Ernest Hemingway's Miltonic Twist in "Up in Michigan"

By Maloney, Ian | The Hemingway Review, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

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.

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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). …

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