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Beauty in Simplicity: Why I Teach Hemingway

Authored By: 
James Vescovi, English teacher

The first beautiful thing about teaching Ernest Hemingway’s short stories is that a teacher is pretty much guaranteed that every student has read the assigned story by class time. That’s because Hemingway is so readily accessible, so seemingly simple. In fact, when I teach “Indian Camp,” the first story in the collection In Our Time, I tell students, with a straight face, that Hemingway wrote like a nine-year old.

The tale is about a baby on an Indian reservation delivered by the father of the young protagonist, Nick Adams.   Called in in an emergency, Dr. Adams performs a Caesarian section with a jack-knife and sews the mother up with fishing line. 

Hemingway writes, “His [Nick’s] father stood up. Uncle George and the three Indian men stood up. Nick put the basin out in the kitchen.”

Pretty simple language. Had those lines been written in a creative writing class, the teacher might suggest that the student combine the first two sentences—you know, tighten things up a bit.

But Hemingway’s simple language and sparseness with detail are like hyperlinks. Pause and click on them and suddenly a deeper meaning is revealed.

Case in point:  The Indian woman gives birth in a lower bunk bed. Lying above her is her husband, who has cut his foot badly with an axe. He is been lying there listening to her scream in labor for two days.  I ask my students, Why did Hemingway put that father in the bunk above her?  He could have easily situated the father lying in another hut, far away from the screaming with the other Indian males. It’s a detail Hemingway provides to communicate something—exactly what, is not clear, but the man’s placement is significant: After the baby is born, when Dr. Adams steps up on the lower bunk to congratulate the father, he discovers the man has slit his own throat.

Details are spare. Nothing is wasted with Hemingway. Conversely, in the next story, “The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife,” Hemingway puts the wife in a room with the blinds drawn. We never see her. We only hear her voice as she asks her husband, who’s just lost an argument with a local Indian man, questions that emasculate him.  Why was she not baking cookies, or working in her garden? Hemingway put her where he wanted her, out of the reader’s sight, for a reason.

For those students who don’t see how the study of literature might benefit them as adults, I point out that if they learn to observe life as they have learned to scan for detail in a Hemingway story, they’ll have a leg up on many of their peers.