An American student in his twenties asked me if I had heard of an author named Ernest Hemingway. The student had found an old Scribner’s paperback of Hemingway’s fiction and was enjoying it very much. When I told him that Ernest Hemingway was one of the most famous authors of the twentieth century and one of a handful of Americans to win a Nobel Prize for literature, he replied, “Oh. Wow. Cool,” and went on his way.
And so, I left him by the snows of Kilimanjaro, and then in a diner with laconic killers; in a hospital with a gambler, a nun, and a radio, and on safari with Francis Macomber. Eventually he might encounter an old man and the sea, or behold the great art of bullfighting and witness death in the afternoon.
Discovering Hemingway’s books is a case of better late than never, but the implication of that student’s question is unsettling. Is Hemingway not even mentioned in high school English classes? Maybe he is now deemed too masculine, despite Zelda Fitzgerald once quipping, “The hair on his chest is a toupee.”
For Hemingway’s critics, his spare, often monosyllabic, prose has been open to imitation and parody. In July, 1995, Frank Gannon wrote a brief essay for The New York Times Magazine, “Spillane Also Writes,” pointing out striking similarities in writing style between Ernest Hemingway and Mickey Spillane. Gannon offered a ten-question quiz, lines from major works by the Nobel laureate and the pulp fiction crime writer, challenging the reader to identify them correctly. (Each one is a coin toss, such as: “He started to walk down the dock looking longer than a day without breakfast.”*)
Then there was fictional private detective Philip Marlowe, in Farewell, My Lovely (1940), using “Hemingway” as an uncomplimentary nickname, explaining, “He’s a guy that keeps saying the same thing over and over until you begin to believe it must be good.” However, Raymond Chandler, Marlowe’s creator, in his private notebooks, called Hemingway “a genius.”
For historians, Hemingway’s African stories, to return to that student’s old paperback, fit into a larger literary pattern of late nineteenth and early twentieth century hunting tales from what used to be called the Dark Continent. Few of us will ever follow in the footsteps of those hunters, or even of explorers like David Livingstone or Wilfred Thesiger. For that reason we read about their adventures, just as we read about Lewis and Clark walking to the Pacific or Francis Parkman riding the Oregon Trail, Marlin Perkins searching for Yeti or Neil Armstrong landing on the moon. Such extraordinary feats aside, much of life’s experiences are beyond most of our daily routines, and books help expand our horizons.
In 1909, Theodore Roosevelt, in his African Game Trails, wrote that “the most thrilling book of true lion stories ever written” was J. H. Patterson’s The Man-Eaters of Tsavo. Patterson’s slim, illustrated volume from 1907 is a brisk read, and it has inspired three feature films and a radio drama. Two of the films came out in the 1950s, and the radio adaptation first broadcast in 1980. The most recent of the films was The Ghost and the Darkness, released in 1996 and starring Val Kilmer as Patterson.
In March, 1898, Patterson (1867-1947), a British Army officer, arrived in southern Kenya to oversee construction of a bridge over a small river, the Tsavo, flowing eastward from Mount Kilimanjaro. The bridge was to carry the Uganda Railway, running northwest from Mombasa to Lake Victoria. Not long after Patterson got to the construction site, two lions began nocturnal prowling, and over the next several months they dragged off and ate more than a hundred men hired to work on the bridge.
During those months, Patterson kept nightly vigil, often perched in a tree, ready to shoot the predators. At one point, he built a trap for them, with a barred section in back where a man could safely serve as bait. “The first few nights,” Patterson wrote, “I baited the trap myself, but nothing happened except that I had a very sleepless and uncomfortable time, and was badly bitten by mosquitoes.”
In December, 1898, he finally confronted one of the lions. From fifteen yards away, using a rifle he had borrowed from a friend, Patterson took aim. “I felt at last that I had him absolutely at my mercy,” he wrote, but then he met the perils of a borrowed gun: “I pulled the trigger, and to my horror heard the dull snap that tells of a misfire.” That blank click is frustrating enough on the range, but its appalling terror in the face of a man-eating lion staggers the imagination.
Noises behind the lion distracted him, and he slipped away. Meanwhile, Patterson apparently turned the air blue: “Bitterly did I anathematise the hour in which I had relied on a borrowed weapon, and in my disappointment and vexation I abused owner, maker, and rifle with fine impartiality.” By month’s end, however, he had killed both lions, maneless males each measuring just over nine feet long and not quite four feet high.
According to an article in the April, 2015, issue of Guns & Ammo, in 1924 Patterson gave a lecture at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. When the museum’s president learned that Patterson still had the lions’ skins, he bought them for the museum. Those hides were a bit worse for wear; the article says that Patterson “had used the pelts as floor rugs.”
After completion of his railway work in Kenya, Patterson became Game Warden for British East Africa. In 1908, he took an English couple on safari, an event marred by the husband dying of a gunshot wound, possibly self-inflicted. For a time, a cloud hung over Patterson, questions even being raised in both Houses of Parliament.
In 1936, Ernest Hemingway used that incident as the basis for his short story, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” In Hemingway’s version, the couple is American, but the British game hunter they hire, Robert Wilson, somewhat resembles Patterson. While Wilson could adjust his standards to suit his clients, “He had his own standards about the killing and they could live up to them or get some one else to hunt them.” By sticking to his standards, Wilson knew “that they all respected him for this.” Principled courage, the legacy of men like Patterson and admired and immortalized by Hemingway.
*Answer: Ernest Hemingway, To Have and Have Not.