Emotionally wounded and disillusioned by World War I, Nick Adams returns to his home and leaves for the north Michigan woods on a camping trip. He leaves by himself, hoping that the routine of selecting a good place to camp, setting up a tent, fixing meals, and preparing for fishing will restore peace and a sense of balance to his traumatized soul.
On the way to the woods, Nick passes the ruined, gutted, burned-to-the-ground town of Seney. The first half of this solitary sojourn focuses on passing through Seney and setting up camp, which comprises Part I.
According to Hemingway biographer James R. Mellon, Hemingway regarded "Big Two-Hearted River" as the "climactic story in [his short story collection] In Our Time and the culminating episode in the Nick Adams adventures that he included in the book."
That comment ought to spark the curiosity of readers of this story, for, on the surface, very little happens in the story. Seemingly, it goes nowhere. If, however, one has read Thoreau's Walden, it is relatively easy to see that Hemingway is portraying Nick Adams' attempt to achieve a bonding with nature that Thoreau, in 1845, was seeking when he decided to live a simple, semi-solitary life at Walden Pond. In Walden, Thoreau says: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately . . . and see if I could learn what it had to teach. . . . I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life."
This "living deliberately" is the key to what Nick is seeking through the restorative and recuperative powers of nature. He has seen first-hand the horrors of war (World War I), was seriously injured himself and suffered a mental breakdown. He is searching for some way to put the horrors of these experiences behind him and restore himself to a healthy emotional life. To do so, he feels that he must isolate himself from the rest of humanity until he regains his own sense of sanity and humanity.
Interestingly, trout fishing plays an important role for many of Hemingway's male characters. For example, in The Sun Also Rises, the main character, Jake Barnes, who, like Nick, was seriously wounded in the war, goes with his best friend to the Spanish Mountains for some trout fishing, especially when he is about to lose control of his life. Ultimately, the traditional Christian symbols of fishing and water become symbolic of Nick's being rebaptized into life. However, even though two prominent Western world symbols have been mentioned thus far, this is not a story whose meaning relies on symbols. Instead, it is a realistic account of a fishing trip during which Nick regains control of his life.
Two major, over-arching themes can be seen in each part: recovery in Part I and recollection in Part II.
Nick's recovery begins here as Nick goes alone to a deserted area along the fictional Two-Hearted River (Michigan's Fox River) in the upper peninsula of northern Michigan, where he can see Lake Superior from a hilltop, where "there was no town, nothing but the rails and the burned-over country. . . . It was all that was left of the town of Seney." The symbolism here is fairly obvious: Nick is leaving the burned, destroyed portions of his life behind, hoping and searching for renewal on the rich, green, and fertile river bank of the big Two-Hearted River. Nick, however, does not go immediately to the river; instead, he gets off the train and pauses on a bridge, watching trout that are far below him in the stream. It is important to note here that Nick is looking down onto the river and the trout, which will both be living, breathing symbols that are essential to Nick's healing later. The trout are all steadily floating in deep, fast-moving water. Hemingway uses another important symbol here: the kingfisher, a brightly-colored bird that dives just under the water's surface for fish. This is most definitely a metaphor for the facile, healthy spiritual state that Nick is seeking on this solitary camping trip. The bird's ability to fly is a traditional symbol for spiritual ascension and the ability to transgress beyond worldly cares, and the bird's ability to go underneath the surface and pluck things out of the river and digest them is a metaphor for what Nick needs to do to transmutate his unpleasant memories. He follows the river from a distance, for some time, delaying gratification before deciding on a place for his camp. He wants to begin his healing in the woods deliberately and with discipline. Throughout the story, he will be isolated from other people. He will not see or communicate with anyone.
When he sees the trout moving about in the pools of the river, he feels an elation that he has not felt for a long time. Nick saw trout in the stream below the bridge; his "heart tightened as the trout moved." Then, leaving the burned town behind him, Nick "felt happy. He felt he had left everything behind, the need for thinking, the need to write, other needs. It was all back of him." These key ideas, then, are the essence of this story: Nick has escaped into his own world where the mere sight of trout influences his responses. He is at one with this world: "He did not need to get his map out. He knew where he was from the position of the river."
As Nick walks through Seney, he notices that even the surface of the ground has been burned. The black, sooty ruin of Seney represents the atrocities of war and its devastating effect on Nick's psycho-emotional well being. Here, he walks through it and notices that even the grasshoppers are covered with soot, much the same way that Nick himself is still covered with "soot" from the war.
However, note that Nick does not go to the river immediately. He wants to get as far upstream as he can in one day's walking. Even though he stops and instinctively knows that the river cannot be more than a mile north of where he is, being tired, he takes off his backpack and sleeps on the ground until the sun is almost down.
The description of Nick's putting up the tent, smoothing the ground, chopping stakes, pulling the tent taut, hanging cheesecloth over the front — all of these components coalesce and make Nick feel happy: "He had made his camp. He was settled. Nothing could touch him. It was a good place to camp."
Hemingway is famous for avoiding three-syllable, high-flown adjectives; instead, he uses simple adjectives such as "good." Here, this was a "good place" to camp.
Afterward, Nick makes his supper — a can of pork and beans mixed with a can of spaghetti. As the two ingredients cook together, Nick inhales a "good" smell — not a "superb aroma" — just simply a "good" smell.
Nick is trying to return to basics, to regain a sense of the simplicity of life; thus Hemingway presents his camping trip in its simplest terms. Even though Nick eats plain, canned food, he describes it lovingly: " . . . he had been that hungry before, but had not been able to satisfy it." His hunger is satisfied both literally and metaphorically. And again, he pronounces his camp "good." Later, Nick again asserts that there "were plenty of good places to camp on the river. But this was good."
Hemingway presents a moving picture of Nick making camp with meticulous, detailed descriptions that add a methodical, ritualized dimension. It is this solitary, repetitive, methodical action of making camp that frees Nick's mind from stress, bad memories, and the cares of the world. It is a moving meditation unto itself, providing Nick with a mind-numbing and pain-relieving sense of calm and relaxation. Nick's own moving meditation here in the woods is no different from the traditional Eastern image of the spiritual seeker who sits on a mountaintop, chanting "om" and other mantras while in deep meditation.
Thought and grief are inexorably linked in Nick's mind now, and this moving meditation heals him.
Nick then turns his focus on making camp coffee; he remembers a guy named Hopkins, who considered himself an expert on making camp coffee. We know no more about this person than is presented in this single paragraph, but the mood of the paragraph invokes a sense of "long ago," in stark contrast to the very vivid "now" that Nick is creating for himself. Then, long ago, Nick and Bill and Hopkins were young and joyous, carefree, and dreamily optimistic. Their youthful days of irresponsibility were broken, however, when Hopkins received a telegram informing him that he was suddenly very rich; back in Texas, his first big oil well had hit pay dirt. Hopkins immediately promised his two buddies that he'd take them sailing on the yacht that he was going to buy. Nick never heard from Hopkins again.
The implication is that Hopkins was swallowed by the world of money and materialism and forgot about such basic values as friendship. Similarly, Nick once believed in the glory of war and was almost killed by the machines of war, yet he survived and has come "home" to nature to restore his physical and mental health.
The dinner and the ritualistic way Nick drinks his coffee in the "Hopkins" manner put Nick back in touch with past friends and associations that bring back some good memories.
The last two paragraphs of Part I conclude with Nick's preparation for sleep, as he crawls into his tent and feels sleep coming. This concludes the first of two major, over-arching themes in the story: the period of recollection for Nick, as it encompasses the war, good memories prior to the war, and connects Nick to Nature itself. Nature is a living, breathing, presence that Nick merges with to move beyond stress and ill health back to good health and creativity. It is a quiet and peaceful break that firmly cements the first theme before Nick enters into the world of the river and fishing in Part II.
burnt timber The reference is to the forest fire that destroyed vast acres of woodland, as well as the town of Seney, Michigan.
convex having a surface that bulges outward.
cinders burned remains.
jack pines North American evergreens with soft wood and short, twisted needles.
swale a slightly lower tract of land either created or caused by running water.
cheesecloth coarsely, loosely woven gauze.
The northern peninsula of Michigan is the setting for many of Hemingway's Nick Adams stories: "Indian Camp," "The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife," "The End of Something," "The Three-Day Blow," and Parts I and II of "Big Two-Hearted River." This country was intensely familiar to Hemingway; he grew up fishing, hunting, hiking, and camping along the rivers and in the woods and hills of this region.
Horton Bay, in "The End of Something," is referred to as Hortons Bay; today, the once-burned-out town of Seney has been rebuilt. In "The Three-Day Blow," Bill tells Nick Adams that had Nick continued dating Marjorie, he would not be drinking scotch with Bill in the cabin; he'd be living a boring, middle-class life with Marjorie in Charlevoix; Nick reluctantly agrees.
After Nick is wounded, physically and psychologically, during his stint as a soldier in Italy during World War I, he returns to the woods of northern Michigan and camps along the Two-Hearted River, fishing for trout and slowly restoring serenity and peace to his broken mind and emotions.
Hemingway's father had a summer cabin, Windemere, here in the northern peninsula; it was along the streams and rivers, where they fished and camped, that Dr. Hemingway taught his son the skills and codes of life — especially living outdoors, independently, on one's own.