We know remarkably little about the life of William Shakespeare, the greatest English playwright and incomparable Renaissance writer. He was baptized on April 26, 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, which is located approximately 100 miles northwest of London. He was, therefore, likely born several days prior to his baptism (his birth date is traditionally given as April 23rd, or Saint George’s Day). William was the oldest surviving child of John and Mary Shakespeare. The Shakespeares previously had two daughters -neither of whom survived. The Shakespeares later had five more children along with William: Gilbert, Richard, Edmund, and two younger sisters -Anne (who died at age seven) and Joan.
Shakespeare’s father, John, was a prosperous leatherworker (a “glover”) who eventually became a local politician in Stratford. John was first appointed an alderman and then he became the town bailiff (akin to a modern city mayor). Shakespeare’s mother, Mary, descended from the Arden family, a prominent farming and landowning family. As the son of a prominent businessman and official, young William likely attended the Stratford grammar school where he would have been required to memorize the Latin classics.
In 1582, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway of the nearby village of Shottery. She was already pregnant with their first-born -a common scenario for the time. Anne was 26 and William was 18 at the time of their marriage. After their first child, a daughter named Susanna, the Shakespeares had twins in 1585: Judith and Hamnet (who died at age 11). The Shakespeare family died out in the coming years leaving no direct Shakespearean descendants. The years before Shakespeare appeared in the London (1585-1592) are something of a mystery. The English poet Nicholas Rowe compiled the first 18th century edition of Shakespeare’s play, and he wrote a brief biography entitled “Some Acount of the Life &c. of Mr. William Shakespear” -the first biography of Shakespeare. In it, we are given apocryphal tales of Shakespeare fleeing prosecution for illegal deer poaching and working as a country school teacher and so on. prior to his theatrical workin London.
In the 1590s Shakespeare divided his time between Stratford-upon-Avon where he owned a home, and London where he worked as an actor and playwright. Some have speculated about whether Shakespeare’s significant time away from his family caused strain on his marriage, but this rumor is merely the speculative rumblings of modern academics and nothing more. Shakespeare was accused by at least one reviewer of attempting to punch above his weight as a playwright with university-educated elites like Christopher Marlowe. At some point Shakespeare apparently fully moved to London. As time went by, Shakespeare became a reputable actor and playwright, as well as a shareholder and partner in the “Lord Chamberlain’s Men” (later renamed the “King’s Men” in 1603 upon the accession and patronage of James I). In time Shakespeare’s name became a selling point for his plays -he began to be listed listed on title pages and quartos. Shakespeare’s partnership in the company brought significant financial security and Shakespeare bought real estate back in Stratford-upon-Avon, including the “New House” in 1597, the second largest house in town.
One of Shakespeare’s final plays was TheTwo Noble Kinsmen in 1611 which was likely a collaboration between Shakespeare and his frequent partner, John Fletcher -Fletcher succeeded Shakespeare as head playwright for the “Kings Men.” William Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616 (his wife Anne had died seven years prior). His death occurred within one month of signing his own will which described him in perfect health at the time. His health and death have been the cause of much speculation. Shakespeare was age 52 when he died. There are two known authentic likenesses of Shakespeare that have survived: a bust that was paid for by friends which sits at the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford (where Shakespeare is buried), and the engraving by Martin Droeshout as featured in the First Folio of 1623 -seven years after Shakespeare’s death.
In all likelihood The Tragedie of Macbeth was first performed in 1606 at the court of King James I. Its first public performance likely occurred at the Globe Theatre in 1611 (a review of this performance was given by the sometimes misleading astrologer, Simon Forman). Macbeth was first published in Shakespeare’s First Folio of 1623, seven years after the death of Shakespeare. In the First Folio, Macbeth follows Julius Caesar and precedes Hamlet. At the time, Shakespeare’s play company was changed from “Lord Chamberlain’s Men” into “The King’s Men” in 1603 when James acceded the throne.
Considerable scholarly work has been devoted to ‘discovering’ interpolations and revisions from the original hand of Shakespeare in Macbeth, and while it seems there have been some changes made to the play (such as Thomas Middleton’s supposed addition of Hecate), I find these arguments mostly unhelpful and uninteresting. In the same way that certain philosophical dialogues from antiquity have come down to us as Platonic despite dubious authorship, we should also consider the full breadth of literature that has come down to us as Shakespearean. A similar case should be made with respect to Homer. Too much skepticism about the Bard detracts and distracts from engaging fruitfully with his plays.
Apparently, Shakespeare’s chief source material for Macbeth comes from Raphael Holinshed’s popular Chronicles of Scotland, England, and Ireland (first published in 1577). The Chronicles was also a source for King Lear and Cymbeline, however, it was merely a source of inspiration for Macbeth, not a direct reflection on which the play is based. The Chronicles offered a dark tone and atmosphere filled with Celtic legends of superstition, betrayal, and violence that was wonderfully captured in Macbeth. We can also see glimpses of archaic views on witchcraft (i.e. the ‘weird sisters’) as found in King James’s Daemonologie and perhaps taken in part from the mythical sibyl from classical antiquity (the scene of the weird sisters may have been a latter addition). The occult plays an important role both within the story of Macbeth, as well as offstage. The play has come to be known as “the Scottish play” for fear of uttering “Macbeth” and thus bringing a curse upon the production. Rumors abound as to mysteries occurring during early productions of Macbeth.
In the Shakespearean universe, Macbeth shares a certain kinship with Richard III as both plays explore the idea of regicide, however Richard III comes to light as an unrepentant claimant to the throne, while Macbeth is plagued by Aeschylean furies over his decision to dethrone a king. While we feel a considerable distance from the cold-hearted King Richard III and his machinations, in Macbeth Shakespeare brings us deep into the mind of the murderer -so much so that we share a certain Aristotelian pity for Macbeth’s struggle. Macbeth also shares kinship with Antony and Cleopatra -in which Antony envisions a new world against the rule of his enemy, Octavius, not unlike Macbeth. The idea of witchcraft also appears in Henry VI part II. Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s shortest plays, in contrast to Hamlet -one of Shakespeare’s longest plays.
Outside the Shakespearean cosmos, classical allusions abound in Macbeth: Lady Macbeth shares a great deal in common with Aeschylus’s Clytemnestra, as well as certain similarities with Seneca’s Medea, and also Aristophanes’s Lysistrata.
The Context Macbeth was first performed perhaps around the year 1606 before the court of King James I, three years after his coronation (James was the son of Mary Queen of Scots, the Catholic Queen who led a rebellion against her cousin Queen Elizabeth that failed and Mary was beheaded). James’s kingship represented a turning point for England -a Scottish King at the end of the Elizabethan epoch. Macbeth is a play for a post-Elizabethan England, with a Scottish king that is not divinely authorized but rather received his approval from Parliament. One of the central questions is guilt and punishment of Macbeth -was he justified in killing the king? Shakespeare apparently fused several stories from the Chronicles to form the narrative, particularly Macbeth and the story of the murder of King Duff by Donwald and his wife -a conspiracy in which Banquo was an accomplice. This allusion is particularly striking because King James I considered himself a descendent of the true Banquo, though in Macbeth Banquo is far less of a villain.
The other chief historical event that was contemporaneous with Macbeth was the infamous Gunpowder Plot of 1605, in which a conspiracy of Catholics sought to blow up Parliament and overthrow the Protestant King James I. The idea of usurpation, mutiny, conspiracy, and high treason were fresh on the minds of many Englishmen at the time. Indeed Shakespeare, himself, may have been concerned about his own position with the nascent king. His father (John Shakespeare, a Catholic) was friends with William Catesby, father of Robert Catesby -the head conspirator in the Gunpowder plot. In a word, Shakespeare’s family was covertly Catholic in a time when Catholicism was repressed in Protestant England. Additionally, some have suggested that Shakespeare frequented “The Mermaid” tavern in London -a watering hole that was the preferred meeting place for the Gundpowder Plot conspirators.
Shakespeare’s decision to stage a Scottish play at the court of a Scottish king about treason against the Scottish crown entitled Macbeth (or “son of Beth” or Elizabeth) was a choice to highlight parallels between the two Scottish kings -especially in light of the fact that James had betrayed his Catholic mother’s rebellion and instead followed in the footsteps of the ‘tyrannical’ rulership of the late Queen Elizabeth. However, in another light Macbeth is a plea for England to unite under the new king -a reimagining of Duncan as a noble and heroic king (in reality he was a feeble king) and a somewhat empathetic portrayal of Macbeth as well as Banquo, especially considering James’s claim to inheritance from the line of Banquo. Personally, Shakespeare is elusive and I have not yet found a partisan angle one way or the other.
“‘…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 injusticeare 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 YorkTimes Book Review, TheNew 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 TheNew 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.
“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 BellTolls 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 LifeMagazine 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.