Hemingway’s Boat: Going out too far

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)

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Author’s books now available at iTunes bookstore

Brian T. Maurer’s books Patients Are a Virtue and Village Voices are now available as iBooks for purchase and download at the iTunes bookstore.  Interested readers may click on the links below to access these titles.

Readers may also search for these titles directly at the iBookstore using the following ISBNs.

The ISBN for Patients Are a Virtue is 9781257166220.
The ISBN for Village Voices is 9781257351039.

Twin Brothers: a novel relationship

When I read the story of the twin brothers who had entered the Franciscan order to spend their lives in service to their fellow monks and subsequently died on the same day, I couldn’t help but think of the twin boys Esteban and Manuel, Thornton Wilder’s characters in his 1939 novella The Bridge at San Luis Rey.

Wilder writes: “They became vaguely attached to all the sacristies in town: they trimmed all the cloister hedges; they polished every possible crucifix; they passed a damp cloth once a year over most of the ecclesiastical ceilings….When the priest rushed through the streets carrying his precious burden into a sickroom either Esteban or Manuel was to be seen striding behind him, swinging a censer.”

According to the New York Times article, Brother Julian and Brother Adrian were workers, preparing the altar for chapel, chopping wood for kindling, exulting in ice cream at the Twist & Shake — the identical Riester twins were together, always.

“As they grew older, however, they showed no desire for the clerical life.  They gradually assumed the profession of the scribe.”

To dismiss the twins as blank slates would be to misjudge them; their simplicity had depth. Rarely speaking of yesterday, they lived in the God-given now.

“Because they had no family, because they were twins, and because they were brought up by women, they were silent.”

Here, then, were two shy men, surrounded by scholars, discouraged from speaking, uncertain what to say if given the chance, and yet confident that this was their calling.

“There was in them a curious shame in regard to their resemblance….From the years when they first learned to speak they invented a secret language for themselves, one that was scarcely dependent on the Spanish for its vocabulary, or even for its syntax.  They resorted to it only when they were alone, or at great intervals in moments of stress whispered it in the presence of others.”

Brother Julian became the sacristan, maintaining the chapel, and Brother Adrian became the chauffeur, but they also built the bookshelves and maintained the garden and cleared the growth from the shrines in the woods — and rarely spoke unless invited.

“This language was the symbol of their profound identity with one another, for just as resignation was a word insufficient to describe the spiritual change that came over the Marquesa de Montemayor on that night in the inn at Cluxambuqua, so love is inadequate to describe the tacit almost ashamed oneness of these brothers.  What relationship is it in which few words are exchanged, and those only about the details of food, clothing and occupation; in which the two persons have a curious reluctance even to glance at one another?”

If they quarreled, Brother David said, “It would be over the measurement of a piece of wood.” And even then, it would be done silently: a slight cock of Julian’s head, to suggest that he didn’t agree with Adrian’s calculations.

“And yet side by side with this there existed a need of one another so terrible that it produced miracles as naturally as the charged air of a sultry day produces lightning.”

The Rev. Canice Connors, a Franciscan who spent a restful summer at the friary, became enchanted by the guileless twins, who seemed to embrace a deeper, ego-free reality.

“All the world was remote and strange and hostile except one’s brother.”

When Manuel dies from an infected cut on his knee, Esteban takes on his identity and tries to make sense of the world.  But his efforts are in vain.  He can no longer exist without his soul mate.  He perishes in the collapse of the bridge of San Luis Rey.

Brother Julian and Brother Adrian died on the same day.  At 92 years of age, they died within hours of one another in keeping with a quiet life of doing most everything together at St. Bonaventure.

Brother Julian died in the morning and Brother Adrian died in the evening, after being told of Julian’s death. Few who knew them were surprised, and many were relieved, as it would have been hard to imagine one surviving without the other.

“We ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”

Humane Medicine — The year of the great-grandmother

“It’s been a tough year,” she says. “I’ve got my mother living with me now. I didn’t think it would be quite like it turned out. She’s 85, and with frontal lobe dementia, she requires constant care. But what can I do? She’s my mother. And then there’s Meg—I’ve still got Meg at home. You remember Meg—”  more»

Interested readers can now access my latest Humane Medicine columnGenerational Medicine: The year of the great-grandmother — recently published in the Journal of the American Academy of Physician Assistants.

Blue Collar, Blue Scrubs

It’s a fine spring day, the last of April. I’ve been sitting outside in the back yard all afternoon, plowing through Michael Collins’ memoir Blue Collar, Blue Scrubs: The Making of a Surgeon.

The first-born in an Irish-Catholic family of eight boys, Collins pursued an undergraduate degree in liberal arts from Notre Dame University before taking a job with a construction company breaking concrete for a living. Although he enjoyed the hard work, the long hours, the camaraderie (as well as the beer consumed on the job and in the pubs afterward), Collins reached a point where he needed to make a decision about what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. The answer he hit upon was to become a doctor.

It was an uphill battle. Collins had to spend two years completing pre-requisite courses in chemistry, physics and biology and sit for the MCAT just to be able to apply to medical school. Although he aced his science courses, his MCAT scores were average. Rejected by 7 of the 8 medical schools to which he applied, when Collins pleaded with the Dean of Students at Loyola in Chicago to be given a chance, he got in.

Blue Collar, Blue Scrubs describes his journey through medical school up to the beginnings of his orthopedic surgical residency at the Mayo Clinic. Collins spins the tale with wit, humor and pathos.

Throughout his training, while immersed in the seemingly overwhelming tedious task of rote memorization, Collins lapses into philosophical thought. “What, then, makes us human? A beating heart? A cogitating brain? Or is there something more, something, for want of a better word, we call a soul?”

At the conclusion of the first autopsy he witnesses, a pathologist tells him: “You have now peered into the deepest recesses of the human body and discovered the secrets of life.” As he files out of the room with his fellow students, Collins muses that “we haven’t even come close.”

Throughout his rigorous training Collins somehow manages to hold on to his humanity. He never loses sight of why he wanted to become a doctor in the first place: to render assistance to his fellow human beings, to alleviate their suffering.

It is good for seasoned clinicians to be reminded of such altruistic motives. Whenever I lose a patient to a terminal illness, I gravitate to the family. I sit with significant others, share the information I have at hand and prepare myself to listen to what they have to tell me. To do otherwise would be a disservice both to them and to myself; for in these instances, I’ve discovered that I need such interactions to help myself heal.

Patients are not the only ones who suffer.

An amazing find

“Look what I found at the Salvation Army store!” my wife beams, holding up a crinkled document in her hand.

The yellowed paper had caught her eye when she dropped off our yearly donation of old clothing that afternoon. She purchased it for two dollars.

I take the heavy paper document in my hand and run my fingers along the edge. It measures six by eight inches. The printing is script, all Latin, except for the calligraphied name and signature at the bottom. I read the title. It appears to be a diploma dated June 6, 1965, conferring an undergraduate degree from Smith College on Francesca Morosani Thompson.

“I researched the name,” my wife continues, showing me the page on her MacBook. “Here—you can read it for yourself.”

A black and white photograph is posted above a few short paragraphs of text. Underneath the picture appear the woman’s name and dates of birth and death—the obituary of Francesca Morosani Thompson, M.D.

My eyes dart rapidly across the lines of virtual type. Francesca M. Thompson was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, in 1945. She attended Smith College where she earned an undergraduate degree in social work, then went on to pursue her M.D. at Cornell University Medical School. Dr. Thompson subsequently completed a residency in orthopedic surgery at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, where she served as that institution’s first female orthopedic resident.

After completing a fellowship in foot and ankle surgery, Dr. Thompson became the chief of the Adult Orthopaedic Foot Clinic at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Medical Center in New York; a co-director of the Combined Foot and Ankle Fellowship at the Hospital for Special Surgery, and a clinical assistant professor of orthopedics at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Midway through her promising career she developed multiple myeloma—cancer of the bone marrow—in 1986.

Dr. Thompson received the first autologous bone marrow transplant for treatment of multiple myeloma, at that time an experimental procedure where the patient’s marrow is extracted, irradiated and returned to the body. The treatment bought her another decade of life.

As a physician Dr. Thompson documented the journey of her illness in a book, Going for the Cure.

Shortly before what would be her final hospitalization, Dr. Thompson scrubbed in as attending surgeon with her fellow and resident. She completed the 5-hour surgical procedure on the patient while sitting in a wheel chair.

Dr. Thompson’s life stands as a role model for women in orthopaedic surgery. She was kind yet firm, direct without being confrontational, and intelligent yet not condescending.

I finish the last line of the obit and turn my attention to the wrinkled document in my hand—a small piece of history that speaks to the soul of a courageous individual, one who strove to continue to practice humane medicine to the end.

Francesca M Thompson