Book Review: Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea
Moby Dick in Cuba
Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea
The Old Man and the Sea was written in 1951's Cuba, the last major successful work by Ernest Hemingway. It is about pre-Castro Cuba and an old failure of a Cuban angler, struggling with a great marlin in open water. It is rather like Moby Dick in Cuba. The subject of widely ranging criticism following a decade of critical derision of Hemingway, it energized his reputation by earning many important awards.
The 1950s were an era of progress and a time of Cold War intrigue, deceit, and paranoia, ala Spy vs. Spy. The United States became more capitalistic than before WWII, entered the Space Race with the Soviets and initiated espionage and multi-layered agendas against the USSR, the Eastern Bloc, and Cuba. Joseph McCarthy operated the communist witch-hunts that were designed to make him famous as well as catch "commies."
New inventions proliferated in America during this time. We experienced a post-war housing boom and the Baby Boom. The "discount store" sprouted. Project Blue Book studied UFOs and Rock and Roll dominated music. The Beat Generation was running up on the heels of The Greatest Generation. Times were changing. The old ways had to step aside for progress and Ernest Hemingway and his work were "Old."
Marine and Human Sharks
Having been a war correspondent in WWI, he produced literary classics and post-WWII, he failed to repeat his success. After his last great work, For Whom the Bell Tolls in 1940, his writing was panned until he published The Old Man and the Sea. He was nicknamed "Papa Hemingway" as a putdown.
The Greatest Generation was called the same type of names by The Beat Generation, but Beat writers had been influenced by Ernest Hemingway himself. Ironically, Hemingway created his own demise by aging after teaching the new generation, in a way, to deride the old and move forward. The Old Man and the Sea was praised, however, and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the American Medal of Merit, resulting in the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954.
In the story, the Old Man is a poor Santiago, who went to sea for 84 days to fish, mostly unsuccessfully. A neighborhood boy, Mandolin had helped Santiago with his meager fishing near the port city, despite his parents deciding that this was not a good idea. After many weeks of struggle, Santiago tells the boy he is going far out to sea to catch a particular Big Fish trophy, a giant marlin. He goes to sea, meets the fish, and struggles mightily in catching it for several days.
The fish is two feet longer than his boat, pulls him to open water, and nearly kills the old man. Eighty-four days make 3 months of 28 days, or a full season. September is the time setting for this fishing story, the season of struggle for Santiago.
The autumn season offers literary notions of death, because September is the month in which the autumn equinox initiates the final season of the dying year. However, Santiago captures his Big Fish, the giant marlin. Even so, sharks come after the marlin tied to Santiago's boat until there is nothing left but bone.
This is the way Hemingway felt about his critics picking apart his work.
Prophecy and Redemption
Autumn in Hemingway's story represents a final struggle for redemption by Santiago, by Hemingway, and even by the USA during the conflict with Cuba and Soviet Communism in the 1950s and 1960s.
The 1950s were a dark ride in US history.
TV reporters sometimes lied to the public about the Cold War. The events preceding the Bay of Pigs incident SNAFU in 1961 left America looking like a political fool instead of a world savior.
McCarthyism also backfired - the famous List of Communists dwindled down to nothing, but ended the lives of many artists, writers, and actors with the ensuing blacklisting from employment.
UFO studies and NASA distracted Americans and the globe from these witch-hunts. In the same way, Hemingway's writings from 1941 - 50 backfired and were rejected as sentimental.
Then The Old Man and the Sea came as redemption, just as the Space Race won redemption for America. The "Old Man" was Hemingway's Space Race-type of redeemer. The marlin was Santiago's redemption.
Political Carton - LBJ and Viet Nam, Post-Kennedy
Even the Critics Give Praise
At the end of the book, Santiago returns to port and is exhausted, stumbling home to sleep and leaving his marlin skeleton attached to his boat at the edge of the water.
While Santiago sleeps, Mandolin gathers coffee and clean clothes for him, while people gathers outside to measure the marlin skeleton. It is a full 18 feet long! That is the size of three 6-foot men lying end-to-end.
The people are excited - they speak highly of this accomplishment while Santiago sleeps, unaware of them.Tourists look at the skeleton and admire it. This was is prophetic in that, after Hemingway died, many people continued to read and praise The Old Man and the Sea - even the critics.
I recommend this story to anyone that would like to know more about Ernest Hemingway's struggle to succeed at the end of his career. The parallels with America itself are fascinating.
© 2008 Patty Inglish MS