Henry James on Safari in Ernest Hemingway's Green Hills of Africa. (Notes)

Article excerpt

At the climax of Green Hills of Africa, Ernest Hemingway realizes that Africa means more to him than just a location to hunt, or even to write: it is the one place left where "it pleased me to live, to really live. Not just let my life pass" This insight seems based not only on the experiences recounted in the narrative up to that point, but also on the advice of Strether to Little Bilham at the heart of Henry James's The Ambassadors, where Strether tells his young friend, "Live all you can; it's a mistake not to."

**********

IN A RECENT ARTICLE, Peter Hays has suggested that "Ernest Hemingway knew the work of Henry James well and ... had probably read The Ambassadors by 1925, when he wrote The Sun Also Rises" (90). To support his assertion, Hays relies not only on intertextual studies of Hemingway's reading by Michael Reynolds and Linda Wagner-Martin, but also on the mention of Henry James in Hemingway's 1926 novel The Torrents of Spring (91). Interestingly, however, Hays does not cite Hemingway's comments on James in Green Hills of Africa (1935), probably because this text comes after The Sun Also Rises, the main focus of Hays's study. But a close examination of several key passages in The Ambassadors and Green Hills of Africa reveals additional striking evidence to support Hemingway's joking prediction that "maybe I'll turn out to be the Henry James of the People" (Hays 97; SL 556).

To begin with, Green Hills of Africa, Hemingway's second work of nonfiction, is basically a journal of a month on safari in December of 1933. When not describing his actual hunting in the East African landscape, (1) Hemingway comments repeatedly throughout the journal on his reading and writing, giving his opinions freely on authors such as Tolstoy, Flaubert, Stendhal, and Dostoevsky (70-71). Of particular importance here are Hemingway's conversations with an Austrian named Kandisky, whom Hemingway stops to help when Kandisky's truck breaks down. After initially trading opinions on German writers like Rilke and Heinrich Mann (6-8), Hemingway and the Austrian later discuss American literature over dinner (19-24), and it turns out that one of the few American writers Hemingway approves of is Henry James, whom he mentions twice. Specifically, Hemingway says that "The good [American] writers are Henry James, Stephen Crane, and Mark Twain" (22) and adds later that "Henry James wanted to make money. He never did, of course" (24).

Intermixed with these comments on James, Crane, and Twain are Hemingway's views of American writers in general, most of whom, he says, came to a bad end. When Kandiskry asks, "And you?", Hemingway replies:

      "I am interested in other things. I have a good life but I
   must write because if I do not write a certain amount I do not
   enjoy the rest of my life."

      "And what do you want?"

      "To write as well as I can and learn as I go along. At the
   same time I have my life which I enjoy and which is a damned
   good life." (25)

Notice in this short exchange that the word "life" appears four times in Hemingway's self-description.

Later in the narrative, Hemingway comments on his current experience in Africa:

   This was the kind of hunting that I liked. No riding in cars, the
   country broken up instead of the plains, and I was completely
   happy.... The only person I really cared about, except the children,
   was with me and I had no wish to share this life with any one who
   was not there, only to live it, being completely happy.... (59)

Again the word "life" appears, this time coupled with "to live" and "happy" The climax of Green Hills of Africa comes when Hemingway stops fretting about his trophies and realizes that he is destined to return to Africa:

   I would come back to Africa but not to make a living from it. I
   could do that with two pencils and a few hundred sheets of the
   cheapest paper. …