I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about a writing metaphor Hemingway employs in his fishing stories about the Big Two-Hearted River.
In these stories—the last two in his collection, In Our Time—the character of Nick Adams gets off a train, hikes through the woods, makes a camp, and goes fishing. Hemingway writes:
Ahead the river narrowed and went into a swamp… Nick did not want to go in there now. He felt a reaction against deep wading with the water deepening up under his armpits, to hook big trout in places impossible to land them…. In the swamp fishing was a tragic adventure. Nick did not want it. He did not want to go down the stream any further today.
Hemingway then underscores the metaphor by returning to it in the last few sentences of the story:
He was going back to camp. He looked back. The river just showed through the trees. There were plenty of days coming when he could fish the swamp.
While some critics have argued the story is actually about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, with the metaphor of the “swamp” representing a battle with Nick’s demons, I don’t think that stays true to Hemingway’s original vision.
In 1972, a section that Hemingway deleted from the Big Two-Hearted River stories was published. This fragment shed new light on Hemingway’s vision. The editor gave this fragment the title “On Writing” because it depicts Nick Adams thinking principally about writing while he fishes. Hemingway has Nick thinking: “He wanted to be a great writer. He was pretty sure he would be.” Nick also thinks about Ezra Pound, referring to him as “Ezra.” And he decides that “he wanted to write like Cezanne painted.”
Had this fragment been published, it would have been an unmasking or coming-out, a collapsing between the characters of Hemingway and Nick Adams. It would have made Nick Adams into Hemingway. Importantly, it would have changed the metaphor of the swamp to something more connected with the struggles of a writer than the struggles of a soldier.
So let’s assume that this is actually a metaphor about writing. Then what?
What does it mean to “fish the swamp” as a writer?
Why is fishing in the swamp a “tragic adventure”?
I invite you to read these materials and come up with your own interpretation. For me, the passage creates two visions of a writer–the first, a young writer who fishes in the river; the second, an older writer who fishes in the swamp.
The young writer who has decided to fish in the river finds that trout are plentiful. He or she finds that the waters are clear. It’s a comfortable experience. It’s fun and relaxing. It seems to reflect the age-old advice to writers: “write what you know.”
Fishing in the river means finding what’s at hand. It means choosing a project that’s not too ambitious. Starting small. Breaking off the smallest piece of your idea and exploring it. Going with the flow, with the cultural stream. Not trying to experiment too much.
Meanwhile, a writer who wants to “fish the swamp” better ready to get dirty, to explore the murky waters where the fish are hiding. It requires more expertise and more diligence to fish in the swamp, and this is why Hemingway puts a time-frame on the metaphor: fishing in the swamp is something that will happen one day, but not now.
Swamp-fishing could mean: Experimental writing. Difficult psychological portraits. Complex cultural or historical works. Writing that challenges conventional norms. Stories with numerous points of view, research-intensive stories, acts of big imagination, complex voices.
Hemingway was known for his simple journalistic style, his manliness, his love of bullfighting. But people don’t realize he had a more complex side that was often edited down, restrained, or only published posthumously after much reworking. Novels such as The Garden of Eden (begun in 1946, published in 1986), and True At First Light (begun in 1954, published in 1999) reveal complicated male-female relationships, experiment with androgeny and the reversal of gender roles. Were these his “swamp” pieces?
I’m no Hemingway expert, so hopefully I didn’t leave something important out here in my discussion. If I did, I’d love to hear from someone who might be better or differently informed. Still, I wouldn’t be so confident in my reading of this metaphor if I didn’t also import what I know of Hemingway from his story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”
In this story, a writer named Harry lies dying of gangrene. He laments all of the stories he’ll never be able to tell, recalling (at least for me) the swamp metaphor–the metaphor of a space where the writer will one day fish, but not yet:
Now he would never write the things that he had save to write until he knew enough to write them well. Well, he would not have to fail at trying to write them either.
Let’s all take a moment to reflect, to think about our current writing projects.
Are we fishing in the river or the swamp?
And if we’re in the swamp, would the fishing be a little easier if we just moved over to the river?