We have arrived at the centennial year of the Michigan fishing trip that inspired one of Ernest Hemingway’s most memorable short stories, the two-part “Big Two-Hearted River,” a Nick Adams story about getting back from war and back to nature — back to feeling life at the end of a fly line.
Hemingway, while still in his teens, had volunteered for the Red Cross in World War I. In July of 1918, while serving along the warring lines at the border of Italy and Austria, he was wounded by an Austrian mortar blast. He spent six months in a hospital in Milan. The war ended later that year, and Hemingway came home. In the late summer of 1919, he and high school friends went on a week-long camping-and-fishing trip in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. While Two-Hearted River flows through the wilderness there to Lake Superior, Hemingway and his friends are believed to have fished another river, more of a classic trout stream, near the town of Seney. The latter might have been better for catching trout, but it did not have as poetic a name, thus, “Big Two-Hearted River: Part I & II.” In the story, Nick Adams returns from war and the first thing he wants to do is get back to the woods and the cold water where trout live. It’s a way to heal and cleanse the mind and soul, though Hemingway never says that so explicitly. That’s part of the genius of the story. Throughout the piece, you sense Nick’s need and desire to feel the tug of the living again.
A dream of life comes to me
Like a catfish dancin’ on the end of my line
— Bruce Springsteen, from “The Rising”
Hemingway describes, with his famous spare prose, each step Nick takes as he sets up camp, pitches a tent and starts a campfire. The story is something of a Boys’ Life instructional in all the solitary chores of camp-setting, making a fire, heating up canned food, brewing coffee, making flapjacks and sandwiches, setting up a fly rod and using live grasshoppers, instead of artificial flies, to catch trout. It’s when he’s in the river that Nick achieves the rejuvenation he seeks. The first trout he hooks is not very big; he has no intention of killing it.
“He held the trout, never still, with his moist right hand, while he unhooked the barb from his mouth, then dropped him back into the stream. He hung unsteadily in the current, then settled to the bottom beside a stone. Nick reached down his hand to touch him, his arm to the elbow under water. The trout was steady in the moving stream, resting on the gravel. As Nick’s fingers touched him, touched his smooth, cool underwater feeling, he was gone, gone in a shadow across the bottom of the stream. He’s all right, Nick thought. He was only tired.”
When Nick hooks a larger trout, “the rod came alive and dangerous, bent double, the line tightening, coming out of the water, tightening, all in a heavy, dangerous pull.” Another time, Nick feels “his rod bending alive, pumping alive against the current.”
By reading a few quotes that I pulled out for emphasis, you might get the impression that Hemingway was not very subtle about the message he wanted to convey. But “Big Two-Hearted River,” with its minimalist prose, is rich with imagery and symbolism and, when you read it again, you’ll see that. The first time I read it, I was in high school, and I enjoyed it on that Boys’ Life level. I felt I was looking over Nick’s shoulder as he camped in the pines and waded in the river. Now, having lived a lot more of life and having fished a lot with a fly rod, having spent time alone in woods and water (though hardly ever in an area you’d call wilderness) I appreciate what Hemingway wanted to convey. Nick Adams was home from war, and for that reason, he was eager to reach the pristine and perfect — more so than those of us who just want to fish. I’ve thought about that. I’ve thought about where we are today. Our world, our country, is full of violence, daily violence and mass violence, and we are surrounded by the grotesque. There is a lot about the modern world that is good and beautiful. But the good and beautiful seems, during the grind of the week, overwhelmed by events that horrify. I would never compare merely living in the 21st Century with war at the Italian-Austrian border 100 years ago. But, in terms of that eagerness you sense in Nick Adams as he heads for the Michigan woods — that desire to get away, to return to some place where the spirit can soar again — I can say I’ve experienced something close to that feeling. Haven’t you?