Several years ago the feeling came to me that all writers and readers get when they know its time to read work by Ernest Hemingway. That feeling came by way of a song I heard by Guy Clark called, “Hemingway’s Whiskey.”
Clark presented such a compelling case to read Hem that I didn’t want to read anything else. I had heard all about “Papa” and knew I was about to embark on a special journey.
In Clark’s song he describes Hemingway’s writing style “..warm and smooth and mean. Even when it burns, it’ll always finish clean. He did not like it watered down, he took it straight up and neat. If its bad enough for him, its bad enough for me.”
I purchased the book that Clark mentioned reading, Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. I took to reading it like nothing before. I was transfixed and transported by “Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” among many others. His writing style was just how Clark described.
Somewhere in my reading about Hem I learned that he used the character Nick Adams as an alter ego. I skimmed through the book to find all the places Nick Adams appears and among those 24 tales was “Big, Two-Hearted River.” This two-part story is about Nick coming home from war to find the town not how he remembered it. He takes refuge in the woods where he focuses on fishing and camping.
The dark swamp being used for allegory is some of Hem’s best writing. The swamp could represent the deep, dark places of the mind and Nick knows that he can’t escape those places no matter how much he might try to avoid them. Hem tells us that “fishing in the swamp is a tragic adventure.”
Nick uses the river to keep track of all the changes around him. Since returning home, Nick’s mental state is in a transitional flux or flow. The land is burned, the swamp dark and deep, but the river is a constant and Nick relies upon it for his survival.
This story and its themes really stuck with me. Rivers are fascinating because they are always Now, free flowing, going around any obstacle they come across. Nick Adams knew all about this. With Hem’s story as inspiration I wanted to write my own “Big Two-Hearted River.”
My song has the same title, but told from a first person perspective. I didn’t use much metaphor at all, just a straight forward tale in reverence to the river and the surrounding woods.
Music by Ryan Hughes; Video by Charlotte Blom (boaters appear by fortuitous accident)