In high school, my favorite subjects drove me nuts on a regular basis. In literature, the choice of materials was a particular frustration. First of all, I was annoyed by the textbook’s characterization of the entire colonial period as “Puritan,” when the Puritans only settled four colonies, and I couldn’t understand why the book included almost no literature from Southern authors until Edgar Allen Poe. Richard Weaver explained the reason well in one of his books—most Southerners viewed literature as a hobby, and therefore didn’t develop their creative writing skills—but I didn’t know that at the time. Also, I was greatly annoyed by the book’s inclusion of relatively poor hymns at the expense of an excluded Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner.
Looking back, that my 11th-grade opinions were so strong is somewhat humorous, and it makes me thankful that my mother, who heard most of them, was very tolerant. (Although I still wish O’Connor had made it into my literature textbook.) But growing beyond my textbooks has been an ongoing process, and one not solvable by placing pausing and then lecturing my satellite teachers. I could expose myself to authors that my textbooks did not include. But it was harder to get over some over the authors they did include–particularly the novelists like Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway, from whose works only “excerpts” made it into the text.
Reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn several years later was a rather eye-opening experience. Not because the book changed my life—it didn’t—but because I found that the book itself was far funnier than the literature book excerpts had made it seem. I believe I read three excerpts from it while taking American Literature. One was funny, but the other two did not really interest me. Book excerpts, when taken out of context, don’t always make sense. Even when they do, they don’t have the same impact. Huckeberry Finn made me more likely to try other “excerpted” authors that I didn’t initially like.
One of the unfortunately “excerpted” in American Lit was Ernest Hemingway. We read part of a story about someone, a war veteran I think, fishing. All I remember is that the style didn’t catch with me, and that I didn’t care about the fish.
So reading The Old Man and the Sea (at a friend’s suggestion) was a surprise. Hemingway actually made me care about the fish. Also, reading the entire novel helped. The story is about an old, out-of-luck Cuban fisherman named who is towed out to sea one day by a particularly big fish. He isn’t fishing for fun. It’s his livelihood, which everyone but his one young friend believes that the old man is losing. Even the boy’s parents believe the old man days of good fishing are over, and they refuse to let the pair fish together.
Hemingway didn’t often write “happy” stories, and The Old Man and the Sea is no exception. The old man both succeeds and fails, and in the end is little better off than before. But the results of his story aren’t so unhappy. Hemingway treats the old man with respect. Essentially he brings a lot of middle-class readers to a poor country and tells them not to snap pictures. The old man deserves respect, not for anything he has done, but because he is human. He follows baseball. He has relationships. He appreciates the beauty of the fish, even as he prepares to kill it. He isn’t “picturesque”; he is human. Hemingway has written a rebuke to the tourist mentality–that of seeing people as scenery rather than as individuals.
I don’t know whether I would like Hemingway’s other books, although I’m currently curious about For Whom the Bell Tolls. But Hemingway confirmed the lesson that Huckleberry Finn first taught me. Excerpts in a literature book, like islands in the Caribbean, aren’t enough. If you want to appreciate literature, you’ve got to get in the boat and go fishing.