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Solving the Mystery of Hemingway’s ‘Big Two-Hearted River’
May 26, 2023
Solving the Mystery of Hemingway’s ‘Big Two-Hearted River’
John Maclean writes the foreword to Hemingway’s early masterpiece in the recently published ‘Centennial Edition'
In the Centennial Edition of Ernest Hemingway's timeless classic story, "Big Two-Hearted River," published this May, a century after the first edition, master engraver Chris Wormell was specially commissioned to provide original artwork. Illustration by Chris Wormell
by John N. Maclean
When I was a youngster struggling to reconcile a life split between a great community of learning in the Midwest and a log cabin in Montana, my father gave me Ernest Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River” to read. The story came as a revelation. My parents hailed from Montana, where we spent our summers, and they both worked at the University of Chicago, my father as a professor of English and my mother as an administrator for the university’s medical center.
Hemingway’s tale evoked the core activity of our life in Montana: trout fishing. It put you hip-deep in a river with Nick Adams, Hemingway’s literary twin, a cold current throbbing against your thighs. You tasted the humidity in the air above the river, a second stream thick with insect life and a sweet musk smell from the enclosing brush. The story virtually put the rod in your hand to fight a big fish. Best of all for me, it bridged the gap between my two worlds and brought trout fishing to life through literature.
Hemingway, too, was young and living in contrasting worlds when he wrote “Big Two-Hearted River.” He was just twenty-five when he sat down in a Paris café to work on a story based on a fishing trip a few years earlier to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula—the UP—with two friends, Jack Pentecost and Al Walker. It was a heady time for the young, unproven writer, who had joined writers and artists of what came to be called the Lost Generation, along with the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, and Man Ray, as well as older artists like Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein, who became his surrogate parents.
His personal life, too, was packed with challenge and adventure. He had been wounded only a few years earlier as a Red Cross volunteer in Italy during the Great War, recuperated and returned home, gone fishing in the UP, married and moved to Paris with his new wife, Hadley Richardson, followed quickly by the birth of a son, Jack (or “Bumby”), and discovered a passion for bullfighting.
Hemingway wrote in cafés for the quiet. The fishing story he started with three handwritten pages—in a large, almost flowery script on typewriter stock—grew in halting stages, interrupted by other work and a trip to Spain for the bullfighting. As the drafts progressed, the two buddies disappeared and instead Nick Adams set off on a solo pilgrimage to ease a troubled mind with a fly rod.
A century on, “Big Two-Hearted River” has helped shape language and literature in America and around the world.
The exact timing for when he wrote each part is hard to pin down—Hemingway couldn’t recall it himself, and the drafts aren’t dated—but from accounts by him and others, it appears he completed part 1 and was well into part 2 by late spring of 1924 before he headed to Pamplona for the running of the bulls. “The story was interrupted you know just when I was going good,” he complained in a letter that fall.
When he got back to it in late summer or early fall, he’d lost the flow. In the new draft, Hemingway veered from the solo fishing trip in the UP into a long, rambling discourse on writing, writers, bullfighting in Pamplona—and vaulting personal ambition: “He wanted to become a great writer,” he wrote. “He was pretty sure he would be.” By the fall of 1924, Hemingway had completed a manuscript, titled it “Big Two-Hearted River,” and sent it off to a publisher for inclusion in his first real book, In Our Time.
He showed the manuscript to Stein, who said of the discourse on writing, “Hemingway, remarks are not literature.” Jolted back to his old self, he reread the section at issue and called it “crap” and worse in letters to her and others. “I got a hell of a shock when I realized how bad it was,” he wrote one correspondent. He ditched the almost ten-page section and had a new ending in the hands of his publisher before the presses rolled. It was a lucky catch: critics would not have been kind. The redone story first appeared in May 1925 in This Quarter, a Paris literary journal, and then in October as the anchor story for In Our Time. Despite complaints that “nothing happens” in the narrative, perceptive readers such as Edmund Wilson and F. Scott Fitzgerald hailed it as a masterpiece, albeit a short one.
“Because Big Two-Hearted River Is Poetry”
A century on, “Big Two-Hearted River” has helped shape language and literature in America and around the world, and its magnetic pull continues to draw readers, writers, and critics. It’s the best early example of Hemingway’s now-familiar writing style: short sentences, punchy nouns and verbs, few adjectives or adverbs, and a seductive cadence. Easy to imitate, difficult to match. The subject matter of the story has inspired generations of writers to believe that fly fishing can be literature, with mixed results.
More than any of his stories, it depends on his “iceberg theory” of literature, the notion that leaving essential parts of a story unsaid
After my dad gave me the story to read in the 1950s, we sat down together to analyze it. We were both deeply pleased that fishing and literature could be successfully combined, and in future decades we would strive to do the same thing as writers. But we stumbled over the meanings of the dark metaphors that begin and end the story. “Big Two-Hearted River” is not simply a luminous fishing tale; it’s also an unsolved mystery.
Like the title, the story has two sides, an outdoor adventure and the never-explained metaphors that accompany it, which have kept critics arguing ever since. As the narrative opens, Nick Adams steps off a train and discovers to his surprise that the old logging town of Seney has been burned over. Just what the scorched earth stands for is never stated, but it’s not utter destruction. “It could not all be burned,” Nick reflects as he hikes beyond the fire’s black footprint into a meadow carpeted with sweet ferns and marked by hillocks with still-standing pines.
The great fires of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries burned across the north woods, supercharged by the wasteful logging practices of the day. Huge swaths of white pine were clear-cut and towns built on foundations of sawdust, perfect beds for the flames that followed, which indeed gutted several towns. Stumps from the logging remain visible to this day, poking up among the ferns. Several smaller fires burned around Seney just before Hemingway’s 1919 trip, and he almost certainly walked through their black footprints.
In the story, as Nick shoulders his pack and sets off, he struggles with unnamed but troubling thoughts, hiking longer than necessary to deaden his mind and make sleep come more easily. He becomes absorbed in details of the moment as he makes camp, catches and loses fish, and explores his surroundings. As he watches trout rise, his spirit rises with them. He’s repeatedly described as being happy, as though that, too, were a surprise.
Then, after a day of fishing that includes a battle with the biggest trout he’s ever seen, Nick faces a cedar swamp with deep swirling currents, a dark place similar to the burned landscape where the story began. “The fishing would be tragic,” he tells himself, and repeats the thought: “In the swamp fishing was a tragic adventure.” Nick has been on a journey of the spirit, however, and if the swamp holds unnamed terrors, they can be overcome. The story ends on another optimistic note: “There were plenty of days coming when he could fish the swamp.”
We were both deeply pleased that fishing and literature could be successfully combined, and in future decades we would strive to do the same thing as writers.
When my father and I tried to make sense of the metaphors, we turned to other Nick Adams stories for clues. Hemingway wrote three stories about Nick having love affairs that end badly, all based on real events around the time of the 1919 fishing trip to the UP. “A Very Short Story” deals, in barely over a page, with a romance between a Nick-like character, who is never named, and an only slightly fictionalized Agnes von Kurowsky, a Red Cross nurse.
She and Hemingway got together when she nursed him after he was wounded by shrapnel in his first days in Italy, delivering chocolate and other comforts by bicycle to soldiers at the front. After Hemingway returned home, Kurowsky wrote him a Dear Ernest letter to inform him she’d become engaged to an Italian nobleman. She was dumped, in turn, when the nobleman’s family decided she was too common for their son. The story roughly follows these events and ends on a caustic note.
The other stories, “The End of Something” and “The Three-Day Blow,” describe a romance with a Michigan girl called Marge and Marjorie that reverses the roles: this time Nick is named, he does the dumping, and the stories get longer. Hemingway met the real-life Marjorie, a teenaged redhead with freckles, when she had a summer job as a waitress at a restaurant on Walloon Lake, where his family had a cabin. The handsome young war hero and the pretty local girl both loved fishing and good times, and they hit it off.
In explaining to the fictional Marjorie in “The End of Something” why he’s breaking up with her, Nick hints at an inner darkness: “I feel as though everything was gone to hell inside me.” Sounds like a clue. The third story, “The Three-Day Blow,” is a conversation loosened by drink between Nick and a buddy named Bill, at a cottage in Michigan, about Nick’s decision to break up with Marjorie. The use of her first name made Marjorie Bump a target of gossip in small-town Michigan (her actual last name didn’t help her cause) and she eventually moved away. Although she and Hemingway were occasionally in touch in later years, the portrayal always bothered her and she burned their correspondence. But she also exchanged 250 letters about Hemingway with a determined researcher, and those survive.
My dad and I noted the breakups, but surely Nick had been trying to recover from more than a couple of youthful romances. Nonetheless, we virtually adopted the story into our family, we memorized lines from it, and both our writing styles owe Hemingway a debt. When my father published his first book, A River Runs through It, at the age of seventy-three, he was called a “garrulous Hemingway.”
I went on to work as a newspaperman, as Hemingway did, and as a cub reporter in Chicago with short vacations, I drove to the UP and fished the Big Two-Hearted River, an easier reach than Montana. True, the actual Hemingway trip was on the Fox River or a branch or two, but I chose the Big Two-Hearted for the same reason Hemingway made it the title of his story, for the poetry.
My career took me away from the Midwest, and I did not read Hemingway again for many decades. I returned to him when I wrote Home Waters: A Chronicle of Family and a River, which describes his influence on my father and me, only to find that we had missed the big shift in interpretation of “Big Two-Hearted River.” I was invited to give a talk on Home Waters to The Community Library in Ketchum, Idaho, which acts as custodian of the historic Ernest and Mary Hemingway House, on the edge of town.
In preparation, I reread “Big Two-Hearted River,” which is mentioned in the book, and checked the modern commentary. It quickly became apparent that my dad and I had missed the likely solution to the metaphors. The Nick Adams Stories, published in 1972, for the first time placed the stories in chronological order for Nick. Several war stories written after “Big Two-Hearted River” now preceded it and offered an explanation for his troubled state of mind. One in particular, “A Way You’ll Never Be,” relates how Nick returned to the Italian front after being wounded and suffered a vividly described post-traumatic stress event. On top of that, in A Moveable Feast and in letters and an essay, Hemingway said the story was about a boy coming home troubled from the war.
His best explanation is in “The Art of the Short Story,” a preface for a book of his stories commissioned by Charles Scribner, his publisher, who ultimately dropped the project. “Big Two-Hearted River,” he said, “is about a boy coming home beat to the wide from a war. Beat to the wide was an earlier and possibly more severe form of beat, since those who had it were unable to comment on this condition and could not suffer that it be mentioned in their presence. So the war, all mention of the war, anything about the war, is omitted. The river was the Fox River, by Seney, Michigan, not the Big Two-Hearted. The change of name was made purposely, not from ignorance or carelessness but because Big Two-Hearted River is poetry.”
The bridge over the Fox River, where Maclean, like protagonist Nick Adams, stood watching for trout in the waters below. Photo courtesy John N. Maclean
The Nick Adams Stories, however, also contains the deleted section titled “On Writing,” which prompted a heated, occasionally nasty debate among critics. Hemingway’s latter-day efforts to make it a war story were just lies piled on other lies to buff his macho image, it was said. The story wasn’t about the war at all; it was about Nick’s raging desire to become a great writer. With that section deleted, the story came down to “No war, just the fishing,” one critic remarked. The burned landscape and the desolate swamp in that case could stand for a writer’s creative unconscious, forbidding but desirable.
For me, reconnecting with the story felt like discovering new depths in an old friend. In response, I set off on a cross-country journey to dig deeper and try to answer lingering questions such as: Was there hard evidence to be uncovered about what was troubling Nick, beyond Hemingway’s claim that it was the war? Did Hemingway invent a fire-ravaged Seney? Where exactly did he and his friends fish?
My travels led from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, in Boston, which has a vast Hemingway Collection, to Seney and the Fox River, in the UP, and finally to the Ernest and Mary Hemingway House, in Ketchum, where I was a guest for a week as writer in residence. At each stop I learned new things or answered a lingering question.
“The Old Feeling”
At the JFK Library’s Ernest Hemingway Collection, I examined photocopies of the typed and handwritten drafts of “Big Two-Hearted River.” In a very early version, there’s a description of a flame-gutted hotel in Seney that strongly suggests the war was indeed on Hemingway’s mind as he wrote the story.
In this draft, one of his buddies, Al, sets off to investigate the damaged hotel, which is more like a World War I battlefield than a midwestern hostel. Called the Mansion House hotel in the story, the large wooden White House hotel in Seney actually burned down twice, once just before the Hemingway fishing trip. “Al went over and looked into the filled pit where the hotel had been. There was twisted iron work, melted too hard to rust. Thrown together were four gun barrels, pitted and twisted by the heat [and] in one the cartridges had melted in the magazine and formed a bulge of lead and copper.”
At last, the link to the war confirmed by the story itself, albeit a version that never made the final cut: the burned landscape and the dreary swamp, then, represent Nick’s nightmarish memories of the war, and the all-engaging act of fishing helped put them to rest.
For me, reconnecting with the story felt like discovering new depths in an old friend. In response, I set off on a cross-country journey to dig deeper and try to answer lingering questions
“Big Two-Hearted River” is not simply a luminous fishing tale; it’s also an unsolved mystery.
The drafts are remarkable, too, for the fluidity of the writing. The story grows longer and different versions are tried, but a near-final draft goes on for dozens of handwritten pages with hardly a later change. The story’s power comes not just from mysterious metaphors but from inspired prose. Hemingway loved fishing from the time he was old enough to use a rod.
In Paris, he was an ocean and more away from his home waters in Michigan. The separation intensified the writing. While he worked on the story, he kept a map of northern Michigan posted in his apartment, with blue marks for significant locations. In succeeding drafts, he stripped the story down to one disturbed person moving through a dreamlike, almost hallucinatory landscape of distorted reality. Brown grasshoppers evolve to black in the fire’s footprint, a physical impossibility in the time between flames and green-up. Swamps are not known for being deep and full of swift currents; they are still and often shallow—the many swamps I saw around Seney certainly are. Words repeat, the rhythm pulses, and the prose becomes an incantation. In the following example, the words sun, hot, trout, stream, shadow, and trees appear again and again in short sentences, capped at the end by one long sentence that repeats nearly all those words, with hypnotic effect.
It was getting hot, the sun hot on the back of his neck.
Nick had one good trout. He did not care about getting many trout. Now the stream was shallow and wide. There were trees along both banks. The trees of the left bank made short shadows on the current in the forenoon sun. Nick knew there were trout in each shadow. In the afternoon, after the sun had crossed toward the hills, the trout would be in the cool shadows on the other side of the stream.
Hemingway slightly varies this technique in one very long sentence, by his standards: an academic study found that the average length of a sentence in part 1 is twelve words, the average paragraph 105 words (minus three brief declarations by Nick that would skew the latter count). That’s short by any standard.
In the next example, the action could not be simpler: a large trout leaves shelter, breaks water, and returns to its place. It could be described in a few words, though the author adds a kingfisher to give the anecdote an edge: Will the kingfisher skewer the trout? Yet the effect of the sentence, capped off by two short sentences, is not of overwriting and a dramatic tease—the kingfisher leaves the trout unmolested—but of a lingering lyric. The final sentence defines in six short words the underlying theme of the story, the restoration of the spirit by fishing. Try reading it aloud and pause at each comma.
As the shadow of the kingfisher moved up the stream, a big trout shot upstream in a long angle, only his shadow marking the angle, then lost his shadow as he came through the surface of the water, caught the sun, and then, as he went back into the stream under the surface, his shadow seemed to float down the stream with the current, unresisting, to his post under the bridge where he tightened, facing up into the current.
Nick’s heart tightened as the trout moved. He felt all the old feeling.
An early draft had Nick feel “all the old thrill,” a near cliché that would have restricted the meaning to fishing. The revised version raises the possibility that Nick has regained a lost ability to feel as he once did.
“The Toughest Town in Michigan”
Seney, my second stop, was once known as “Hell Town in the Pine,” a raucous collection of loggers and women of loose virtue; the ladies, according to tales spun for naive visitors, were kept in a locked stockade guarded by mastiff dogs. In an early draft, one of Nick’s fishing buddies remarks, “This was the toughest town in Michigan.” The population once reached three thousand, double that during a log drive. Today’s Seney, with fewer than two hundred residents, amounts to a scattering of homes, a couple of motels and cabin resorts, one bar, two gasoline stations, and two major landmarks.
One is Highway 28, which runs straight through town, part of the infamous “Seney Stretch” that extends for twenty-five miles without a curve through monotonous swamplands. The other is the single railroad track that also runs straight through town, just south of and parallel to the highway. The rails are shiny from use, but an old railroad depot has been turned into a museum, seldom open, with a section of rusted track on exhibit.
A venerable steel bridge carries the track over the Fox River about halfway through town, a feature that many readers will remember from the opening scene of the story, when Nick stands on the bridge, looks down at trout in the river, and, after long absence from woods and waters, finds them “very satisfactory.” It was natural to go there to look at the water below, as I did after arrival, just like Nick. The river remains, though trout no longer hold in such an accessible spot—and the river has fewer of them, as I would shortly find out. The water is a light root beer color. The bottom is sandy, not pebbly, as in the story.
Beyond the town, the steep banks are so thick with trees, deadwood, and undergrowth that you need to wade the river to fish it, and then you encounter logjams, mud, and few places where you can make a cast without hanging up your fly. Local guides say not to bother fishing it, but I tried: I struggled down the bank, dealt with mud and fallen timber, and managed a cast over a small rising brook trout that had no interest in my dry fly. I quit, and struggled back up the bank.
The Fox River, though, has numerous branches and tributaries, including the East and West branches and the Little Fox, which form a watery maze farther north. In a postcard addressed to his father, Dr. Clarence E. Hemingway, and postmarked from Seney on August 27, 1919, Hemingway said he and two friends were just back from a week’s fishing “10 miles north in Schoolcraft Co.,” presumably measuring from town, an area that includes all the branches. Hemingway added that he’d caught twenty-seven trout the day before, the “smallest nine inches.” In a letter to a friend after the trip, Hemingway reported that he and his friends had fished more than one branch.
On my last day there, I visited the East Branch of the Fox and had a shock of recognition. The East Branch has all the settings from the story: meadows marked by ferns and slightly raised islands of pine, long stretches of open water, wide pools, and a cedar swamp. It fishes well, the local guides say, but I was out of time. Hemingway fictionalized his trip, writing his father that he had made up the entire story, but much of his writing is close to experience, and the landscape of the East Branch perfectly reflects the story. The case for the East Branch would become more solid at my final stop.
“A Kind of Desperate Dream River”
The Ernest and Mary Hemingway House, in Ketchum, sits high on a ridge overlooking a small island, a wild tangle of cottonwood, aspen, and brush created by a fork in the Big Wood River and inhabited, when I was there, by a herd of elk. The bulls bugled in the evening, and when I fished the river for rainbow trout, successfully, I kept coming upon small elk bands that noisily moved off into the brush.
The house is 1950s Sun Valley architecture: the exterior is of cast concrete stained brown to look like timbers, accented by green molding and decking. Hemingway bought the place in 1959 and lived there with his wife Mary for the last two troubled years of his life: the house is full of their possessions. The writer’s apartment was converted from a large garage at basement level and looks out through floor-to-ceiling glass doors, which can be fully and gratefully opened in fine weather, to the sloping ridge and wooded island below. It’s a place to be quiet, write, and absorb what Hemingway experienced.
The river in the story was a “composite, a kind of desperate dream river which awaits every man when the rest of the world is going to hell.”
Sadly, an empty rod sock and a tattered fishnet are the only fishing gear in the house. After the Railroad Express Agency lost a Hemingway trunk full of his fishing gear on a trip west in 1940 or ’41, he never fly-fished in Idaho again, according to a 1972 letter to Field & Stream magazine from his son Jack. “A Hardy Fairy, one of only two surviving items of trout fishing tackle, owned by my father the late Ernest Hemingway, is the one with which he fished on the lower Cottonwoods section of the Big Wood River on the one occasion that he trout fished here in Idaho… The balance of his tackle a trunk full of flies and other tackle items were lost the following year by Railway Express Company.” The Hardy rod and letter are kept by the American Museum of Fly Fishing, in Manchester, Vermont.
The Community Library, in Ketchum, has a large collection of Hemingway materials left by numerous donors and by Mary, who lived there and in New York City until her death in 1986: most of what Mary left is in the Hemingway house. Before heading for Ketchum, I learned that the library staff had begun to sort more than forty boxes of materials recently donated by David Meeker, a lifelong Hemingway buff, collector, and dealer. I called ahead and asked if there were any references in those materials to “Big Two-Hearted River,” and when the answer came back yes—there were letters and a map—I asked if they could be taken out for me to examine when I arrived, and again the answer was yes. When I got a look at the documents, they opened a new window on Seney and Hemingway’s trip there.
The Hemingway home in Ketchum, Idaho, where Maclean stayed for a week as writer in residence. Photo courtesy John N. Maclean
A few years after Hemingway’s death in 1961, his brother-in-law Sterling S. Sanford, widower of Hemingway’s older sister, Marcelline, corresponded with a researcher who was trying to determine whether the Big Two-Hearted River, a daunting hike from Seney, was the river Hemingway had fished on his 1919 trip. The researcher, Donald M. St. John, had concluded that the river in the story was a “composite, a kind of desperate dream river which awaits every man when the rest of the world is going to hell.”
St. John also corresponded in the 1960s with John J. “Jack” Riordan, who had lived in Seney since 1916 and who wrote that there had been several forest fires around the town in 1918, later changing the date to 1919, and provided a hand-drawn map with more than half a dozen fire perimeters outlined near and into Seney, some labeled “old pine burning” and others “burned in 1919.” (He also reported the burning of the wooden White House hotel around that same time.) Riordan said the East Branch had a dam about four and a half miles north from Seney, and Nick Adams fought his big trout in a deep, dammed-up pool: it’s a match with the story, whether that was the actual spot or not. Riordan said he’d read little of Hemingway and couldn’t say for certain where he had fished. But the evidence for the East Branch is considerable.
When I finished with the Riordan documents, it marked the end of a long trail that had begun with the rediscovery of a life-changing story from more than a half century earlier. I’d thought “Big Two-Hearted River” a perfect story back then, but the trail led to a deeper and better understanding of it. Reading Hemingway’s own comments about it and the analysis of others was an essential start.
But direct contact with its physical realities had greater impact, from viewing the handwritten drafts to standing in a meadow of green ferns punctuated by gray, century-old stumps to spending a week in the writer’s apartment at the Hemingway House. All these elements and more came together one crisp fall day that Hemingway would have loved, when the trail led me to the island wilderness below the house. There, with a fly rod in hand and a fish on the line, I felt closer than ever before to the midwestern boy who took his troubles to the river and came away with his spirit restored and old feeling regained.