Ernest Hemingway's Miltonic Twist in "Up in Michigan"
Maloney, Ian, The Hemingway Review
Interpretations of Hemingway's short story "Up in Michigan" have been divided about the meaning of the unsettling sexual encounter between Jim Gilmore and Liz Coates. This essay re-examines the story's conclusion through the lens of literary influence and contends that John Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost may hold important clues to the story's interpretation. "Up in Michigan" provides a Miltonic twist on the fortunate fall, and demonstrates Hemingway's own recasting of the Eden legend.
EVER SINCE GERTRUDE STEIN PRONOUNCED the story "inaccrochable," like a painting "unable to be hung" because of its sexual content, most interpretations of Hemingway's "Up in Michigan" have focused on the unsettling sexual encounter between Jim Gilmore and Liz Coates. I believe that John Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost may hold important clues to reading the story. "Up in Michigan" provides a Miltonic twist on the paradox of the Fortunate Fall, and demonstrates Hemingway's own recasting of the Eden myth.
Critics have disagreed sharply about fateful sexual scene on the dock at the story's conclusion. Lisa Tyler argues that "What Liz Coates experiences on that dock is what we have since come to call date or acquaintance rape" (3). By contrast, in an essay titled "The Seduction of Jim Gilmore" Marylyn Lupton presents a defense for Jim, attempts to demonstrate that Liz is "a strong woman who knows what she wants," and even suggests that Liz's "indeterminate speech, coupled with inaction, constitute(s) culpability" (1). My reading offers an alternative interpretation based on literary influence, arguing instead that Hemingway's reading of Milton's Paradise Lost allowed him to create ambiguous characters living in a fallen world. "Up in Michigan" is Hemingway's twist on the fallen state of human relationships.
"Up in Michigan" is an early story in the Hemingway canon. Paul Smith points out that "For years it was assumed that 'Up in Michigan' was, if not the first, one of the earliest stories Hemingway wrote after his arrival in Paris in December 1921" (3). Smith also notes that it may be "inevitable that 'Up in Michigan' would evoke more critical interest in its origins than in the story itself as an original work--a writer's first work must be derivative" (4-5). He singles out Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein, and E.W. Howe as possible sources for Hemingway's creation. Yet despite Smith's acknowledgment that studies of influence abound in the scholarship of "Up in Michigan," to date no one has pursued links from Hemingway to Milton.
Milton's influence on Hemingway has not been significantly discussed, but it seems likely that Milton left a lasting impression on Hemingway early in his life. Hemingway's parents instilled a love of classic literature in their children. Marcelline Hemingway Sanford, Ernest's older sister, noted that "Ernest and I did a lot of reading. Sets of the classics, Scott, Dickens, Thackeray, Stevenson, and Shakespeare filled many of the shelves in our family library. I don't think we skipped any of them" (133-134). Fireside reading was customary for the Hemingways. Because Marcelline suggests that both she and her brother poured over the volumes of classics in the family library, perhaps we can assume that Hemingway read Milton at home during his adolescence.
If not, Hemingway definitely read Milton during high school. His English IV class from Oak Park High School shows Books 1 and 2 of Paradise Lost on the course syllabus, according to Michael Reynolds's inventory, Hemingway's Reading (159, item 1499). Reynolds also notes that Hemingway memorized Milton's short poem "On his Blindness" as well as portions of "L'Allegro" for a high school class (159, items 1496 and 1498).
Reynolds goes on to list Minor Poetas by John Milton as present in Hemingway's Key West home (139, item 1497), while James Brasch and Joseph Sigman locate The Poetical Works of John Milton in Hemingway's Fincia Vigia library (255, item 4552). Brasch and Sigman also note Hemingway's ownership of the Harvard Classics (50 volumes), edited by Charles W. Eliot, 1909-1910. Milton's poetry can be found in Volumes 3 and 4 of that series (167, item 2960).
Hemingway, then, was apparently interested in Milton throughout his life. Most importantly, Paradise Lost was introduced to him during his senior year of high school, in time to influence "Up in Michigan." This high school reading of Milton, combined with certain biographical elements in the tale, complicates both Lisa Tyler's and Marlyn Lupton's interpretations of the story, and invites us to reexamine "Up in Michigan" through the lens of literary influence.
According to Brasch and Sigman, Hemingway often pondered his relationship to writers of the past and to his contemporaries:
Reading, for Hemingway, was important in many ways. The first of these was as a response to a deep need to see his own work in relation to the larger realm of letters, both present and past. He needed to know what his contemporaries were doing.... But he also needed to see his work in relation to the landmarks of the past. In other words, he needed to cultivate what T.S. Eliot called the 'historical sense': 'to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the- whole of the literature of his own country [had] a simultaneous existence and [composed] a simultaneous order.'" (Brasch and Sigman xxii).
The final lines quoted by Brasch and Sigman, taken from Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent" aptly capture Hemingway's sense of connection with the past. His writing was informed by his reading and his understanding of masterpieces such as Paradise Lost, so it is not surprising that Hemingway would recast Milton's epic in one of his earliest stories.
The reader's focus in "Up in Michigan" is on a man and a woman living in the remote town of Hortons Bay. On a cursory level, the story is one of a "fall" from grace. But even before the encounter on the dock, "Up in Michigan" is a story of isolation and failed associations. Jim and Liz do not communicate well, nor do they seem very conscious of one another's needs and desires. Both Liz and Jim are portrayed as isolated individuals who have drifted far away from the Edenic pleasures of Adam and Eve. Most of the story focuses the reader's attention on Liz's mental processes and Jim's physical attributes, rather than on any relationship between the two characters.
Carlos Baker quoted Hemingway as saying that "Up in Michigan" was "sad rather than dirty" and that "the seduction scene on the foggy dock marked the beginning of all the naturalness he had ever achieved" (332). Perhaps the story is sad because it demonstrates Hemingway's understandings of sexual relationships after the Fall from grace. Naturalness is a loaded word in this regard. More than the story of a date rape or a romantic fling gone awry, the story of Jim and Liz presents our natural condition, a world of shame and isolation after the Fall. "Up in Michigan" views Jim Gilmore and Liz Coates as the byproducts of Adam and Eve's misjudgments in Milton's Paradise Lost.
This connection comes into sharper focus when we consider Hemingway's early days in Michigan and some of the biographical details embedded in the tale. In a 1985 travel piece on Michigan for the New York Times, James Barron quotes Hemingway speaking to his first bride, Hadley Richardson, during a car ride though Little Traverse Bay: '"See all that. Talk about the beauty of the Bay of Naples! I've seen them both, and no place is more beautiful than Little Traverse in its autumn colors.'" Hemingway chose this seemingly unspoiled countryside for his first honeymoon, but while the Michigan woods evoked verdant beauty in the young writer's mind, they were also colored by human sexual relationships when Hemingway turned to write "Up in Michigan."
The story evolves from Hemingway's understandings of marriage, sex, and relationships as a young adolescent. For example, the names "Jim" and "Liz" were drawn from Hemingway's life experiences. Jim and Liz Dilworth were a married couple Hemingway had grown up knowing during his boyhood summers in Michigan. Carlos Baker suggests that Hemingway may have had his first sexual experience--with high school student Marjorie Bump--in the area of Hortons Bay (64). Paradise Lost fits as a thematic sourcebook for an adolescent's sexual awakening; it makes sense that a bookish Hemingway, fresh from his high school years, would turn back to an iconic story of the Fall, especially after his own sexual initiation.
Hemingway uses imagery from and subtle allusions to Paradise Lost throughout "Up in Michigan," but disguises the Miltonic influence on the story by portraying a postlapsarian world, where both character and conclusion have been turned upside down. Essentially, Hemingway retells the Adam and Eve tale in a naturally beautiful but already fallen world.
Jim Gilmore's occupation as a blacksmith is noteworthy in this regard. While Adam's only work in Eden is no more "sweet Gardning labour" than suffices to make "ease more easie," and "wholsom thirst and appetite more grateful" (4.327-331), Jim is well-acquainted with tools--hammer, tongs, and bellows--and hard work. Only after the Fall do humans need advanced technologies; Jim's profession alludes to a world of technology, where the machine has entered the Garden, to echo the title of Leo Marx's famous treatise. A symbolic figure in many ways, associated with tire and the forge, Jim as blacksmith recalls the pagan god Vulcan, a mythological precursor of Satan. And while in Eden "All Beasts of th' Earth" frisk playfully around Adam and Eve (4.340-347), Jim goes hunting in the wilderness, demonstrating the effects of the expulsion from the Garden. Fallen man heads off into a surrounding world of competition, cruelty, and hardship in the forest. R.W.B. Lewis has drawn on this motif in his seminal study, The American Adam (115). Instead of harmony and cooperation, Hemingway presents a world where men must kill to eat and where hunting is a community ritual of masculine initiation.
In both Paradise Lost and "Up in Michigan" the relationship between man and woman is obviously important. Trouble begins when Adam and Eve are separated during their chores in tending the garden. Only when Eve is alone does Satan decide to tempt her; he fears Adam's power to resist him. In "Up in Michigan," the sexual encounter occurs only after Jim has returned from his hunting expedition into the woods. Men and women have drifted into different spheres after the ejection from Paradise. In other words, Hemingway's tale describes relationships in a fallen world. Mice Hall Petry concurs, stating that the story focuses on "the disparity between the male and female attitudes toward love and sex " (23). And while that is certainly true, the key to "Up in Michigan" is the predetermination of this separation as derived from Milton. Humiliation and miscommunication inevitably follow the characters in Hemingway's tale, as these traits were preordained from the separation of Adam and Eve when tilling the Garden.
In "Up in Michigan," both protagonists seem to be characterized by motion and instability rather than the stasis and security of the Garden of Eden. Liz lives and works in a boarding house, a position that identifies her as a character in transition, while Jim's hunting trips and interest in the Grand Rapids and Toledo newspapers suggest his essential rootlessness, rather than his unity with the Hortons Bay environment. Movement and occupation are therefore critical for the story's interpretation, as Hemingway brilliantly captures two characters living in a world of instability and transience.
To emphasize the fallen, distorted nature of the removal from Eden, Hemingway focuses on his characters' weaknesses, as does Milton. Both Milton's Eve and Hemingway's Jim, in different ways, corrupt their more innocent counterparts. Both stories emphasize innocence corrupted by individual weaknesses. Eve is fascinated with her own image; her narcissism causes her to ignore Adam's warnings to stay by his side. Jim, on the other hand, satisfies himself with thoughts of his own superiority as hunter and woodsman, and is largely ignorant of Lizas a human being
Of course this does not mean that either Adam or Liz is entirely innocent. In Book Eight of Paradise Lost, Raphael reminds Adam not to let passion cloud his reason, especially when gazing upon Eve. Yet Adam reflects about Eve: "[...] when I approach/ Her loveliness, so absolute she seems/And in herself compleat, so well to know/Her own, that what she wills to do or say,/ Seems wisest, vertuousest, discreetest, best...." (546-550). The sibilant sounds phonically show the lustful serpent entering the mind of Adam. Passion begins to overtake sound judgment. Hemingway uses repetition to mirror this predicament. As Liz Coates reflects on Jim, the word "like" resounds. "Liz liked Jim very much. She liked it the way he walked over from the shop.... She liked it about his moustache. She liked it about how white his teeth were when he smiled. She liked it very much that he didn't look like a blacksmith" (CSS 59). The reiteration demonstrates Liz's fixation on Jim's physique. Like Adam, whose passion for Eve clouds his rational mind, Liz too is unable to reason in Jim's presence. As with Adam's recurring "s" sounds, Liz's recurring "like" signals this flaw in her character. Both Milton and Hemingway use subtle stylistic techniques to show signs of instability in their main characters.
Other allusions to Milton further illustrate the subtle force of Hemingway's art. After Satan's famous soliloquy in Book Nine of Paradise Lost, "Like a black mist low creeping, he held on/His midnight search, where soonest he might find/The Serpent.... (180-182). Before possessing the serpent ("in at his Mouth/The Devil enterd" 187-188), Satan drifts into the garden as a mist. At the very end of "Up in Michigan," after Jim and Liz have had sex on the cold dock, Hemingway has his characters surrounded by a mist, thus echoing Satan's initial form. Hemingway describes Liz's reaction to her first sexual experience and the setting:
The hemlock planks of the dock were hard and splintery and cold and Jim was heavy on her and he had hurt her. Liz pushed him, she was so uncomfortable and cramped. Jim was asleep. He wouldn't move. She worked out from under him and sat up and straightened her skirt and coat and tried to do something With her hair. Jim was sleeping with his mouth a little open. Liz leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. He was still asleep. She lifted his head a little and shook it. He rolled his head over and swallowed. Liz started to cry. She walked over to the edge of the dock and looked down to the water. There was a mist coming up from the bay. She was cold and miserable and everything felt gone. She walked back to where Jim was lying and shook him once more to make sure. She was crying. (CSS 62)
In this paragraph, Hemingway's allusion to Paradise Lost is subtle but apparent. And the story's final line repeats the motif: "A cold mist was coming up through the woods from the bay" (CSS 62).
Adam and Eve brought sexual shame into the world--after eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, they realize their nakedness and cover their bodies in primitive clothes. In the fallen world of "Up in Michigan" Liz provides an ironic twist on this Miltonic moment when she straightens her skirt and coat after rough sex that happened with such haste there was no time to undress. In this way, Hemingway reminds readers that we already live in a fallen world clothed with shame and guilt.
While Jim steeps, Liz attempts to straighten out affairs. In Book Eleven of Paradise Lost, Adam views the aftermath of the Fall, while Eve sleeps and dreams. Liz, like Adam, has learned through unbridled sexual lust about the pitfalls of appetite and passion. Her lust for Jim has ended in the dockside sexual encounter, but Hemingway fixes our attention on the details of the experience. Liz, like Adam, must straighten out the imbalance and readjust affairs after the Fall. She takes off her coat and covers Jim. But unlike Adam, who is visited by the Archangel Michael, Liz tucks her coat "neatly and carefully" around Jim and walks back alone "up the steep sandy road to go to bed" (CSS 62). This dramatic return to her home after the incident is Hemingway's existential recasting of the Fall. In "Up in Michigan" human beings have long been cast out of the Garden of Eden. They exist fully in the wilderness foreshadowed for creation in Book Eleven of Paradise Lost. What hasn't changed from Milton to Hemingway is the road back from the Fall. In Hemingway's story, Liz walks up a steep sandy road. Unlike Adam, she is alone, without a partner, but the road is the same: " [...] long is the way/And hard, that out of Hell leads up to light" (2.432-433). The cold mist, the lasting final image of Hemingway's tale, leaves little doubt of the dark and complicated road we've traversed in Hortons Bay.
In "Up in Michigan" Jim and Liz do not resolve to take each other's hands and make their way in the wilderness. While at the close of Paradise Lost Adam descends from the heights of revelation to walk out of Eden with Eve, Liz Coates ascends the hill and heads off on her own, leaving Jim unconscious on the dock. Jim's dreams, if he has any, are not made known to us. Liz's final action subverts the dramatic reconciliation of Milton's Adam and Eve, and leaves the reader clouded in the mystery of postlapsarian individualism. While in Paradise Lost both Adam and Eve shed tears on leaving the Garden, Liz alone cries at the close of "Up in Michigan." The movement from Milton to Hemingway has been from an interdependent, cooperating couple to a stoic, injured individual. In this regard, Hemingway masterfully turns a Miltonic twist in "Up in Michigan"; for Hemingway, the Fall enacted in Milton's Paradise Lost becomes the driving force of isolated figures wandering into the unknown alone, adrift in a world of individual consciousness, while the cold Satanic mist continues to rise.
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Publication information: Article title: Ernest Hemingway's Miltonic Twist in "Up in Michigan". Contributors: Maloney, Ian - Author. Journal title: The Hemingway Review. Volume: 27. Issue: 2 Publication date: Spring 2008. Page number: 123+. © 1999 Ernest Hemingway Foundation. COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale Group.
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