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Sixty Years of Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea

Sixty years ago, Ernest Hemingway was the biggest story in town. On September 1, 1952, Hemingway’s famous story, The Old Man and the Sea, was published in Life Magazine with Papa pouting on the cover. The book version followed on September 8. Life reputedly sold five million copies of the issue containing the author’s story of Santiago, an aging Cuban fisherman, and his epic battle with a marlin.

The Old Man and the Sea is still going strong today. It’s taught to students of English literature all over the world and rare copies are adored by book collectors. A signed first edition of The Old Man and the Sea sold for $18,500 on Amazon’s sister site AbeBooks.com in August. Anything signed by Hemingway has significant value and probably always will. Hemingway’s literary legacy was cemented in the years following The Old Man and the Sea – he won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1953 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954.  

The Old Man and the Sea first editionWhat The Old Man and the Sea lacks in length, it makes up for in punch. It’s an easy, short read but builds and builds. I had not read the story for more than 20 years before picking up a copy last week - pure simplicity is still the over-powering aspect of the book. It should really be called The Old Man and the Fish – I feel the sea doesn’t come into it. To Hemingway’s old fisherman, the marlin is a noble creature and a worthy opponent. Sharks are mere scavengers in comparison to the majestic marlin. The old man likes to fish and read the baseball scores in the newspaper, and that’s his life. He marvels at Joe DiMaggio but he knows the ocean like the back of his hand until he hooks the once-in-a-lifetime marlin. As Hemingway, an experienced sports fisherman, knew, hooking the fish is one thing, hauling him in is another.

The short passage, a single paragraph I think, when the old fisherman sees the marlin rise out of the water for the first time is wonderful. Hemingway’s prose is so short and sharp, and the reader can easily imagine the silvery fish breaking the surface with the fisherman aghast at its size and beauty. Hemingway must have loved his days out on the ocean with a beer in one hand and a line in the other waiting for the big one to bite.

I was also particularly drawn to his description of the old man remembering his days as a young buck with an arm powerful enough to win arm-wrestling contests around the docks of Havana. It adds nothing to the narrative but is pure bravado. Surely, the author is looking back at his own glory days as a World War I ambulance driver, a hunter, a fisherman, a world traveler and a war correspondent?

It’s easy to dismiss The Old Man and the Sea as machismo nonsense, but how many of today’s bestselling novels are still going to be read in 2072? Although this story has been analyzed time and again, Hemingway proved that a simple story well-told can go a long way. He also knew what he was talking about – he was skilled at outfitting boats to catch large fish and, just like Santiago, battled predatory sharks. Fans of Hemingway can still visit the author’s home in Key West where they will encounter a lot of cats, many of whom are believed to be descended from Hemingway’s pets.

It’s also perhaps worth noting that Hemingway was in the twilight of his career when The Old Man and the Sea was published. He died in 1961. His final years were sad and muddled by illness, alcohol and mental problems. The story was a powerful retort to critics who thought his best days were behind him. With readers suddenly wanting to pick up his earlier works, Hemingway must have loved the impact of this story.

-- Richard Davies

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Any Hemingway book is a treasure but The Old Man and the Sea stands out because of it's simple, direct writing. What was not so simple was the invoking of emotion as we learn the old man triumphed - but didn't. We can all relate to that on a primal level.

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"Fans of Hemingway can still visit the author’s home in Key West where they will encounter a lot of cats, many of whom are believed to be descended from Hemingway’s pets."

Do they have stories to tell, handed down by their forebearers? That would really make the trip worthwhile.

You truly do not grasp the work. It's not about fishing, the author, or youth. It's a deeply philosophical work. Read it again with an eye on what the sea, the old man, the young man, the village, and the marlin can represent. Look at the time in which it was written--the world of Hemmingway. It's not about fishing.

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