and that’s enough to make sirens go off in your head.
Or, you could easily flip the situation and say that you sometimes feel off, and maybe you can’t quite pin down why. You try to act normal like everything is the same, but it’s not. You even try to convince yourself that things are the same, but people still notice. How do they notice? What are you doing differently? How do you account for your feelings?
Listen: “Big Two-Hearted River” is all about a guy trying not to lose control over his emotions—emotions that he can’t really explain. You might not be suffering from shell shock like he is, but you’ve probably been in an emotionally fragile place at some point or another, and tried to push it aside so that it wouldn’t get to you. He handles it by going fishing. How do you handle it?