Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and The Sea was an immediate classic upon publication in 1952. Its release as a novel was highly anticipated because of its appearance in Life Magazine just eleven days prior to it
s arrival in bookstores nationwide. Book reviewers, particularly those writing for major print media, were nearly unanimous in their praise of the short novel. This, however, was not the case with scholars and more serious literary critics. Such litera
ry authorities were at first divided as to the book's greatness. Some felt the tale was Hemingway at his best, demonstrating masterful understanding of the English language and offering elaborate description through clear, concise prose. Others felt tha
t the story was dark and depressing, lacking the boundless symbolism others claimed to have found. There was even a contingent that felt the book was not worthy of the title of "novel," given its lack of plot and conflict. One critic went so far as to c
all The Old Man and The Sea a "fishing anecdote." Today, The Old Man and The Sea is widely regarded as Hemingway's crowning accomplishment, his masterpiece that unquestionably places him among the best writers in the language's history. His style is use
d throughout the English speaking world to dispel the notion that bigger words and longer sentences are necessary to convey more thorough, complex ideas. Students everywhere are required by teachers to read this book not only because of its literary valu
e, but also because of the instruction it offers as to how to write properly. Finally, the tale is incredibly revealing as to Ernest Hemingway, the man. Santiago, much like many of Hemingway's protagonists, is considered to be extremely autobiographical
and thus reveals great insight to this American hero's psyche.
Ernest Hemingway first emerged as a public figure in 1926, after the publication of his first major work, The Sun Also Rises. The book's focus was American expatriates in Paris, and is considered to have given birth to a theme that emerged throughout He
mingway's career-- it was somewhat autobiographical. He, himself, was an American that had relocated to Paris. At the age of twenty-seven, Hemingway began his ascent to international fame. He covered the first World War for Collier's and developed a re
lationship with other famous authors such as Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and Scott Fitzgerald. By the end of the war, he was known worldwide. His beard and imposing physique became among the most recognizable appearances in the world. It a
lso was responsible for his nickname-- Papa. His public persona was similar to that of John Grisham. He mingled with Hollywood stars and was seen only at the ritziest hotels and restaurants. He owned extravagant homes in nations around the globe, most
notably his finca in Cuba. He was a glamorous man that lived, largely by choice, in the spotlight; however, his public frivolity was apparently not indicative of his general sentiments toward life. Privately he was known to practice binge drinking. It
was not rare for him to appear drunk in an interview or in public. After surviving two near-fatal plane crashes in Africa, Hemingway began his demise. He suffered from constant pain for some time and became paranoid about plots by the United States gove
rnment to destroy him. On November 30, 1960, Hemingway checked into the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. He was released only three months later, but the progress made was clearly insufficient. On April 23, 1961, Ernest Hemingway first attempted to
commit suicide with a shotgun. On July 2 of that same year, he was successful. Additionally, posthumously, Hemingway's public reputation took several blows. It was rumored that he had hit his wives and that he had assaulted poet Wallace Stevens over a
petty literary disagreement. It is, however, noteworthy that throughout the trials and tribulations of his life and even in the wake of the unfortunate posthumous revelations, Hemingway is revered as a literary god. He was shoved into the spotlight at
a young age and stayed there for forty years; this unquestionably took its toll. Behind closed doors, Hemingway was clearly unhappy. But his public adored him. He was a celebrity of unparalleled popularity. Even the decline in the quality of his work
and the personal battles with depression could not erase the memory of his earlier brilliance and that famous face.
Those that recognize Hemingway as a literary genius do so because of his simplicity, which he attributed to the teachings of Gertrude Stein. He credited her for teaching him the beauty of the "simple declarative sentence." Because of her, he sought to
eliminate extraneous words from any sentence, creating direct, efficient prose. This task, according to most, was never more masterfully accomplished than in The Old Man and The Sea. Malcolm Cowley of the New York Tribune expressed the sentiments of man
y when he said the following:
I couldn't even write a short report on the book without paying tribute to Hemingway's prose. It is as different from Melville's prose in Moby Dick as anything could be and still remain English. There is no attempt in it to express the inexpressible by
inventing new words and turns of phrase; instead Hemingway uses the oldest and shortest words, the simplest constructions, but gives them a new value-- as if English were a strange language that he had studied or invented for himself and was trying to wr
ite in its original purity.
J. H. Jackson of the San Francisco Chronicle agrees:
Hemingway has never written more cleanly, more precisely, with less waste-- not that he is very often a man to waste a word.... he evokes struggle and sea with a skill that very few-- oh well, what few, then? no one else writing today-- could touch.
Among reviewers for major print media, there was nearly no dissent. Each felt that Hemingway's diction was flawless and that the subject was approached beautifully. The strength of the story was as much the characters and the plot as it was the manner i
n which both were presented. It was in this last area that scholars and serious literary critics voiced displeasure.
The most obvious and frequent complaint about The Old Man and The Sea is the book's length; many literary critics call it a short story rather than a novel. Phillup Rahv, in his essay "Hemingway in the Early 1950's, said "Moreover, it is in no sense a
novel, as the publishers would have us believe. At its core it is actually a fishing anecdote..." This opinion was voiced by many. They argued that the book simply did not carry the plot and character development, that there was simply insufficient act
ion for the tale to be considered a novel. Others denounced The Old Man and The Sea as a morbid, dark tale that left the reader depressed. Many attribute this to his personal troubles. He had suffered through three failed marriages and was known to b
e an alcoholic. His depression had begun to set in and, according to many, he himself had begun to doubt his ability to write. He expressed this sentiment to A. E. Hotchner over the phone directly prior to his death:
Hotch I can't finish the book. I can't. I've been at the goddamn worktable all day, standing here all day, all I've got to get is this one thing, maybe only one sentence, maybe more. I don't know, and I can't get it. Not any of it. You understand, I
There is no question that the book confronts rather dark issues. Santiago, the old man that the title of the book makes reference to, is knocking on death's door. He sets out to sea on a fishing trip in September, towards the end of the year when nature
metaphorically dies. Finally, the climax of the book is his encounter with a great marlin, which eventually is eaten by sharks before being brought on board. The book discusses death, failure, and learning to deal with these to inevitable aspects of an
y existence; however, today the book is read in a different light.
Santiago has come to represent man's resilience and persistence, and certainly courage. According to Carlos Baker, "The Admirable Santiago, Hemingway's ancient mariner and protagonist of this triumphant short novel, enters the gallery of permanent heroe
s effortlessly, as if he had belonged there from the beginning." Santiago's battle was not with a fish, but rather with the rigors of life and, in particular, with the reality of death. Even at his age and physical condition, he braves the tides and ba
ttles the marlin courageously. The book's intention, it now seems, is to give hope, to motivate. Leo Gurko agrees when he says "Santiago is confronted with a universe filled with tragedy and pain, but these are transcended, and the affirming tone is in
sharp contrast to the pessimism permeating such books as The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms." Santiago, rather than submitting to adversity, greets it and although he fails to catch the fish, he succeeds in challenging life. Many scholars have arg
ued that Santiago is somewhat of a Christ figure. The theory is that both figures basically see death in the immediate future and still manage to never fall from grace. They never submit to fear, and they accept the road that lay ahead.
The immediate success of The Old Man and The Sea was largely due to the success of his earlier novels and the popularity of Hemingway himself. His previous novels were all well received; thus any new release had the literary world chomping at the bit.
Hemingway had become a national hero. He had participated in two war efforts and then matured into the nation's finest writer. Simply put, during his lifetime, what he published, people read. What is interesting about The Old Man and The Sea is that it
has outlasted nearly all of his other major works. This is for any number of reasons. First of all, the book is widely recognized as an autobiographical piece. It offers great insight into perhaps the most influential American writer of the twentieth
century. Leo Gurko, in his Hemingway and the Pursuit of Heroism claims "The Old Man and The Sea is the culmination of Hemingway's long search for disengagement from the social world and total entry into the natural." He, like many other critics, argues
that Santiago serves as an emotional outlet for Hemingway. The national spotlight and international stardom had lost their luster, that rather than bask in the glory of his fame and fortune, Hemingway would prefer to live in isolation, free to live in pe
ace with himself and nature. Hemingway would love nothing more than to sail out to sea and take on the challenges that life offers without do so under constant public scrutiny. Additionally, by the time he was writing this book, life had worn him down a
fair bit. Much like Santiago, Hemingway felt as though life was presenting insurmountable obstacles and that defeat was inevitable. His four marriages each brought great strain to his life. As if this was not enough, his father while in the midst of a
battle against diabetes put a bullet through his head. (Somewhat foreshadowing as to Ernest's fate?) He was an alcoholic. In fact, after a few cocktails at a party late one night, he got in a car accident that resulted in serious head trauma. The fame
that had brought him so much joy as a youth now made him miserable. It was, however, too late. The nation had fallen in love with his uniquely simple prose and his rough, courageous protagonists. Ernest Hemingway was Santiago.
The Old Man and The Sea is still remarkably popular today. Hemingway is rarely read for pleasure alone, but this is simply because his works are generally required of every student at some point during his education. His style is an extremely effective
in instructing students to write clearly and concisely. Additionally, he, perhaps better than anyone to date, mastered the sympathetic protagonist. In describing the success of Hemingway, Irving Howe, in his A World More Attractive: A View of Modern Li
terature and Politics, said the following:
Of all the writers who began to print after the First World War, Hemingway seems to have best captured the tone of the human malaise in an era of war and revolution; yet it is noteworthy that, while doing so, he rarely attempted a frontal or sustained rep
resentation of life in the United Sates, for he seems always to have understood that common experience was not within his reach. By evoking the "essence" of the modern experience through fables of violence that had their settings in Africa and Europe, He
mingway touched the imagination of American readers whose lives, for all their apparent ordinariness, were also marked by the desperation which would become his literary signature and which is, indeed, central to all "modernist" writing.
Santiago captured better than any of his other protagonists, this same very desperation. Because both the content of his writing and the writing itself are both so masterful, this book's popularity will not curtail in the foreseeable future. Hemingway h
as etched himself a place in history as one of the premier writers in the English language, and therefore his legacy will live on long into the future.