Burt Renyolds, Cuba, Cult of Hemingway, Ernest Hemingway, Fish, Fisherman, Jammer Talks About, Jane Tompkins, John Lennon, Literature, Man-Stache, Manhood in America: A Cultural history, Manolin, masculinity, Michael Kimmel, Novel, Novella, Physical labor, Ron Burgundy, RUSH, Santiago, Short Story, Spencer Tracey, Swordfish, The Old Man and the Sea, Tom Sellick, West of Everything-The Inner Life of Westerns, Working Class Hero, Working Class Men, Working Man
A working class hero is something to be If you want to be a hero well just follow me
–Working Class Hero, John Lennon
Well, they call me the working man I guess that’s what I am
–Working Man, RUSH
Apart from John Wayne and Ron Burgundy, Ernest Hemingway is still the embodiment of the man’s man. This is in no small part because, apart from Tom Selick, Burt Reynolds, and Ron Burgundy, Hemingway was the only man I’m aware of who could pull off the man-stache look and not look like a porn star. Then again, Rule #34 exists and…that, actually, will lead us down a dark road I’m not willing to explore in this particular essay.
My original idea was to just go ahead and review The Old Man and the Sea for White Tower Musings given the fact that school season just started up again and it’s usually during that time that I get the most number of hits from students looking for aid on their reading assignments. I figured I would help out a few high schoolers who were too lazy to look up the South Park summary on YouTube. However, before I could even come up with one of my clever, but not really clever, opening lines my best friend Kevin made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.
Poorly executed Godfather references are graveyard dead. I really out to take my own aphorisms to heart.
About the time I started up White Tower Musings he began a YouTube channel dedicated to making videos about Biochemistry. He continued this project even after he met his fiancé and a few weeks back he asked if I wanted to make some videos about literature for students. His long term goal was to make an education channel similar to Khan Academy, and given the fact that I’m a shameless attention whore I said yes and began making a few videos. Now to be fair I had already made one for the book Walden for a former professor who was looking for online lectures for her summer Graduate Level Thoreau course, and since I already had the video made up it wasn’t difficult to make up one, two, and eventually fourteen videos, two of which were about a novella by Ernest Hemingway.
The Old Man and the Sea was relatively easy to talk about given the fact that I’ve read the book once a year every year for almost a decade. The first time was during a trip to Galveston during a summer break, and the combination of sea gulls, salt air, and the crinkling of my flesh with the thick saline of the slime green water of the gulf all just made it the perfect place to read the book.
The novella, a term I actually despise, is set in Havana, Cuba during the early 1900s. Santiago is an old man and used to be one of the most respected fishermen of the port until, when the story opens, he has gone 87 days without catching a fish. The young boy he usually fishes with has been moved by his parents to a more successful fishing ship, but the man and the boy still talk and it’s clear that Manolin still loves him deeply. One day Santiago decides to prove his mettle and boards his small ship sailing out farther than any of the other fishermen. There he lays out his lines and thinks about the baseball player Joe DiMaggio and lions sunbathing on the shores of Africa. While he’s dreaming Santiago lands a bite, and he discovers soon that he has caught a massive fish, most likely a marlin or some other species of sword fish. He fights the fish for hours before finally reeling it in and killing it. He ties the fish to the side of his ship and begins to sail back to Havana but before long sharks begin to attack his fish, and by the time he returns to port they’ve devoured all of the flesh from the carcass leaving only skeleton and a few chunks of meat. Santiago retires to his hut, defeated, but in his own way he’s reclaimed his honor in the eyes of the other fishermen.
This brief plot synopsis is necessary to observe the themes of The Old Man and the Sea, but honestly the traditional interpretation tends to leave me flat. Most teachers and casual readers will look at the novella and come away with a kind of platitude interpretation you might find at the end of an episode of He-Man:
Santiago lost, but in a way it was a kind of victory, and isn’t it great that even in failure you can still find some kind of personal win?
This conclusion of the book tends to nauseate me, but I can’t find any other final conclusion to contest it. Looking through the sea of books in my office, and that sea metaphor wasn’t intentional when I first wrote it out, I looked to Manhood in America: A Cultural History by Michael Kimmel wondering if perhaps Hemingway was even mentioned. My reason for this is rooted in what I observed at the start of my essay. Ernest Hemingway is remembered first for his creative work, but over time the man has come to exemplify masculinity, particularly that model of man when “men were men, and men were strong.” The idea that masculinity is in crisis is a well beaten drum and Hemingway typically serves as the sacrificed cow of a violent feminism which is ruining men.
For the record, this is a fallacy but I need to stay on point.
Michael Kimmel’s book is everything the title suggests and when I looked through the index I discovered Hemingway had not only one but three mentions in the book one of which was almost an entire page dedicated to the man. Kimmel observes that the period between World War I and II was a period of transition and discomfort for many men and he notes that:
There were rumblings of discontent among American men between the wars, and the fiction of the era expressed it eloquently. Some suggested that the traditional methods for self-making were unreliable in a modern world. For example, Ernest Hemingway’s novels suggest the brittleness and vulnerability of male bonding, even as his impulse is to trust homosocial intimacy, especially when compared with relations with the opposite sex. Personally, Hemingway eschewed the upper-class gentility into which he had been born and embraced a rough-hewn artisanal manhood demonstrated and tested in the most highly ritualized ways—boxing matches, bullfighting, hunting, soldiering. His novels are also always about men’s relationships with one another—fathers and sons, battle companions, friends on a fishing trip, fellow patients in a hospital, a couple of waiters preparing to close up shop, a bullfighter and his manager, a boy and a gangster. (155).
The Old Man and the Sea was published in 1952 and remains the last work of fiction published during Hemingway’s lifetime, and while the novella certainly leads the reader to the conclusion that Santiago finds a kind of victory in losing, a far more fascinating avenue for discussion is the fact that Santiago achieves the failure/victory through a physical working-class act that validates his masculinity.
After he has actually hooked the fish and is fighting him Santiago has a moment of admission:
Then he said aloud, “I wish I had the boy. To help me and to see this.” (48).
Santiago is not Melano’s biological father, but even if he was this admission is enough to support Kimmel’s idea that homo-social bonds between men are a way of reinforcing masculinity. Santiago wishes to prove not just to himself, or the village, but to the boy that he is strong and still capable. Fathers, I suspect without being one yet, want always to remain strong in the eyes of their sons because they want to embody the ideal of what being a man should be. I note however, returning to that dreaded theme, that ultimately all men fail in that regard sooner or later.
The issue of talking aloud also brings me back to this idea of masculinity though, because while linguistic studies have proven that men tend to talk more than women do in conversations, Hemingway most certainly was attuned to the idea that men do not talk. As such there appears to be a weakness in Santiago, but this is explained out in an early passage:
He did not remember when he had first started to talk aloud when he was by himself. He had sung when he was by himself in the old days and he had sung at night sometimes when he was alone steering on his watch in the smacks or in the turtle boats. He had probably started to talk aloud, when alone, when the boy had left. But he did not remember. When he and the boy fished together they usually spoke only when it was necessary. They talked at night or when they were storm-bound by bad weather. It was considered a virtue not to talk unnecessarily at sea and the Old man had always considered it so and respected it. But now he said his thoughts aloud many times since there was no one that they could annoy. (39).
This is an old stereotype that actual research has since disproven, but at the same time I’m hesitant to relinquish the idea that, at least in the company of other men, a man would avoid chattering. My own life provides some support to this idea. To this day I’ve found myself alone with my father-in-law on at least three occasions and each of those moments there has been utter and complete silence. Alright on one occasion I asked him how his work was going and he said “fine” and that’s about it. Now here I’m supposed to offer up the cliché that I’m afraid of the man, but that’s not true, I’m just afraid of failing in front of the man. Much like my own father, and just about every intellectual father I’ve encountered in my life, I’ve found myself tongue-tied and unwilling to speak because that violates the “man-code.” Now this situation has changed over time, and he’s actually talked to me on a few occasions but whether it’s him, my dad, or many of the male professors who I revere and respect, I note there’s a hesitancy to really open my mouth and talk.
I can’t really explain this out and that’s why I’ll let a brilliant woman do it for me.
I’ve referenced West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns in several of my essays, but that is simply because Tompkins is an impressive, insightful, and incredibly beautiful writer. Now The Old Man and the Sea is not a Western in the same way Blood Meridian, The Virginian, or Riders of the Purple Sage are Westerns, but Tompkins book is not just about the genre of the Western but about why men composed them in the first place. Westerns were often efforts to escape women and feminine behavior.
As for talking Tompkins offers a keen insight:
“To speak is literally to open the body to penetration by opening an orifice, it is to mingle the body’s substance of what is outside it” (56).
She follows this several pages on by noting:
The gesture of sweeping the board clear may be intended to clear away the reminders of emotional entanglements that cannot be dealt with or faced. Men would rather die than talk, because talking might bring up their own processed pain or risk a dam burst that would undo the front of imperturbable superiority. (67).
Santiago only confirms this when he says:
“What a fish,” he said. “He has it sideways in his mouth now and he is moving off with it.”
Then he will turn and swallow it, he thought. He did not say that because he knew that if you said a good thing it might not happen. (43).
This last sentiment is what is sometimes called “Tempting the fates;” it’s the idea that if you speak aloud what it almost assuredly going to happen the “fates” will decide to make sure that you fail in your endeavor just to spite you and teach you the lesson of rejecting vanity. Since Santiago isn’t well educated it’s fair to assume that he’s superstitious, but the fact remains that he recognizes again and again that talking weakens him in some way, at least in the ways of men. It is not through emotional, intellectual, or philosophical development and discussion that a man finds a sense of himself, it is through the physical demonstration.
It’s hard to argue with this on a practical level because of beer.
On several occasions I’ve helped my father with a termite job. He’s an exterminator and termite jobs involve drilling holes in concrete, dragging lengths of hose around stretches of property so that the holes can be filled with pesticides, and once the job is done these holes must be filled with concrete. It’s a long complicated job, but I what I tend to remember most about these gigs is the fact that once we were done we made the drive home and once there, Dad would open up two beers, and the taste of a beer after a long day’s physical labor tasted different than any other time before or after. The beer finishes the act because ingestion, like the act that lead you to the beer in the first place, is a purely physical action that doesn’t require much introspection. That’s all a fancy-pants way of saying that it’s nice and satisfying to simply enjoy a physical act and not think sometimes.
It’s this last sentiment that seems to be missing from the way Hemingway is taught, or at least the way Hemingway was taught to me. While the man has been butchered by Feminist critics, and let’s be fair here I’m a feminist too and even I admit Hemingway can be an ass sometimes, there’s an unfortunate development that teaching Hemingway’s model of masculinity is either outdated or inappropriate, but this always seems on some level to be both political and classicist. Santiago is a poor fisherman trying to prove himself, and even if his model of masculinity is outdated or sexist or ignorant it’s ridiculous to expect anything else out of the man because he doesn’t know anything else.
Santiago looks to his memory and his self to be strong, and in one memory in particular he looks once again to his past, specifically a physical demonstration of strength to bolster his courage. It’s a long quote, but necessary to really get at the heart of what I’m saying:
As sun set he remembered, to give himself more confidence, the time in the tavern at Casablanca when he had played the hand gave with the great negro from Cienfuegos who was the strongest man on the docks. They had gone one day and one night with their elbows on a chalk line on the table and their forearms straight up and their hands gripped tight. Each one was trying to force the other’s hand down onto the table. There was much betting and people went in and out of the room under the kerosene lights and he had looked at the arm and hand of the negro and at the negro’s face. They changed the referees every four hours after the first eight so that the referees could sleep. Blood came out from under the fingernails of both his and the negro’s hands and they looked each other in the eye and at their hands and forearms and the bettors went in and out of the room and sat on high chairs against the wall and watched. (68-9).
It continues on the next page:
But the Old man had raised his hand up to dead even again. He was sure then that he had the negro, who was a fine man and a great athlete, beaten. And at daylight when the bettors were asking that it be called a draw and the refer was shaking his head, he had unleashed his effort and forced the hand of the negro down and down until it rested on the wood. The match had started on a Sunday Morning and ended on a Monday morning. (70).
I recognize that I have not much explored the actual scenes in which Santiago fights against the fish, but without resorting to the maudlin of He-Man moral lessons from Saturday Morning Cartoons, the book really isn’t about the fish at all. The Old Man and the Sea is first and foremost about Santiago’s struggle to prove himself, and by extension his masculinity, to the fishermen of Havana. Because Working class men are not prone to metacognition or reflection, they express themselves through physical gestures, and there falls the tragedy of old men. As we age our bodies and minds tend to atrophy, and men who make their living solely using their body face the inevitability of eventually becoming useless. It might be a cliché, but Santiago has to prove to himself, to the people of Havana, but most of all to the boy that he is not useless and he most certainly succeeds in that endeavor.
Santiago’s story is as much about class and masculinity as it is about victory in failing because it’s these considerations that make his failure/victory so potent. A Poor Old Man entered the sea hoping for a catch, and while he returned all of these things, he had found for himself what both of these identities meant for him.
Men throw their lines into the sea, neither hoping nor praying, but silent and waiting for the gifts of Mother Ocean.
I’ve included a link to the Jammer Talks About segment for Catalyst University that started this essay. If you’re at all interested: