The “Old Man” Who Made Hemingway Soar

By J.J. LaBarber
January 17, 2012


Published in the Jan-Feb 2012 issue of MyLIFE magazine

I have been reviewing books for more than 30 years, and one of the first books reviewed by this column is Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. An indication of the book’s lasting power: When I wanted to re-read the classic, my library informed me that I would have to be put on a waiting list. I was told that all available copies had been requested, and that waiting for a copy of this book was quite normal. That is certainly a true mark of an outstanding and long-standing writer and his work. The excitement initially created by “The Old Man” is apparently still very much alive—60 years later!

Hemingway once stated, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” And that he did, until his death (by suicide) in 1961. By then, he had established himself as one of the, if not the, most influential and powerful writers of the 20th century.

The books poured out of him: The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, To Have and Have Not, Across The River and Into the Trees and The Old Man and the Sea—all written in 1952. Work that catapulted Hemingway to the Pulitzer Prize in 1953 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. The Old Man and the Sea has become a classic for Hemingway’s “powerful, style-forming mastery of the art of narration.” This hugely successful novella, written while the author was living in Cuba, confirmed Hemingway’s power and presence in the literary world. Yes, as one of the most important influences on the development of the short story and novel in American fiction, Hemingway seized the imagination of the American public (and the world at large) like no other 20th-century writer.

Now … to the review of The Old Man and the Sea. Told in language of great simplicity and constructed around the classic theme of courage in the face of defeat, of personal triumph won from loss, the tale centers on Santiago, an old, experienced fisherman, his everyday dream of catching the “big one” and his epic struggle with a gigantic marlin far out in the Gulf Stream. He has gone 84 days without a catch.

From the story itself: The old man was thin and gaunt with deep wrinkles in the back of his neck. The brown blotches of the benevolent skin cancer the sun brings from its reflection on the tropic sea were on his cheeks. The blotches ran well down the sides of his face and his hands had the deep-creased scars from handling heavy fish on the cords. But none of these scars were fresh. They were as old as erosions in a fishless desert. Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated.

A Heming Way Brief: Born in 1899 in Oak Park, Ill. Started writing for The Kansas City Star in 1917. Was an ambulance driver in Italy during World War I and part of the expatriate circle in Paris in the early 1920s. Wrote The Sun Also Rises in 1926, which became the voice of “the lost generation.” Hemingway was an American literary giant for the next 40 years. Won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1953 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. Committed suicide at his home in Ketchum, Idaho, in 1961.

Eighty-four days without a catch. On the 85th day, Hemingway’s singular ability to pull the reader into the boat with Santiago is masterful. One is right alongside the old man as he sets out alone, taking his skiff far out into the Gulf. Santiago adjusts his lines, and by noon of that day a big fish that he is sure is a marlin takes his bate.

Unable to pull in the great marlin, he instead finds the fish pulling his skiff.

And so the brutal struggle begins. Two days and two nights pass in this manner, during which the old man bears his tension of the line with his body. Though he is wounded by the struggle and in great pain, Santiago expresses a compassionate appreciation for his adversary, often referring to him as “a brother.”

But the marlin has not the slightest sympathy for Santiago, whose personal thrust is: “I will not give up!” His constant conversation with himself has the reader constantly wanting to answer him, to lessen his extreme loneliness.

On the third day of the ordeal, The Big Fish begins to circle the skiff, indicating his tiredness to the old man. Santiago, now completely worn out and almost in delirium, uses all the strength he can muster to stab The Big Fish, attach it to the side of his skiff, as it is too large to bring into the boat, and head for home with his prize catch. But, alas! Hungry sharks in the area start feasting on his catch. What was once a prize catch is quickly reduced to a mere skeleton, which Santiago knows will now be used for “garbage” instead of providing a sizeable income from its glorious meat. But, he humbly accepts the ultimate outcome. He is at peace with himself, knowing that he finally caught his Big One.

Hemingway, at all times, has the reader fully engulfed in spectacular, gripping “man-against-all-odds” imagery, which was fully captured by the 1958 Warner Bros. movie starring Spencer Tracy (the film garnered Tracy Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for best actor).


Hemingway, at all times, has the reader fully engulfed in spectacular, gripping, “man-against-all-odds” imagery, which was fully captured by the 1958 Warner Bros. movie starring Spencer Tracy (the film garnered Tracy Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for best actor).

In 1999, Russian animator Aleksandr Petrov won the Academy Award for Short Film for a film that follows the plot line of Hemingway’s classic. Petrov’s short consisted of 29,000 images (painted pastels on glass). It was the first animated film to be released in IMAX.


One comment

  1. Brooke May 26, 2012 at 7:55 PM - Reply

    The gentleman in prutcie, David Douglas, won the 2009 Papa Hemingway Look-Alike Contest.In mid-July each year, Sloppy Joe’s, the favorite watering hole of Hemingway, is thronged with cheerful bearded men competing for the title of Hemingway Look-A-Like, while Hemingway family members judge their worthiness.

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