by Scott Saalman  hemingway

There are two sentences I first read 29 years ago from one of Ernest Hemingway’s published letters that fueled my writing life: “Scott took LITERATURE so solemnly. He never understood that it was just writing as well as you can and finishing what you start.”

I was 20 when I discovered these words in Ernest Hemingway On Writing. Delusional about my own greatness—name a writer who isn’t—I pretended that the “Scott” referenced by Papa was yours truly, and not F. Scott Fitzgerald. How could I not consider it a sign? From his grave, Hemingway was encouraging me to write.

I return to those two sentences often while writing, like a swimmer coming up for air, though it is from the depths of a paragraph that I ultimately breach to inhale.

I started writing because of Hemingway.

I read The Old Man and the Sea in grade school, even though it wasn’t assigned, and was enthralled by the old Cuban fisherman’s Gulf Stream showdown with a giant marlin. Passages like the following made it hard to return to sixth-grade reality: “Then the fish came alive, with his death in him, and rose high out of the water showing all his great length and width and all his power and his beauty. He seemed to hang in the air above the old man in the skiff. Then he fell into the water with a crash that sent spray over the old man and over all of the skiff.”

I must resurface to chuckle, for Microsoft Word’s spelling & grammar police, in all of its infinite wisdom, has green-lined “all of the” in the above passage, suggesting that this portion of Papa’s Pulitzer Prize-winning prose be shortened to “the entire.”

The Old Man and the Sea hooked me on Hemingway.

In high school, Mrs. ___ required us to read The Old Man and the Sea. I had a head start on my classmates. I gladly revisited Santiago, my old Cuban friend. But Mrs. ___ tried to ruin the book for me. As an English teacher, it was her duty to find the allegories, Christian symbolism, etc., that ruin reading for kids. Somehow, Santiago was being compared to Jesus Christ, and the sharks, well …

Writing stories seemed hard enough just to write the story. To insist a writer included all these hidden messages and meanings in a story seemed preposterous. Isn’t it grand enough to write, or to read, a story for the sake of the story alone?

Mad as hell, defending Papa, I stood from my desk, and, to the surprise of my classmates and teacher, proclaimed, “You don’t know how to teach.” In the principal’s office, I wisely became the great apologist, dodging a smudge on my pristine permanent record. It is likely I also had to change trousers after that encounter—so much for grace under pressure.

In college, by virtue of owning Ernest Hemingway on Writing, I came across these words by Papa: “The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The shark are all sharks no better and no worse. All the symbolism that people say is shit.”

I rejoiced in Hemingway’s vindication.

By then, though, I had forgiven Mrs. ___, for she also had required us to read A Farewell To Arms. I still love Mrs. ___ for that assignment. The novel is more so love story than war story. Last week, I re-read that same book I once held in high school. Its spine is wrinkled and cracked; its pages are yellowed and pungent (anyone who says they like the smell of old books is a liar). It is fun to return to a book first read as a kid, but now experienced through adult eyes. Passages lost on me due to youth resonate in middle age: “I loved to take her hair down and she sat on the bed and kept very still, except suddenly she would dip down to kiss me while I was doing it, and I would take out the pins and lay them on the sheet and it would be loose and I would watch her while she kept very still and then take out the last two pins and it would all come down and she would drop her head and we would both be inside of it, and it was the feeling of inside a tent or behind a falls.” That passage makes me crave a cigarette—and I don’t even smoke.

I take Hemingway and his influence on me as a writer so solemnly. He speaks to me, encourages me, from the grave. To borrow the last sentence from The Sun Also Rises: “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

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