The Haunting Waters of A River Runs Through It

“In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing”
opening lines

Anyone who has ever gone fly fishing knows it to be a complex art -almost spiritual in nature. Fly fishing forces a man to slow down, find rhythm, and discover patience and harmony with nature. In Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, which was mysteriously denied the Pulitzer Prize in 1977, Maclean offers a short story that mines the depths of this delicate art. In the story, fly fishing serves as a kind of metaphor for the imperfect nature of human beings (a theological notion propounded by Maclean’s father).

The novella is less about the panoramic “big sky country” and more of a meditation on Maclean’s upbringing and his family, especially his relationship with his brother. Maclean works for a newspaper in Helena where he hones his writing craft. We meet his Presbyterian minister father who teaches his boys how to fly fish, and his brother Paul who is often-drunk and gambling while maintaining a strict fishing regimen. A significant portion of the story is an extended recollection of a fishing misadventure with Maclean’s frivolous brother-in-law who winds up laying drunk, sunburned, and naked with a prostitute beside the river. The story highlights both Norman’s and Paul’s sacred connection to the river and its fish, in contrast to an outsider who disgraces and disrespects it. The river serves as the one constant in Norman’s life -it continues flowing while he continues fishing.

The tearful book ends in sorrow. Maclean, his father, and his brother all go fishing one last time together, and they observe Paul’s superior skills as he catches his “limit” (his biggest fish) in the river. Maclean reflects on the enthusiasm of the trio in one glimmering moment of nostalgia. Little did the trio know it was the last time they would ever fish together. The final words of Paul echo in Maclean’s mind: “just give me three more years before I can learn to think like a fish… just give me three more years…” Shortly thereafter Paul is found dead, the result of an apparent bar room fight. Paul’s death leaves Maclean and his father burdened and fatigued. Norman’s father suggests writing fiction because “only then will you understand what happened and why. It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us” (104).

The concluding paragraphs are the most darkly beautiful in the whole novella:

“Now nearly all those I loved and did not understand when I was young are dead, but I still reach out to them.

Of course, now I am too old to be much of a fisherman, and now of course I usually fish the big waters alone, although some friends think I shouldn’t. Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and the memories of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.

I am haunted by waters”
(104).


There are many other deep and penetrating passages in A River Runs Through It. Here are a few that have stuck with me:

“‘Remember,’ as my father kept saying, ‘it is an art that is performed on a four-count rhythm between ten and two o’clock'” (4).

“Fishing is a world created apart from all others, and inside it are special worlds of their own -one is fishing for big fish in small water where there is not enough world and water to accomadate a fish and a fisherman” (40).

“The cast is so soft and slow that it can be followed like an ash settling from a fireplace chimney. One of life’s quiet excitements is to stand somewhat apart from yourself and watch yourself softly becoming the author of something beautiful, even if it is only floating ash” (43).

“…part of the way to know a thing is through its death” (62).


The 1977 Pulitzer Prize Controversy
A River Runs Through It was widely praised it upon its release. According to several news publications at the time, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction jury’s primary recommendation was for A River Runs Through It. The second choice was October Light by John Gardner. However, the Pulitzer Advisory Board denied the jury’s recommendation and no official Pulitzer Prize for Fiction was awarded in 1977.

There was speculation that the prize was not awarded due to a health emergency. One of the three fiction jurists, Jean Stafford, a novelist who won the Pulitzer herself in 1970, suffered a stroke while the jury was studying entries.

Richard T. Baker, a long-time journalism professor at Columbia University who succeeded John Hohenberg as Secretary of the Pulitzer Advisory Board, administered the prizes on behalf of Columbia University and said that no prize was given in the Fiction category because no recommendation “was clearly leading the pack.” He described 1977 as a “thin year, not a banner year” for both fiction as well as international reporting (a second category for which no award was given in 1977).

However, a special Pulitzer Prize was awarded in 1977 to Alex Haley in recognition of his best-seller, Roots, which traces seven generations of a black family in America.


Who Is Norman Maclean?
While A River Runs Through It offers the best insight into the life of Norman Maclean, I offer a terse overview of the author’s life below. Norman Maclean (1902-1990) was considered by some to be the patron writer of the state of Montana. He was born in Iowa and grew up in Missoula. In his early years he worked for the U.S. Forest Department, an experience he later wrote about in two of the stories featured in the A River Runs Through It and Other Stories.

Maclean graduated from Dartmouth College in 1924 and married Jess Burns in 1931. He enrolled in graduate school to study English at The University of Chicago, earning a doctorate in 1940. He taught courses on the Romantic poets and Shakespeare, before earning to a full professorship and becoming Dean of Students in Chicago. Many prominent Americans took classes with ‘Stormin’ Norman’ and his classes were often highly sought-after (some have grouped him among the neo-Aristotelians of the 20th century at The University of Chicago). U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens once credited professor Maclean as “the teacher to whom I am most indebted.”

Upon his retirement in 1974, Maclean’s two children encouraged him to write down the stories he often told them. In 1976, he published A River Runs Through It and Other Stories, a collection of three short stories, but the most prominent of the three is his memoir novella, “A River Runs Through It.” The book was the first work of fiction published by the University of Chicago Press.

Maclean spent his later years attempting to complete a book about the 1949 Mann Gulch Forest Fire, a wildfire that destroyed thousands of acres in Helena National Forest along the upper Missouri River. The book was published posthumously as Young Men and Fire (1992). Norman Maclean died in Chicago in 1990. In 1992, following Maclean’s death, the film rights to A River Runs Through It were purchased by Robert Redford and it was made into a Hollywood film starring Brad Pitt. The film version is entertaining and nostalgic, but it takes significant departures from the novella in order to expand the narrative.


Maclean, Norman. A River Runs Through It and Other Stories, Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition. University of Chicago Press, 2001.

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The Meaning of Innocence in To Kill A Mockingbird

“‘…before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience'” (105).

I have always loved To Kill A Mockingbird. It is a gentle and compassionate novel confronting a difficult subject matter -the issue of racism in America. As I re-read the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel for the first time in my adult life, the national press was once again afire with the issue of racism. Several widely publicized incidents of police violence against black Americans spawned widespread protests, the scale of which was unparalleled since the 1960s. This has been a time of reflection for a great many people. Similarly, To Kill A Mockingbird was published on the cusp of the Civil Rights movement in 1960: it was published not long after the Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and the Montgomery Bus Boycotts (1955-1956), among other instances of civil disobedience. Like other great books of the Western tradition, such as Aeschylus’s Oresteia or Plato’s Apology of Socrates, To Kill A Mockingbird uses a courtroom drama to explore the question of justice.

To Kill A Mockingbird is a novel told in two parts. Part I patiently sets the scene. While reading, I imagined hearing the story from the novel’s protagonist, Scout. I pictured her reminiscing about the old days while gently rocking back and forth on her Alabama porch, perhaps sipping a mint julep. Harper Lee’s beautiful cadence invites us into the fictional small town of Maycomb, Alabama during the Great Depression years of the early ’30s. It is a dusty, rural town in Southern Alabama based on Harper Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. The first half of the book offers a series of vignettes spanning several years in the life of six-year old Jean Louise “Scout” Finch. She amusingly offers reflections on misadventures with her brother, Jeremy “Jem” (based on Harper Lee’s older brother, Edwin) and family friend, Dill, who visits Maycomb during the summers (Dill is loosely based on Harper Lee’s childhood friend and fellow author, Truman Capote).

The three children: Scout, Jem, and Dill play games in the neighborhood, especially at the end of the street where the dilapidated Radley house stands. The Radley’s son, colloquially called “Boo Radley,” lives inside the house in isolation from the world. The children find him fascinating and mysterious. One night, the children narrowly escape from the Radley home in a dangerous effort to catch a glimpse of Boo Radley, and in another case the children find toys and bubblegum hidden inside the knot of a nearby tree. Along the way we meet the neighborhood ladies: Miss Maudie, Miss Stephanie Crawford, and Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose -an aging widow who has a morphine addiction, but her addiction is unwittingly overcome shortly before her death by Jem and Scout. In another vignette, the children travel with their black housemaid, Calpurnia, to her church and learn about the differences between white and black people in Alabama. Dill and Scout promise to get married one day, while Jem rapidly matures hoping to earn the respect of his father, Atticus.

As the novel progresses we become aware of a controversy that has struck Maycomb. The Ewells, a poor white family led by drunken patriarch, Bob Ewell, accuse a black man named Tom Robinson of raping their daughter, Mayella Ewell. The controversy is explicitly racial in nature. The local magistrate, Judge Taylor, appoints Atticus Finch to defend Tom Robinson in the criminal case -an indication of the judge’s sympathy for the defendant. Many in town begin to publicly scorn Atticus and his children for defending a black man. At one point a lynch mob visits Tom Robinson’s prison to kill him, but they are stopped when Jem and Scout intervene. The innocence of children has a pacifying effect on people. It saves Tom Robinson (and also Atticus) from a potentially violent scenario.

“Scout… every lawyer gets at least one case in his lifetime that affects him personally. This one’s mine, I guess. You might hear some ugly talk about it at school, but do one thing for me if you will: you just hold your head high and keep those fists down. No matter what anybody says to you, don’t you let ’em get your goat. Try fighting with your head for a change” (76).

Part II of To Kill A Mockingbird focuses on the trial of Tom Robinson. It takes place on a hot summer day. The children sit in the upper balcony with the black citizens and they watch Atticus cross-examine the witnesses. They are impressed with their father’s demeanor and temperament. Atticus is a good man who always does the right thing. Despite no evidence to convict Tom Robinson, and in fact evidence to the contrary (namely Tom Robinson’s defective left arm), the jury still unanimously finds Tom guilty. The trial ends in tragedy -a gross miscarriage of justice.

In the end, Bob Ewell vows vengeance on Atticus. He dramatically attacks Scout and Jem in a particularly terrifying scene on Halloween night. During the course of their tussle, an unknown assailant comes to their rescue. Bob Ewell winds up dead with a knife stuck in him, and Jem is carried away with a broken arm. We soon discover the anonymous man to be Arthur “Boo” Radley, a pale-faced and child-like man. It was he who left those gifts for the children in a tree-hole many years ago. At the Finch house, a small crowd gathers at Jem’s bedside until Boo Radley gently whispers to Scout to walk him home. When they get back to his home he quickly enters, shuts the door, and Scout never sees him again. She reflects on the life of Boo Radley in contrast to the life of the children playing outside in her neighborhood. She remembers the words Atticus once said:

“…you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them” (279).


In To Kill A Mockingbird the serious subjects of racism, rape, and injustice are contrasted with the light-hearted and innocent perspective of the children. All three children, Scout, Jem, and Dill, are not fully aware of the gravity of the situation unfolding around them. By bringing readers into the eyes of children the novel asks us to look beyond our prejudices and recall our own childhood, and in doing so, to seek out the better angels of our nature. Youthful innocence and adult severity are brought together in the character of Arthur “Boo” Radley, who is an adult yet child-like recluse. At first, he is frightening and mysterious, but by the end of the story he is a hero. The difference is that we come to understand him, rather than fear him. The notion of childlike innocence is further alluded to in the novel’s title. Mockingbirds are referenced perhaps only once or twice in the novel, but they are shown to be respected creatures because they are harmless. They merely offer songs for other people to enjoy. According to Atticus it is a sin to kill a mockingbird, in other words, it is a sin to destroy innocence in the world:

“Atticus said to Jem one day, ‘I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird'” (90).

The dedication at the outset of the novel reads to “Mr. Lee and Alice in consideration of Love & Affection” and an epigraph from English essayist and poet, Charles Lamb: “Lawyers, I suppose, were children once.”


To Kill A Mockingbird Controversies
As with many other Pulitzer-Prize winning novels, like John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (read my reflections on the novel here) or Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind (read my reflections on the novel here), Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird was ensconced in controversy upon its release. It was criticized by many as immoral or obscene for its colorful use of racial epithets and its controversial content. Many schools boards, particularly in the American South, attempted to ban the book -most notoriously in Hanover County, VA, until public outcry reversed the decision. Harper Lee, herself, wrote a letter to the school board expressing disappointment at their decision (she questioned whether or not any of the board members could, in fact, read). Over the years since its publication there have been numerous attempts to ban the book from American libraries. In 2016, To Kill A Mockingbird, along with Huckleberry Finn, was removed from a school library in Virginia, and in 2017 a school board in Mississippi removed To Kill A Mockingbird from its longstanding position in the elementary school’s curriculum. Thankfully, free speech and free inquiry advocates continue to push back against censorship at American schools and libraries. Recently, To Kill A Mockingbird won PBS’s “Great American Read” for favorite American novel by the general public.

The 1961 Pulitzer Prize Decision
For the Pulitzer Prize decision in 1961 there were only two members of the Fiction Jury: John Barkham, a South African by birth who became an American book reviewer at publications including TIME, The New York Times Book Review, The New York Post and others. John Barkham served on many Pulitzer juries in the categories of Fiction, Nonfiction, and Biography over a period of approximately 20 years. The other Fiction Juror in 1961 was Irita Van Doren, a former editor of The Nation and a book reviewer at The New York Herald Tribune Books. She was formerly married to Carl van Doren, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Ben Franklin in 1939. In her later years she ran in many literary circles while developing a deep fascination with Southern literature. She led a storied life that included a secret romantic affair with Wendell Willkie, Republican presidential nominee in 1940.


About Harper Lee
Nelle Harper Lee (1926-2016) published only two novels during her lifetime: To Kill A Mockingbird (1960) and Go Set A Watchman (2015). She chose “Harper Lee” as her nom de plume because she was afraid of being misidentified as “Nellie.”

She was born in Monroeville, Alabama, the youngest of four children. Growing up, she became close friends with Truman Capote (he was actually the basis for the character “Dill” in To Kill A Mockingbird, and in return Truman Capote based a character in his first novel on Harper Lee). She studied law at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, but much to her father’s chagrin, she dropped out one semester before graduating. Harper Lee was generally considered the bohemian of the family while her older sister, Alice, pursued a legal career.

In 1949, Harper Lee moved to New York City to become a writer while working various odd-jobs, such as an airline reservation agent or a bookstore clerk. In her spare time she wrote stories. She moved into a townhouse at 50th East Street and her friends offered a years worth of wages to free up her time to write. She lived near her old friend Truman Capote, and traveled with him to Kansas while researching the story of a small town murder that eventually turned into his magnum opus, In Cold Blood. Eventually, Harper Lee grew apart from Truman Capote as his lifestyle became more flamboyant and hers drew further inward. By 1957, Harper Lee submitted a manuscript for publication entitled Go Set A Watchman, but it was not entirely ready so she re-worked it for several years and eventually retitled it To Kill A Mockingbird. It was a long and grueling process of editing and re-editing (at one point a tearful Lee apparently tossed her manuscript out a second story window into the snow before her editor phoned her up and calmly reassured her of the process). Harper Lee’s editor was Therese “Tay” von Hohoff of the publishing house, J. B. Lippincott (later acquired by HarperCollins).

When To Kill A Mockingbird was finally published it was an extraordinary success. Lee’s celebrity rapidly grew out of control and she worked hard to protect her anonymity. Harper Lee’s sister, Alice, became her attorney. They lived together, both unmarried, and filed for an unlisted telephone number to prevent the growing requests for interviews (Harper Lee denied nearly every interview). She preferred to live a private life. However, it is not fair to call her a recluse. Lee merely enjoyed her quiet and frugal existence far away from the spotlight. She was content to view herself as the Jane Austen of the American South, as well as a documentarian of the American small town -a vanishing way of life in contemporary society.

When Universal Pictures purchased the movie rights to her novel, Harper Lee helped with the script and casting for the film. During the process she grew particularly close with Gregory Peck, whose granddaughter was later named in honor of Harper Lee. The film was released in 1962 to great acclaim.

Harper Lee lived a lengthy and mostly anonymous life, all while collecting numerous awards over the decades for To Kill A Mockingbird, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Medal of the Arts, and numerous literary and collegiate merits. She spent a few months every year in New York, but most of her life was happily spent in Monroeville. She lived with her sister, Alice, and together they made weekly trips to David’s Catfish Cabin for seafood. Harper Lee had many friends and was apparently a delightfully funny person.

A sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird was controversially published in 2015 entitled Go Set a Watchman. Apparently the novel tells the story of Scout twenty years later as she returns to Maycomb from New York only to find Atticus an older man who has grown more bigoted and disappointing (he expresses certain sympathies for the Ku Klux Klan). Much of the novel was an early draft of To Kill A Mockingbird that was mysteriously discovered by publishers. Upon its publication there was a media firestorm. HarperCollins was criticized for allegedly taking advantage of Harper Lee, an 89 year-old woman with impaired eyesight and hearing loss. The decision to publish went against her many decades of resistance. To make matters worse, Harper Lee’s sister, Alice, who was her sole caregiver and attorney, died shortly before HarperCollins was granted permission to publish the book.

Harper Lee died in her sleep on February 19, 2016 in Monroeville, Alabama at age 89. She never married and she never had any children.


Lee, Harper. To Kill A Mockingbird. Warner Books, December, 1982.

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The Writer’s Endurance: The Old Man and the Sea

“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 fishing. 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.

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Love and War In For Whom The Bell Tolls

For Whom The Bell Tolls is the novel that was supposed to win Ernest Hemingway his first Pulitzer Prize in 1941. However, like Sinclair Lewis before him, Hemingway was denied the prize by the President of Columbia University. As the story goes, the 1941 Novel Jury recommended several books for the Pulitzer Prize including, but not primarily, For Whom The Bell Tolls. Upon receiving the Jury’s recommendations the Pulitzer Advisory Board favored the critic’s choice For Whom The Bell Tolls. However, before the Board could complete a vote on the matter they were blocked by one man: the President of Columbia University, Nicholas Murray Butler. He was ex-officio Chairman of the Pulitzer Advisory Board and he objected to the ‘lascivious’ content in the novel (Sound familiar? Nicholas Murray Butler also blocked the Pulitzer Prize from being bestowed upon Sinclair Lewis in 1921 for his novel Main Street. Instead, the 1921 prize was awarded to Edith Wharton for The Age of Innocence).

Why did no member of the Pulitzer Advisory Board stand up to Nicholas Murray Butler? How was he able to railroad the whole process? His story is worth mentioning as he was a fascinating American figure. Nicholas Murray Butler was viewed as something of an autocratic ruler at Columbia University, often wantonly dismissing staff and faculty, prohibiting entry for Jewish students, in a word – he ruled Columbia with an iron first, and yet he was also a respected American statesman. He was the former running mate of William Howard Taft in the Presidential election of 1912. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931 along with Jane Addams, for his efforts as President of the Carnegie Endowment For International for Peace. He helped to negotiate peace in Europe using his elite relationships with leaders like Kaiser Wilhelm II. Nicholas Butler Murray was also a popular cultural figure. Each year The New York Times printed his annual Christmas Greeting to the nation. He is recognized today as the longest serving President of Columbia University (43 years), a tenure which first began with his role as Interim President in 1901 before he was officially elected President of Columbia, serving from 1902-1945. So when Nicholas Murray Butler stood in the doorway of the Pulitzer proceedings refusing to move or relent on the Hemingway question while shouting “I hope you will reconsider before you ask the university to be associated with an award for a work of this nature!” -no one dared to stand against him. The full details of the confrontation were later brought to light in 1962 by Arthur Krock, a New York Times journalist and Pulitzer Board member at the time. As a consequence of the fight, no novel was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1941.

That year, the Novel Jury welcomed a newcomer: Dorothy Canfield Fisher, to replace Robert M. Lovett from the previous year. Dorothy Canfield Fisher is perhaps best known for bringing the Montessori School system to the United States, but she also achieved other important cultural milestones. She was praised by Eleanor Roosevelt as one of the most influential women in America. Alongside Fisher, two veteran Novel Jurists also reprised their roles on the Jury in 1941: Jefferson B. Fletcher (Literature Professor at Columbia University), and Joseph W. Krutch (Literature Professor at Columbia University and naturalist writer). For the Pulitzer Prize the trio also considered several other novels aside from For Whom The Bell Tolls including The Trees by Joseph Conrad, The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, Native Son by Richard Wright, and Oliver Wiswell by Kenneth Roberts. The Jury apparently reluctantly favored The Trees by Joseph Conrad before the Pulitzer Board unilaterally selected For Whom The Bell Tolls until Nicholas Murray Butler blocked its nomination.

Of course, despite being robbed the first time, Hemingway later won the coveted Pulitzer Prize in 1959 for The Old Man And The Sea (feel free to read my reflections on The Old Man and the Sea here).


For Whom The Bell Tolls is as tense a novel as it is tender. It is the story of love and war -a soldier’s duty contrasted with a lover’s embrace. The book takes us covertly behind enemy lines during the destructive Spanish Civil War of the 1930s (a war which lasted from 1936-1939). The book spans approximately four days, and within that narrow timeframe a lifetime occurs: we gain a profound and complex glimpse into the nature of heroism and cowardice among ordinary people. Amidst the chaos of war and the looming specter of death, For Whom The Bell Tolls also pulls back the curtain on a budding romance between an American soldier and an innocent Spanish girl.

For context, during the Spanish Civil War, battle lines were drawn between a coalition of conservatives, nationalists, and Catholics, led by the military dictator Francisco Franco; and on the other side, a loose-knit federation of republicans, liberals, communists, and anarchists. Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy supported Franco, while Soviet Russia and Mexico supported the communists, but the United States, England, and France maintained a public stance of neutrality. After years of violence in every major Spanish city, the Spanish Civil War was eventually brought to an end in 1939 with the fascists taking over the country under Francisco Franco. During the war writers like George Orwell pleaded with the West to support the republicans against the fascists (see Homage To Catalonia). The war was later dubbed a “dress rehearsal” for World War II by Claude Bowers, U.S. Ambassador to Spain.

In the novel, Hemingway introduces us to Robert Jordan, a Montana-native and Spanish language professor. Robert Jordan has unfortunately found himself in the midst of the Spanish Civil War while on leave in Spain during the outbreak of the war. He is a volunteer in the International Brigades (a international coalition of fighters organized by communists). During this time Robert Jordan has become an experienced soldier and dynamiter. He is tasked with destroying a key strategic bridge inn order to block supplies and munitions from reaching the fascists through the Sierra de Guadarrama. The order comes from Golz, a Soviet officer.

En route to complete his mission, Robert Jordan encounters an old man named Anselmo who takes Robert Jordan high up into the mountains outside Segovia in central Spain (north of Madrid) where a band of guerrilla warriors is hiding out in a cave from the fascists below. While there, Robert Jordan meets Pablo, a jaded rebel who once led the revolt against fascism but now spends his time ignobly drinking wine and sarcastically deriding the war. He also meets Pablo’s wife, Pilar, a strong-willed woman who serves as the de facto leader of the group in Pablo’s abdication (“Pilar” was a nickname for Hemingway’s third wife, Pauline, and also the name of his fishing boat); a gypsy named Rafael; and several other soldiers like Agustín, El Sordo, Fernando, Andrés, Eladio, Primitivo, and Joaquín. The group exists there by a “miracle” according to El Sordo. The fascists are unaware of their presence. The group quickly grows accustomed to Robert Jordan and they call him “Inglés” or simply “Roberto” (the whole novel is rife with Spanish idioms, including edited obscenities). However, the people in the cave are strange and unfamiliar. All throughout his days in the cave the reader asks: can Robert Jordan really trust these guerrilla fighters? How can we be certain they are not going to sabotage the mission?

The most important character Robert Jordan meets in the cave is María, a young Spanish girl whose town was ravaged by the fascists. She taken alive by the fascists -her hair was hacked off and she was raped, but she was then rescued and cared for by Pilar. Robert Jordan and María quickly strike up a romance, and Pilar essentially gives María to Robert Jordan as his lover with the promise of marriage. Robert Jordan calls María his little “rabbit” and they spend most evenings together in Robert Jordan’s sleeping bag just outside the cave.

While introducing us to the tenderness of Robert Jordan’s new love, the first half of the novel also delivers an extraordinarily tense series of moments. The impending mission to destroy the bridge plagues the reader’s mind. Will the weather be good? Will the fascists retaliate? Will they find the cave before the bridge can be blown? Will Golz call off the mission? Who will die? Who will live? Filled with hope and worry, Robert Jordan hides out with the rebels in the mountains while trying to keep a low profile, careful about what information he reveals. At the same time, skepticism grows regarding Pablo’s loyalties, and Robert Jordan places his faith in Pilar.

Suddenly, Robert Jordan is surprised one morning when an unsuspecting fascist patrolman stumbles onto his outdoor sleeping bag. Robert Jordan quickly leaps up and kills the patrolman. Then a skirmish breaks out across the mountain killing El Sordo’s entire band of fighters. Robert Jordan and the remaining fighters wait a day, and then assault the bridge (undeterred by a momentary lapse of judgment from Pablo when he steals some of Robert Jordan’s explosive equipment in the night, casting it into a ravine. Pablo eventually rejoins the fight in an effort to redeem himself). As the group approaches the bridge, they quietly kill the fascist sentries. Robert Jordan and the old man Anselmo then successfully wire, detonate, and destroy the bridge, but the explosion kills Anselmo along with several others in the process. The remaining guerrillas flee back up into the mountains having completed their mission.

“Dying was nothing and he had no picture of it nor fear of it in his mind. But living was a field of grain blowing in the wind on the side of a hill. Living was a hawk in the sky. Living was an earthen jar of water in the dust of the threshing with the grain flailed out and the chaff blowing. Living was a horse between your legs and a carbine under one leg and a hill valley and a stream with trees along it and the far side of the valley and the hills beyond” (312-313 on the last moments of Sordo’s life during his last stand against advancing fascists before he is killed in a plane raid).

For Whom The Bell Tolls tells the true account of war far greater than mere fact or history: it presents the experience of a soldier in all its complexity. Robert Jordan is a multi-faceted man: he is anxious, confident, distrusting, steadfast, competent, sorrowful, determined, and yet friendly. He is both a lover and a fighter who experiences the great depths of love amidst the heart-pounding threat of war.

“You felt, in spite of all bureaucracy and inefficiency and party strife, something that was like the feeling you expected to have and did not have when you made your first communion. It was a feeling of consecration to a duty toward all of the oppressed of the world which would be as difficult and embarrassing to speak about as religious experience and yet it was authentic as the feeling you had when you heard Bach, or stood in the Chartres Cathedral or the Cathedral at Leon and saw the light coming through the great windows; or when you saw Mantegna and Greco and Brueghel in the Prado. It gave you a part in something that you could believe in wholly and completely and in which you felt an absolute brotherhood with the others who were engaged in it. It was something you had never known before but that you had experienced now and you gave such importance to it and the reasons for it that your own death seemed of complete unimportance; only a thing to be avoided because it would interfere with the performance of duty. But the best thing was that there was something you could do about this feeling and this necessity too. You could fight” (235, on the experience of war).

The question of death, namely what is a good and noble death, also looms large over the novel. Robert Jordan’s father had committed suicide, an act which he considers cowardly. He occasionally reflects on his troubled father throughout the novel. Robert Jordan recalls the story of a compatriot who requested he be shot instead of falling into the hands of the fascists. Instead, Robert Jordan values a man who ends his life fighting without surrender. And Robert Jordan is also contrasted with other characters in the novel, particularly Pablo, who has become cowardly and all-too-comfortable in his hidden cave while drunk in a bowl of wine. Sadly, Pablo’s fear of death has overcome his desire for virtue or honor, and even his own wife does not respect him. In contrast, El Sordo dies bravely in battle. In the end, we are led to believe Robert Jordan dies a good death, as well. Perhaps the most striking moment that discusses a noble versus ignoble death occurs when Pilar recounts the brutal killings of fascists in her town square. Some people go to their death bravely and without fear, while others are weak and cower before the crowd of people.

“‘If you have not seen the day of revolution in a small town where all know all in the town and always have known all, you have seen nothing…'” (106, Pilar sharing a horrific story of anti-fascists, including Pablo, who assassinate sympathetic townsfolk with the fascist cause, one by one. Some die nobly and willingly, while others die in disgrace and dishonor. It is a jarring but instructive scene).

In the end, Robert Jordan ends his life as an honorable man. After blowing up the bridge, and while running back into the mountains, Robert Jordan’s leg is horribly broken in an explosion. He is dragged up to safety by the others but he simply cannot carry on. Knowing his fate, he calmly develops a plan. He says goodbye to his lover, María, and tells Pablo, Pilar, and the others to press on without him. Hemingway dramatically leaves us with this scene in the end: a mortally wounded Robert Jordan waiting beside a tree, feeling his heartbeat against the pine needles on the forest floor, while a fascist cavalry unit turns the corner and Robert Jordan prepares to open fire.

“I have fought for what I believed in for a year now. If we win here we will win everywhere. The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it. And you had a lot of luck, he told himself, to have had such a good life” (467).


Ernest Hemingway was a lifelong lover of Spain, particularly the encierro in Pamplona. He was a supporter of the Loyalist cause in the Spanish Civil War (the anti-fascists) -he served as Chair of the Ambulance Committee for the Medical Bureau of the American Friends of Spanish Democracy. He also publicly supported the Spanish Republic in 1937 when he produced an hour-long pseudo-documentary movie The Spanish Earth together with Jörg Ivens and John Dos Passos (read my review of the film here). Hemingway wrote the script and narrated the film (Orson Welles was originally slated too narrate the film). A beautiful technicolor film version of For Whom The Bell Tolls was released in 1943 (read my review of the film here). Hemingway was also a war correspondent reporting on the Spanish Civil War for the North American Newspaper Association (NANA) between 1937-1938. He left Spain for the last time in 1938 and wrote a series of short stories about the Spanish Civil War before setting himself up at the Hotel Sevilla Biltmore in Havana where he began writing For Whom The Bell Tolls. His writing regimen began at 8:30am and continued until 2pm or 3pm, the same practice he had established when writing A Farewell to Arms.

After traveling in Cuba and Montana, he searched for a title for the novel, first turning to the Bible and Shakespeare, before discovering John Donne’s poem “For Whom The Bell Tolls” in the Oxford Book of English Verse:

“No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man
is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a
Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse,
as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor
of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death
diminishes me me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And
therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.”

The allusion to John Donne’s poem, which was originally published in 1624 from his presumed deathbed, points us to themes of isolation, death, and the need to belong. The Spanish Civil War offers Robert Jordan the chance to find fraternity and purpose in fighting the threat of fascism. If there is no greater love than for a man to lay down his life for his friends, then Robert Jordan finds his deepest love on the battlefield of central Spain. His life is an important piece of an intricate puzzle in a worldwide chain of being. The war in Spain is not an island, but rather a part of a broader global conflict set to explode with World War II. In For Whom The Bell Tolls, the idea of war comes to light as a harsh teacher, a bearer of unforgiving truth, a life-affirming cause of brotherhood and meaning in a meaningless world. Love and death have the power to unveil the hidden character of modern man, by testing his prudence, courage, temperance, and justice. War reveals to us the grandeur and also the limits of mankind.


About Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) led a fascinating and storied life. He was born in Oak Park, Illinois, a small town outside Chicago. He cut his teeth writing as a journalist for the Kansas City Star in 1917. There, he built his signature writing and editing style: concise, direct, and honest sentences that tell the truth above all else.

Hemingway posing for the original dust jacket of For Whom The Bell Tolls

During the outbreak of World War I, Hemingway became a volunteer ambulance driver for the Red Cross on the Italian front but was wounded and sent home. He married his first wife Hadley Richardson and moved to Paris where he joined a circle of post-war artists and critics: Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Ford Madox Ford, and others. In Paris, Hemingway began writing his first collections of poetry and short stories. In 1926, he published his first modernist classic, The Sun Also Rises, a reflection of his years as an expat in France and Spain.

In the late 1920s, Hemingway returned to the United States and published his World War I novel, A Farewell To Arms. He had an affair and divorced his first wife to marry Pauline “Fife” Pfeiffer. He then moved to Key West and Cuba. While traveling widely throughout the world, he wrote books about bullfighting (Death In The Afternoon) and an account of big game hunting in Africa (The Green Hills of Africa). Hemingway had another affair and he left his wife for another woman -he remarried a third time, this time to Martha Gellhorn (he dedicated For Whom The Bell Tolls to Martha Gellhorn).

In the 1930s, Hemingway became an international reporter on the Spanish Civil War, which eventually spawned For Whom The Bell Tolls, and with the growing turmoil in Europe, he hand-delivered the novel manuscript to his publisher Max Perkins at Scribner’s in New York in July 1940 (the book would later be praised by two adversaries and American statesmen: John McCain and Barack Obama). Hemingway then hunted U-Boats in the Caribbean and reported on the European front in World War II. He remarried for the fourth and final time to Mary Welsh who remained with him until his death. In 1952 he wrote The Old Man And The Sea. Shortly thereafter, he won the Pulitzer in 1953 and the Nobel Prize in 1954. At the end of his life, Hemingway’s mental health had deteriorated, particularly after he received electroshock treatment. He killed himself by a self-inflicted shotgun blast in Ketchum, Idaho in 1961 -the same way his father had also died (and the way Robert Jordan’s father died in For Whom The Bell Tolls).

For my full notes on Ernest Hemingway’s life, click here.

To read my reflections upon reading The Paris Review’s famous interview with Hemingway (1958) click here.


Hemingway, Ernest. For Whom The Bell Tolls. New York, Scribner, 2003.

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