It was the summer of 1970, and I was in Alan Trachtenberg’s course on Faulkner and Hemingway. When it came time for our paper on Hemingway, he gave us free rein: “You pick,” he said. “A pattern or technique in one of these five stories as it contributes to meaning.” He then listed the titles of five stories.
I had already been teaching Hemingway for years. Of the titles Professor Trachtenberg had listed, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” had long struck me as one of the most finely crafted short stories in the American literary canon. I loved teaching it…and my students thoroughly enjoyed grappling with its images and discerning the stages of Francis’s growth into manhood as he evolved from a rather feckless socialite into a true hunter. And at the end, was it murder…or just an accident? Energetic class discussions erupted annually.
But I’d always had this nagging feeling that Hemingway was doing something with the animals in the story—hare, laddybuck, eland, lion…you name it. Something…but I wasn’t sure what. I’m the kind of person who tends not to know what he really thinks until he writes about it—until I have time to sit down, re-read, think, analyze, and put the entire puzzle back together, if you see what I mean. (During the school year, with four classes to teach and two sports to coach, I had no time for such interesting sidetracks that demand focus and concentration.) But since it was now July and I was in Vermont away from classrooms and soccer fields and crew shells, I told Professor Trachtenberg that I would take a look at the role of the animals.
Due date: July 20. Gulp. Not much time to get it done, along with regular assignments in both this and my other course. What if I came up with nada, zip…NOTHING; what if they were just there, minding their own business, being animals, critters being used for background detail by yet another author? I would be up the creek, or up that two-hearted river at least.
But the deeper I got into “Short Happy Life” focusing just on its animals and their roles, the more my excitement grew. I was really onto something. My gut feeling had been right. I ended up finding that “Hemingway uses his animal menagerie as a standard against which to measure and evaluate his human actors. Furthest in the background lurk what can be called his ‘social’ animals; in the middle distance loom the disparaging animals of direct criticism; in the foreground tower the personified foils with which the main characters are identified and compared.” So I stated in my introductory paragraph.
In the process, I realized, too, that Hemingway had constructed the story as a five-act tragedy. In the shameful present forming what we can call the first act, Macomber is compared to a rabbit, but by the fourth and fifth acts that depict his short “happy life” and death (followed by wife Margot’s submission to Wilson’s relentless questioning), he is first linked to a lion and then to the powerful cape buffalo that lies just a few feet from his own dead body. It’s his fearful and ambitious wife who has become the predator, the huntress, aware that she has lost her control over her husband. She tells Wilson the white hunter that she was just trying to save Francis as the bull charged and seemed about to gore her husband. But with her 6.5 Mannlicher rifle, she shot and hit not the bull buffalo but Francis—“two inches up and a little to one side of the base of his skull.”
The beauty lies in the details. What kind of rifle? The bullet struck exactly where? The contrast between the causes of Macomber’s nausea and the wounded lion’s during the lion hunt; the rage felt by the lion…and later by Macomber. The blank, expressionless voices used by both Wilson and Macomber when the first bull, wounded, gets up and disappears into the bush. All these little details, these subtle links, each with its own implications…and the list goes on.
A superb story so finely crafted: Hemingway at his very best. Professor Trachtenberg liked my paper, “The Critical Menagerie.” With minor adjustments, it was published the following January in English Journal and has since been cited in other critical studies of Hemingway. Bread Loaf provided the setting and the catalyst for my leap of faith.
Lee Gaillard MA ‘70 has served in the Marine Corps Reserves, worked in publishing and industry, and spent decades as a teacher and administrator in independent secondary schools.