The Enduring Depths of 'Old Man and the Sea'

A cover for a 1995 reprinting of Hemingway's short novel shows man battling a marlin.

The cover of a 1995 reprinting of Hemingway's short novel depicts the fisherman's battle with a great marlin. hide caption

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"The best I can write ever for all of my life." That's what Hemingway said 54 years ago Saturday about his just-finished short novel The Old Man and the Sea. Hemingway biographer Jeffrey Meyers tells Susan Stamberg why a brief story is so significant.

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SUSAN STAMBERG, host:

Ernest Hemingway once said, Sometimes I have good luck and write better than I can. Fifty-four years ago today, on March 4, 1952, Mr. Hemingway wrote his publisher that he had just finished a short novel that was, quote, The best I can write ever for all of my life. The book was The Old Man and the Sea, published first in a single issue of Life magazine. Mr. Hemingway's story of the struggle between a weather-beaten Cuban fisherman and a giant marlin won the 1953 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The book begins this way.

Mr. CHARLTON HESTON (actor, Reading): He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf stream and he'd gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.

STAMBERG: That's Charlton Heston reading. He is the actor who parted the Red Sea once. There were no marlins there, as far as we know.

Hemingway biographer Jeffrey Meyers joins us from his home in Kensington, California.

Thanks for talking with us, Mr. Meyers.

Mr. JEFFREY MEYERS (Hemingway Biographer): Thank you.

STAMBERG: Ernest Hemingway was 52 when he wrote it. Where was he in his writing life?

Mr. MEYERS: His previous book to this was Across the River and Into the Trees, which was the first book he published after World War Two. It came out in 1950 and it got a very negative response from the critics. So he was trying to make a comeback with The Old Man and the Sea, and the book, in fact, was a tremendous success.

STAMBERG: But these most famous books, really, the books that made his career, The Sun Also Rises, Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, they were years earlier, weren't they?

Mr. MEYERS: That's right. And this one's quite different.

STAMBERG: What can you tell us about the writing of Old Man and the Sea? Where was he when he wrote it? How much of a struggle did he have with it?

Mr. MEYERS: Well, it seemed to go well for him. He was in his house in Cuba outside of Havana, that he'd lived in since the 30s. He was now married to his fourth wife, Mary. And they were having a bit of a rough time, as she tried to keep up with his drinking, unsuccessfully.

The novel is written in extremely and deliberately simple style; and it's still used for that reason to teach English in foreign countries. And the book still sells about $100,000 worth of books a year abroad.

STAMBERG: My goodness.

Mr. MEYERS: Which is fantastic for simply one title more than 50 years ago.

STAMBERG: What were the reactions of reviewers when The Old Man and the Sea came out?

Mr. MEYERS: Rapturous. Perhaps they were trying to compensate for a bit, because they had been so hard on Hemingway on the previous book. And it sold 5,300,000 copies in two days of life and it remained a bestseller for six months.

STAMBERG: This book is seen as an allegory, sort of a testimonial to human endurance, the idea of bravery against terrible odds.

Mr. MEYERS: I think that's true. I mean, the theme is victory and defeat. And the statement in the book that's usually used to describe the theme is a man can be destroyed but not defeated. The story goes back, in fact, to Hemingway's personal experience, which he described in an essay called On the Blue Water, published in Esquire in April 1936, when in fact he did catch a huge marlin and on the way home is attacked by sharks. Unlike Santiago, Hemingway used a machine gun to drive off the sharks.

And in The Old Man and the Sea the sharks seem to represent not only sharks but also the critics, who had recently attacked him over his last book.

STAMBERG: Let's hear more of Hemingway's writing. Charlton Heston again, and a section from The Old Man and the Sea.

Mr. HESTON (actor, Reading): I would like to take the great DiMaggio fishing, the old man said. They say his father was a fisherman. Maybe he was as poor as we are and would understand. The great Sisler's father was never poor. And he, the father, was playing in the Big Leagues when he was my age. When I was your age I was before the mast on a square rigged ship that ran to Africa. And I have seen lions on the beaches in the evening.

I know. You told me.

Should we talk about Africa or about baseball?

Baseball, I think, the boy said. Tell me about the great John J. McGraw.

He used to come to the Terrace sometimes too in the older days. But he was rough and harsh-spoken and difficult when he was drinking. His mind was on horses as well as baseball. At least he carried lists of horses at all times in his pocket, and frequently spoke the names of horses on the telephone.

He was a great manager, the boy said. My father thinks he was the greatest.

Because he came here the most times, the old man said. If Durocher had continued to come here each year, your father would think him the greatest manager.

Who is the greatest manager, really, Luque or Mike Gonzalez?

I think they are equal.

And the best fisherman is you.

No. I know others better.

Que va, the boy said. There are many good fishermen and some great ones. But there is only you.

Thank you. You make me happy. I hope no fish will come along so great that he will prove us wrong.

STAMBERG: An excerpt from Hemingway's novella The Old Man and the Sea, read by Charlton Heston.

Biographer Jeffrey Meyers, what is so great about this book?

Mr. MEYERS: Well, I suppose the simple power of the theme and the idea that a man who is weak and poor and old, and has gone through tremendous physical hardships, including having his hands sort of torn up by the rope and the struggle, does in fact endure, and prevail, even though he's lost what he's fought for, because the sharks have eaten the marlin.

STAMBERG: Hmm. Do you yourself have any reservations about this book, Mr. Meyers?

Mr. MEYERS: I do. I think it's too obvious, and too simpleminded, and too sentimental. And I think the Christian symbolism is too crudely overt. And I think it may even be a deliberate parody for readers and professors who are looking for symbols. As Hemingway said you want a symbol, here's a symbol that everybody who reads Life magazine, the essence of middlebrow America in the 50s, will understand and applaud.

STAMBERG: Hmm.

Mr. MEYERS: I think it's ironic that he gets all these prizes for what I consider one his weakest books. And he didn't get that kind of recognition for the ones you mentioned earlier on, which are his great masterpieces, The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls.

STAMBERG: Thank you, Mr. Meyers.

Mr. MEYERS: Thank you.

STAMBERG: Jeffrey Meyers is author of Hemingway: A Biography.

Fifty-four years ago today, Ernest Hemingway wrote his editor at Scribner's that The Old Man and the Sea was the best he could write ever. The book was on the bestseller list for 26 weeks and translated into 26 languages.

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