Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Hemingway's Puzzling Pursuit Race

Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Hemingway's Puzzling Pursuit Race

Article excerpt

When, after an exchange of letters in February 1927, Hemingway asked Archibald MacLeish directly what he thought of "A Pursuit Race," MacLeish replied:

   My opinion is that I don't like that story.... I thought the first
   paragraph sounded like a parody of your stuff & had nothing honest to do
   with the story. And I thought the story itself missed fire by that narrow
   fraction of an inch which is the difference between failure & success in
   work as close to the bone as yours. (198-99)

Over 50 years later, Tom Stoppard took another view, at least about the story's beginning. Calling the opening paragraph one of the best in English, he noted that

   This is a piece of writing that mimics its subject matter. It is a
   paragraph in which a burlesque show is in a pursuit race with a metaphor.
   And what happens is that the burlesque show catches up on the metaphor and
   the metaphor has to get down from its bicycle and leave the page. (24)

If the amount of critical attention that the story has received is any gauge of its relative value, history has sided with MacLeish. So little has been written about the story, in fact, that it qualified for an article in Susan Beegel's collection of essays on Hemingway's neglected work.(1) Yet, if the story does not engage us in the same way that, say, "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" does, it nonetheless has its charms. A close reading of the story, informed by our knowledge of the manuscripts, both reveals Hemingway's skill and gives us a new appreciation of this often neglected work.

Part of Men Without Women (1927), the story was one that Hemingway knew he would have trouble getting published in the magazines. Writing to Fitzgerald on 24 November 1926, he made this point clear, but first he bragged a bit:

   I've had a grand spell of working; sold another story to Scribner's
   --making two--and have sent them another that I am sure they will buy--a
   hell of a good story about Milan during the war ["In Another Country"
   (Smith 180)]--and just finished a better one ["Now I Lay Me" (180)] that I
   should be typing now.

Then he noted: "Have two other stories ["A Pursuit Race" and "A Simple Enquiry" (180)] that I know I can't sell so am not sending them out--but that will go well in a book" (Baker, Letters 231). The problem, of course, was the content of the two stories, which he described in a letter to Maxwell Perkins: "One is about the advance man for a burlesque show who is caught up by the show in Kansas City. The other is a little story about the war [and homosexuality] in Italy" (245-46). As Fenton has suggested, the basic subject matter of "A Pursuit Race" is probably drawn from Hemingway's Kansas City experience (49),(2) though the bicycle races in Paris seem to provide the controlling metaphor for the story's opening and debated paragraph.(3)

As published, the story begins symbolically:(4)

   William Campbell had been in a pursuit race with a burlesque show ever
   since Pittsburgh. In a pursuit race, in bicycle racing, riders start at
   equal intervals to ride after one another. They ride very fast because the
   race is usually limited to a short distance and if they slow their riding
   another rider who maintains his pace will make up the space that separated
   them equally at the start. As soon as a rider is caught and passed he is
   out of the race and must get down from his bicycle and leave the track. If
   none of the riders are caught the winner of the race is the one who has
   gained the most distance. In most pursuit races, if there are only two
   riders, one of the riders is caught inside of six miles. The burlesque show
   caught William Campbell at Kansas City. (Stories 267)

However we see this paragraph--as parodic (MacLeish) or exemplary (Stoppard)--it is tightly focused and certainly better than the original. …

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