Critical Essays On The Old Man And The Sea


Ernest Hemingway once said, Sometimes I have good luck and write better than I can. Fifty-four years ago today, on March 4, 1952, Mr. Hemingway wrote his publisher that he had just finished a short novel that was, quote, The best I can write ever for all of my life. The book was The Old Man and the Sea, published first in a single issue of Life magazine. Mr. Hemingway's story of the struggle between a weather-beaten Cuban fisherman and a giant marlin won the 1953 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The book begins this way.

CHARLTON HESTON: He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf stream and he'd gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.

STAMBERG: Thanks for talking with us, Mr. Meyers.


STAMBERG: Ernest Hemingway was 52 when he wrote it. Where was he in his writing life?

MEYERS: His previous book to this was Across the River and Into the Trees, which was the first book he published after World War Two. It came out in 1950 and it got a very negative response from the critics. So he was trying to make a comeback with The Old Man and the Sea, and the book, in fact, was a tremendous success.

STAMBERG: But these most famous books, really, the books that made his career, The Sun Also Rises, Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, they were years earlier, weren't they?

MEYERS: That's right. And this one's quite different.

STAMBERG: What can you tell us about the writing of Old Man and the Sea? Where was he when he wrote it? How much of a struggle did he have with it?

MEYERS: The novel is written in extremely and deliberately simple style; and it's still used for that reason to teach English in foreign countries. And the book still sells about $100,000 worth of books a year abroad.

STAMBERG: My goodness.

MEYERS: Which is fantastic for simply one title more than 50 years ago.

STAMBERG: What were the reactions of reviewers when The Old Man and the Sea came out?

MEYERS: Rapturous. Perhaps they were trying to compensate for a bit, because they had been so hard on Hemingway on the previous book. And it sold 5,300,000 copies in two days of life and it remained a bestseller for six months.

STAMBERG: This book is seen as an allegory, sort of a testimonial to human endurance, the idea of bravery against terrible odds.

MEYERS: And in The Old Man and the Sea the sharks seem to represent not only sharks but also the critics, who had recently attacked him over his last book.

STAMBERG: Let's hear more of Hemingway's writing. Charlton Heston again, and a section from The Old Man and the Sea.

HESTON: Thank you. You make me happy. I hope no fish will come along so great that he will prove us wrong.

STAMBERG: Biographer Jeffrey Meyers, what is so great about this book?

MEYERS: Well, I suppose the simple power of the theme and the idea that a man who is weak and poor and old, and has gone through tremendous physical hardships, including having his hands sort of torn up by the rope and the struggle, does in fact endure, and prevail, even though he's lost what he's fought for, because the sharks have eaten the marlin.

STAMBERG: Hmm. Do you yourself have any reservations about this book, Mr. Meyers?

MEYERS: I do. I think it's too obvious, and too simpleminded, and too sentimental. And I think the Christian symbolism is too crudely overt. And I think it may even be a deliberate parody for readers and professors who are looking for symbols. As Hemingway said you want a symbol, here's a symbol that everybody who reads Life magazine, the essence of middlebrow America in the 50s, will understand and applaud.


MEYERS: I think it's ironic that he gets all these prizes for what I consider one his weakest books. And he didn't get that kind of recognition for the ones you mentioned earlier on, which are his great masterpieces, The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls.

STAMBERG: Thank you, Mr. Meyers.

MEYERS: Thank you.

STAMBERG: Fifty-four years ago today, Ernest Hemingway wrote his editor at Scribner's that The Old Man and the Sea was the best he could write ever. The book was on the bestseller list for 26 weeks and translated into 26 languages.

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August 28, 1952
Books of The Times

By Ernest Hemingway.

everal weeks ago, along with several hundred other critics and newspaper men, I received a present from Life magazine. It consisted of a set of galley proofs of some material that Life was going to publish in the issue which would appear on Thursday, Aug. 28. Ordinarily a book reviewer is not concerned with what material magazines publish. But this was a rather special case. The proofs were of Ernest Hemingway's new novel, "The Old Man and the Sea," and this was the first time that such a situation had arisen, that a novel by one of the world's most celebrated writers was to appear in a magazine complete in one issue eleven days before its publication in book form. Today you can buy "The Old Man and the Sea" in Life for 20 cents. On Monday, Sept. 8, Scribners will publish it for $3. Mr. Hemingway, whose books have won him a world- wide audience, is now being presented to a new mass audience at bargain rates. What the book sellers who have distributed his works for twenty-six years think of this situation is not on record.

Hemingway's Reaction

What Mr. Hemingway thinks about it is on record, in a Life advertisement:

"I'm very excited about 'The Old Man and the Sea', and that it is coming out in Life so that many people will read it who could not afford to buy it. That makes me much happier than to have a Nobel Prize."

What Mr. Hemingway thinks about his book also is quoted in the advertisement:

"Whatever I learned is in the story but I hope it reads simply and straight and all the things that are in it do not show but only are with you after you have read it * * *. Don't you think it is a strange damn story that it should affect all of us (me especially) the way it does? I have had to read it now over 200 times and everytime it does something to me. It's as though I had gotten finally what I had been working for all my life."

"The Old Man and the Sea" is a short novel, only 27,000 words. It is much simpler and enormously better than Mr. Hemingway's last book, "Across the River and Into the Trees." No phony glamour girls and no bullying braggarts sentimentalized almost to parody distort its honest and elemental theme. No outbursts of spite or false theatricalism impede the smooth rush of its narrative. Within the sharp restrictions imposed by the very nature of his story Mr. Hemingway has written with sure skill. Here is the master technician once more at the top of his form, doing superbly what he can do better than anyone else.

This is the story of an old Cuban fisherman who had gone eighty-four days without making a catch and of what happened when he hooked a monster marlin on the eighty- fifth day. Alone in his little skiff, unable to fasten the line because the giant fish would break it if he did not lessen the strain with his own body and pay out more line when necessary, the old man endured days and nights of hunger, exhaustion and pain from the line cutting his hands. And finally he caught the fish and lashed it to the side of his skiff only to spend his return voyage fighting off sharks.

Courage in Face of Danger

The excitement and tension of the old man's adventure, the magnificence of the great marlin and the beauty of days and nights alone on the Gulf Stream are all well conveyed in "The Old Man and the Sea." Mr. Hemingway has always excelled in describing physical adventure and the emotional atmosphere of it. And many of his stories have glorified courage in the face of danger. This one does, too, for the old man is the very embodiment of dogged courage. "Man is not meant for defeat," says Mr. Hemingway. "A man can be destroyed but not defeated"--that is if he has enough courage.

Mr. Hemingway wrote about the same theme in one of his best short stories, "The Undefeated." But in that story the matador who would not acknowledge defeat had no other attribute except his foolhardy courage. In "The Old Man and the Sea" the Cuban fisherman is also an elementary character; but with a significant difference. He is not only courageous. He is humble and gently proud, aware of beauty and filled with a sense of brotherhood with nature. And he has a loving heart. These attributes have not been common in Hemingway characters in the past. Since they are admirable and Mr. Hemingway admires them, the moral climate of "The Old Man and the Sea" is fresh and healthy and the old man's ordeal is moving.

But good as "The Old Man and the Sea" is, it is good only in a limited way. The fisherman is not a well-characterized individual. He is a symbol of an attitude toward life. He often thinks and talks poetically and symbolically and so artificially.

The old man thought:

"Why did they make birds so delicate and fine as those sea swallows when the ocean can be so cruel? She is kind and very beautiful. But she can be so cruel and it comes so suddenly and such birds that fly, dipping and hunting, with their small sad voices are made too delicately for the sea."

A poetic and beautiful thought, but it seems Mr. Hemingway's rather than the old man's.

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