I came across some interesting facts about Ernest Hemingway the other day. I was surprised. I didn't realize there was anything interesting to tell about the guy. I have hated him ever since my dad read some of my work years ago and suggested that if I wanted to see an example of real writing, I should check out Hemingway. I read The Old Man and the Sea in high school, which sealed my opinion of him. As if Hemingway weren't uninspiring enough, he chose to write a book about a guy out fishing by himself. When the fish weren't biting. A real page-turner. If I had read it now, I might have wondered if the Old Man was using the fishing trip as an alibi for something more heinous, but no, the book was really that dull.
But back to the interesting facts. Item number one was that the novel he published just prior to The Old Man and the Sea was called "Across the River and Into the Trees", and everyone hated it. I had to admit, I was surprised to see that I was not the only one to have hated Hemingway at least once in their lives, though I still hold the title for the least valid reasons for doing so.
I believe "Across the River and Into the Trees" was about a freshly painted wall and a man who discovered deep truths about the nature of life by watching the paint dry. In the wake of the critics' scathing comments, I like to imagine that a psychic suggested to Hemingway that in another forty years there would be things called "MTV" and "extreme sports" and that the people who grew up with them would want more action. In my musings, that was where Hemingway got the idea for the Old Man and the Sea, resulting in critics of the time deciding that Hemingway had finally achieved a timeless sort of combination of sports, adventure and action that would make it a classic well into the next millennia. It makes it easier for me to understand why they gave him a Pulitzer for the book. Of course, it's utter bunk; if Hemingway had really talked to a psychic with an accurate idea of the changes in culture, he probably would have written a novel called The Old Man and the Wardrobe Malfunction.
Interesting fact number two was that according to Minnesota Public Radio's Writer's Almanac, Hemingway said about The Old Man and the Sea, "I know that it is the best I can write ever, for all of my life I think. . . . [It's] an epilogue to all my writing and what I have learned, or tried to learn, while writing and trying to live." I read that quote several times. For the life of me, all I could think was that if only Hemingway had a subscription to the Manteca Bulletin, he could have read Wayne Daniel's hunting and fishing column and written a novel about someone who could actually catch fish.
When I was a student at Manteca High, I used to think that my favorite English teacher, Mr. Dughi, had done something really horrible to anger someone really important in the school district. I imagined this vengeful V.I.P. pulling strings to assemble a curriculum for high school students that included trying to get teenagers to find something deep and meaningful in a novel like The Old Man and the Sea, in hopes that it would get Mr. Dughi to commit hara-kiri or flee the country. I used to figure that whatever he had done was pretty bad, because I put twice as much effort into disliking the book then as I do now (for half the reasons). I seem to recall at the beginning of the school year, Mr. Dughi had a full head of hair. By the end of it, I'm pretty sure he was completely bald. Yet Mr. Dughi diligently tried to guide us to higher understanding, despite the obvious futility of the task. It was like there was something deeper going on, some greater battle he was fighting than just trying to get a bunch of teenagers to stop whining and read the book.
See the parallels? Uncanny. Seems to me that the District should have skipped having the students read it unless they were planning on becoming English teachers. ("Read this. Someday this will be your job, except that the fish will be insolent and you will frequently have to throw them back for wearing inappropriate clothing.")
For those of you who fell asleep before finishing the book, the fisherman does catch a fish. The fight to bring it in is protracted, and the fisherman is stuck eating his own bait to sustain him through the long battle (thus sparking the original idea for Snickers' "Side Effects of Hunger" ad campaign). He lands a fish only to have sharks eat it on the way back to shore. Showing the skeletal remains to the other fishermen was a victory for the Old Man, if not a complete one. I wonder if Mr. Dughi had a similar feeling as he watched the dippy batch of us receive our diplomas at graduation. Sometimes I imagine him still, falling asleep to dream of buffaloes on a distant shore.
Comments and vintage MHS faculty stories to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article first appeared in the Manteca (Calif.) Bulletin.
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