Ernest Hemingway pulled from his past present experiences to develop his own thoughts concerning death, relationships, and lies. He then mixed these ideas, along with a familiar setting, to create a masterpiece. One such masterpiece written early in Hemingway’s career is the short story, “Indian Camp.” “Indian Camp” was originally published in the collection of “in Our Time” in 1925. A brief summary reveals that the main character, a teenager by the name of Nick, travels across a lake to an Indian village. While at the village Nick observes his father, who is a doctor, deliver a baby to an Indian by caesarian section. As the story continues, Nick’s father discovers that the newborn’s father has committed suicide. Soon afterward Nick and his father engage in a discussion about death, which brings the story to an end. With thought and perception a reader can tell the meaning of the story. The charters of Nick and his father resemble the relationship of Hemingway and his father.
Hemingway grew up in Oak Park, a middle class suburb, under the watchful eye of his parents, Ed and Grace Hemingway. Ed Hemingway was a doctor who “occasionally took his son along on professional visits across Walloon Lake to the Ojibway Indians” during summer vacations (Waldhorn 7). These medical trips taken by Ernest and Ed would provide the background information needed to introduce nick and his father while on their medical trip in “Indian Camp.” These trips were not the center point of affection between Ed and Ernest, but they were part of the whole. The two always shared a close father-son bond that Hemingway often portrayed in his works: Nick’s close attachment to his father parallels Hemingway’s relationship with Ed. The growing boy finds in the father, in both fiction and life, not only a teacher-guide but also a fixed refuge against the terrors of the emotional and spiritual unknown as they are encountered. In his father Ernest had someone to lean on (Shaw 14).
In “Indian Camp,” nick stays in his father’s arms for a sense of security and this reinforces their close father-son relationship. When Nick sees the terror of death, in the form of suicide, his father is right there to comfort him. From this we are able to see how Nick has his father to, physically and mentally, “lean” on, much like Hemingway did (Shaw 11).
Hemingway’s love for his father was not always so positive though, and he often expressed his feelings about his situation though his literature. When Hemmingway was young, his father persuaded him to have his tonsils removed by a friend, Dr. Wesley Peck. Even though it was Dr. Peck who performed the painful operation, Hemingway “always held it against his father for taking out his tonsils without an anaesthetic” (Meyers 48). Hemingway saw the opportunity to portray his father in “Indian Camp” as the cold-hearted man who had his tonsils yanked out without anaesthetic. In a reply to Nick’s question about giving the Indian woman something to stop screaming, his father states, “No. I haven’t any anaesthetic?But her screams are not important. I don’t hear them because they are not important.” (Tessitore 18)
Hemingway lashed out at his father one more time before the story ends. In “Indian Camp,” Hemingway uses the conversation between Nick and his father, concerning the suicide of the Indian, to show his distaste for his own father’s suicide:
‘I don’t know Nick.’
‘He couldn’t stand things, I guess.’
‘Do many men kill themselves, Daddy?’
‘Not very many, Nick?’
‘Is dying hard, Daddy?’
‘No, I think its pretty easy, Nick. It all depends.’
Hemingway saw his father as a weak working man who served his wife, Grace, unconditionally. Ed worked a full day to come home to clean house, prepare food, and tend to the children. He had promised Grace that if she would marry him, she would not have to do housework for as long as he lived. Ill and depressed, Ed committed suicide in 1928. Hemingway later referred to the situation by stating:
“I hated my mother as soon as I knew the score and loved my father until he embarrassed me with his cowardice?My mother is an all time all American bitch and she would make a pack mule shoot himself, let alone poor bloody father.” (Meyers 212)
Hemingway uses “Indian Camp” to express his feelings that his father was a coward. He did this by having Nick’s father refer to suicide as being “pretty easy,” which is comparable to a coward’s way out of life. Therefore, Hemingway uses the story to portray his father’s death as cowardly.
The characters and setting of “Indian Camp” are undoubtedly influenced by Hemingway’s Childhood. In much of the same respect, Hemingway’s second novel, A Farewell to Arms, has influences from his adult years spent in the war.
A Farewell to Arms is a tragic love story in the midst of war. The main character, Fredrick Henry, is an ambulance driver in World War I who is wounded in the trenches. Henry, now a casualty, is sent to recover at an American hospital in Milan. During his stay, henry falls in love with a nurse by the name of Catherine Barkley. The couple then heads for Switzerland to escape the war and have a child. The novel takes an evil twist at the end though. Catherine dies while she is in labor, leaving Henry alone in the world.
When comparing Ernest Hemingway and the character Frederick Henry, there are some very obvious resemblances. After not being allowed to join the army due to bad vision in his left eye, Hemingway joined the war effort during 1918 in Italy as an ambulance driver. Likewise, Hemingway made sure that Henry was also an ambulance driver in A Farewell to Arms. The most noticeable similarity is Hemingway’s war wound. While passing out chocolate and cigarettes to soldiers at night, Hemingway was hit by a mortar shell. Wounded, but not dead, Hemingway picked up an nearby casualty and began carrying him off the battlefield. He succeeded in making it to the first aid center but was hit in the knees by machine-gun fire while on his journey. During his recover in Milan, Hemingway recorded his firsthand account of the action in a letter written to his parents. In it he stated:
My legs felt warm and wet and my shoes were wet and warm inside. I knew that I was hit and leaned over and put my hand on my knee. My knee wasn’t there. My hand went in and my kneed was down on my shin. (Hemingway 55)
Hemingway recalled his war wound and wrote of the same experience in the novel. In both the novel and real life, it is easy to visualize the same picture of the wound, so bloody that Hemingway’s own shoes filled up with warm blood.
Hemingway does not stop there with his similarities though. He digs further into the past to create the love that exists between characters Frederick henry and Catherine Barkley. In the war, Hemingway was sent to Milan to recover from his injuries. During his stay at the hospital, he fell in love with an American nurse by the name of Agnes von Kurowsky. The two were very affectionate in their love and wrote letters to each other when separated. Kurowsky even signed up to work nights so that she could spend more time with Hemingway. There was even a possibility of marriage, which later fizzled out. When Hemingway healed, he was sent home and Kurowsky fell in love with another, a devastating event that haunted Hemingway long after. (McDowell 20) Kurowsky did not come out ahead though; her newfound love dissolved only after a short while. In much the same way as Hemingway’s life, the character Henry falls in love with Catherine.
After being wounded by a trench mortar, Henry is also sent to Milan to recover from his injuries. While at Milan, he becomes romantically involved with Catherine and the two marry. Even though Hemingway and Kurowsky did not marry, the marriage of Henry and Catherine is a prelude to a more devastating event. The sexual activity of the couple leads to the pregnancy of Catherine, which convinces them to leave the war. During childbirth, Catherine dies, thus leaving Henry all alone in the world: “In the novel, though not in actual life, the submissive Catherine . . . is ‘punished’ by death in childbirth” (Meyers 41). The reason for this variation between real life and the novel is based on how Hemingway felt at the time. Apparently to Hemingway, Kurowsky was not punished enough for her deceit toward him. With his feelings full-blown, Hemingway produced a character that suffered the way he felt she should suffer. From the wounds to the love affair, “it is fair to say that the book is the crystallization of the war experiences” (Shaw 54).
After the war, Hemingway returned to Oak Park for a brief stay at home. Mentally and physically hurt from his war wounds and failing romance with Kurowsky, Hemingway entered into an idle part of his life. All the returning soldiers had great war stories; most of them embellished beyond truth. Hemingway fell into this norm of lying about war experiences, which eventually made him sick of disgust:
The deceptions he practices at home . . . uncomfortably remind him of the lies he and others have been forced to tell in order to sensationalize for home consumption the dull reality of war. (Meyers 55)
Hemingway was later able to reflect his disgust of home life when he purposely portrayed himself as the character Krebs in “Soldier’s Home”. Krebs, a World War I veteran, is forced to lie about his involvement in the war just to be heard:
Krebs found that to be listened to at all he had to lie, and after he had done this twice he, too, had a reaction against the war and against talking about it. A distaste for everything that had happened to him in the war set in because of the lies he had told. (Hemingway 69)
Krebs, along with Hemingway, fell into a slump after the war. While recalling his lost love of Agnes von Kurowsky, Hemingway produced a character troubled by female companionship. Krebs wants a woman, no doubt, but he was not about to work for it. Krebs considers relationships too complicated and painful, something he has learned from a previous engagement. This previous engagement was the relationship of Hemingway and Kurowsky, a relationship that had badly hurt Hemingway. There is no way that Krebs, nor Hemingway, is about to go through that again.
Krebs continues, without a woman, lying around at home doing little or nothing. Tensions deepen between him and his parents and he is eventually driven out. This is approximately the same thing that happened to Hemingway. Hemingway’s sister, Marcelline, wrote, “shortly after his twenty-first birthday . . . his mother issued an ultimatum that he find a regular job or move out” (Waldhorn 9). Both Hemingway and Krebs moved out and got jobs.
Beyond a doubt, Hemingway wrote from his past experiences. In “Indian Camp,” Hemingway used his own relationship with his father to breathe life into the fictional characters of Nick and his father. By leaving his childhood and entering the war, Hemingway recalled his own accounts of injuries and love that made up the character Henry and Barkley in A Farewell to Arms. And finally, with his return home after the war, Hemingway uses Krebs in “Soldier’s Home” to express his distaste for the home life.
Meyers, Jeffery. Hemingway: A Biography. New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1985.
Shaw, Samuel. Ernest Hemingway. New York: Fredrick Ungar Publishing Company, 1974.
Hemingway, Ernest. “Indian Camp”. In Our Time. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1970.
Hemingway, Ernest. A Farewell to Arms. New York: Simon & Schuster. 1995.