Hemingway as Craftsman: Revising "Big Two-Hearted River"

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Author: John Beall
Date: Spring 2017
From: The Hemingway Review(Vol. 36, Issue 2)
Publisher: Chestnut Hill College
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 7,088 words
Lexile Measure: 1320L

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In a letter to Ernest Walsh and Ethel Moorhead dated 12 January 1925, Ernest Hemingway wrote that "The Big Two Hearted River... is the best thing I've done by a long shot" (Letters vol. 2, 202). On 20 March 1925, he wrote to his father that he had "written a number of stories about the country--the country is always true"--singling out his "Big Two Hearted River" as "a story I think you will like" (285). Hemingway even explained the geographical location of the story as if his father would recognize the fiction of a two-hearted river: "The river in it is really the Fox about Seney" (285). This pride, expressed to the first publishers of "River" in the first issue of This Quarter, and to his father, suggests the importance of the story to Hemingway. He placed "River" at the end of In Our Time, as Joyce had put "The Dead" at the end of Dubliners.

Most of the critical attention to Hemingway's revision of "Big Two-Hearted River" has focused, understandably, on his replacing the original ending of part two, posthumously published as "On Writing" in The Nick Adams Stories, with his final ending published in In Our Time. Not fully discussed is that Hemingway went through several stages of revising his "best thing"--from an original draft with at least two companions joining Nick, to a handwritten three-page addition to the story, to a projected ending that involves Nick and his camp rained out in a flood. (1) Hemingway's revisions show a young writer rising to the height of his artistry--beginning a beautiful tale, becoming derailed, sticking at first to his original ending, and then letting go and rewriting his fishing story as a narrative of accommodation, persistence, and renewal.

In the Hemingway papers at the Kennedy Library is an intriguing manuscript where Hemingway sketched out his initial idea for "Big Two-Hearted River." In this draft, written in Hemingway's hand on four pages, the story begins initially in the first person plural ("We") and then shifts to the third person "They," when Jack and Al join Nick getting off the train in Seney. "This was the toughest town in Michigan," Al said, framing the story as a trip near a domestic war zone, akin to the diner with a hired killer named Al in Hemingway's later story, "The Killers." In these first pages, the extent of Hemingway's cross-outs and additions (at least ten, by my count) suggests that he had started this story intently. In evoking a scene of ruin resembling the opening of "The End of Something" Hemingway described the dilapidated Mansion Hotel as a battlefield of twisted iron, gun barrels, melted cartridges, and "a bulge of lead and copper." (2) In some ways, this draft points ahead to the story Hemingway wrote: the blasted foundations of the Mansion House Hotel, for instance. However, the draft more clearly shows that Hemingway decided to excise any explicit references to munitions or guns or bullets. Initially, he also composed the scene...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A493462198