"More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn't read"

- Oscar Wilde

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Green Hills of Africa

I would come back to Africa but not to make a living from it…But I would come back to where it pleased me to live; to really live. Not just let my life pass. Our people went to America because that was the place to go then. It had been a good country and we had made a bloody mess of it and I would go, now, somewhere else and as we had always had the right to go somewhere else and as we had always gone.” (Ernest Hemingway)
The task reminds me of a quote from Green Hills of Africa, this blog’s namesake: “I had no wish to share this life with anyone who was not there, only to live it, being completely happy and quite tired.” It seems a little selfish, almost, but I think I really do understand the sentiment.
Today I will also finally finish Green Hills of Africa, a book which at first surprised me at how boring it was but has since, in the second half, become almost astounding. There is one part, covered by perhaps three chapters, in which EH is in pursuit of Kudu. He has one day left in country and no Kudu. His luck is running out and he fears not getting one. But after much effort he manages a huge, beautiful bull, the taking of which may be the best passage of descriptive dialog I have read in a long time. It is on pages 230-231 in the Simon & Schuster Touchstone paperback. Pay particular attention to the description of the fallen bull. It sends shivers up my spine and draw tears from me. He is so damn good that it kills me. It’s going to take me years and years to better him. How in God’s name does he show such restraint? I am all flourish and pomp. I’m a green-horned kid, all pistols and flash. If writers were gun fighters, I would be decked out in silver and black with tassels hanging from my gloves and Hemingway would be Wyatt Earp, all calm and cool and dark and subdued. You would be Doc Holiday sans TB

Ernest Hemingway immediately states his intentions: “to see whether the shape of a country and the pattern of a month’s action can, if truly presented, compete with a work of the imagination.”
According to Carlos Baker, Hemingway’s first African safari took place between November 1933 and March 1934 with wife ‘P.O.M.’ (i.e. Poor Old Mama, real name Pauline Pfeiffer), white hunter ‘Pop’ (Philip Percival), a fellow hunter ‘Karl’ (actually Charles Thompson) and a retinue of native “boys”. Hemingway wrote his account of the experience from mid-April 1934 to February 1935 at his home in Key West. It was serialised in Scribners magazine between May and October of 1935 and published in book form by Scribners on October 25th of that year.
Hemingway’s literary reputation was supreme in the early 1930s. He’d published two major novels – The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell To Arms (1929) – and three story collections. A short time before writing Green Hills of Africa he had written his bullfighting book, Death in the Afternoon (1932). This was a particularly experimental period of non-fiction as Hemingway tried to determine a personal code of aesthetics for writing ‘truthfully’. But most contemporary critics judged Green Hills of Africa as inferior to the fiction. An exception was C. G. Poore of the New York Times who wrote: “his writing is better than ever, fuller, richer, deeper and only looking for something that can use its full power.” One way or another, the consensus was that Hemingway’s focus on blood sports was not sufficiently interesting or worthy of his talent.
There is a supplementary body of work surrounding the African book, firstly three letters from Tanganyika published in Esquire. As Robert O. Stephens observes in Hemingway’s Non-Fiction: The Public Voice, “in these letters he worked out several of the ideas that would inform the narrative and meditational passages of the book.” The first of those letters is ‘A.D. in Africa’ (dated 18 January 1933 but not published till April) written as Hemingway, “full of emetine,” recuperates from a bout of amoebic dysentery in Nairobi. The second, ‘Shootism versus Sport’, an outline of hunter’s ethics, was published in June; a tribute to Philip Percival, ‘Notes on Dangerous Game,’ followed in July. There are also two short stories that explicitly derive from events first documented in Green Hills: ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’ (Esquire, August 1936) and ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber’ (Cosmopolitan, September 1936). It is interesting that when Hemingway did reimagine his African experiences in a fictional context he created two of the most anthologised short stories of the twentieth century. Green Hills of Africa is, however, more of a low-key curiosity within Hemingway’s corpus.
It is undeniable that many of Hemingway’s interactions with and observations of the African people are marked by condescension, contempt, affection, and sometimes desire. But most of the time Hemingway is disinterested and happily oblivious. Even at the time, Hemingway’s account of the safari was startling in some quarters for what it left out. Edmund Wilson, in his review for the New Republic, wrote that the reader does not “learn much about the natives: there is one fine description of a tribe of marvellous runners but the principal impression we carry is that the natives were simple people who enormously admired Hemingway.” It is important to note that Hemingway’s perspective is that of the American frontiersman rather than a European colonialist. The key to the book is the conception of Africa as a frontier. Rampaging through the jungle and shooting up the wildlife stirs Hemingway’s spirit because it allows him to emulate his frontiersman ideal. Meanwhile he realises the environmental precariousness of this part of Africa, so is motivated to put it down on paper as “an absolutely true book.”
In Nairobi, Hemingway wrote from his hospital bed for the benefit of his Esquire-reading fans that “the general run of this highland country is the finest I have ever seen…Nothing that I have ever read has given any idea of the beauty of this country or the still remaining quality of game.” It was the lack of Hemingway’s kind of good writing on Africa that was to motivate him to write Green Hills.
At the beginning of the book – but chronologically close to the final kudu hunt sequence – Hemingway encounters Kadinsky, an Austrian colonial ethnologist who abhors hunting. Life in Africa to Kadinsky is:
…always interesting. The natives and the language. I have many books of notes on them. Then too, in reality, I am a king here. It is very pleasant. Waking in the morning I extend one foot and the boy places the sock on it. When I am ready I extend the other foot and he adjusts the other sock. I step from under the mosquito bar into my drawers which are held for me. Don’t you think that is very marvellous?
Kadinsky interrogates Hemingway on his opinion of certain writers (here we find the famous passage on how all American literature comes out of Huckleberry Finn). Hemingway criticises Emerson, Hawthorn, and Whittier for writing that privileges the intellectual over the physical:
[They] wrote like exiled English colonials from an England of which they were never a part to a newer England that they were making. Very good men with the small, dried and excellent wisdom of Unitarians…They were all very respectable. They did not use the words that people have always used in speech, the words that survive in language. Nor would you gather that they had bodies. They had minds, yes. Nice, dry clean minds.
Hemingway’s aesthetic stance values writing that accurately captures the physical attributes and the writer’s physical and emotional responses to the landscape. Hemingway’s objection to Kadinsky is not because of Kadinsky’s colonial opportunism with the African natives, but because of his intellectualism.
The safari group carried a book bag for afternoon rest periods, and Hemingway was particularly impressed by Tolstoy’s Cossacks (presumably translated by his beloved Constance Garnett):
In it were the summer heat, the mosquitoes, the feel of the forest in the different seasons, and that river that the Tartars crossed, raiding, and I was living in that Russia again.
Hemingway also praises Turgenev, Stendhal, and Thomas Mann for their skill at capturing a time and a place in prose, saving it from oblivion:
For we have been there in the books and out of the books – and where we go, if we are any good, there you can go as we have been. A country, finally, erodes and the dust blows away, the people all die and none of them were of any importance permanently, except those who practiced the arts…
One of the striking things about Green Hills of Africa is that it is written in a form that very closely resembles Hemingway’s fiction. Carlos Baker defined the book as an experimental piece that meets “the challenge of working out a reasonably tight architectural structure.” It is not bound to the restriction of chronological presentation, but by using flashbacks and re-ordering of time “the form of the book is so devised as always to point to the climatic account of the kudu-hunt in the 12th chapter”. The kudu is emphasised over the lions and the bulls as the most sought after prize, a structured “truth” that makes for a book-long struggle for the utopian unspoiled country where Kudu can be successfully hunted.
I had loved country all my life; the country was always better than the people. I could only care about people a few at a time.
The above characterises Hemingway’s focus as well as the limits of his perspective. Robert O. Stephens observes that as a child Hemingway witnessed the final destruction of the American frontier. This shaped his identity and values and motivated a life-long search for frontier lands around the world. The African landscape is an perfect setting for Hemingway to play out his ideal persona – certainly his role in the public imagination – of the frontiersman. Stephens writes that “Hemingway recorded his admiration for the frontier hunter type wherever he met him. In Green Hills of Africa he himself acted according to his concept of the type.” The frontier is where a man can test himself against nature, “for unspoiled nature was the key to unspoiled man.” This is where the particularly American quality of the book is explicit.
But here is also the essential contradiction in Hemingway’s philosophy, for while Hemingway recognises and mourns the transience of the frontier in a modern mechanised world – recalling his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald’s lost “fresh green breast of the new world” – his response is to chase the frontier wildlife with Mannlicher and Springfield rifles and think little of his interaction with and abuse of an imperilled native culture; in other words he acts like the archetypal white conqueror.
Hemingway sometimes speaks optimistically of nature’s immutable survival in the face of human abuse, for instance in a long description of the Gulf Stream in the Caribbean:
…this Gulf Stream you are living with, knowing, learning about, and loving, has moved, as it moves, since before man…that stream will flow, as it has flowed, after the Indians, after the Spaniards, after the British, after the Americans and after all the Cubans and all the systems of government, the richness, the poverty, the martyrdom, the sacrifice and the venality and the cruelty are all gone…the stream, with no visible flow, takes five loads of [garbage] a day when things are going well in La Habana and in ten miles along the coast it is as clear and blue and unimpressed as it was ever before the tug hauled out the scow.
But, puzzlingly, he also acknowledges that the wilderness does not survive under imperialism:
A continent ages quickly once we come. The natives live in harmony with it. But the foreigner destroys, cuts down the trees, drains the water, so that the water supply is altered, and in a short time the soil, once the sod is turned under, is cropped out and, next, it starts to blow away as it has blown away in every old country and as I had seen it start to blow in Canada. The earth gets tired of being exploited…A country was made to be as we found it. We are the intruders and after we are dead we may have ruined it but it will still be there and we don’t know what the next changes are.
In the 1930s, Hemingway failed to reconcile this faith in nature’s ability to withstand human abuse with the fact of the disappearing frontier that led him to Africa. In 1953, when he returned for another safari, the sense of urgency in the declining frontier was more pronounced. Stephens writes that “the issue was not British versus Mau Mau or colonialist versus nationalist or white versus black but the problem of keeping the way open to the primal source of emotional energy – the wilderness.”
Hemingway’s frontier landscapes blur into each other. For instance, he writes that “there’s no bloody difference” between the wilderness of Africa and Spain. Therefore as a frontiersman in Africa he feels at home, “and where a man feels at home, outside of where’s he’s born, is where he’s meant to go.” That it is wilderness is enough to make it his home. Hemingway also writes, “I was thinking all the country in the world is the same country and all hunters are the same people.” Hunting creates its own lingua franca, as demonstrated when the hunt “was as freely discussed [between Hemingway and the native hunters] and clearly understood as though we were a cavalry patrol all speaking the same language.”
The desire Hemingway has for these green hills is expressed in sexual terms:
All I wanted to do now was get back to Africa. We had not left it, yet, but when I would wake in the night I would lie, listening, homesick for it already…I loved the country so that I was happy as you after you have been with a woman that you really love, when, empty, you feel it welling up again and there it is and you can never have it all and yet what there is, now, you can have, and you want more and more, to have, and be, and live in, to possess now again for always, for that long, sudden-ended always…if you have loved some woman and some country you are very fortunate, and if you die afterwards it makes no difference.
When the utopian country is found for the kudu hunt, Hemingway the sexual imagery increases. The country is a “virgin country, an un-hunted pocket in the million miles of bloody Africa” ready to be possessed if only he had the luxury of time:
I would lie in the fallen leaves and watch the kudu feed out and never fire a shot unless I saw a better head than this one in back, and instead of trailing that sable bull, gut-shot to hell, all day, I’d lie behind a rock and watch them on the hillside and see them long enough so they belonged to me forever.
But Hemingway knows that the land is never possessable and will never satisfy his ever-welling desire. The best he can do is capture “the shape of a country” in his writing.
One of the striking things about Green Hills of Africa is Hemingway’s lack of interest in the African natives, even those who make up the majority of his safari group. According to Carlos Baker, Hemingway rejected his publisher‘s request that an African expert be allowed to verify the use of the Swahili language. None of the individuals are particularly brought to life by Hemingway’s pen, apart from M’Cola the gun-bearer, who is deemed by Hemingway “immeasurably the better man and the better tracker.”
What must have been a devastating famine barely attracts his attention. Hemingway writes that “we passed many people on the road who were leaving the country ahead where there was now a famine.” He encounters “dried-breasted old women and…shrunken-flanked, hollow-ribbed old men.”
“Why are you not more interested in the natives?” asks Kadinsky. Hemingway lets the wife handle that question while he talks shooting with Pop. Then the unlikable Kadinsky demonstrates a native dance that barely interests our hero:
Crouched, elbows lifting and falling, knees humping, [Kadinsky] shuffled around the table, singing. Undoubtedly it was very fine.
Hemingway’s depiction of the natives is marked by bigotry – they are simply “niggers”, “boys”, or “savages”, who are often physically revolting to Hemingway and the object of ridicule, or else admired for their simple “ignorant” dignity, such as the Masai people who live in the unspoiled country (“the tallest, best-built, handsomest people I had ever seen and the first truly light-hearted people I had seen in Africa.”)
Hemingway has only a dim sense of his ignorantly superior attitude. There is a disturbing moment when Hemingway seems to realise that his driver, Kamau, is a human being with “modesty, pleasantness, skill”:
[I] thought how, when first we were out, he had very nearly died of fever, and that if he had died it would have meant nothing to me except that we would be short a driver; while now whenever or wherever he should die I would feel badly. Then abandoning the sweet sentiment of the distant and improbable death of Kamau, I thought what a pleasure it would be to shoot David Garrick in the behind, just to see the look on his face…
The African nicknamed Garrick offends Hemingway the most for his flamboyant native head-dress and behaviour. Hemingway calls him “that theatrical bastard”, a “lousy, ostrich-plumed punk,” and mocks him without mercy. He jokes about putting Garrick in the cinema as the Moor of Venice (“They’ve been after me to write it for years but I drew the color line”). Then Hemingway’s compulsion to shoot Garrick becomes quite serious when he impedes the hunt:
If there had been no law I would have shot Garrick and [the other members of the team] would have hunted or cleared out. I think they would have hunted. Garrick was not popular. He was simply poison.
On the other hand, the native character nicknamed Droopy, “a real savage with lids to his eyes that nearly covered them,” who Hemingway insists is “beautiful” – P.O.M.’s opinion is merely “handsome” – is described with loving attention to a physical appearance that Hemingway wishes he himself could emulate:
The tribal marks and the tattooed places seemed natural and handsome adornments and I regretted not having any of my own. My own scars were all informal, some irregular and sprawling, others simply puffy welts. I had one on my forehead that people still commented on, asking if I had bumped my head; but Droop had handsome ones beside his cheekbones and others, symmetrical and decorative, on his chest and belly.
Hemingway’s appraisal of the natives is mostly physical and often sexual. When Hemingway encounters a Masai man, a “boy [that] was as pretty as a girl and looked rather shy and stupid,” he rather half-heartedly inquires as to whether the man has a sister. Later, he admires a woman, “the most freshly brideful wife who stood a little in profile so that I saw her pretty, pear-shaped breasts and the long, clear niggery legs…we had all taken [her] with our eyes.”
Hemingway claims Africa away from the European colonialists for himself, the American frontiersman, but denies the Africans any particular significance despite having observed that “the natives live in harmony with [the continent].”
Margot Macomber leapt into bed with the white hunter after her husband’s courage failed during a lion hunt. In Hemingway’s work, the hunt is often presented as a testing ground of masculinity. In Green Hills, Hemingway is bitterly jealous of fellow hunter Karl’s repeated success. ‘Pop’ Philip Percival, once the chief assistant on Teddy Roosevelt’s famous expedition that popularised the concept of the safari in America, is a model of masculinity for Hemingway. English, but not “bloody English,” Pop is a contrast to the despised intellectual figure of Kadinsky, who neither drinks nor hunts. P.O.M. thinks Pop “her ideal of how a man should be, brave, gentle, comic, never losing his temper, never bragging, never complaining except in a joke, tolerant, understanding, intelligent, drinking a little too much as a good man should, and, to her eyes, very handsome.” Hemingway is compelled to write that he thinks Pop is “lovely looking.”
Justifying the hunt:
I did not mind killing anything, any animal, if I killed it cleanly, they all had to die and my interference with the nightly and seasonal killing that went on all the time was very minute and I had no guilty feeling at all. We ate the meat and kept the hides and horns.
He refers to his experience in the First World War, wounded with a broken arm, and the suffering which has in essence earned him the right to inflict his own suffering:
Alone with the pain in the fifth week of not sleeping I thought suddenly of how a bull elk must feel if you break a shoulder and he gets away and in that night I lay and felt it all, the whole thing as though it would happen from the shock of the bullet to the end of the business and, being a little out of my head, thought perhaps what I was going through was a punishment for all hunters. Then, getting well, I decided if it was a punishment I had paid it and at least I knew what I was doing. I did nothing that had not been done to me.
It is true that throughout the safari, Hemingway follows a strict hunter’s code of ethics – to avoid shooting female game, to not ‘gut-shoot’ an animal, to put himself in danger. In his second Tanganyika letter, he writes:
For a man to shoot at a lion from the protection of a motorcar, where the lion cannot even see what it is that is attacking him, is not only illegal but is a cowardly way to assassinate one of the finest of all game animals.
What is a conservationist measure is simultaneously an ethical code that demands bravery and ensures danger. Yet Hemingway and M’Cola get tremendous pleasure from the killing and the gore:
It was funny to M’Cola to see a hyena shot at close range. There was that comic slap of the bullet and the hyena’s agitated surprise to see death inside him…the pinnacle of hyenic humour, was the hyena, the classic hyena, that hit too far back while running, would circle madly, snapping and tearing at himself until he pulled his own intestines out, and then stood there, jerking them out and eating them with relish.
Sadism aside, Green Hills of Africa is an entertaining work rendering “the shape of a country and the pattern of month’s action” in a form very close to fiction, but it is inevitably limited by Hemingway’s assumption of the frontiersman persona to the exclusion of any wider social perspective. It is a selectively “absolutely true book”.
Hemingway had the purest voice of the first half of the twentieth century that exists. If we dismiss earlier writing because of what has become politically correct thinking, then we’re lost. A culture that rejects its own history has lost the strength of its conviction and cannot survive. Hitler was a vegan, but so what. I don’t hunt animals because I don’t have to, the slaughterhouses do it for me, but what moral high ground does that give me? And there was not the sense of endangered species back then that exists now. And there’s a saying if people had to slaughter their own game, there would be a lot more vegetarians. So Hemingway knew what he was doing and was willing to live with that guilt. Which is a lot more honorable than urban intelligentsia sitting smugly on some moral high ground judging him from a very different world. As for the local tribesmen, from his perspective he was very clear in how he respected some and didn’t others? What’s racist about that? When you travel as I did through Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, sometimes you don’t have the chance or yes, the interest, to interact with local people as much as you might like, but that’s just a fact of traveling. The fact that his focus was on the landscape and the animals is logical if Africa is as overwhelming as he suggests. I almost got there but didn’t have the extra two grand for baksheesh it needed for bribing if you got into a jam – that was common knowledge among travelers in the seventies, so I headed east from Turkey. Maybe someday. Needless to say, who would hunt game there today, but we live in a different world. To rob ourselves, as I said, of the purest voice of the twentieth century is to demonstrate a wilful ignorance beyond reckoning.