Critics seem to agree that "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" is one of Ernest Hemingway's best short stories. That's nothing to sniff at for an author who wrote a lot of really good shorts. This story has even been called "perfect." Now we're talking.
What exactly is so perfect about it? Frankly, it has just about everything you could want in a good page-turner: psychological drama, interpersonal scandals, and, of course, guns. But in addition to the theatrics, it is also an excellent demonstration of Hemingway's famously sparse prose style. The narrator gives us the details, nothing more, but packed in those details is all the psychological nuance of a session with Freud. Oh, and just so you know, "The Short Happy Life" was one of Hemingway's favorites.
"The Short Happy Life" was published in the September 1936 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine, along with "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," another one of Hem's best. (FYI: those in the know refer to him as "Hem" or "Papa" – just choose your favorite.) Hemingway himself referred to "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" and "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" as his African stories because, well, they take place in Africa. But it's also part of a massive body of work that helped to earn Hemingway the Nobel Prize for literature in 1954.
Over the years, "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" has been adapted to both radio and film, with a fair degree of popular success. At the time, having stories dramatized over the radio was a great way to reach a mass audience that didn't yet have televisions. "The Short Happy Life" was broadcast from NBC in Hollywood in 1948, and had an impressive one million listeners. Eventually, the story also became a movie, with a much more John Grisham title, The Macomber Affair.
It's also worth noting that many of Hemingway's novels and stories are based on people and experiences from his own life, and "The Short Happy Life" is no exception. In addition to the fact that Hemingway went on his own safari in the thirties, it's also possible the characters are based on friends of his – author F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda. The pair had a notoriously stormy marriage, and Margot has some eerie similarities to Zelda. Though we can't prove that the Scotts were Hem's inspiration, the parallels can't be denied.
Frankly, though, Hem did not have to go far to find an example of a disastrous marriage. He was smack dab in the middle of one, himself, with a woman named Pauline. Whatever the case, it's clear that marriage and all its drama (with which Hem was utterly familiar) are at the heart of "The Short Happy Life." Get ready for some serious spats on this safari, readers. This is not a tale of marital bliss.
Ever had a grand plan that simply didn't work out? Totally disappointing, right? Well there might just be a chance to reclaim your dignity. We're not suggesting that hunting big animals will save your rep. No, we're merely pointing out that facing your fears doesn't hurt quite as much as you might suspect. Let us explain.
Ernest Hemingway, our author here, was a really macho guy. Impressing other people by accomplishing daring and physical feats mattered a lot to him, and it matters a lot to title character Francis Macomber, too. Unfortunately, Macomber doesn't really have a great support network. His wife is hardly steadfast, and failing to kill that lion gives his lady an opportunity to jump all over him, in a bad way. It doesn't help that Wilson, paragon of manliness is watching it all go down.
Still, that does not stop Macomber. Does he let a hypercritical, cheating wife, a contemptuous mentor, and scornful locals get him down? Nope. He keeps right on going (after moping for a bit), and gets back out on the horse, or, we should say, the hunt.
Hemingway loves men who are working against the odds. "Underdog" might be too strong a word here, but we think you get our point. In Hemingway's world, men must always prove themselves. In Macomber, Hem gives us a model of persistence. He may have mucked it all up on his first attempt at the hunt, but he makes up for it the next day.
So the moral is if you can't shoot a lion, then go shoot a buffalo. In other words, if one challenge proves to be too much, choose another one (we're not about to recommend that you go big game hunting in Africa just to raise your rep). There will always be another challenge to bump up against, and you'll always have another shot at proving yourself. Just remember that in the end, Macomber finds happiness against the odds because he proves his worth to himself.
Full Text of the Story
Ah, the Internet. Now you can keep up with the story, even if you forgot your book at home.
Fun Trivia: The Trivia and Quiz Community
Test your memory with this quiz based on facts and events from the story.
The Art of Manliness
A website dedicated to being a man, featuring Hemingway safaris as a quick way there. Great picture of Hem with a dead lion, just in case you have been hoping for such a thing.
The site includes a short bibliography, a biography, and excerpts from his Nobel acceptance speech, which he did not deliver himself because he could not be present. What a thing to miss.
The Hemingway Resource Center
See and hear the man himself. LostGeneration.com hosts video and audio of Hemingway as well as a clip from the film version of his short novel The Old Man and the Sea.
The Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum
Hem's home in Key West, Florida, chock-full of cats and lush, tropical surroundings!
Hemingway's Last Home in Ketchum, Idaho
Catch a glimpse of the beautiful home where he lived at the end of his life, and where he shot himself in July 2, 1961.
The Macomber Affair (1947)
As mentioned in "What's Up with the Title?" a movie version of the book came out in 1947 and starred Gregory Peck and Joan Bennett, who were A-list stars in their day. The film was put out by United Artists and had big glossy ads in Life, Look, and Collier's. One poster read "A coward… Is he man enough to hold his woman by any means? A vixen… yet desperate slave to another! A man… born to violence yet trained to take whatever he wants!" Sheesh. The other campaign poster read: "GREGORY PECK MAKES THAT HEMNGWAY KIND OF LOVE TO JOAN BENNETT."
The Neutralizing Power of Hemingway
Everyone loves Hemingway so much that the United States and Cuba actually made an exception to their embargo so that the papers he left in his Havana home could be preserved.
The article claims that his death was an accident, but history has decided that it was suicide.
Some Seriously Amateurish Acting
Thankfully this version of "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" is under ten minutes. Like the real film version, the video rearranges the events for dramatic effect. Watch at your own risk.
YouTube Lecture on the Story
Tune in to see a professorial gentleman talk about Hemingway's heroes and code of masculinity. The fellow also discusses the characters and the ethics of their behavior.
Here's the 1948 NBC radio production of our story, with all kinds of embellishments, and sound effects. They have changed the storyline, added all kinds of descriptions and scenes. It's practically a different story.
Town Hall Radio
Links to audio of the Nobel Prize speech (again, not delivered by Hemingway himself), in which Hem is talking about the plot of one of his stories. You also get some audio of actors reading his short stories.
"The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" in Cosmopolitan
Pictures of the original version published in Cosmopolitan magazine – and yes, the magazine has sure changed since then. This is no "Are you pleasing your man?" quiz.
A Good Looking Guy
Here's a picture of Hem himself, in his World War I days.
The Macomber Affair
One of those movie posters we were talking about.
Scene from The Macomber Affair
This screen still just might help you picture the events of the story.