Ernest Hemingway: “In Our Time”

See image credit below.

See image credit below.

Ernest Hemingway’s 1925 book, In Our Time, is a powerful collection of short stories and vignettes. I think of it as the first “composite novel” (or “short story cycle”) – the prototype of a genre that would become increasingly popular throughout the 20th century.

Composed and published over a period of years, both in England and in the United States, In Our Time is a fragmented montage, a modernist take on the experiences of Americans, Brits, and Europeans in the 1910s and 1920s. In fact, some people claim it is the prose equivalent of T.S. Eliot’s 1922 modernist poem, “The Waste Land.”

Although In Our Time can be accurately described as a book about World War I, it begins far before the war does when the recurring main character, Nick Adams, is a boy living on the upper peninsula of Michigan (the very area where an Oak Park, Illinois, born-and-bred Hemingway spent his boyhood summers). An alter ego for Hemingway (or a semi-autobiographical stand-in for him), Nick Adams comes into his young manhood, presumably serves in the war, and then comes home to try to pick up the pieces.

But the narrative arc isn’t as simple and straightforward as that. For along the way, other characters – completely unconnected to Nick Adams and appearing in widely varying places – take turns on center stage. There are alienated expatriates in Europe after the war, and perhaps most memorably, there is Krebs, a soldier returned home to Oklahoma. He flounders in his unsuccessful attempt to return to small-town life.

For my money, perhaps the most powerful aspect of In Our Time is the series of brief, often violent and graphic vignettes spliced between the stories. Even as we meet the young Nick, who travels by canoe with his physician father in “Indian Camp” to deliver an Indian woman of her baby, we’re jolted forward into a harrowing scene of mass evacuation in Turkey. No sooner do we learn of a refugee giving birth during the evacuation than we’re back to an adolescent Nick observing the tense relationship between his mother and father in “The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife.”

Back and forth we go, from Nick to expats to Krebs and back to Nick, all the while getting glimpses of the horrors of the war.

In taking us through this hell, Hemingway illustrates – vividly, powerfully – his “time.” It’s as if he saying, “In our time this is what we are experiencing, what we are facing. These are our ghosts, our demons.”

Will we be able to recover from the ravages of the war to end all wars? Hemingway offers Nick Adams as a test case. In a two-part story at the end of the book (“Big Two-Hearted River,” Parts I and II), Nick returns to the upper peninsula of Michigan, to his favorite camping and fishing spot on the Big Two-Hearted River. Nick clearly hopes a return to the natural world will set him right, but even here, far from the battlefields of Europe, the landscape is scorched, burned. Even the grasshoppers have turned black, as if charred. Will Nick recover from his war wounds? Hemingway doesn’t answer the question. He leaves us hanging, Nick poised to catch – or not catch – more fish in the swamp.

It is easy in hindsight to look at the violent end of Hemingway’s own life, to say that his suicide is proof that shell-shocked veterans did not recover. (Of course, Hemingway was not actually a soldier in World War I; instead, he was an ambulance driver on the Italian front. Nevertheless, he is perhaps the writer we associate more than any other with the Great War.)

But as with so much of Hemingway, it is too pat an answer to say that shell-shocked veterans did not recover. Does Nick recover? Did Hemingway recover? Did his compatriots recover? Did the western world ever get set “right” again?

Hemingway didn’t answer these questions – he couldn’t answer these questions. Instead, he asks the questions, leaves us to reach our own conclusions about “in our time.”

If you’re a long-time fan of In Our Time, you may want to learn more about its composition and development throughout the early 1920s. You can peruse the full text of the 1924 edition (warning: it’s quite a bit different than the 1925 American edition) or read the original 1925 New York Times review of the book.

More recent reflections on In Our Time can be found in The Guardian’s online book club, in the BBC Radio’s piece on In Our Time, Hemingway, and masculinity, and in the New York Times’ special feature on Hemingway.

For more on Hemingway, start by visiting the Hemingway Society’s website. No exploration of Hemingway is complete without a stop at his birthplace in Oak Park, Illinois, and a trip to his Key West home. Want to hear Papa Hemingway’s voice? Listen to his 1954 Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

Ready to read In Our Time? You’ll want to buy this excellent reprint edition.

Stay tuned next week for a StoryWeb feature on a writer who followed in Hemingway’s footsteps: Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien and his composite novel, The Things They Carriedicon. Together, In Our Time and The Things They Carried stand as StoryWeb’s two-part observation of Veterans Day.

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Listen:Listen as I read all of “Big Two-Hearted River,” both Part I and Part II. The reading runs 49 minutes. You can follow along with this free online copy of the stories.

Image credit: Ernest Hemingway, 1923 passport photo (public domain),