Academic journal article The Hemingway Review

My Pilgrimage: Fishing for Religion with Hemingway. (Articles)

Academic journal article The Hemingway Review

My Pilgrimage: Fishing for Religion with Hemingway. (Articles)

Article excerpt

This memoir-essay covers the time period from 1952 to the present and chronicles the author's efforts to define and explain Hemingway's use of religious allusion in his fiction. Cited are letters from Hemingway, Malcolm Cowley, Maxwell Geismar, Robert M. Brown, and Carlos Baker, as well as interviews with William Carlos Williams, Orville Prescott, and Lewis Leary as the author does research first for his M.A. and PH.D. theses, then for subsequent publications and papers on Hemingway. This essay tells a detailed story about a student-turned-professor's critical maturing and is designed to exemplify the effects of intellectual and scholarly growth.

AS A DARTMOUTH UNDERGRADUATE IN 1952, I had read a reasonable amount of Hemingway, but never before in a college course where the professor seemed determined to destroy otherwise fascinating fiction by harping on structure, theme, style, sources and, of all things, symbol. At that time, I saw all literary works so much as realistic depictions of the way life really was that I resisted (although I did pass the course) most of my professor's efforts to increase the maturity of my approach to fiction. As for Hemingway, the professor said one day, "He's finished. Just look at Across the River and into the Trees." That was also the year that Philip Young published the statement in the preface to his fascinating, code-defining book Ernest Hemingway that "he is part of our reading past" (vii), a comment that Phil later told me over a cocktail that he really wished he had never made.

1952, of course, saw the publication of The Old Man and the Sea. I devoured it. I loved it. Perhaps because my GPA was, at the moment, precarious, I identified with Santiago's resilience and ability to overcome defeat without being destroyed. Most significantly, though, I recall exclaiming when I finished the book, "Just let some of these symbol-seeking professors and literary critics read anything into this novel. It can't be done. It's just too good a story." I was just starting to write my own fiction, and Hemingway as realist was my God.

This typically sophomoric attitude haunted me seven years later when, as an M.A. candidate at Columbia, I proposed to, my adviser, Lewis Leary, that I do my thesis on Hemingway and Roman Catholicism. Lewis was dubious but agreeable. "See what you can find" he said. "Then we'll see."

What had happened to me during the interim is relevant. Although raised in the Episcopal Church, I had married a woman who was Catholic, and during my first Air Force assignment in West Texas as a jet instructor pilot, I thought it a good idea to take instruction in the Church for information, if not possible conversion. The priest who conducted the classes had just returned from France, and his white Alfa Romeo convertible was openly frowned upon by his fellow priests in this desert diocese that embraced severe vows of poverty. His intelligent discussions of doctrine and history were fascinating to the seven or eight of us in his class, and at the next-to-last meeting, he announced that we would have to decide by the next session whether or not to join the Church.

I remembered an earlier question that someone had asked about non-Catholics going to heaven, to which the priest had replied, "There's no problem. Those who have not been exposed to the teachings of the Church, such as some African tribes or Asiatic peoples, if they have lived a moral Christian life, of course they'll be accepted in heaven."

With no little trepidation, I asked, "Father? What about those of us who have been exposed to the Church, yet choose not to join? May we go to heaven too?"

He looked directly at me, then said with a smile, "I'm Sorry, John." Regardless of my heavenly destiny (I am now a member of the Lutheran church), I learned quite a bit about Catholicism then and for the next few years when I would help my children with their catechisms and also take them to Mass. …

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