story in town. On September 1, 1952, Hemingway's famous story, The Old Man and the Sea, was published in Life Magazine with Papa pouting on the cover. The book version followed on
September 8. Life reputedly sold five million copies of the issue containing
the author's story of Santiago, an aging Cuban fisherman, and his epic battle
with a marlin.
The Old Man and the
Sea is still going strong today. It's taught to students of English
literature all over the world and rare copies are adored by book collectors. A
signed first edition of The Old Man and
the Sea sold for $18,500 on Amazon's sister site AbeBooks.com in August. Anything signed by Hemingway has significant value and probably always will. Hemingway's literary legacy was cemented in the years following The Old Man and the Sea "“ he won the
Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1953 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954.
What The Old Man and
the Sea lacks in length, it makes up for in punch. It's an easy, short read
but builds and builds. I had not read the story for more than 20 years before
picking up a copy last week - pure simplicity is still the over-powering aspect
of the book. It should really be called The Old Man and the Fish "“ I feel the
sea doesn't come into it. To Hemingway's old fisherman, the marlin is a noble
creature and a worthy opponent. Sharks are mere scavengers in comparison to the
majestic marlin. The old man likes to fish and read the baseball scores in the
newspaper, and that's his life. He marvels at Joe DiMaggio but he knows the
ocean like the back of his hand until he hooks the once-in-a-lifetime marlin.
As Hemingway, an experienced sports fisherman, knew, hooking the fish is one
thing, hauling him in is another.
The short passage, a single paragraph I think, when the old
fisherman sees the marlin rise out of the water for the first time is
wonderful. Hemingway's prose is so short and sharp, and the reader can easily
imagine the silvery fish breaking the surface with the fisherman aghast at its
size and beauty. Hemingway must have loved his days out on the ocean with a
beer in one hand and a line in the other waiting for the big one to bite.
I was also particularly drawn to his description of the old
man remembering his days as a young buck with an arm powerful enough to win
arm-wrestling contests around the docks of Havana. It adds nothing to the
narrative but is pure bravado. Surely, the author is looking back at his own
glory days as a World War I ambulance driver, a hunter, a fisherman, a world traveler
and a war correspondent?
It's easy to dismiss The
Old Man and the Sea as machismo nonsense, but how many of today's
bestselling novels are still going to be read in 2072? Although this story has
been analyzed time and again, Hemingway proved that a simple story well-told
can go a long way. He also knew what he was talking about "“ he was skilled at
outfitting boats to catch large fish and, just like Santiago, battled predatory
sharks. Fans of Hemingway can still visit the author's home in Key West
where they will encounter a lot of cats, many of whom are believed to be
descended from Hemingway's pets.
It's also perhaps worth noting that Hemingway was in the
twilight of his career when The Old Man
and the Sea was published. He died in 1961. His final years were sad and
muddled by illness, alcohol and mental problems. The story was a powerful
retort to critics who thought his best days were behind him. With readers
suddenly wanting to pick up his earlier works, Hemingway must have loved the
impact of this story.
-- Richard Davies