Ernest Hemingway the Naturalist

A Study into the Importance of Nature, and its influence on, Ernest Hemingway's literary works.

A common definition of nature is located within the idea that 'nature is all that is separate from us' (Emerson) this idea can be further pushed onto the works of Ernest Hemmingway, where we see that literature often can be seen to demonstrate a clear separation between nature and culture. It is common enough assumption for many scholar's of Hemingway to assume that the time he spent in Paris during the 1920's was extremely significant to the shaping of his later literary achievements and the subsequent themes he goes on to explore. This may appear then, strange if we consider Hemingway grew up during the environmental awakening of a nation, as well as the town which he grew up in and its encouragment towards the 'back to nature,' ideal. The focus of the trauma and death of World War One allows no real perspective on the destruction of the prairieies where he experienced as a child, to the ever increasing expansion of Chicago's suburbs. Nor the mass removal of timber each year from Michigan woods eating into the forests his family holidayed in. We consider the influence to writers such as Ezra Pound, Joyce and Eliot but pay little heed to his early boyhood favourites such as Kipling and London both popular nature writers. We give credit for his minimalist style of writing to his study of imagist poetry and pay little attention to the calculating scientific language he would have become familiar with in the Agassiz method. We consider the impact of his conversion to Catholisism but not his early introduction to creation science.

I am attempting to suggest then that the early years of Ernest Hemingway, the years where he received an education into the workings of nature would later become a huge influence on his work. The information he received is, in my opinion, not only what made him the man he would become but also the artist. From his early childhood Hemingway's father would take the infant into nature, teaching him how to describe and understand the natural world, respect for the scientific truth as well as an interest and respect for details. If we consider the matador's death from pneumonia Hemingway depicts in 'Banal story' or even the birth by caesarean section in 'Indian camp,' we notice that each time Hemingway adopts on the style of neutrality, a style of a scientist. He describes with equal moral distance the 'tar like,' image of bodies decomposing on a battlefield in his 'A Natural History of the Dead,' as well as the 'gelatinous bladder of a Portuguese man-of-war,' in his Old Man and the Sea. Each time we see his miminlist style mimicking a scientific study conforming with an attempt to give the reader the maximum detail possible with the least expenditure of words. When John Burroughs wrote that he goes 'to Nature to be soothed have my senses put in to tune,' one of Americas most popular nature writer perhaps did not realise the resenanse young Hemingway would have with this sentiment. A sentiment we see often within his writings. Hemingway from a young age was often taken by his parents outside of the suburban Chicago they lived in to Michigan woods. Here perhaps Hemingway to learned the idea of the refreshment nature can bring onto oneself, if we consider the snowbound mountains where Catherine and Frederic travel to in A Farewell to Arms; or even the forest where Jake Barnes escapes post war Paris to fish in The Sun also rises. Robert Jordan, arguably the closest link to a fictionalised Hemingway, travels to the top of Montana's highest plateau after his fathers suicide, here Hemingway writes 'where the air was thin and there was snow all summer on the hills,' we see this idea of healing in nature resonating with the character and perhaps Hemingway as he drops his fathers gun into the still water in For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Perhaps we should investigate the idea that for the nature writer the progress of civilisation takes on the role of the enemy where as the peace and harmony found within nature adopts the role of friend in it primitiveness. Hemingway seems to have lived with this ideal rejecting the values of his parents and society o as he writes 'settling down..Bieng a real credit to the community,' in Soldiers Home. Instead Hemmingway appears to have been far more attracted to the self reliance of nature than the comfortable ease of society. When Fredric James deserts the politcally sanctioned war he dives into the Taglamento rive and discovers that his anger washes away 'in the river along with any obligation.'( A Farewell to Arms) Similarly we see in For Whom the Bell Tolls Robert Jordan exchanging a life teaching Spanish for an all to brief time making love and fighting in Spain's Sierra de Guadarrama.

In his writing to we feel that Hemingway disputed the organised piety he found in the suburbs in favour of the spiritual healing he discovers in nature. When Bill Gorton in The Sun also Rises quips 'let no man be ashamed o kneel here in the great out doors,' as well as Nick and Littles feeling 'awfully religious,' while in the shade of a huge pine tree remarking that they felt that they really 'ought to be in church,' we sense this attitude.

Equally Hemingway appears to reject the sexual morality that his father taught him 'the thing to do,' is 'keep your hands of other people.' Instead Hemingway writes later of the joy found he sex in Eden, when he writes of the incident underneath a hemlock tree with a local girl the long description of the sexual act with her 'plump round leg, flat belly,' and 'hard little breasts,' we see not only the upheaval of this repressive attitude to sex but also of the connection nature when he writes 'the great bird flown like an owl in the twilight, only it daylight in the woods and hemlock needles stuck against your belly.'

However some of Hemingway's character become imprisoned in as Fitzgerald puts it a 'moral chastity belt.' If we consider the teenage boy from 'God Rest You Merry Gentlemen,' who becomes so terrified by his sexual desire and what may become of him if he were to succumb to it he amputates his own penis. Equally the sexual ease in Garden of Eden becomes a nightmare possibly akin to the painting 'The Garden of Earthly Delights,' which Hemingway studied in Madrid. The paintings nightmarish picture of human sexuality is all to reminiscent to the depravity that Hemingway creates. But interestingly most of the characters wish to return later to this freedom of sexual appetite where the woman are no longer the stereotype of 'nice girls,' but real hot blooded people.

Many of Hemingway's female protagonists are indeed woman who appear to be unshackled by a repressive sexual morality. Often they appear to flee society and its disapproval for freedom of expression with their lovers in tow. Catherine Berkley for example escapes across the Lago Maggoire in a row boat with Jake so they can escape the civilised war and death for the freedom of nature. They do not live in houses fulfilling the typical woman's role. Instead the campout doors in the freedom of nature, sometimes so unconstrained they are fisherwoman like Helen and Marge in 'The Snows of Kilimanjaro,' and 'The End of Something.' When Hemingway writes in an erotic concerning females it is always in condition with the regenerative properties found within nature: 'Maria lay close against him... he felt the long smoothness of her thighs against his...her breasts like two small hills was the valley of her throat,' from 'For Whom,' and equally Hemingway will often describe nature in reference to woman in the 'Green Hills of Africa he describes his love for the country by adding that 'I was happy as you are after you have been with a woman you really love.' The connection here suggests that both scientists and writers are simply lovers. They love the land they are on and are attempting to describe it in a way of honouring it. This view perhaps then is best put on to Hemingway who appears to follow this idea. Perhaps we could then consider his that natural-scientist-lover who attempts to convey his wonder through the medium of words, EMBRACING WHAT Tempest Williams called the 'wild feminine,' properties of the earth.

To have such a love for the natural world as Hemingway did, during the period that Hemingway saw it in his early years before the arrival of cars and the further sprawling of suburban land eating into the forests and nature, transforming the wilderness into a web of motorways and roads, was for Hemingway a great thing, but its loss appears to have created a continual mourning for what is now gone, when he writes in the Green Hills of Africa 'our people travelled to America because that was the place to go had been a good country,' and had been made into a 'bloody mess,' we experience this sense of loss. Most of Hemingway's writing is filled with this mourning and loss, an expression of bereavement for the past, but perhaps no other work express this as well as his short story 'Fathers and Sons,' where Hemingway attempts to combine the grief he feels at the loss of nature from his youth with the pain of his fathers suicide he writes that 'his father came back to him in the fall of the year or in the early spring when there had been jacksnipe on the prairie, or when he saw shocks of corn, or when he saw a lake.' The association then between nature and death appears strongly then within much of his work.

Perhaps we could suggest that there is no clear link between the giving of love and the compromise of loss, and Hemingway by tying his grief for land and father in 'Fathers and Sons,' demonstrates that this is for both places now gone and the dead no longer living, Hemingway shows us that this will always provide him and others with a permanent feeling of bereavement, for the loss is always going to be within them. However Hemingway does demonstrate that there is a balm from this pain and it comes from both places and people still living and existing. His troubled Nick Adams in the short story 'Big Two-Hearted River,' who finds a small island to rest in away from a spoiled nature and a small patch of unspoiled river perhaps demonstrates this loss and rejuvenation from the land. However this constant elegiac tone found within Hemingway perhaps suggests he is unable to rediscover that balm for the loss of the forests and prairies he knew as a child. Continually Hemingway would move to Illinois tall grass lands, from there to Michigan forests, across to Europe to the Spanish streams and there tall mountains on to East Africa's wide and stretching savannas. Despite the knowledge that the destruction he felt for his woods and fields would happen again to these new loves.

While hunting for a title for his The Sun Also Rises Hemmingway appears to have turned to bible in particular a passage that expresses nature's ability of consolation to the soul. The quote he found 'One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh but the earth abideth forever,' seems to link in with Hemmingway's need for nature and its healing within his life the passage goes on to say 'the sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down.' The sentiment Hemingway appears to have drawn from this is that though change and mortality are tragic for the human, only in nature can we see that nothing is truly lost forever. Robert Jordon in For Whom the Bell Tolls appears to seek this biblical hope as he confronts his own mortality we are told that he looks into the sky and stares at the 'big white clouds,' and touches the 'palm of his hand against the pine needles,' where he lay and he becomes 'completely integrated,' with nature and the world around him, feeling 'his heart beating against the pine needle,' on the floor of the forest.

Yet Hemingway's demonstrated love of the natural world can not be view as perfect and abject from cruelty and guilt. From only a small boy Hemmingway was taught by his father to fish and hunt, he appears to have learnt that while he kills nature he can appear to become one with the wildlife to understand the courage of the wounded animals as see in 'The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,' to be able to understand the experience of how a bulk elk feels if 'you break a shoulder and he gets away,' (Green Hills) This appreciation of the natural world appears to give him empathy for the people and creatures in it as he writes 'most men die like animals not men,' in 'A Natural History of the dead.' When Thomas Hudson comments in 'Island in the Stream,' that the shrapnel wounds do not 'hurt any worse than things hurt that you and I have shot together,' we see how Hemingway extends this natural epiphany onto his characters, connecting them closer through pain and suffering to the natural world. It seems that Hemmingway seems to draw this from the ecclesiasts where he would have read that 'the fishes that are taken in an evil net, and as the birds that are caught in the snare; so are the sons of men snared in an evil time,' when they are called to death. This sense of both tender care and cruelty of the hunter and his prey is extended on to his literature, if we consider Claude kissing the head of a dying German soldier in 'Black ass of the Cross Roads,' or David Bourne feeling the pain that a dying elephant is feeling in 'The Garden of Eden.'

When Hemmingway wrote that his construction of 'The Sun Also Rises,' was to demonstrate a 'damn tragedy with the earth abiding for ever as the hero,' (Ernest Hemingway: Selected letters 1927-1961) we see that purpose and can realise how Hemingway extends it across most of his works, where nature precedes civilisation and will outlast it how ever hard man tries to prevent it. When he writes that the 'Gulf Stream you are living with, knowing learning about, and loving has moved, as it moves, since before man, and... the things that you find out about it, and those that have always lived in it are permanent and of value because the stream will flow, as it has flowed, after the Indians, after the Spaniards, after the British, after the Americans and after all the Cubans and all the system of governments, the richness, the poverty, the martyrdom, the sacrifice and venality and cruelty are all gone.'(Green Hills)

We see once again Hemingway taking the stance of a scientist who is principally concerned with the natural world, and has a deep understanding of nature and time. Hemmingway appears to be demonstrating that all of human history when placed side by side with nature becomes insignificant, borrowing his own words 'The worn light bulbs of our discoveries and empty condoms,' will 'float with no significance,' against time or indeed 'the stream.'(Green Hills)

However it seems some how ironic in fact, when we consider that to help us truly understand how Hemingway developed nature as his principle interest we must use History of the world around him and his life. How culture became in his eyes 'a field for the observation of the naturalist,' as he wrote in 'A Natural History of the Dead,' how the ideas he generated about the natural world were shaped by the society he grew up in and how his training as a natural scientist became important in the development of his style and the major themes within his works.

Perhaps it is best if we viewed nature writers as those who work in between the ideals of gathering scientific information for better understanding and those who work to express beauty through an art form. The blend of these allow for collaboration between the objective and the subjective, a fine balance between the use of factual knowledge coexisting with experimental knowledge. It is known that Hemingway's mother, a trained pianist, encouraged her son to read widely and express himself through the beauty of an art form, his father, a trained physician, certainly encouraged a young Hemingway to delve himself into the world of scientific truth and fact.

Dr. Hemingway worked as a family physician and specialised in obstetrics receiving his medical degree from Rush Medical Collage based within Chicago. He had previously taken many science courses and had travelled widely to further his own understanding of the natural world participating in a scientific expedition to the Great Smoky Mountains on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina. But it is clear that Hemingway's fathers interested extended well back into his childhood which, nurtured and encouraged by his mother Adelaide, who was a college educated enthusiastic botanist, would continue way into his adult years.

At university Edward Hemingway joined the Agassiz organisation, the purpose of which was a club honouring the memory of Louis Agassiz a swiss-amiercan scientist and one of the founders of Harvard University Museum of Comparative zoology, as well as the American National Academy of Science as well as a temporary field station witch would later become the Marine Biology Laboratory situated in Woods Hole. The association's main goal was fixated on the study of the natural world by the sole use of field work, a concept that Louis Agassiz developed with schoolchildren and worked to develop within America. One of many national organisations set up during this period thanks to the popularity of the back to nature movement within America the organisation boasted near on a thousand chapters comprising largely of children, and small proportion of adults who worked in advanced fieldwork. Each chapter conducted there own individual course of the study of the natural world working in subjects such as botany, zoology and entomology taking as there guiding principle that nature must be studied at first hand rather than through books.

The organisation was clearly very important to Edward Hemingway who when moving to Oak Park, Ernest home town, founded a chapter prior to his marriage and having his own children. From a very early age, according to the scrap books Ernest mother kept of his childhood, a young Hemingway began to attend these gatherings, she wrote that 'at four years eight months...(Ernest) goes to the Agassiz of which he is a member and makes observations with the big boys,' the scrap books also reveal that Hemingway's father also tutored him in nature study as well, Grace, Hemingway's mother writes, 'at five years old...he is delighted to look at specimens of rocks and insects by the hour through his microscope,' we can perhaps see from this the being of Hemingway's life long interest in the natural world through this early induction to its workings. As Ernest began school his father, apparently interested in furthering the numbers of the Agassiz club organised a chapter for both the boys and girls of Holmes Elementary School, of which young Hemingway was a pupil, and would remain involved in the running of it till 1911 when Ernest was twelve years old. Photographs of this group still exist today, the children appear with their hands full of wildflowers and leaves, studying bird's nests and carrying collecting baskets, jars full of pond scum and each carrying a notebook. Ernest visible in some of these photographs appears to glow with enjoyment at the activities.

The picture links with one of Agassiz methods of training children to be observers, ensuring that they are provided with the specimens of which they are being taught. The method employed to best teach children was sending them in groups into nature, asking them to learn from the accompanying supervisor about the areas landscape and geology. Teaching them to collect stones and other natural life from fruit to flowers, students would then gather to exchange their findings and have the group leader explained the natural purpose of each object presented. The children would be asked to point out distinctive features present and then take the specimens home with them to further there own private study. It is fair to say then that the Agassiz form of science education worked around an object oriented method, asking students to examine and dissect until the students discovered the relationship between the organism's form and function within the natural world. The training Hemingway received was strongly reinforced by the science education he received at Oak Park school, which like the Agassiz method worked around a similar method of teaching. Hemingway's notebooks inform us that each day student were given specimins such as twigs or corn sterns, they were then expected to dissect each specimen, examine them carefully and lastly prepare scientific drawings. Each day young Hemingway learnt more and more not simply about natural science but teaching him the observational techniques that he would make such use of as a writer.

The method used here can not help but be interesting to a Hemingway scholar, we see that the very principle object taught here was that of observation and of comparison in studying the world around us. Hemingway not only received the tools of observation but his high school classes became exercises in writing technique. Each day Hemingway would record his observations made in his notebooks, constantly repeating the words look, examine and notice. His answers quality was deeply, it appears, important to the science teacher. When Hemingway misspelled the word through instead writing 'thru' in one his journals, his teacher responded with the phrase 'English Poor A minus.' (Experiment 42, Oak Park High School Notebooks.)

If we consider then observations made on the grasshoppers in 'Big Two-Hearted River,' we can see how the Agassiz method must have influenced Hemingway and his style. It was renowned for chapters of the Agassiz club to use grasshoppers within their experiments, it is also known that Hemingway, while still attending Oak Park High School, wrote a detailed study of grasshoppers for a Biology class, which his mother preserved. We can assume then that in 'Big Two Hearted River,' that as the grasshopper chews on Nick's sock with a distinctive 'fourway lip,' it was a result of a younger Hemingway noticing its presence. As Nick carefully picks up the insect by its wings and observes its 'jointed belly,' we must again acknowledge the powerful effect the nature training young Hemingway received had on the adult man. Even Nick's speculation that the grasshopper may have turned to a darker colour due to the destruction of the land we discover that Hemingway wrote about the reasons for protective colouring in a Biology exam.

Equally important to the back to nature emphasis of the Agassiz tradition was a strong religious ethos that must have appealed to Hemingway's farther who, brought up in the vigorous tradition of evangelical Calvinism as well as a deacon of the Third Congregational Church in Oak Park from 1906 to 1909. Although Louis Agassiz was a highly accomplished scientist he remained one of the greatest opponents of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution in America, despite the fact that his own detailed work on fossil fishes and his theory behind the Ice Age made Darwin's theory of evolution possible, Agassiz remained a romantic creationist, who fancifully said that he 'saw the power of the creator exemplified in all flora and fauna,' he accounted for similarities between species of animals instead by theorising as many as twenty different creations.

A well documented view produced by Larry Grimes suggests that Dr. Hemmingway's position as a 'protestant naturalist,' was a type of double bind, Agassiz had in fact pointed out a contradiction to this theory, by attempting to show that the devout man of science like Dr. Hemingway could see it as due to the fact that man is made in the image of God, that suggests that him alone above other creatures of creation is able to able to 'rise to the conception of his plans and purpose in the works of creation,' (Agassiz and Gould). This ideology made it possible for Dr. Hemingway to teach his children, while considering a collection of dinosaur fossils at Chicago's Field museum that 'men who wrote the bible explained natural history the best they could...but through research we knew much more about,' these issues thanks to the advancement of science and technology and that this only added to the lessons the children learnt while at Sunday school.

We may assume then that Hemingway's education as naturalist was without any inclusion in the basic ideas of evolutionary theory. The method of Agassiz strangely asking students to observe the effects of evolution, while not asking the students to any further inquiry simply to put the causes of it down to the genius of the creator, Agassiz appears to have believed then that Darwin's theory was merely conjecture. Instead encouraging students to not speculate but closely investigate organisms, Hemingway's test papers for example may deal with ideas concerning protective colouring found within insects but however avoided any suggestion of the presence of evolution that creates these individual changes and adaptations within organisms.

This almost gentle acknowledgement but combined with censorship was common within devout communities such as Oak Park. It was not until 1925 did anything change, with the clash of lawyer Clarence Darrow and the fundamentalist William Bryan. After which we see a progressive turn to acceptance towards the evolutionist theory and a begging to see the creationist stand point as anti-intellectual. Darrow, who was defending the rights of John Scopes, a high school teacher, to be able to teach the theory of evolution to his class, which was banned by state law. When Darrow called Bryan onto the stand he humiliated him, by demonstrating his lack of knowledge in concern to scientific development and theology. This trial is a key component to the comedy of the trout fishing scene within 'The Sun Also Rises.' However during Hemingway's critical years as a student the case was yet to go to court and Hemingway received no instruction in the theory of evolution.

The major principle of zoology that Agassiz encouraged was considering the natural world as a display of creationism, aligning its principle to the idea of the animal kingdom becoming a department of the whole existence of nature. This idea had a profound affect on Hemingway's career as a novelist as well as his education into natural science in this pre-Scopes trail era. If we consider that Hemingway's education into the world of literature surrounded the works of nineteenth centaury poets all of which were deeply concerned with the natural world. All of which were principally aligned to the Agassiz philosophy concerning the natural world. If we consider Bryant, who would during Hemingway's childhood become the chief source of natural science combining with art and that Hemmingway was required while at school in Oak Parks we may see a development of his attempts to combine the two in his own later works.

It is therefore perhaps appropriate to presume that young Hemingway's Agassiz upbringing forced him to not to view evolution through Darwin's work but instead through literature. Perhaps then his reading Jack London's, a author chiefly concerned with literary naturalism, Call of the Wild, we see Hemingway later mimicking this style in his own short stories such as 'The Judgment of Manitou.' London an author who appears to have ignored, or at least uninterested in, the many deep running factors in theories involving the survival of the fittest, instead London appears to attempt to localise Darwin's theories to an idea of the individual's personal struggle and the presence of violence present in the natural world.

This modern stand point of the brutality found within the natural world seems perhaps to run at odds with the Agassiz view of nature in terms of the divine rule of God. For Hemingway perhaps we must suggest that like many of his generation the rupture between these views would only come about through the experience of the first world war, later Hemingway writing his 'A Natural History of the dead,' would attack the Christian hope of a all loving and protecting God in his 'A way You'll Never Be,' a short story that appears to have been chiefly affected by his confrontation with the realities of death while working as a Red Cross driver on the Italian front. The character Nick Adams, shell shocked and terrified is seen reciting in an Agassiz tradition on the American locust noticing the 'very dry sound, have vivid coloured wings, some are bright red, others barred with black.' Seen here is Hemingway demonstrating a need to feel close to what was once normal to the fighting man, as well as mocking the teachings that have left himself and his generation, so completely unprepared for the reality and cruelty of existence. As Nick Adams, becoming increasingly more irrational, he shifts this Agassiz view point and begins to repeat over and over again 'Gentlemen, either you must govern, or you must be governed,' Hemingway he allows Nick to quote Henry Wilson a military commander but the sentiment has clear resents with Jack London's theme of nature concerning individualistic struggle and primitive violence.

Yet it is clear that Hemingway remained throughout his later life a naturalist trained in the Agassiz theory, an observer of detail, always seeking the relationship between form and function in nature. It is perhaps interesting to consider that the children within the Agassiz chapters were encouraged to study nature not just through sight but through their hearts. Perhaps we should then consider that Hemingway's transition from natural scientist to nature writer was wrapped up in this rather sweet idea. Nature it appears continued to have a special resonates for Hemingway.


Primary Sources:

  • The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway; The Finca Vigia Edition. New York: Scribner's, 1987
  • A Farewell to Arms. New York: Scribner's, 1929
  • For Whom the Bell Tolls. New York: Scribner's, 1940
  • The Garden of Eden. New York: Scribner's, 1986
  • The Green Hills of Africa. New York: Scribner's, 1935
  • Islands in the stream. New York: Scribner's, 1970
  • The Nick Adams Stories. New York: Scribner's, 1972
  • The Old Man and the Sea. New York: Scribner's, 1952
  • The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. New York: Scribner's, 1938
  • The Sun Also Rises. New York: Scribner's, 1926
  • Secondary Sources

  • Agassiz, Louis, and Augustus A. Gould. Principles in Zoology. Part 1. Boston, 1848
  • Ballard, Harlan H. 'History of the Agassiz Association.' Swiss Cross. Jan. 1887: 4-7
  • Beegel, Susan F. "Second Growth: The Ecology of Loss in 'Fathers and Sons,' New Essays on Hemingway's short fiction. New York: Cambridge Press, 1998.
  • Reynolds, Michael. The Young Hemingway. Oxford Blackwell, 1986.
  • 'A Historical Guide to Ernest Hemmingway.' New York Oxford University Press, 200, edited by Linda Wagner-Martin.
  • Emerson, Ralph Waldo. 'Nature.' Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson. Stephen E. Whicher. Boston. Houghton, 1957. 22-56

Please be aware that the free essay that you were just reading was not written by us. This essay, and all of the others available to view on the website, were provided to us by students in exchange for services that we offer. This relationship helps our students to get an even better deal while also contributing to the biggest free essay resource in the UK!