Ernest Hemingway began his novel "Across the River and Into the Trees" with the description of a duck hunt in Italy. You can see and feel the hunter sitting in the small boat before sunrise and the dog waiting in the bow of the boat eager to retrieve and the guide, poling the boat through the thin ice breaking like glass. You soon are aware of the guide’s dislike of his occupation and the hunter helping him anyway, and then you hear the sound of the ducks overhead in the darkness. No one can write about hunting this way who isn’t a hunter—and who doesn’t, deep down, have a love for the outdoors and the game we hunt.
Hemingway did that for us at a time when it was fashionable mainstream to be a hunter, and then, toward his end, when it was falling fast out of fashion.
His nonfiction novel "Green Hills of Africa," written in 1935, gives us sweeping panoramas and game in herds on the plains and in the bush. There are shots made beautifully and those that weren’t.
His stories about hunting were really always about more than hunting—which, as we know, a hunting story so often is.
Hemingway’s short story "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" published the following year gives us a wealthy man in his early 30s and his attractive wife on the edge of something only someone who tests themselves in some real way can know. Francis, who’d never really proven himself to himself, runs from a charging lion he’d wounded. His professional hunter (PH), Robert Wilson (played by Gregory Peck in the classic 1947 movie), stands his ground and kills the lion. When they return to camp Wilson has the quiet confidence of a man who has proven himself. Unlike so many American action heroes today, he even has the humility of a man who is so secure he doesn’t need to say so.
Francis’ manliness, meanwhile, has a yellow hole shot right through it. Wilson knows this, but is reluctant to talk about it. Saying such things aloud, he believes, only intensify the trouble. Best to leave such failings to the quiet parts of a man’s mind where he can turn them over and learn from them without being publicly scarred by them.
When Francis, nevertheless, wants to talk about the cowardice he exhibited, Wilson tells him it is done and should be left in the field. Wilson implies that Francis will have other chances to redeem himself as long as he doesn’t stop trying, as long as he doesn’t let it grow into a defining characteristic. Nevertheless, Francis keeps pushing for comforting words.
Wilson thinks, but keeps it to himself, that he doesn’t understand how American men “stay little boys so long ... sometimes all their lives ... the great American boy-men.”
"His stories about hunting were really always about more than hunting—which, as we know, a hunting story so often is."Later, Francis does redeem his manhood by standing up to a charging Cape buffalo in a real rite of passage. His wife, shooting from behind him, shoots Francis threw the back of his skull. She tells the PH she was shooting at the buffalo. He doesn’t buy it. He thinks that she knew, now that he’d stood up as a man, he’d leave her. That’s Wilson’s conclusion, but Hemingway never says if his conclusion was correct. It is left an open question. What we do know is Francis died a man.
Such is the manly stuff for which Hemingway is known. His characters faced reality and, at their best, exhibited grace under pressure. Hunting, Hemingway knew, isn’t just a metaphor. It is real. It is what is real, but we face courageously nevertheless, that grows us up honestly, according to nature’s real rules.
Though the advice to look at nature practically and honestly as we challenge ourselves has never been more important than now, there is something else Hemingway was showing us in his body of work through hunting.
Hemingway showed us in "The Sun Also Rises," for example, written in 1936, that a mature person grounded in nature’s reality also can live more authentically when he or she is outside of nature.
Harry “Stoney” Stoneback, a college professor of literature, poet and past president of The Hemingway Society, taught me this.
When I visited his home near New Paltz, N.Y., Stoney told me that when he was a young professor teaching a course in Paris in the late 1960s “by the sheer force of cultural complicity, at least,” he said, “I shared in the ill-informed condescension toward Hemingway that had become so fashionable.” But then, one day in Paris, he picked up a copy of "The Sun Also Rises" and began to read and found he’d always seen Paris through Hemingway’s descriptions burned into him when he was a teen. He said they were a part of him because he and Hemingway had a love of the outdoors in common.
At the time, Stoney says he had literary evenings in Paris with French and American writers “in lavish penthouses off Etoile and private receptions for artists” and that he found that “in spite of their condescension to Hemingway as some kind of outré fisherman or gauche big-game hunter, bully, self-parotic monosyllabic mutterer, many were really trying to relive Hemingway’s Paris, trying too hard and doing it with infinitely less style, grace, intelligence, and discipline.”
They didn’t understand what had grounded Hemingway, though Hemingway hardly hid it from them. Hemingway was a hunter and fisherman and a gun owner. He understood these real and practical things and they made his writing genuine. They have kept him almost timeless. This is the key to what Hemingway taught us about ourselves through hunting. Much more is in my book “This Will Make a Man of You.”