Great literature and tipping the cap to fine American educators
Author’s note: I wrote the following piece for the print version of Outdoor News in April 2021 when the Ken Burns’ documentary on Ernest Hemingway first appeared on PBS. Yesterday, I learned that my high school College Prep English teacher I cited in the text died last September. Elaine Nelson was a tough, cool lady and the best teacher I ever had. My apologies for expressing condolences to her family so belatedly – months after her passing. That said, this journalist would like to reprint the column here in honor of all the patient English teachers who have forced arrogant, know-it-all high-school seniors to toe the line and read their American classics.
The Ernest Hemingway documentary on PBS kept me tuned in last week. The most renowned American fiction writer of the 20th century, Hemingway also symbolizes classic big-game hunting and sportfishing. Although he never covered the outdoors beat for a newspaper, he helped pioneer the genre. An unapologetic great white hunter and perhaps the country’s most famous outdoorsman, Hemingway chased game and fish worldwide. The documentary flashed dozens of images of his hunting and fishing exploits, especially his famous African big-game safaris, but he hunted for other species, including pheasants and jackrabbits out West. And he’s an inductee of the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward, Wis., thanks to his legendary saltwater sportfishing experiences off Florida and Cuba.
It took me too long to appreciate Hemingway. In high school, I dodged reading “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by asking fellow students who’d actually read the novel to summarize it for me in the hallway the morning before the exam. I felt mildly guilty when the teacher, a damned good College Prep English instructor who didn’t suffer fools, returned my essay with a big, fat “A” on top.
Grumbles spread like wildfire in the classroom that Drieslein had tricked the rarely hoodwinked Elaine Nelson. Though just a couple of years from retirement, Mrs. Nelson’s hearing still was surprisingly acute, and she marched up to my desk, wagged a long, pointy finger in my face, and shouted, “Well, congratulations, Rob. You go home tonight, look in the mirror, and tell yourself, ‘I fooled a high school English teacher!’”
She sportingly let me keep the grade, however, so in her honor, I paid more attention to Hemingway in college. The descriptions of the landscapes where he hunted kept me reading. In addition to famous novels like “The Old Man and the Sea,” or “Green Hills of Africa,” there are collections of his sporting short stories that appeared in magazines. Some famous ones stand out, like the “Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “Big Two-Hearted River.” The latter recounts the tale of a young World War I veteran finding solace fishing the trouty Fox River in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula near Seney.
Hemingway had Minnesota connections. His fourth wife, Mary Welsh, was born in Walker and spent much of her childhood in Bemidji. She grew up fishing with her dad and loved the out-of-doors even before meeting Hemingway. Older readers also may remember Bob “Bear” Schranck, who wrote for the Star Tribune’s outdoors page in the 1980s and had been reporting there since the late 1950s. (He also was an Outdoor News field editor in the early 1990s.)
Schranck died in 2010 at age 80, but in the late 1990s, he told me that as a young reporter, he interviewed Hemingway during the author’s 1960 stay at the Mayo Clinic. Schranck said Hemingway even sent him an upbeat thank-you note afterward. A story about Schranck’s death in the Strib 12 years ago mentioned the connection.
Some literary pundits consider Hemingway a hyper-masculine relic. I’ve been re-reading my college texts, and despite Papa’s toxic personal vices (which were ample), his virtues – from fighting fascism to revolutionizing American prose to challenging misogyny in some of his characters – were authentic. Re-reading his work, it’s refreshing to remember an era when men didn’t justify hunting with phrases like “environmentally responsible” and “organic meat.”
Even if it wasn’t true, he tried to portray an era when personal responsibility and accountability meant something and everybody wasn’t scrounging for reasons to claim victimhood. Bottom line, Hemingway lived American history hard, and he wrote good stories about it.
Postscript (June 8, 2022): Last year, after PBS broadcast the documentary, I binged Hemingway, re-reading my dog-eared college copies of “The Sun Also Rises,” the devastating “A Farewell to Arms,” and several short story collections. But the highlight was buying a new copy of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and honestly completing that 12th grade assignment. The verdict?
It’s the author’s most important work. “For Whom the Bell Tolls” is an account of the Spanish Civil War from the perspective of a pro-democracy American fighting fascists in the mountains near Segovia in May 1937. It depicts a modern country being torn apart from the inside, which obviously resonates today in an era when well-fed, comfortable, and bored Americans are all-too eager to declare their hatred for one another.
Every U.S. citizen should read the book, which probably explains why Elaine Nelson assigned it decades ago. If this blog inspires a few people to read those important words, well then maybe a punk Gen-X high-schooler and his classy English teacher finally have reached a détente. RIP Mrs. Nelson. You can see the obituary for this remarkable lady here.
And if you missed the excellent Hemingway documentary last year, you can pay to view it via multiple streaming services or learn more about it via the PBS website.