Prison Diary: Hemingway’s “Macomber” Story

Copyright 2021 by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved

Ernest Hemingway

The following selection from my Prison Diary assumes that the reader is thoroughly familiar with Ernest Hemingway’s famous story, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.”  Material in brackets was added for the convenience of blog readers.

[An inmate friend] give me a copy of Hemingway’s Macomber story. I told him I didn’t like H. because, despite his reputation as a stylist, some of his sentences seem to me ugly and lumpy—like his attitudes, which I also don’t like. Reading the story tonight I find my opinions reinforced: this is an unpleasant story of three ugly people, and Wilson, the hunter, is the ugliest. For all his assumed superiority, he breaks the law and acts as an accessory to a murder. He also makes Mrs. M, squirm until she says “Please,” the very sort of behavior he sneers at her, and “American women,” for. It’s actually a rather brilliant story—but I still don’t like it.

What’s less clear to me, suddenly, is what Hemingway’s attitude is. Given that Wilson breaks a law H. would presumably favor, prohibiting hunting from a vehicle, I have to think that he does not identify with Wilson. I had always assumed that all the talk of bravery represented his own views, given that he was a hunter. Perhaps I have misjudged him; perhaps he isn’t thoroughly given over to the macho ideal; perhaps he’s even a critic of that ideal which seems to have ruled his life. Do I care? Not really—but I do need to read some of his novels, those I haven’t read already.

{1/31/10} Back to Macomber for a moment, I wanted to note why I called it brilliant yesterday. I felt a great tension as I read, I might even say excitement, though of course I’d read it before and thought I “knew” it. I can’t think of another short story that affected me so strongly in that way—I guess I’d call the feeling “suspense.” The safari details were naturally convincing and interesting in themselves. The POV switching I found excessive, particularly going into the mind of the lion (and buffalo, if I remember correctly).  [3/16/21:  Tolstoy famously, or notoriously, went into the mind of a dog in War and Peace.]

The troubling question is that subtlety and ambiguity about the author’s opinion of “courage” and “manhood.” Having put it this way, I’m inclined to say that it’s quite enough that H. puts the question, and that what’s important is putting the question, and his true view—if he even has a definite answer—is secondary. He’s no preacher, but we do need preachers, don’t we? Well, perhaps not. We need models, but we’ve plenty of passionate advocates for various points of view. It is enough that he provocatively but subtly puts the question; would it be a greater story if he put the question more explicitly? Because I have little doubt that many readers will miss the question altogether (having done this myself) and assume that Wilson’s view is Hemingway’s.

I discovered that Wilson’s “Damned fine lion” could be meant ironically, because I’m inclined to think that the animals are a good deal finer when alive and intact than after being blown apart, beheaded, and skinned. That Wilson repeats the sentiment almost like a mantra makes me think, again, that H’s intention is to raise the question in the thoughtful reader’s mind. I got the impression indeed while reading that Wilson’s heart wasn’t in the statement, that it was a way of subtly sneering at Macomber while seeming to be trying to cheer him up.

Are we meant to conclude that the real coward is Wilson? I don’t think so; but I do think that his is the greater dishonor, the greater personal failing than Macomber’s initial cowardice. Macomber, indeed, becomes a somewhat heroic figure, and we are left to ponder who is the more courageous, the man who stands, or the man who runs but returns and keeps trying?

It would have been “out of character” for Wilson to say of the dead Macomber, “Damned fine human being,” as well as a lapse of tone in such a deadpan story. “Funny” doesn’t always mean “justified.”

One wonders in vain how much of Hemingway’s subtlety is sly calculation and how much is fine intuition. Wilson’s waiting for the “Please” at the end does seem like a calculated turn to reveal or reinforce the earlier impression of his cruelty. H. is unsympathetic toward Wilson and Mrs. M.

But I’m sure it’s possible to be too subtle, too erudite, too eager to produce art instead of sausage—of course, Macomber is both. [3/16/21:  Meaning, it’s both fine art and “good sausage,” i.e., good entertainment.]

Copyright 2021 by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved

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