Old Man Hemingway

Henry “Mike” Strater and Ernest Hemingway with an “apple-cored” marlin. Bimini, Cat Cay, 1935. Photograph in the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Public Domain

In September 1952, Ernest Hemingway’s last novel, The Old Man and the Sea, was published. It was the last novel published during his lifetime and it was cited when he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954.

I read that book in eighth grade. I had an overly ambitious or optimistic English teacher who had bought copies of that novel and Steinbeck’s The Pearl and The Red Pony and Of Mice and Men, Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Orwell’s Animal Farm and other “short books (novellas) by great authors.” She wanted to introduce us to literature and famous writers before we went to high school. I read all of them that year. I didn’t understand all of what I read, but it was influential. And she loved me for reading them.

It worked with me. I went on to read several other books by those two writers on my own that year and many others in the years that followed. I recall liking The Red Pony as I was going through a horseback riding phase and the other two books seemed a bit preachy to me. I went back to all three books eventually and Hemingway’s novel now is the one that is the strongest.

Ernest Hemingway had been working on a very long novel that he called The Sea Book. It was inspired by that WWII period when he was on his Pilar fishing boat looking for submarines in his attempt to be part of the war. That original manuscript was in three sections: “The Sea When Young,” “The Sea When Absent,” and “The Sea in Being.” It had an epilogue about an old fisherman.

Some aspects of it did appear in the posthumously published Islands in the Stream (1970). Hemingway also mentions the real-life experience of an old fisherman that seems almost identical to that of Santiago and his marlin in “On the Blue Water: A Gulf Stream Letter” published in Esquire magazine in April 1936.

He wrote more than 800 pages of The Sea Book and rewrote them more than a hundred times, but the book still didn’t seem finished. Finally, he decided to publish just the epilogue on its own which he called The Old Man and the Sea.

The novella begins, “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” It tells the story of Santiago who catches the biggest fish of his life, only to have it eaten by sharks before he can get back to shore.

The Old Man and the Sea was written while Hemingway was living in Cayo Blanco, Cuba, and Santiago is an aging Cuban fisherman who struggles with a giant marlin far out in the Gulf Stream off the coast of Cuba.

I have always thought that this old man’s struggles had to be connected to Hemingway’s own struggles as a writer and with the deep depression at the end of his life. Without getting all literary symbols about it, I think the marlin is his writing career as he tries to bring in one more “big book” and goes a long time without doing so. The little book he does publish is good but, like the remains of the marlin that makes it back to Cuba, it is just a part of a much larger work.

The novella is not my favorite Hemingway writing, but it is a good first read for someone who has not read him and wonders why he is considered such an important American writer.

Detective Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) by Félix Valloton 

I saw a mention that an upcoming Netflix limited series, “The Fall of the House of Usher” which is based on the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, lost its lead actor, Frank Langella, when he was fired following a misconduct investigation. The item got me thinking about Mr. Poe.

Edgar Allan Poe’s story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” caused quite a stir in the literary world when it appeared in 1841. Because of it and some subsequent stories, Poe is credited with inventing the modern detective story.  There had been mysteries and crime stories written before that with clever people and police but the modern detective tale is from Poe.

His story is about a case of a gruesome double murder in a home along the fictional Paris street Rue Morgue. Witnesses’ stories don’t match and each clue seems to undo the previous ones. The police are baffled. Enter Poe’s detective, C. Auguste Dupin.

Dupin solves the mystery not by going over the ground as the police would do or interviewing witnesses or looking for blood or physical clues. He solves it from his home by reading the details in the newspaper. He is an “armchair detective.”  His key clue in “Murders in the Rue Morgue” are just two words allegedly spoken during the crime – “mon Dieu!”

Poe only used Dupin in two more stories, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” and “The Purloined Letter.” If Dupin’s method sounds like Sherlock Holmes, that makes sense.

Arthur Conan Doyle would later write about how he was influenced by Poe. In reference to Poe’s detective stories, he said that “Each is a root from which a whole literature has developed… Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?”

Dupin narrates his cases to his good friend in the same way that Dr. Watson is the recorder of Holmes’ cases. (Dupin’s chronicler is an anonymous first-person narrator while Watson actually becomes involved directly in the cases.) Watson actually says when he first encounters Holmes’s methods of deduction ’‘You remind me of Edgar Allen Poe’s Dupin. I had no idea that such individuals did exist outside of stories.” (“A Study in Scarlet,” 1887)

Holmes actually seems a bit insulted by the reference. “No doubt you think that you are complimenting me in comparing me to Dupin. Now, in my opinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow. That trick of his of breaking in on his friends’ thoughts with an apropos remark after a quarter of an hour’s silence is really very showy and superficial. He had some analytical genius, no doubt; but he was by no means such a phenomenon as Poe appeared to imagine.” Of course, that is Holmes’ and not Doyle’s opinion.

Both detectives are very methodical in their discoveries and use rational means. The stories become puzzles for both detectives and for readers. The game is afoot.

Poe called Dupin’s process “ratiocination.” Poe wrote in a letter “These tales of ratiocination owe most of their popularity to being something in a new key. I do not mean to say that they are not ingenious—but people think them more ingenious than they are—on account of their method and air of method.”

Poe engraving

There are a number of parts of Poe’s own life story that are mysteries. I haven’t read a very complete account of his one year at the University of Virginia other than he was a boozing and gambling freshman who clearly was not much interested in academics. But the biggest mystery of his life is the very odd circumstances of his death. There are multiple theories – none definitive.

On October 3, 1849, Poe was found wandering the streets of Baltimore. He was delirious and rambling. He was wearing someone else’s clothes. The attending physician John Moran described his clothing as “a stained, faded, old bombazine coat, pantaloons of a similar character, a pair of worn-out shoes run down at the heels, and an old straw hat.” Taken to a hospital, he slipped in and out of consciousness and was never coherent enough to tell what had happened to him. He died on October 7.

At first, it was assumed he had either drunk himself to death or it was drugs or a combination of the two things that brought him down. A more modern theory is that he was a victim of cooping.

Cooping was a 19th-century method of voter fraud. Gangs would kidnap unsuspecting victims and through beatings, booze or drugs would force them to vote for a specific candidate. This would be done multiple times under multiple disguised identities.

A very new and less likely but entertaining theory is suggested in the film The Raven. In this fiction, there is a serial killer targeting Poe by reenacting some of his stories.

As with Stephen King today, some people assumed that the mind that created Poe’s strange stories must have been equally strange. “The Fall of the House of Usher” is about the end of a family tormented by their own tragic legacy. The delusional murderer in “The Tell-Tale Heart” will betray himself with his madness. And the worlds in the stories such as “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Cask of Amontillado” are full of fear and hate. Poe’s image to many people is of a madman.

Doyle took Poe’s new genre much further than Poe. Perhaps, if Poe had continued writing Dupin stories he would have had a hit series and have been more financially secure. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” was published in Graham’s Magazine where he worked as an editor. They paid him $56 for it, which was a big bump from the $9 he was paid for his poem “The Raven.”

Just a Few Coincidences

I have been fascinated for a long time by coincidences and the meaning sometimes attached to them. Some people see coincidences as simply what the dictionary says: a remarkable concurrence of events or circumstances without apparent causal connection. But some people do see a causal connection. On the more extreme end of that are those who believe there are no coincidences, and perhaps related are those who believe in synchronicity. On the very far end of all this is a belief in fate or destiny, which is a predetermined course of events.

You break up with a longtime mate and the next day while visiting a city you have never been to you run into someone you were briefly in love with ten years ago who has also never been to that city. Coincidence? Fate? Kismet? Destiny?

A few coincidences popped up in my reading of an almanac post for December 11. That is the birthday of novelists Thomas McGuane and Jim Harrison. That’s not much of a coincidence, but there are more.

McGuane went to the University of Michigan and his birthday brother Jim Harrison was a classmate. they were both aspiring writers and they became lifelong friends.

Eventually, both writers moved to Montana.

An event in Harrison’s life when he was 25 years old might be described as a coincidence or fate. He was supposed to go on a hunting trip with his father and sister, but for whatever reason, he decided not to go with them. A few hours later, his father and sister were killed when they were hit by a drunk driver.

He originally wanted to be a poet and his first publications were three collections of poetry. But then Fate stepped in. Maybe.

While he was out hunting, he fell off a cliff and hurt his back badly enough that he was bedridden for months. Thomas McGuane told him to try writing a novel while he was lying in bed. Harrison wrote Wolf: A False Memoir and next published the novella he is probably best known for, Legends of the Fall. The book got more attention because of the film version of this story about three brothers and their father living in Montana (played by Brad Pitt, Henry Thomas, Anthony Hopkins and Aidan Quinn) who struggle to stay together when a woman comes between them.

Harrison published a dozen novels and two dozen novellas before his death in 2016.

McGuane moved to Montana in 1969. His first novel, The Sporting Club, was published that year and from the sale of the film rights, he bought a Montana ranch. The novel also was adapted into a 1971 movie.

McGuane’s first three novels—The Sporting Club (1969), The Bushwhacked Piano (1971), and Ninety-two in the Shade (1973) are all stories of men living in a kind of isolation. Many of his ten novels are set in Montana.

In 2019, he published Cloudbursts: Collected and New Stories.

Both men were very much outdoorsmen. When McGuane wasn’t writing, he was probably fly fishing or riding horses.

Thomas McGuane Remembers His Friend, Jim Harrison

Picnicking With Herman and Nathaniel

champagne picnic

I heard on TWA that on August 5, 1850, Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne met at a picnic hike with friends at Monument Mountain near Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

It was four days after Herman’s 31st birthday. Nathaniel was 46 years old and was an established literary figure.  Melville had two non-fiction memoir books to his credit, both of which had sold well. Typee and Omoo were based on his time at sea and on Polynesian islands when he had jumped ship. Melville was just starting his career as a novelist.

The picnic seems to have been organized by a Stockbridge attorney, David Dudley, Jr. a mutual acquaintance. Besides HM and NH, Oliver Wendell Holmes was also along for their hike up Monument Mountain.

An unexpected thunderstorm hit along the way and they took shelter in a cave. It seems that this was where the main conversation between Melville and Hawthorne took place. I imagine that it was literary, but I don’t know if these were literary “brothers” or if the older, more successful Hawthorne may have been in more of a superior role.

The group reached the summit when the storm passed and they celebrated with champagne and poetry, including William Cullen Bryant’s “Monument Mountain.” It is a long, sappy lyrical ode about a Mohican maiden who is so depressed about not being able to marry who she loves that she throws herself off a cliff. Her body was covered with stones as a “monument” and the summit is called Squaw Peak.

The friendship developed over the next few years and Melville and Hawthorne wrote regularly to each other. Melville had a habit of burning letters but what evidence remains of their correspondence shows that they did share ideas, and did some editing and commenting on the other’s work.

Melville was finishing what he was calling The Whale that August. Hawthorne was working on short stories based on his hometown of Salem.

Their friendship faded after Melville moved back to New York City and both of his novels had failed in popularity and sales. My sense has always been that Melville considered Hawthorne a closer friend than Hawthorne did.

But two days after the picnic, Melville visited Hawthorne at his little red farmhouse in Lenox. They took a walk to the lake. Nathaniel gave Herman two bottles of champagne. Later on that day, Hawthorne wrote to a friend, “I met Melville, the other day, and liked him so much that I have asked him to spend a few days with me before leaving these parts.”

They lived six miles from each other for 18 months. These were very productive months for both of them.

Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, The House of the Seven Gables, and The Blithedale Romance were either being written or published during that time. The Blithedale Romance (1852) is Hawthorne’s third major romance and the setting is a utopian farming commune based on Brook Farm, of which Hawthorne was a founding member and where he lived in 1841. The commune’s ideals end up clashing with the members’ private desires and romantic rivalries. It is considered a “dark Romance” whose plot reminds me of Updike a century later.

Melville finished his epic “The Whale,” which we know as Moby-Dick, while staring out of his farmhouse window at hills like whales. He was writing his next novel, Pierre or the Ambiguities, at the same time Hawthorne was writing The Blithedale Romance and I would guess there was some sharing of ideas and maybe some reading of each other.

There may have also been some competition. The healthy kind would be wanting to please and even outdo the friend. The unhealthy kind would be in book sales and money. Hawthorne definitely won the latter competition.

In the fall of 1851, Melville dedicated Moby-Dick to Hawthorne: “To Nathaniel Hawthorne: In token of my admiration for his genius.”  I don’t think that Hawthorne ever dedicated anything to Melville.


Marginalia (or apostils) are marks made in the margins of a book or other document. They may be scribbles, comments, glosses (annotations), critiques, doodles, or illuminations.

Fermat’s last theorem is the most famous mathematical marginal note.

The first recorded use of the word marginalia is in 1819 in Blackwood’s Magazine.

Voltaire composed in book margins while in prison.

Sir Walter Raleigh wrote a personal statement in margins just before his execution.

Beginning in the 1990s, attempts have been made to design and market e-book devices permitting a limited form of marginalia.

Billy Collins has poem titled “Marginalia” that begins:

Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
skirmishes against the author
raging along the borders of every page
in tiny black script.
If I could just get my hands on you,
Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O’Brien,
they seem to say,
I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.

Other comments are more offhand, dismissive –
‘Nonsense.’ ‘Please! ‘ ‘HA! ! ‘ –
that kind of thing.
I remember once looking up from my reading,
my thumb as a bookmark,
trying to imagine what the person must look like
why wrote ‘Don’t be a ninny’
alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.

Edgar Allan Poe titled some of his reflections and fragmentary material “Marginalia.”

Students are more modest
needing to leave only their splayed footprints
along the shore of the page.
One scrawls ‘Metaphor’ next to a stanza of Eliot’s.
Another notes the presence of ‘Irony’
fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal.

Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers,
Hands cupped around their mouths.
‘Absolutely,’ they shout
to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin.
‘Yes.’ ‘Bull’s-eye.’ ‘My man! ‘
Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points
rain down along the sidelines.

I made plenty of notes in my college books. I tried not to mark up those expensive textbooks so that their value didn’t drop (though some of my friends liked the “annotated” books they bought used). But I heavily wrote in the margins of the novels and poetry collections I used in my English classes, and I still have most of them today.

Five volumes of Samuel T. Coleridge’s marginalia have been published.

Some famous marginalia were serious works, or drafts thereof, and were written in margins due to scarcity and expense of paper. Emily Dickinson wrote poems on scraps of paper, used envelopes and such.

And if you have managed to graduate from college
without ever having written ‘Man vs. Nature’
in a margin, perhaps now
is the time to take one step forward.

Reading and analyzing marginalia can be a scholarly pursuit, especially the marginalia of famous authors. Herman Melville is one of my soulmates and there is a website, Melville’s Marginalia Online, devoted to the marginalia in books owned and borrowed by him from 1819-1891.

The old books are scanned and then filtered and sharpened in Adobe Photoshop in a digital literary archaeology. Scholars study his notes in copies of books about whales. That seems obvious. less obvious are notes on themes that emerge not only in Moby-Dick, but in his other books, stories and poems.

Melville writes in White Jacket:
The horn seemed the mark of a curse for some mysterious sin, conceived and committed before the spirit had entered the flesh. Yet that sin seemed something imposed, and not voluntarily sought; some sin growing out of the heartless necessities of the predestination of things; some sin under which the sinner sank in sinless woe.

Studying his marginalia, especially in a copy of Dante’s Inferno, we see him being interested in the way impulsive, unplanned, unpremeditated acts could be seen as sins. He marks up passages about damnation and free will.

We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.

Some marginalia is our way of saying that we didn’t just read the words, but we thought about them. We paused, considered a line, and made a note of our own.

Marginalia is an older practice than even printed books. The “scholia” on classical manuscripts are the earliest known form of marginalia. We have evidence of margin notes and even illustrations in beautiful old illuminated manuscripts.

A page from a 14th-century illuminated Armenian manuscript with painted marginalia – the first page of the Gospel of Mark

Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria
jotted along the borders of the Gospels
brief asides about the pains of copying,
a bird signing near their window,
or the sunlight that illuminated their page-
anonymous men catching a ride into the future
on a vessel more lasting than themselves.

Some say that reading some authors along with the marginalia of another author is the best way to read.

And you have not read Joshua Reynolds,
they say, until you have read him
enwreathed with Blake’s furious scribbling.

My favorite marginalia is not very scholarly. Egocentrically, I now quite enjoy reading my own marginalia in books I read in my student days.

I even wrote margin notes in my own journals. I made notes in the journals from my pre-teen and teen years many years later noting the “lies” I had written there. I think that I imagined it I wrote it down, it would be true.

And I love it when I look in someone else’s book and find their notes. This is especially true when I buy used books, which I often do. Some notes are like those Collins mocks – lightweight, silly, literary graffiti. But some are thoughtful, and I like reading them and trying to figure something about the previous owner.

Yet the one I think of most often,
the one that dangles from me like a locket,
was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
I borrowed from the local library
one slow, hot summer.
I was just beginning high school then,
reading books on a davenport in my parents’ living room,
and I cannot tell you
how vastly my loneliness was deepened,
how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
when I found on one page

A few greasy looking smears
and next to them, written in soft pencil-
by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
whom I would never meet-
‘Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love.’

All this is an elaborate introduction to what inspired this post. I bought a used copy of the I Ching and found inside of it a series of Post-It notes. I consider them a modern day marginalia. Margin notes from someone who doesn’t feel comfortable writing in the margins of a book.

Post-It notes marginalia from a copy of the I Ching

I read them and thought about who she (yes, I imagined it is a woman) was when she was writing the notes.

She asks this  Book of Changes, this ancient Chinese divination text, “What is my true calling?” A very big question.

Something bad had happened to her. “I what ways can I go about healing myself in ways I have not covered. What is my missing link and how can I find it?”

She tosses the coins, heads and tails, and looks for the answers. I feel sorry for her. I want the book to give her answers, or at least make her believe there are answers.

“How can I reclaim my sparkle and presence,” she asked. I didn’t look up the answers she was given.

She sold the book. Either she got her answers, or gave up on finding them in a book. She left her marginalia, these bits of her life and searching, for me to find.

I did my own searching. I didn’t find the answers, or rather, I didn’t find the answers I wanted to find. I also sold the book. I removed her notes. I think each of us should start our search with a clean page.

Poe’s Funeral Is Today. Again.

Poor misunderstood Edgar Allan Poe. This year is the 200th anniversary of his birth and there have been a number of events at Poe places. One such event occurs today.

160 years ago, Edgar Allen Poe (January 19, 1809 – October 7, 1849) was found delirious outside a Baltimore tavern. He never explained what had happened to him in the week that had passed since he had left Richmond, Virginia. He was in the hospital for 4 days but died. He was 40.


Poe’s body was dug up in 1875 to move it and it was mostly skeletal remains then, so a Baltimore special-effects artist (Eric Supensky) created a deathlike mock-up of Poe’s corpse.

They had the “body” lying in state on Wednesday at the tiny Poe House in west Baltimore. Then there was an all-night vigil at Poe’s grave at Westminster Burying Ground. Anyone who attends will have the opportunity to deliver a tribute.

This morning, a horse-drawn carriage will take the body from his former home to the graveyard for a proper funeral that he didn’t get 160 years ago.

Actor John Astin (Yes, he was Gomez on TV’s The Addams Family) will serve as master of ceremonies. Astin has played Poe for quite a few years in a one-man show.

I have been to that cemetery to pay my literary respects. I never made it into the Poe House in Baltimore. (Closed twice and it’s in a tough neighborhood.) And I have wanted to knock a few toasts down at the bar in which we think Poe was last seen drinking before his death. That is in Fells Point, Baltimore. It’s called The Horse You Came In On these days. It’s on Thames Street right near the docks.

There are no childhood homes of Poe still standing. The oldest existing home in Richmond is used as the Edgar Allan Poe Museum, but Poe never lived there.

I visited last year the dorm room Poe is believed to have used while studying at the University of Virginia in 1826.  And you could pay your respects today at the place he rented in Philadelphia, The Spring Garden home, which is part of the National Park Service’s Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site, or in Boston near where Poe was born at 62 Carver Street (now Charles Street).

Across the river from Paradelle is Poe’s final home – the Edgar Allan Poe Cottage in the Bronx, New York.

Fewer than 10 people attended Poe’s actual funeral. Pretty lousy for one of the 19th century’s greatest writers.

Herman Melville, who I feel is the better writer, didn’t get much better treatment. By the end of the 1840s Melville was among the most celebrated of American writers, yet his death evoked only one obituary notice. Melville died at home, of a heart attack, September 28, 1891. He was seventy-two years old and his last novel, The Confidence-Man, had been published more than 30 years earlier.

Modern criticism revived their reputations to that of great American writers again.

“Ye who read are still among the living, but I who write shall have long since gone my way into the region of shadows.  For indeed strange things shall happen, and many secret things be known, and many centuries shall pass away, ere these memorials be seen of men. And, when seen, there will be some to disbelieve, and some to doubt, and yet a few who will find much to ponder upon in the characters here graven with a stylus of iron.”

from Edgar Allan Poe’s “Shadow — a Parable” (1835)

more on Poe’s 200th