“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish” (opening line).
The Old Man and the Sea is a rich and deep novella about an old fisherman named Santiago and his Herculean efforts to overcome a dry-spell of fish. Much like the book’s protagonist, Ernest Hemingway was also going through a dry-spell of his own at the time. The Old Man and the Sea was written at a time when Hemingway was believed to be a writer in decline. His last critically praised work was published over a decade prior (For Whom The Bell Tolls in 1940 – read my reflections on For Whom The Bell Tolls and its Pulitzer controversy here). Hemingway had published Across The River And Into The Trees in 1950, his first post-World War II book, and it was mostly panned by critics. By the time The Old Man and the Sea was released, it too was met with skepticism from certain critics. In a word, The Old Man and the Sea was not unlike a great fish captured by an old fisherman only to be torn apart by sharks and dragged into the harbor.
Hemingway dedicated The Old Man and the Sea “To Charlie Scribner And To Max Perkins,” his old friends. Charlie Scribner was the President of the famous New York publishing house Charlie Scribner & Sons, and Max Perkins was Hemingway’s editor (Mr. Perkins was also the editor of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, and other famous writers). Both Scribner and Perkins had passed away before the publication of The Old Man and the Sea. Hemingway’s new editor at Scribner was Wallace Meyer. After the lukewarm reception of Across The River and Into The Trees, Hemingway wrote to Mr. Meyer with the hope of reviving his reputation with a new book. When finished, Hemingway said it was “The best I can write ever for all of my life.” After some initial mixed reviews, The Old Man and the Sea elevated Hemingway’s literary reputation to new unparalleled heights. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1953 and in 1954 Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for Literature. In his acceptance speech, which was delivered by John M. Cabot, U.S. Ambassador to Sweden, Hemingway offered a terse assessment of the life of a writer – a solitary experience which compels one to stretch out beyond known horizons. He dedicated his Nobel Prize to the Cuban people, but instead of giving his medal to the Batista government (the military dictatorship in Cuba) Hemingway donated it to the Catholic Church to be placed on display at the El Cobre Basilica, a small town outside Santiago de Cuba.
Hemingway first mentioned the idea for The Old Man and the Sea as early as 1936 in an interview with Esquire Magazine. The inspiration for the story was likely based, in part, on Hemingway’s own fishing boat captain, Gregorio Fuentes, a blue-eyed Cuban fisherman who led a storied life on the ocean. A portion of The Old Man and the Sea was initially published in Life Magazine and even these small snippets became wildly popular. After it was officially published, Hemingway won a string of accolades. The Old Man and the Sea was made into a 1958 movie starring Spencer Tracy (click here to read my review of the film). In later years, a miniseries was aired in the 1990s and a stop-action animation version was also released. It won an Oscar in 1999. I recently watched the animated film and was struck by its beautiful, impressionistic re-telling of the story.
The short novella reads like a fable. Unlike Captain Ahab’s fiendish and maddeningly obsessive quest in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Hemingway’s old man, Santiago, is a sympathetic character. He is hopeful but down on his luck. He is a staunch fan of baseball, and regularly compares himself to the ‘Great Dimaggio,’ or Joe Dimaggio, the famous center fielder for the New York Yankees (1936-1951). Santiago remains undeterred and steadfast in his support of the Yankees even if they lose a game. His commitments are unwavering. He believes in the power and mythos of the ‘Great Dimaggio.’
The other fishermen of Cuba generally do not respect Santiago so he befriends a young boy named Manolin, but Manolin’s parents prevent him from fishing with Santiago because of Santiago’s bad luck. Santiago has gone eighty-four days without catching a fish, branding him unlucky (or a salao, the worst form of unluckiness). Santiago is “thin” and “gaunt” with speckled brown skin and deep blue eyes:
“Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated” (10).
Santiago is a reader of newspapers (there are many references to newspapers and baseball games throughout the story). In the story, we are offered little glimpses into Santiago’s upbringing. As a young man, Santiago spent time along the “long golden beaches” of Africa. He now dreams of lions who hunted along those beaches –a memory of his early years growing up along the Canary Islands.
Santiago awakens early in the morning on the eighty-fifth day without a fish and he takes his little skiff out to sea –he loves the sea. He follows a circling bird outward until a huge fish catches his line. Santiago wrestles with the fish (a marlin) for two days and nights as it drags him eastward out to sea. He watches it through the water and cannot believe how big it is (we later learn the fish is 18-feet long). However, unlike Ahab, Santiago has no antipathy toward his catch. In fact, he respects the marlin and refers to him as a brother. Exhausted, he finally catches the marlin by piercing it with a harpoon. As he tows the marlin back to harbor, he also battles and kills several sharks who strike at the best meat of the fish. One wounded shark takes Santiago’s, while the other sharks are struck by Santiago’s knife and oar. When he finally arrives back in the harbor, Santiago’s marlin has been mostly eaten except for his head and tail.
Santiago, sore and fatigued, trudges back to his shack and collapses. The boy, Manolin, awakens Santiago in the morning with coffee and a newspaper. The boy cries at the sight of Santiago’s injured hands. He describes how the townsfolk searched for Santiago when he did not return after two days. Once rested, Santiago decides to donate the head of the marlin to Pedrico, another fisherman, and he offers the skeleton to Manolin so that he may fashion a spear. Nearby, a group of tourists at a cafe gaze upon the great marlin still attached to Santiago’s skiff and they mistake it for a shark. At the end, Santiago falls sleep again and he dreams of the lions on the beaches of Africa.
Below is a collection of some memorable passages I found while reading The Old Man and the Sea:
“The clouds over the land now rose like mountains and the coast was only a long green line with the gray blue hills behind it” (35).
“It was considered a virtue not to talk unnecessarily at sea and the old man had always considered it so and respected it. But now he said his thoughts aloud many times since there was no one that they could annoy” (39).
“He looked across the sea and knew how alone he was now. But he could see the prisms in the deep dark water and the line stretching ahead and the strange undulation of the calm. The clouds were building up now for the trade wind and he looked ahead and saw a flight of wild ducks etching themselves against the sky over the water, then blurring, then etching again and he knew no man was ever alone on the sea” (60-61).
William Faulkner, at the time Hemingway’s greatest literary rival, praised The Old Man and the Sea in the following single paragraph review published in Shenandoah Magazine (a major literary magazine of Washington and Lee University):
“His best. Time may show it to be the best single piece of any of us, I mean his and my contemporaries. This time, he discovered God, a Creator. Until now, his men and women had made themselves, shaped themselves out of their own clay; their victories and defeats were at the hands of each other, just to prove to themselves or one another how tough they could be. But this time, he wrote about pity: about something somewhere that made them all: the old man who had to catch the fish and then lose it, the fish that had to be caught and then lost, the sharks which had to rob the old man of his fish; made them all and loved them all and pitied them all. It’s all right. Praise God that whatever made and loves and pities Hemingway and me kept him from touching it any further.”
Lastly, below is a copy of the text of Hemingway’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1954 (delivered by the U.S. Ambassador to Sweden on account of Hemingway’s poor health):
“Having no facility for speech-making and no command of oratory nor any domination of rhetoric, I wish to thank the administrators of the generosity of Alfred Nobel for this Prize.
No writer who knows the great writers who did not receive the Prize can accept it other than with humility. There is no need to list these writers. Everyone here may make his own list according to his knowledge and his conscience.
It would be impossible for me to ask the Ambassador of my country to read a speech in which a writer said all of the things which are in his heart. Things may not be immediately discernible in what a man writes, and in this sometimes he is fortunate; but eventually they are quite clear and by these and the degree of alchemy that he possesses he will endure or be forgotten.
Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.
For a true writer each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed.
How simple the writing of literature would be if it were only necessary to write in another way what has been well written. It is because we have had such great writers in the past that a writer is driven far out past where he can go, out to where no one can help him.
I have spoken too long for a writer. A writer should write what he has to say and not speak it. Again I thank you.”
To read my notes on reading The Paris Review’s famous interview with Hemingway (1958) click here.
The 1953 Pulitzer Prize Decision
The Fiction Jury in 1953 consisted of Roy W. Cowden, an English and Creative Writing Professor from the University of Michigan; and Eric P. Kelly, a Dartmouth English professor and author of children’s books –most notably The Trumpeter of Krakow (1929), winner of the Newbury Medal.
Hemingway, Ernest. The Old Man and the Sea. New York, Scribner’s and Simon & Schuster, 2003.