Tuesday, August 16, 2011
"The Last Good Country" by Ernest Hemingway
While "The Last Good Country" is included in two collections of Hemingway's short stories (the Finca Vigia Edition Complete Short Stories and The Nick Adams Stories), it is in fact neither a story nor complete. It seems to be the beginning of a novel that Hemingway never came close to finishing. (I base this conclusion on the published text, with the knowledge that Hemingway's posthumous publications sometimes represent only a portion of the manuscripts from which they are edited, as was the case with The Garden of Eden--see the highly illuminating endnotes to Frederick Crews's essay on Hemingway in The Critics Bear it Away.) If he had finished it, "The Last Good Country" may well have been his Huckleberry Finn, a much less comic and much more erotic Finn in which the youthful central character lights out for the unspoiled wilderness in the company of his younger sister and in which the pastoral retreat features incestuous desire, gender-bending and a literalization of Huck's Fiedleresque homoeroticism. It's tempting to grasp at this eroticism and argue that Hemingway was unable to finish this piece because its sexual themes cut too close to the authorial bone (as it were). But I suspect that "The Last Good Country" might have been abandoned for more purely aesthetic reasons. The finished novel/novella would have alternated between the narrative of Nick and his sister in the woods and that of the game wardens' search for them (centering on the town), a classic American contrast between 'wildness' and 'domesticity,' 'country' and 'town,' 'civilization' and 'savagery.' The problem lies in the fact that the 'wilderness' scenes greatly overpower the rest of the story. Everything memorable in the published text, everything interesting, everything original, takes place between Nick and 'Littless' in the woods, and Hemingway surely realized this, surely saw that the form to which he was married required him to spend too much time with characters and situations that were insufficiently inspiring, too many pages with the game wardens and the townsfolk. And so he let this story go and moved on to something else, leaving us with this tantalizing fragment that shows occasional flashes of greatness and leaves me wishing he had lived to reconceive it. It could have been brilliant.