The Call Of The Wild

Ernest Hemingway was a literary vagabond, a restless spirit who roamed the earth in search of adventure, the kind of challenge that would test his courage and, at times, put his life at risk.

He had a lifelong passion for the blood sports - hunting, fishing and bullfighting - and that passion was the driving force behind some of his best fiction, starting with The Big Two-Hearted River and other early stories drawn from his boyhood summers in the forests of northern Michigan, where he learned to hunt and fish.

Hemingway's passion for Spain and bullfighting came later, when he was a young man living in Europe, and he wrote about it most vividly in his first novel, The Sun Also Rises. Indeed, his enthusiasm for the stylized savagery of the corrida was so great that he went on to write an entire book about the mystique of bullfighting, which he called Death in the Afternoon.

But it was mainly as a hunter and fisherman that Hemingway responded to the call of the wild.

His desire to stalk ever larger and more dangerous game led him to embark on safaris in Africa, which provided the material for two of his finest short stories, The Snows of Kilimanjaro and The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.

And his desire to move on from the trout streams of his youth to the more perilous challenge of deep-sea fishing led him to make his home on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, first in Key West, Florida and later in Cuba. It was, of course, during his twilight years in Cuba that Hemingway wrote his great fishing novella, The Old Man and the Sea.

Hemingway's consuming interest in the struggle between man and beast - be it Spanish bull, African lion or Atlantic marlin - may also explain his lifelong fascination with the struggle between man and man, which is commonly called war. (For what is war, after all, but the ultimate blood sport?)

From his experience as an 18-year-old ambulance driver in World War I, he wrote A Farewell To Arms, regarded by many as the finest novel ever written about that war.

Then, in what was perhaps his most famous (and certainly most popular) novel, For Whom The Bell Tolls, he dealt with the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, which he had covered for the North American Newspaper Alliance. And another stint as a correspondent during World War II provided him with the material for a third war novel, Across The River and Into The Trees.

Hemingway himself once said the only thing truly worth writing about "is death, and its temporary avoidance, life," and that is the theme that runs through the pages of all his major novels and short stories.

The courage to face death - whether on a battlefield, or in a bull ring, or on the high seas or in the green hills of Africa - was the human quality Hemingway admired most, and the one he strove, time and time again, to instill in his characters.

I must say that my favorite Hemingway story deals wit a much less lofty subject. Although it's a story he never set down on paper, he richly enjoyed telling it to friends, especially if they happened to be fellow writers or at least had some connection to the literary side of his life.

The story revolves around an incident that took place in the office of Hemingway's editor at Scribner's, Maxwell Perkins. Perkins was a legendary figure - the esteemed editor of Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe and other luminaries of American fiction - and his employer, Scribner's, also had a towering reputation in New York publishing circles.

Although Perkins and Hemingway had a close professional rapport that blossomed into a warm friendship, no two men could have been less alike. In contrast to the expansive, larger-than-life bluster that was so much a part of Hemingway's personality, Perkins was a model of reserve and decorum, a man who, at times, could be painfully shy.

On the occasion in question, Hemingway was at Scribner's to discuss the first draft of A Farewell To Arms, which he had mailed to Perkins a few weeks earlier.

Always quick to recognize a potential masterpiece, Perkins lavished praise on the novel. His only serious objection, he said, was to Hemingway's use of a certain four-letter word that appeared two or three times in the draft.

Perkins conceded that it was a perfectly legitimate word, one with solid, Anglo-Saxon origins, and that he could understand why Hemingway would want to use it, especially in a novel about the army and war. But, he said, the word could never be permitted in a novel published by Scribner's.

Perkins was too shy or too decorous to utter the four-letter word - a vulgar term for sexual congress that was then considered unprintable - and so he wrote it on his calendar pad, and directed Hemingway's attention to it.

With a hearty laugh, Hemingway said he knew the word would never be approved for publication, and that the only reason he included it in the draft was because he was curious to see how his dear friend, Max Perkins, would react to it. With that matter settled, the two men then went out to lunch.

A few minutes later, the firm's publisher, Charles Scribner, came into Perkins's office to ask him about something or other and, not finding the editor at his desk, looked at the calendar pad to see where Perkins might be.

Now Charles Scribner was, if anything, even more reserved and patrician in manner than Perkins, and we can only imagine how startled he must have been when he saw on the calendar, opposite 12 o'clock, the neatly-written four letters of the vulgar word that begins with F and ends with K.

But whatever his private reaction, he handled the indiscretion with the savoir-faire of a true gentleman.

Later that afternoon, after Perkins returned from lunch, Scribner ran into him in a corridor and said in the most solicitous tone: "Max, why don't you take the rest of the day off? You must be exhausted."


Go Back to Papa's Place

By Gary Paul Gates