Sixty years ago, in September 1952, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea was published. It was the last book that Hemingway published during his lifetime.
For Whom the Bell Tolls was his last major publication, but that had been published 12 years earlier. His book Across the River and into the Trees got poor reviews in 1950 and sold less than 100,000 copies.
The general feeling of critics was that his best writing was in the past, and that feeling surely made its way back to him.
The Old Man And The Sea was a book that changed that direction, although only for a short period.
It was originally meant to be part of a longer work that he referred to as “The Sea Book.” Some of the other parts appeared posthumously in Islands in the Stream . (A book that I like a lot – more than most critics, I am sure.)
It was decided that he would publish a part of it (only 27,000 words) as “The Old Man and the Sea” in the September 1st issue of Life magazine.
The magazine cost 20 cents and it was a bit of a gamble to publish it there because it was also due to be published as a book by Charles Scribner’s Sons for $3 the same month.
The gamble worked. The Life issue sold more than 5 million copies in two days, and the book version was also a best-seller.
The story received excellent reviews and buoyed Hemingway’s reputation and spirits. It received the Pulitzer Prize in 1952, and was cited when Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954. The book and awards made him an international celebrity.
The Old Man and the Sea is the story of an epic battle between an old, experienced Cuban fisherman named Santiago and a large marlin. Santiago has gone 84 days without catching a fish and is now considered bad luck to the other fishermen. Santiago’s state is often compared to Hemingway’s condition as a writer at that time – unable to bring home the big one.
Santiago finally catches the big one, but sharks tear it apart. When he gets back to shore, it is a skeleton, but from its size the other fisherman realize what a catch it was and what a battle the old man had fought.
Critics may interpret “The Sea Book” as Hemingway’s big fish that he couldn’t quite catch. Then The Old Man and the Sea would be the magnificent skeleton. And the critics themselves are the sharks.
When I read the book as a young teenager, I thought for sure that the old man would die at the end. But Santiago’s young apprentice (who had been told not to fish with the jinxed old man) finds him safely sleeping. The boy brings him newspapers and coffee and when Santiago wakes, they promise to fish together again. Santiago goes back to sleep and dreams, Hemingway-like, of his youth and of lions on an African beach.
“The shark swung over and the old man saw his eye was not alive and then he swung over once again, wrapping himself in two loops of the rope. The old man knew that he was dead but the shark would not accept it. Then, on his back, with his tail lashing and his jaws clicking, the shark plowed over the water as a speed-boat does. The water was white where his tail beat it and three-quarters of his body was clear above the water when the rope came taut, shivered, and then snapped. The shark lay quietly for a little while on the surface and the old man watched him. Then he went down very slowly. ‘He took about forty pounds,’ the old man said aloud. He took my harpoon too and all the rope, he thought, and now my fish bleeds again and there will be others. [...] It was too good to last, he thought. I wish it had been a dream now and that I had never hooked the fish and was alone in bed on the newspapers. ‘But man is not made for defeat,’ he said. ‘A man can be destroyed but not defeated.’”
Although the first installments of “The Dangerous Summer” were published in Life in September 1960 to good reviews, Hemingway’s physical and mental health were deteriorating. Hemingway knew that he could no longer write at a level that was acceptable to himself.
Destroyed and unwilling to be defeated by other means, in the early morning hours of July 2, 1961, Hemingway shot himself with his favorite shotgun.