“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 effort to overcome a fishing dry-spell. Much like the book’s protagonist, Ernest Hemingway was also going through a dry-spell. The Old Man and the Sea was written at a time when Hemingway was considered a writer in decline. His last critically praised work was more than a decade old: 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, the first book he had published post-World War II, and it was panned by critics. In a word, The Old Man and the Sea was like a great fish captured by an old fisherman only to be torn apart by sharks.
Hemingway dedicated The Old Man and the Sea “To Charlie Scribner And To Max Perkins.” Both men were Hemingway’s old friends – Charlie Scribner was the President of the famous New York publishing house Charlie Scribner & Sons, and Max Perkins was Hemingway’s editor at Scribner. Max Perkins was also the editor for F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe, among other famous writers. Both Scribner and Perkins had passed away before The Old Man and the Sea was published. Hemingway’s new editor at Scribner was Wallace Meyer. Hemingway wrote to Meyer with the hope that a new book would finally put an end to the rumors that Hemingway was finished as a writer. He said the story was “The best I can write ever for all of my life” and critics and audiences largely agreed. 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 that stretches out beyond known horizons. He dedicated his Nobel Prize to the Cuban people, but instead of giving his medal to the Batista government (a military dictatorship of Cuba) Hemingway donated his medal 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 Hemingways fishing boat captain, Gregorio Fuentes, a blue-eyed Cuban fisherman with a storied history on the ocean. A portion of The Old Man and the Sea was initially published in Life Magazine and it was 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 made in the 1990s. It won an Oscar in 1999. I recently watched the animated film. It is a beautiful, impressionistic re-telling of the story.
The short novella reads like a fable. Unlike the fiendish and maddeningly obsessive quest of Captain Ahab 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 is undeterred and steadfast in his support of the Yankees even if they lose a game. He believes in the power and mythos of the ‘Great Dimaggio.’
The other fishermen of Cuba generally do not respect Santiago. He befriends a young boy named Manolin, but Manolin’s parents prevent him from fishing with Santiago because of his bad luck. Santiago has gone eighty-four days without catching a fish, so he is branded 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).
He is a reader of newspapers (there are many references to newspapers and baseball throughout the story). In the story, we are offered little glimpses into his upbringing. As a young man, Santiago spent time along the “long golden beaches” of Africa. In his old age, Santiago now dreams of lions along those beaches -a memory of his early years growing up along the Canary Islands.
He 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 out until a huge fish catches on 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 of a fish 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 the fish with a harpoon. As he tows the marlin back into the harbor, he battles and kills several sharks who eat some of the best meat of the fish. One shark takes Santiago’s harpoon with him down to his death, while the other sharks are struck by Santiago’s knife and oar. When he finally arrives back in the harbor, the 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 the newspaper. The boy cries at the sight of his injured hands. He describes how the townsfolk searched for Santiago when he did not return after two days. Santiago decides to donate the head of the marlin to Pedrico, another fisherman, and he gives the skeleton to Manolin so he can 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 goes to sleep again and he dreams of the lions on the beaches of Africa.
Here are some memorable passages from 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 work 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.”
And here 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 For the Pulitzer Prize 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