Indian Camp – Ernest Hemingway

Describe it

The first Nick Adams short story from In Our Time, in which Nick’s father, a doctor, takes him to an Indian camp to see a complicated birth.  Described by one critic as the “master key” to Hemingway’s writing.

What I loved

It all rings true.  One of my favourite Hemingway quotes from The Green Hills of Africa goes:

“First, there must be talent, much talent. Talent such as Kipling had. Then there must be discipline. The discipline of Flaubert. Then there must be the conception of what it can be and absolute conscience as unchanging as the standard meter in Paris, to prevent faking. Then the writer must be intelligent and disinterested and above all he must survive.”

Perhaps the most striking word in this quote is “disinterested”, which seems a strange trait to encourage in writers.  By this, I believe that Hemingway meant that a good writer must have the ability to take a step back and observe life, dispassionately, unblinkered by dogma or fear, never turning away from notions that society deems unacceptable.

In Indian Camp, Hemingway’s commitment to truthfulness can be seen in his exploration of masculinity, one of his chief preoccupations.  Men’s boundaries are defined by a collage of details: the Indian men fleeing the woman’s cries; Nick’s fathers ability to shut out the cries to perform the task at hand (“her screams are unimportant.  I don’t hear them because they’re unimportant”); his sportsman-like reaction to the success of the operation; the suicide; Nick’s father’s reluctance to explain it; and Nick’s feeling of immortality.

In contrast, the Indian woman is dominated, yet strong; deprived of dialogue, yet able to make the male characters deeply uncomfortable with her voice.  It is noteworthy that more detail is given of the man cutting his throat than the birth process.

I loved the ambiguity, too.  Nick’s father wants to educate him.  It is not a lesson that is communicated in words, but in actions.  Grace under pressure, perhaps, and stoicism.  But there are limits to that education.  Nick’s father wants him to see birth, blood, suffering, and  struggle, but not death.  At least, not suicide.

And why does the husband kill himself?  Is it because he cannot bear the woman’s suffering, or her screams, or the impending birth, or the white men helping her?

And I loved the idea of birth and death being all twisted together.

What I learned about writing

Everything that is superfluous to the theme is removed.  This means that the passage of time is not realistically communicated, but that the key events are highlighted.

The theme is explored not by having preconceived conclusion, or a message, but by juxtaposing observations and reactions to the same event.

The sparseness of the description of the operation and Nick’s reactions makes a stronger impression than if more graphic details were included.

What didn’t work

Hemingway had not yet fully developed his writing style.  The sentences are shorter, it is even more minimal than his later works, he hasn’t started his love affair with the word “and”.  There were a few times when the reader was given too much space to inhabit, when they were left floundering.  Later, Hemingway becomes more skilled at balancing detail and focus.  Still, the prose is beautiful for its simplicity.

Stray thoughts

Hemingway’s father, Clarence, was also a doctor.  It made me wonder to what degree this is an autobiographical work.  Considering the story’s focusing on suicide, it is also interesting that both Hemingway and his father both ended up committing suicide.

It was a different time, wasn’t it?  I can’t imagine many fathers now taking their sons to see a backyard c-section to give them a bit of life experience.


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