Analysis of Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time

The publishing dates, the authoritative text, even the genre of the text all prove intensely problematic, for Ernest Hemingway’s early stories and arguably his best sustained work. Published in Paris in 1924 as in our time, a series of vignettes, it was published in New York in 1925 in an expanded version entitled In Our Time. When either literary scholars or the popular audience refers to the “Hemingway style,” it is the style of in our time (and of The Sun Also Rises, published one year later) that people have in mind. Among the best-known stories in the collection are “Big Two-Hearted River” and “Indian Camp,” featuring Nick Adams, their modernist protagonist.

Sometimes regarded as a mere collection of short stories, sometimes seen as a short story cycle in the vein of James Joyce’s Dubliners, sometimes heralded as the literary descendant of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Hemingway’s in our time has more in common with Jean Toomer’s Cane—another textually and generically complicated work—than with any other well-known work. In fact, the “pretty good unity” (to cite Hemingway’s own words about in our time; Baker 26) that characterizes both in our time and Cane might accurately be described as an ironically fragmentary unity, in which dissonance is an integral part of both structure and theme. In other words, the fragments themselves contribute to a peculiar sort of unity.

Ernest Hemingway/The Sun

The best discussion of the complicated publishing of the works that finally constitute in our time is Michael J. Reynolds’s “Hemingway’s In Our Time: The Biography of a Book.” Beginning with “My Old Man” and “Out of Season” (the first of which is clearly indebted to Anderson), portions of what would finally make in our time were published as Three Stories & Ten Poems in 1923. The same year, six of the vignettes or “interchapters” that would finally be interlaced between the nominal 14 stories of the 1925 publication were published in little review, one of the most influential of the little magazines. The following year 18 sketches (two of which would be retitled as short stories in the 1925 version) were published as a small chapbook entitled in our time (Paris: Three Mountains Press). Over 1924 and the first half of 1925, numerous individual short stories that would be collected in in our time also appeared in a variety of journals. However, in 1925 the first major version of In Our Time as we know it was published by Boni & Liveright, including 16 sketches (called “chapters” but unlisted on the contents page) and 14 short stories. In 1930 a new piece (similar in tone to the vignettes or chapters) prefaced the work and was called “An Introduction by the Author”; it would later be retitled as “In the Quai at Smyrna” (first in The First Forty-Nine Stories) and later in the republication of In Our Time by Scribner in 1955.

It is little wonder that Hemingway’s highly influential and earliest sustained artistic work has proven so critically elusive. Of the individual short stories comprising in our time, possibly “Indian Camp” and the two-part “Big Two-Hearted River” are the best known. As these two short stories might suggest, many of the nominal short stories in In Our Time roughly tell the story of Nick Adams (sometimes considered to be a surrogate for Hemingway himself), first growing up in Michigan (with a doctor for a father), rejecting early relationships with women, exploring Europe, then facing both WORLD WAR I and its aftermath. These stories—as well as others, such as “Mr. and Mrs. Elliot,” “Soldier’s Home,” or “Cat in the Rain”—have much in common with Hemingway’s subsequent work, The Sun Also Rises, the work that became known as the hallmark of the “Lost Generation” (a phrase that Gertrude Stein used dismissively and that Hemingway reproduced as the epigraph to Sun). At least superficially, the stories seem to record a certain ennui, a loss of faith in traditional ideals and values, and a certain resignation to an emasculated and impoverished modern world. Taken with the interchapters, a series of vignettes appearing between longer stories, (at least one of which, “Chapter VI,” includes Nick), however, the collected stories and volume In Our Time make a heavy indictment against the war, violence, even misogyny that the stories alone appear partially to record, if not condone. In fact, the brutal violence of bullfighting and war depicted in the inter-chapters seems the logical extension of the accounts of fishing or boxing found in the stories. Read as a collective work, In Our Time ironically dismantles the patriarchal, if not sexist, assumptions that past scholarship wrongly attributed to the author as the “Hemingway Code,” and strongly suggests that the supposedly innocent age preceding World War I was not so innocent after all.

Despite the controversies and complications of in our time, stylistically this work changed modern American prose. The rigorous, terse, realistic style that Hemingway created in this work (albeit with notable and unusual uses of repetition—all stylistic strategies he may have learned from Gertrude Stein) has been imitated frequently but rarely matched. How Hemingway accomplished this artistic feat is at least partially recorded in his posthumously published A Moveable Feast, an autobiographical narrative (and partial fiction) that records his life during the writing of in our time.

Frye, Northrup. Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1957, 365.
Hemingway, Ernest. In Our Time. New York: Boni & Liveright. 1925, 1930. Reprint, New York: Scribner, 1958, 1970.
———. Letter to E. Wilson, October 18, 1924, p. 26, in Carlos Baker. Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story. New York: Scribner, 1967.
Moddlemog, Deborah. “The Unifying Consciousness of a Divided Conscience: Nick Adams as Author of In Our Time.” American Literature (1988): 591–610.
Reynolds, Michael. Critical Essays on Hemingway’s In Our Time. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983. ———. “Hemingway’s In Our Time: The Biography of a Book.” In Modern American Short Story Sequences, edited by Gerald Kennedy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Smith, Paul. A Reader’s Guide to the Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. New York: Macmillan, 1989.
Wagner-Martin, Linda. “Toomer’s Cane as Narrative Sequence.” In Modern American Short Story Sequences, edited by Gerald Kennedy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Winn, H. “Hemingway’s In Our Time: ‘Pretty Good Unity’. ” Hemingway Review (1990): 124–140.

Categories: American Literature, Literary Criticism, Literature, Short Story

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