Review Of The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 10/20/05


  One of the problems with Ernest Hemingway’s novels- and I’ll admit it’s been years since I’ve read the classics, is that he was like a tomcat constantly needing to piss his masculinity over every page, resulting in my need to turn away from the page. He was capable of soaring poetry in his clipped style, later adapted by such writers as Mickey Spillane, to good effect, yet not a one of the books, save for the novella The Old Man And The Sea, could be termed truly great. In a sense, although he in many ways the antithesis if James Joyce- Hemingway’s prose is terse, hard, rapid fire, and prosaic in its apparent construction, whereas Joyce’s is fluid, mellifluous, and poetic- he also shares a kinship in that both men were exceedingly hit and miss writers. Both were capable of greatness, both wrote horribly, like the little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead- although Hemingway’s worst is just stilted and dull, whereas Finnegans Wake is an abomination- and both men wavered on the cusp of whether or not they deserve to be acclaimed great writers, notwithstanding Hemingway’s Nobel Prize.

  This book, The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, is not ‘complete’ if some of its detractors are to be believed, for Hemingway weeded out lesser tales and what he considered juvenilia, but it is a good representation of the man’s short fictive work- good and bad. Overall, I think the good is a bit more than the bad, but I’ll go through both sides of the debate. First off, Hemingway is often credited with creating a Modernist form of the short story, where crypticism reigns. This is true only to the degree that he simply paints portraits and does not judge- something more akin to Anton Chekhov’s innovations, such as the zero end- which Hemingway often employs, from mostly plot-bound short tales that came before. But, unlike Modernist poetry, Hemingway’s short stories are not willfully obscure in symbolism, just in allowing interpretation to the reader for often banal facts.

  Perhaps the clearest example of this is his famed short story The Killers, in which, on a winter evening, near nightfall, Nick Adams- Hemingway’s fictive alter-ego of many stories- is at a diner, talking to its manager, George, in a Chicago suburb. Two strangers enter the joint, order food, then complain alot. They comment that George and Nick aren’t too bright, then order the two of them, plus the black cook, into the kitchen and tie Nick and the cook up. No, they are not robbers, but hitmen, sent to whack a boxer named Ole Andreson, a regular who usually never misses suppertime. This night he does, and eventually the two killers leave. George unties Nick and the cook, and Nick goes to warn Andreson at his boarding room. Yet, the boxer is unconcerned, resigned to fate, and death. Nick returns to the diner and tells George of it, then says he’s got to leave town because the whole situation upsets him. Some have imbued way too much into the story, while leaving out key flaws. For example, it has been posited that the tale is really about Nick’s first confrontation with evil- but if so, it’s a rather banal one, for ‘the killers’ are hardly evil personified, and surely unprofessional. They are also hardly chilling, but definitely funny. The narrator even describes them as a comedic ‘vaudeville team’ after they’ve left the diner. Absurdism, far more than Modernism, or a gritty, realistic confrontation with evil, is what the tale is about. And there is a serious, what would be called in the film business, continuity error in the story that is also unintentionally comic. The two killers initially force the others to do their bidding without even a mention of guns, nor a display of power. They simply tell the others to get behind the counter and the others do. No gun is pulled, so the whole setup borders on the unrealistic, as well as Absurdist. This sort of error is typical of Hemingway. Much of what he writes comes off as jotted first drafts that could be expanded. The fact that Hemingway has the others in obeisance to the killers, with no display of machismo nor violence- if not a continuity error, again demonstrates that the whole scene is farcical, rather than dangerous and realistic. The dialogue, poor even by Hemingway’s testosteronic standards, is straight out of a Samuel Beckett play, or an Abbott and Costello film’s depiction of gangsters- not real life, works only as comedy. Comic touches pervade even the imagery- for example, the killers are dressed in black- overcoats and gloves- the most trite symbol of evil going. Even more heavy-handed than the black is evil symbolism is the three monkeys-like reactions to it. The black cook sees no evil, and refuses to get involved. George will speak no evil. After the killers leave he sends Nick to warn Andreson of the killers. He will not get involved any further. And then Andreson will not hear of the evil. He knows it’s coming, but shoos Nick away. The fact that none of the characters thinks of calling the cops is also a classic ploy that screams the narrative is bad- that of the characters doing the very dumbest things possible to propel the plot. Think of slasher films where scantily clad babes always walk down dark hallways alone, fully knowing a killer is lurking nearby. Why would Nick go directly to a place where a murder will occur? Forget the faux philosophizing. The real answer is because it is the dictates of bad fiction to do so, lest there be no end to the tale. Similarly, after so much time in the killers’ presence, is it realistic to think that their hostages would have been allowed to live? Yes, but only in a farce. The lack of a clear motive for the murder also highlights the random nature of what occurred in the diner- and randomness is a staple of Absurdism and farce. So, how have critics so woefully misconstrued this tale? I suspect it’s on ‘reputation’ alone. Were this story Hemingway’s first attempt at publication it would have been rejected. It still should have been.

  Other of his tales are brief one or two page piece that would now be termed ‘flash fiction’, such as On The Quai At Smyrna, A Very Short Story, A Simple Enquiry- which deals with homophobia, Banal Story, One Reader Writes, and The Revolutionist. These tend to be his best short works, for they describe a moment, then let it percolate in the reader’s mind. The best of them is probably Old man At The Bridge, which follows a brief encounter between an insane old man in the Spanish Civil War who meets up with a soldier. It is pitch perfect. Not as good, but the best known of these small tales is A Clean, Well-Lighted Place. The tale is rather simple, and is a mood piece. In the early morning of a Spanish café, a deaf old man drinks brandy. A young waiter wishes the old man would leave so he and an older waiter could close the café and go home. He insults the old man and is bitchy toward the other waiter. The older waiter realizes the old man is lonely- for he attempted suicide not long ago, even though rich, and simply needs the café as a sort of refuge from the world. Finally, the old man leaves, and the waiters close the café. The young waiter leaves, while the older waiter goes to another all-night café where he orders a cup of nada from the waiter, musing on the old man. To the waiter of this café the older waiter is just a crazy old man, too. He then leaves. Nothing has really occurred, and no characters have names. This is also a typical Absurdist type tale, but there is genuine pathos in this story, that resonates far more deeply than in The Killers. Look at this typical exchange, and without knowing its source it has Beckett written all over it:


“I want to go home to bed.” 

“What is an hour?” 

“More to me than to him.” 

“An hour is the same.” 

“You talk like an old man yourself. He can buy a bottle and drink at home.” 

“It’s not the same.” 

“No, it is not,” agreed the waiter with a wife. He did not wish to be unjust. He was only in a hurry. 

“And you? You have no fear of going home before your usual hour?” 

“Are you trying to insult me?” 

“No, hombre, only to make a joke.” 


  The tale is a fugue of nihility that becomes something- the reaction to nothingness, and the key character is the older waiter, for he has less than the young waiter, and his post-café closing plight demonstrates this, which is the basis for his wisdom in all things, including the old man’s loneliness, which already is partly the older waiter’s, as well. It is this wisdom, or light, which holds back darkness and death (suicide). This is what separates man from the beasts- wisdom and knowledge. This is an excellent tale that is almost a proem.

  But, these flash fictive proems are not what Hemingway is most well known for- it is the classics; and they are the proverbial mixed bag. The Snows Of Kilimanjaro follows an injured writer/adventurer whose trek to the African mountain virtually ends before it has begun. A meager scratch on his leg from a poisonous thorn has ended in gangrene whilst on the way up. This story is a good one, but not a great one, mainly because it is too long. But it differs markedly from the bulk of both Hemingway’s long and short fiction in that it has long italicized interior monologues where the protagonist’s life flashes before his eyes. The ending, which is famous, throughout the years has become stale. Perhaps due to its own ‘preciousness’ and heavy-handed symbolism, or perhaps to its approach being used too often by wannabes. The tale still works, overall, as a character portrait, but there have been better such portraits crafted before and since.

  In Another Country is a more successful character portrait because it’s shorter, therefore more poetic, as well as not being as self-indulgent as The Snows Of Kilimanjaro. In it, a wounded American veteran is in a hospital. Although the character and war are never named most have taken him as Nick Adams in World War One, although it could be World War Two, for the hospital is Italian. That the book does not put the tales in context, as to which collection they come from, is a definite flaw. Regardless, the vet is dubious of the machines and therapies he’s required to undergo. Four Italian veterans brag of their heroics and medals, while an injured Italian major does not, for he is depressed that his wife got ill and died. It ends with a very poetic scene of the major looking out a hospital window:


  The doctor told me that the major’s wife, who was very young and whom he had not married until he was definitely invalided out of the war, had died of pneumonia. She had been sick only a few days. No one expected her to die. The major did not come to the hospital for three days. Then he came at the usual hour, wearing a black band on the sleeve of his uniform. When he came back, there were large framed photographs around the wall, of all sorts of wounds before and after they had been cured by the machines. In front of the machine the major used were three photographs of hands like his that were completely restored. I do not know where the doctor got them. I always understood we were the first to use the machines. The photographs did not make much difference to the major because he only looked out of the window.


  The Short Happy Life Of Francis Macomber is one of Hemingway’s better stories, yet, it also could have used some trimming, and the characters veer a little too easily into spoofs. Macomber is a rich middle-aged man on an African safari, yet he has just gotten over an act of cowardice- running from a lion. His wife Margot is with him, the natives, and the safari guide, Robert Wilson- he of great white hunter fame and poaching infamy. She loathes her husband as a coward, but he is rich and will never leave him for that fact. He loathes her, but is too lazy to trade her in for a trophy wife. They seem content to make each other miserable. That night she cuckolds him with Wilson, who seems to always seduce the wives of his cowardly clients- for he even carries a double cot. It is apparent that Macomber knows of this and it has gone on throughout their marriage. Wilson is also a sadist who enjoys beating the natives if they err on the hunt. His poaching and abuse of the natives allows Margot to have something on Wilson, and he seeks to regain the upper hand. The next day Macomber proves he’s no coward by killing a lion and Margot fears he might better himself and leave her. Then, he goes to test himself again with a second water buffalo. He injures it, and as the hunters go to lure it out of the grasses the bull charges at Macomber who readies to shoot it. Margot aims at the beast too, but shoots her husband in the back of the head. He dies at the most courageous instant of his short happy life- in fact, the tale’s title can be seen as referring to that spilt second of primal joy that he had in standing up to the raging buffalo. Wilson teases her, knowing it was no accident, for Macomber was ‘becoming a man’ and would probably leave Margot penniless. He knows, though, that if he reports her for murder it would be difficult to prove, for she could claim she was trying to kill the beast that was charging her husband, and the whole mess could lead to Nairobi officials examining his illegal practices and livelihood. So, he knows just how far to push, and retain control- such as asking her why she didn’t just poison Macomber like wives in England do? But, even if it was only an accident it now checkmates and trumps the information she has on Wilson, who emerges the winner, as usual, at tale’s end. The tale succeeds mostly because of the neutral tone of its narrator, who mid-tale switches perspectives between the main characters.

  Other famous tales are not as definitively good nor bad. Up in Michigan, a short tale, for example, is predicated on whether or not a male character date rapes a girl. The interpretation is left open- a wise choice, but the rest of the tale is simply not compelling enough in its brevity, nor in its characterization, larded with stilted writing and dialogue.

  Hills Like White Elephants, also is a hit and miss proposition. While it ostensibly concerns an American man and ‘girl’ at a Spanish railway station talking about something, the real thread is that she is pregnant and he wants her to have an abortion in Madrid. The problem is that even as the characters are trying to be circuitous about the subject, their conversation is really stilted- and unnatural, even for such a scene. There is no passion and the girl seems dimwitted- not just eager to please her older lover. They drink beer and anis drinks, as he reassures her it will be ‘a simple operation’. He feigns he does not want her to have it, but implies great things awaits if she does. At end she assures him she’s fine. Like Up In Michigan, this tale deals with a touchy subject, but it’s handled far better. Still, the lack of naturalistic dialogue, the inability of Hemingway to focus in on and present only the most poetic dialogue, is a drawback, albeit a minor one, for the story is one of his best. Yet, even in his best Hemingway’s flaws are manifest.

  This tale, however short, is not overtly Absurdist, nor comic. Hemingway’s narrator is seemingly omniscient, yet there are hints of limitation. Little is known of the couple save they are wanderers, as their luggage indicates. A pregnancy might cramp their style. And here is where the Absurdist element reappears- the non-natural dialogue is clipped and limited.


    “And we could have all this,” she said. “And we could have everything and every day make it more impossible.”

    “What did you say?”
     “We can have everything.”
     “No, we can’t.”
     “We can have the whole world.”
     “No, we can’t.”

     “We can go everywhere.”
     “No, we can’t. It isn’t ours any more.”
     “It’s ours.”
     “No, it isn’t. And once they take it away, you never get it back.”
     “But they haven’t taken it away.”
     “We’ll wait and see.”
     “Come on back in the shade,” he said. “You mustn’t feel that way.”
     “I don’t feel any way,” the girl said. “I just know things.”


  There is a definite artifice to the proceedings, and this is highlighted by the out of character (limited as it is in this depiction) reference by the girl to the hills of the station looking like white elephants. This one false moment tells the savvy reader that we are not in the real world, but that this scene has a purpose, and one important enough to become the title. Yet, this is never followed up on. Had the piece not had that intrusion of the faux poetic from a girl seemingly incapable of such it would be a more successful tale, possibly even great.

  The rest of the tales are similarly hit and miss- with more misses than hits. The book is divided into three sections. All the above tales come from his famed The First Forty-Nine. The other two sections, those tales published subsequent to the first forty-nine, fourteen in all, and those previously unpublished, seven, are generally what you would expect from the lower end of unpublished tales. The only tale worth reading, as they are mostly fragments from novels- One Trip Across and The Tradesman’s Return from To Have and Have Not and An African Story from The Garden of Eden, some children’s stories- The Good Lion and The Faithful Bull, and long-winded machismo screeds in the style of his worst novels, is a brief story called The Butterfly And The Tank, which is very similar in theme and evocation to J.D. Salinger’s For Esmé- With Love And Squalor, in which both wartime protagonists promise to write a tale for a woman about something.

  Hemingway, as a short fictionist, is therefore an enigma. His prose is shorn of ornament and as austere as can be gotten, yet often it veers, dramatically, into cliché and seemingly unintended self-parody. His characterizations are usually over the top, and subtlety is not his strength- warn the understatement alert team! And most of all, reading Hemingway- novels or short stories- is like opening a time capsule, for almost all his characters are long out of fashion semi-caricatures- from the killers in The Killers, to Margot Macomber and Robert Wilson of The Short Happy Life Of Francis Macomber, and on and on. People simply never acted in most of the ways his people act. Yet, and this is a big yet, because I would place Hemingway more than halfway on the spectrum toward Absurdist writer, he can get away with it in many tales other writers- even those of similar writing skills- could not. This ability to twist realism is something his two great contemporaries and rivals, F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner, could never do in their short stories. Then, again, his machismo bores and ruins many a tale that could have been great, even as his innovation and constant technical daring is to be highly commended- as long as it’s recognized that many of his dares and stories failed- such as the vastly overrated The Killers, and its dialogue from a third rate Bogart film. All in all I end where I began, with Hemingway alongside James Joyce as one of the most frustrating and hit and miss writers of note, for similar reasons, yet from wholly different perspectives. In a sense, he reminds me, positively and negatively, of Thomas Hardy’s poetic career. I respect and admire both men’s great daring and innovation, but I cannot help to acknowledge their great and fatal flaws in those arts, as well. Most writing that fails fails in a few ways- banality, poor music, cardboard characterization, etc., but writing that succeeds succeeds in almost infinite ways. Yet, Hemingway fails more interestingly, well, better, and endlessly, far more than most lesser writers succeed. He is a unique rarity, and I say read Hemingway, for he is essential and has some great tales, but read him sparingly, and in a well chosen Selected volume. Scribner’s has a volume called The Snows of Kilimanjaro And Other Stories, which includes Snows, A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, A Day’s Wait, The Gambler, The Nun, And The Radio, Fathers And Sons, In Another Country, The Killers, A Way You’ll Never Be, Fifty Grand, and The Short Happy Life Of Francis Macomber- a good representation of the ups and downs of this writer. And don’t be shy, in the least, to want to curse his ass for fucking up what often seem to be great stories in the making- this is basic fairness to him as a writer and you as a reader. I think he’d appreciate that even more than your fawning.

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Retort Magazine website.]

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