At times he put pure gold on paper

Author: `Old Man at the Bridge' was one of Ernest Hemingway's shortest -- and finest -- short stories. Read it to remember -- for today would have been Hemingway's 100th birthday.

July 21, 1999|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

So you might celebrate Ernest Hemingway's 100th birthday today with suckling pig at Botin's off the Plaza Mayor in Madrid, or musing at the table in the Place St. Michel cafe in Paris where he wrote "Up in Michigan," or drinking daiquiris at La Floridita in Havana, where they were invented.

But you might read a pretty good story called "Old Man at the Bridge."

In a world inundated by bad Hemingway, much of which he wrote, sometimes published while he was alive ("Across the River and Into the Trees"), more often posthumously, it's often hard to remember that he was a good writer. Even that dear old curmudgeon Andy Rooney feels licensed to dismiss him. But Hemingway wrote two or three very fine novels and changed the course of American writing in the 20th century.

The exceedingly unHemingway-like novelist John Updike included "The Killers," which is something of a chestnut, although a very good chestnut, when he edited a collection of the best short stories of the century.

But Hemingway wrote a dozen or two of the best short stories of the century, maybe 49. "Old Man at the Bridge" is one of the best and one of the shortest.

Not quite two pages in "The Complete Short Stories," 800 words, and it is perhaps the best piece about refugees ever written.

Thousands of stories have been published over the past few years about refugees from Kosovo, Bosnia, Rwanda. There seems to be an unending stream of refugees -- and stories about them. I've written a couple myself. But none I've read come close to this small masterwork.

Hemingway wrote "Old Man at the Bridge" on Easter Sunday, April 17, 1938, when the Civil War in Spain was ending in the now legendary battle for the Ebro River where Francisco Franco's fascist rebels crushed the forces of the Republican government and the International Brigades.

Written quickly

William B. Watson, an associate professor of history at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who wrote an enlightening article on the story for the Spring 1988 Hemingway Review, guesses that Hemingway wrote "Old Man" in about four or five hours in a Barcelona hotel.

He had traveled 12 hours back and forth from a place called Amposta "in the African-looking country of the Ebro Delta." He filed the story by cable at 11: 10 p.m., when the Barcelona censor stamped it.

The story begins as simply as possible: "An old man with steel rimmed spectacles and very dusty clothes sat by the side of the road."

Hemingway repeated virtually verbatim his earlier notes: "Old man with steel spectacles -- sitting by the dusty road." He took notes on paper folded into quarters like an old-time newspaper reporter, which, of course, he was.

He had returned to the war in Spain for the third time on March 30, 1938. He traveled with Vincent Sheehan, a seasoned foreign correspondent, and James Lardner, the 24-year-old son of writer Ring Lardner who had gone over to cover the war for the New York Herald-Tribune. Lardner quit and joined the American Abraham Lincoln Battalion on the Ebro with the International Brigades.

Hemingway filed a story. Jim Lardner was killed Sept. 22, 1938, just before the brigades were withdrawn.

"There was plenty wrong with Hemingway," said Martha Gellhorn, a fine writer in her own right and Hemingway's wife in 1938. She's quoted by Hemingway biographer Mark Reynolds.

"But nothing [was] wrong with his honest commitment to the Republic of Spain and nothing wrong with his admiration and care for the men in the Brigades and in the Spanish Divisions and nothing wrong with his respect for the Spanish people. He proved it by his actions."

Dispatches from the field

Hemingway filed 31 dispatches for the North American Newspaper Alliance. Thirty were reprinted in the Hemingway Review. Half-a-dozen appear in "By-Line: Ernest Hemingway."

He also contracted to write a biweekly article for Ken, an "anti-fascist and anti-communist magazine," long defunct. "Old Man" went to Ken. He knew he'd written something good.

"The trucks ground up and away heading out of it all and the peasants plodded along in the ankle deep dust. But the old man sat there without moving. He was too tired to go any farther."

In the clean, clear prose of this story, Hemingway sums up the hopelessness of the refugee and the ultimate tragedy of the Spanish Civil war.

The first person narrator -- Hemingway himself, of course -- is acutely aware the enemy is close at hand. He watches the line of refugees thin out, the trucks and carts pass on and sees that no longer is there even anyone on foot. He listens for "that ever mysterious event called contact."

The old man has come 12 kilometers from a town called San Carlos. All of which is in Hemingway's notes about the old man at the Amposta bridge. He had stayed behind to take care of two goats, a cat and four pigeons. (Three cats in Hemingway's notes.)

The narrator urges him to get up and try to walk on.

"Thank you," he said and got to his feet, swayed from side to side and then sat down backwards in the dust.

The old man is 76 -- 12 kilometers from his home and too tired to go on.

"There is a terrible moment of stillness in the story as the narrator has to decide what he will do," says Watson, the MIT professor.

There was nothing to do about him. It was Easter Sunday and the Fascists were advancing toward the Ebro. It was a gray overcast day with a low ceiling so their planes were not up. That and the fact that cats know how to look after themselves was all the good luck that old man would ever have.

Innocent victims

"It is a minor masterpiece," Watson says, "a finely shaped portrait of a moment central to the experience of the Spanish Civil War, indeed of all wars in which ordinary people are innocent victims.

You could read "Old Man at the Bridge" in two minutes, and it would be a fine 100th birthday homage to a man who very often did write the one true sentence that makes all the bad ones forgiveable.

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