Firearms Reveal Lives Of Two Literary Giants
By Dr. Lorin Swinehart
In his recent biography, Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life and Lost, Paul Hendrickson reports an incident that occurred in 1934, while his subject was fishing with Archibald MacLeish. When the famous poet failed to hook a huge marlin, Hemingway became so enraged that he took down his shot gun and began killing terns. According to MacLeish, he took one on one barrel and the “grieving mate” with the other. Years later, MacLeish said that the sight of the terns plopping into the water, two by two, was forever burned into his memory. The incident created a rupture in their friendship that never fully healed.
Perhaps such an act of rage should not surprise those familiar with Hemingway. Part of the Hemingway myth is that after being wounded and nearly being killed on the Italian Front in World War I, he became a dealer of death, meting out that which he feared the most. Aboard his fishing boat Pilar, he would routinely massacre sharks with his submachine gun. In both his writing and his behavior, he seemed perpetually in competition with everyone else on earth, comparing his works to that of other writers in terms of a boxing match. While he defined courage as grace under pressure and extolled the bravery of matadors, his actions more often resemble those of a schoolyard bully or the knacker in a slaughterhouse.
In 1960, while traveling cross-country in his camper, reconnecting with America, a trek described so beautifully in his memoir Travels with Charlie, John Steinbeck tells of pausing along the highway in the Mohave Desert and spotting two coyotes lolling about in the noonday sun. Steinbeck trained his rifle on the pair, peering at them through his scope. Every instinct told him to fire, as he watched the coyotes, peacefully unaware of their position in his crosshairs. Coyotes were bad animals, he told himself, feeding upon wild quail and farmers’ chickens. After much inner debate, Steinbeck decided that he could not compel himself to destroy two such magnificent animals, that there were no quail and no chickens in the area anyway. He put his rifle away, set out two cans of dog food as a votive offering, and continued on his way, reminding himself of the old Chinese proverb that once you save a life you become responsible for everything that life does.
This episode and others, described in such non-fiction works as Steinbeck’s Log from the Sea of Cortez, his memoir of a biological collecting expedition into the Gulf of California, reveal a man who possesses a reverence for life. Like his closest friend and confident the biologist Ed Rickett, Steinbeck the scientist could only justify taking a life for food or to improve man’s knowledge.
These incidents may say more about the contrasting values of these two literary giants than all the tomes written by critics and scholars. Hemingway penned some of the most memorable works of the twentieth century. His style has been mimicked by countless others. He captured the angst of the Lost Generation between the two world wars and created robust word pictures of fishing, hunting and wilderness sojourns. Yet, his angry, even cruel attacks upon his critics or those whom he regarded as weaker than himself unmask a troubling dark side.
While Hemingway saw the savagery of the bullring as a metaphor for human existence, Steinbeck sometimes compared human activity to the life cycle of a Pacific tide pool. Hemingway, the blusterer, stands in contrast to Steinbeck, the marine biologist in many ways. Steinbeck’s novels exhibit respect for all life forms, a quest for ultimate truth, empathy for his fellow man. Steinbeck’s emphasis upon non-teleological thought illustrates his holistic view of nature. Such works as The Grapes of Wrath reveal him to be a compassionate spirit, barely able to admit to the possibility that humans may be morally flawed, and yet indignant in the face of injustices that point to such flaws. Behind the words of the novelist, the reader detects the mind of the philosopher.
Many US soldiers in the European Theater of World War II came to regard Hemingway as a blowhard and a fraud. Steinbeck, on the other hand, slogged into battle as a war correspondent, a soldier among soldiers, earning the respect of those who knew him.
Hemingway’s definition of courage has been tarnished by his death at his own hands. That a person possesses a great talent and uses it well, whether he is an artist, a schoolteacher or a catcher of stray dogs, implies no license for bad behavior. Long after their passing, the works of both men continue to pass the test of time, to sell and captivate new generations of readers.