In Kevin Canfield’s online Salon interview with author Paul Hendrickson, Can We Ever Really Know Ernest Hemingway?, Hendrickson discusses his newly released book, Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961.
In 2002, while working on a previous tome, Sons of Mississippi, Hendrickson hit upon the idea of using Hemingway’s boat Pilar as a metaphorical backdrop for the last 27 years of Hemingway’s life. He opened his notebook and jotted the following entry: “Hemingway’s boat. June 18, ’02. If you study what happened just on that boat you’ll get Hemingway’s whole life.”
Hendrickson muses: “I like to think that the acquiring of this boat and the ability of Pilar to release [Hemingway] from shore was doing something to him. He was no longer shore bound. It was a seagoing vessel, and you could go far enough out where you would lose sight of land.” In the book he writes: “I believe Pilar was a key part of the change, allowing him to go farther out, where you don’t see the shoreline.”
“Pilar is my metaphor, my storytelling vehicle,” Hendrickson explains. Hendrickson believes that acquiring the boat may have had an impact on the evolution of Hemingway’s later prose.
This interchange brings to mind several passages from Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, the novella which clinched the Nobel Prize for him. A close reading of the text suggests that Hemingway himself might have been the originator of Hendrickson’s metaphor. In this masterwork Hemingway develops the concept of “going out too far,” far enough out where you would lose sight of land, where it would be only you and the boat and the sea. (Subsequent passages are taken from the 1952 Scribner’s Book of the Month Club edition.)
The old man knew he was going far out and he left the smell of the land behind and rowed out into the clean early morning smell of the ocean. (p. 31)
The sun rose thinly from the sea and the old man could see the other boats, low on the water and well in toward the shore, spread out across the current. (p. 35)
There were only three boats in sight now and they showed very low and far inshore. (p. 36)
He could not see the green of the shore now but only the tops of the blue hills that showed white as though they were snow-capped and the clouds that looked like high snow mountains above them. (p. 44)
Then he looked behind him and saw that no land was visible. That makes no difference, he thought. (p. 50)
When he acquired the Pilar, Hendrickson writes, “[Hemingway] is still the reigning monarch of American literature, but he’s already been sniped at by the critics. He’s still the king; he controls the crown. But he understood that he was beginning to have trouble” with his ability to write.
Perhaps I should not have been a fisherman, he thought. But that was the thing that I was born for. (p. 56 – 7)
He thought of how some men feared being out of sight of land in a small boat and knew they were right in the months of sudden bad weather. (p. 67)
Now alone, and out of sight of land, he was fast to the biggest fish that he had ever seen and bigger than he had ever heard of, and his left hand was tight as the gripped claws of an eagle. (p. 70)
In the end it was the going out too far that fated the old man’s defeat.
“I shouldn’t have gone out so far, fish,” he said. “Neither for you nor for me. I’m sorry, fish.” (p. 121)
“Half fish,” he said. “Fish that you were. I am sorry that I went too far out. I ruined us both.” (p. 127)
Within a decade after publication of The Old Man and the Sea, his body and mind ravaged from the effects of alcoholism, a least four major concussive blows to the head and a series of electroconvulsive shock treatments he received at the Mayo Clinic for major depression, Hemingway would acknowledge defeat by taking his own life. No one knows the true reason, of course; he left no suicide note. Yet his final failed attempts at writing suggest that he had lost the ability to craft the almost magical terse prose of his youth.
It is easy when you are beaten, he thought. I never knew how easy it was. And what beat you, he thought.
“Nothing,” he said aloud. “I went out too far.” (p. 132 – 133)