Landscapes real and imagined: "Big Two-Hearted River."
Hemingway Review, Fall, 1996
by Frederic J. Svoboda
AT LEAST A PART of the subtext of "Big Two-Hearted River" unfamiliar to present readers but likely to have been known by at least some readers at the time the story was written--and almost certainly known to Hemingway from his years of summers in northern Michigan--involves the history and legends of Seney, a logging town in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Hemingway describes the burned-down town, surrounded by blackened timber:
There was no town, nothing but the rails and the burned-over country. The thirteen saloons that had lined the one street of Seney had not left a trace. The foundations of the Mansion House Hotel stuck up above the ground. The stone was chipped and split by the fire. It was all that was left of the town of Seney. Even the surface had been burned off the ground. (CSS 163)
The implication is that Nick Adams had sometime earlier seen and had expected to return to an intact Seney, had once counted the thirteen saloons (an ominous number) and perhaps had stayed at the Mansion House Hotel. Now he seems to have returned after a recent fire to what seems more like a fought-over battlefield than a welcoming place of comfort. Civilization has disappeared with the train that has disappeared behind one of the "hills of burnt timber," and the only comfort left to replace the Mansion House is the bedroll on which Nick sits. This implication of earlier experience may well be appropriate in the context of a piece of fiction in which, as Sheridan Baker first noted, Hemingway transplants a different river's name to the prosaically named Fox, the actual stream which runs south through Seney, eventually to join the Manistique and empty into Lake Michigan. We should not take that implication to represent a biographical truth about Hemingway, of course. Nor should we ignore Hemingway's skill in creating a fictional world.
Still, a careful examination of the facts--and legends--of Seney, Michigan, may help to elucidate something of what went into the writing of this famous story. It may also influence our reading of "Big Two-Hearted River."
In fact, the heyday of Seney came in the 1880s and 90s, before Hemingway was born in 1899, although well within the living memory of residents of his upper Michigan. The "thirteen saloons" that Nick saw, Hemingway could have known of only through locals' tales of the lumbering Seney made infamous by local storytellers, muckraking journalists, and the legends they jointly spawned.
The actual Seney began to become important in about 1882 as a junction between a railroad mainline and two spur lines that pushed into the woods north and south, carrying lumbermen to their camps and logs to the Manistique River for the spring lumber drives to the mills in Manistique, on the north shore of Lake Michigan (Bohn 30). Seney was founded as the Alger, Smith Company began logging the white pine forest, huge trees five and six feet in diameter (Martin 131). Soon six great companies and a number of smaller ones would join in raping the woods.
Aside from railway and lumber offices clustered along the tracks of the Duluth, South Shore and Atlantic Railroad, Seney at first had only one boardinghouse, Carlson's, although a Canadian named Phil Grondin would soon quit his job cooking in an Alger, Smith camp to found the first of Seney's hotels and bars, as well as a retail store (Martin 128-29). Grondin would be burned out twice, first in 1891 and again in the mid 1890s, perhaps as late as 1896 or 97 as the town collapsed, but he would endure as Seney's long time resident.
The winter of 1882-83 was one of six foot snows which led to a waterlogged spring as the log and brush jammed Fox River regularly overflowed its banks. Even after building plank sidewalks a foot above ground level, residents slogged through mud and water all spring (Martin 129). Because of the regular flooding of the Fox River, Seney's houses all were reportedly built on pilings (WPA Guide 561). In 1884 Grondin's hotel went up (Martin 129) followed by a host of others.
By 1890 Seney had reached its peak winter (logging season) population of about 3,000, although reportedly they wouldn't all hold still for a regular census (Martin 129). Of settled residents there were perhaps 300, including one doctor for an area that stretched fifty miles in either direction to east and west and from Lake Superior on the north to Lake Michigan on the south (Bohn 21, 31). Probably the most credible witness to Seney in its heyday was physician Frank P. Bohn, M.D., who arrived after a circuitous rail journey in July 1890, aged 24, to replace a friend who had moved on to more civilized Montana (Bohn 28, Memorial Record 406). Bohn reports that his circuitous trip might have been shortened had he done as the lumberjacks and asked for a ticket to "Hell," rather than to Seney.(1) In Seney, Bohn found not the thirteen saloons of "Big Two-Hearted River," but fourteen saloons (seven combined with hotels) and only one hotel neither incorporating a saloon nor serving liquor. It was the pretentious Hotel White House, owned by the Duluth, South Shore and Atlantic Railroad, one of whose directors, George L. Seney of New York, had been unlucky enough to lend his name to the budding Gomorrah (Martin 128, 130; C. Baker, Life 574).(2) There also was one restaurant, two drug stores, two general stores, and a number of logging company and railroad buildings, including the Seney station on the D.S.S. & A.R.R. main line and a roundhouse on the Manistique Railroad logging spur north. On the south side of the tracks apart from the business district were a Catholic church and a school (Bohn 23).
If the Hotel White House did not host a saloon, it made no difference. A total of twenty-one different places in town dispensed liquor, and then there were the brothels. As the slightly reticent Dr. Bohn put it,
At the westerly outskirts and across the [Fox] river and again at some distance to the north and west, where the forest now has made re-possession, stood two rival institutions--intensely rival in fact--where much of the hectic history of the day was written. These were sporting houses, each allied to a saloon in the business section, where also the spirit of rivalry was carried on. (31)
Those commercial rivalries would eventually require Dr. Bohn's attention, as seemingly daily did the normal ebb and flow of lumberjack interactions. Even on his first Christmas in Seney--25 December 1890--Bohn found no peace in his time. Instead, he spent the entire day treating injuries received in drunken fights between the "ardent he-men from the big woods" (180-81):
It was not, therefore, wholly in the Christmas spirit, as that spirit is traditionally understood, that our impressive guests from the back-regions celebrated their holiday. The most marked and constant features of that day, and the nights before and after, indicated that brotherly love was absent and that peace on earth was both gone and forgotten. It was at these times, and at the break-up of camp when the spring [lumber] drives on the river began, that Seney acquired the reputation which made it possible for the pilgrim, who journeyed thither, to ask for a ticket to hell and be sure of being understood as wanting to go to Seney.... Holiday ended, the men went back to camp, or at the camp break-up, back home, sobered, some of them "broke," sometimes scarred, but usually without bearing malice or carrying grudges growing out of their fights. (181-82)
By spring of 1893 these more amiable interactions of the lumberjacks had given way to the spirit of commercial competition between the town's two leading sporting proprietors. A bitter rivalry grew between Tom Harcourt and Dan Dunn, a man suspected of arson and at least two murders, until, in his own saloon, Dunn was shot at by Tom's brother Steve, punctuating the division of the town into Dunn and Harcourt camps. Dr. Bohn was called from his office in the Hotel White House to treat a gunshot wound in Dunn's hand. Later on he was summoned to the Harcourt saloon, where Steve Harcourt had made his way despite bullet wounds to the neck and abdomen which proved fatal (Martin 146; Bohn 182). Later that same spring, another of the deceased Steve Harcourt's brothers, Jim, met Dan Dunn in a saloon at Trout Lake, a railway junction east south-east of Seney. Both were under a bond to keep the peace; Dunn died, and Jim Harcourt was sentenced to prison on a charge of manslaughter. He eventually was paroled as a result of his wife's lobbying and a petition by Schoolcraft County residents. In true frontier fashion he went on to a distinguished career as Clerk and then Supervisor of Seney Township (Martin 146-47).
Of the legends of Seney, the longest lived--and most varied in its retelling--is that of the implausible "Ram's Pasture," reportedly a stockade in which shanghaied lumberjack slaves slept, guarded by mastiffs and armed men. (One wonders who actually would have undertaken to enslave so unlikely a group as lumberjacks, large men who carried axes in the course of their work.) In other versions of the story, reported in such venues as the sensational National Police Gazette and involving several locations in Michigan and Wisconsin, the legendary stockade was inhabited by working girls: white slaves guarded by fierce dogs trained not to let them out, but to allow their lumberjack customers free entry. These stories may have arisen out of lumberjack tall tales to gullible newsmen and other visitors. (Several were published a suspicious week or two after April Fool's Day.) They never have been verified, although they still are retold in one form and another (Martin 150-51). Dr. Bohn's comment was to the point: "I can only say that nothing of the kind came under my observation, and as the community physician whose practice extended into all the strata of community life, I became rather well acquainted with conditions" (31-32).
In the aftermath of the cutting of the pine, Seney was played out before the turn of the century, and some of its surrounding acreage burned, although exact fire records seem not to exist. (Widespread fires were reported throughout Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota in the very dry year of 1894 ["Terrible ..." 71].) As one historian of Seney reports:
Fires swept through the slashings unchecked, time and again, except when they threatened an operating camp. The intense heat of the resinous wood burned deeply into the ground consuming any humus that might be present. The burned over land had the appearance of a modern battlefield where army after army had fought back and forth over the same territory. (Reimann 187-88)
When in about 1894 the railroad extended north some twenty-five miles to Grand Marais on the shore of Lake Superior, Dr. Bohn, the Alger, Smith mill, and much of the life of Seney went with it (Martin 151; Bohn 195). Indeed, the pine lumbering industry in general was on the wane for lack of virgin forest to cut ("Girls Lured ..." 7). Official census figures for Seney Township fell radically: 1890: 774; 1900: 254; 1910: 126 (Sawyer 361). The White House Hotel building was moved seven miles south to the somewhat newer and considerably more upright town of Germfask, where it became a store (Bohn 189).(3) Phil Grondin stayed as owner of the remaining general store, living in Seney at least until the 1930s (Bohn 22). Bohn went on via a secondary career in local politics, boosted by his past as official physician to the politically powerful railroad, to serve as a state senator and member of the United States Congress.
In about 1911, much of the logged and burned swampland near Seney was drained by a development company and sold as farmland. Discovering the land was worthless for farming, the buyers reportedly abandoned it the next year (DuFresne 116), and it began to return to scrubby, second growth pine, since the 1930s a wildlife preserve which continues to be subject to fires, on and off, to the present day. When water levels are low in the reconstituted swamps, even the surface burns off the peaty ground.
In late August or early September of 1919 three young men, high school friends from the Chicago suburbs, arrived on a fishing trip. They were Al Walker, Jack Pentecost, and Ernest Hemingway (C. Baker, Life 63; SL 28), and their experiences would contribute to the Seney of "Big Two-Hearted River."
The young war veteran Ernest Hemingway would never have seen the old, roaring Seney of nineteenth century lumbering days, although he might well have heard of it from storekeeper Phil Grondin or some other resident of the Seney of 1919--or from the legendary accounts which even today circulate orally in northern Michigan. When he and Jock and Al stepped from the train, they stepped into a small crossroads village, not quite into an landscape reminiscent of the no man's land of the western front Hemingway never saw at first hand, although some who had been there made the comparison to the burned over pine plains at Seney. Historian of northern Michigan Lewis C. Reimann, for example, found an echo of the Great War's most famous battlefields, and their cemeteries, in what he called the "whitened (sic) sepulchres," white pine stumps "now a cemetery like the bleached markers which dot the fields of Flanders" (188). Other observers saw the bare trunks, cut far above the ground during the deep snows of northern Michigan winters, as looming above the sometimes swampy landscape like the trunks of trees in a no man's land stripped by artillery.
There had never been a "Mansion House Hotel," and Hemingway had not stayed there or at its real life prototype, the Hotel White House long since gone not to flames, but to Germfask. Unlike the three young men in a fragmentary early draft of the story, he and his friends would not have found four gun barrels in the hotel's ruins, "pitted and twisted by the heat" with cartridges in one magazine melted so they "formed a bulge of lead and copper" (JFK MS Item 279, first quoted in Oldsey 219).(4)
Of his reactions to Seney at the time, we have the enthusiasm of Hemingway's mid-September 1919 letter to fellow American Red Cross ambulance driver and fisherman Howell Jenkins: ...
The Fox is priceless. The big fox is about 4 or five times as large as the Black [River, east of Petoskey] and has ponds 40 feet across. The little Fox is about the size of the Black and lousy with them [trout]. Jock caught one that weighed 2 lbs. 15 and a half of the inches. I got one 15 inches on the fly! Also one 14 inches. We caught about 200 and were gone a week. We were only 15 miles from the Pictured Rocks on Lake Superior. Gad that is great country. I saw several deer and put three shots in one at about 40 yds with the 22 machine gun [his Colt Woodsman .22 semiautomatic pistol]. But didn't stop him. Jo heesus an be Guy Mawd Fever I lost one on the Little Fox below an old dam that was the biggest trout I've ever seen. I was up in some old timbers and it was a case of horse out. I got about half of him out of wasser and my hook broke at the shank! He struck on 4 hoopers. He was as big as any rainbow I've ever caught. I tried for him for 4 different days later but he only struck once and felt like a ton of the bricks. There are no [illegible, probably "mosquitoes"] up there and very few flack Blies [black flies, bane of the Michigan outdoorsman].... (SL 28-29. My, comments.)
If the tension and disillusionment of the fictional Nick existed within the Hemingway of late summer 1919, they are very well masked here. They must be similarly well masked in his letter to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas of 15 August 1924, describing the composition of the story in an adolescent, geewhiz tone at least partly assumed. By 1924 Hemingway was certainly no gushing adolescent, no matter what he might have wished Stein to believe.
I'm trying to do the country like Cezanne and having a hell of a time and getting it a little bit. It is about 10.0 pages long and nothing happens and the country is swell. I made it all up, so I see it all and part of it comes out the way it ought to, it is swell about the fish, but isn't writing a hard job, though? It used to be easy before I met you. Certainly was bad, Gosh, I'm awfully bad now but it's a different sort of bad. (SL 122. My italics.)
In at least some senses Hemingway is making it all up, as a little examination of the story's and Michigan's topography will demonstrate. For example, take the midpoint of Nick's first day hiking north from Seney (in Part I of the story). Near the real, logged over Seney of 1919, Nick never could have walked in a grove of old growth pines, although in Hemingway's description of one of the "islands of pine trees" with their high branches, Nick seems to journey back in time to the forest primeval. This seems to work in much the same way as Hemingway's earlier implication that Nick had seen the nineteenth century Seney of lumberjacks and saloons. (In a draft of the 1933 story "Fathers and Sons" Hemingway would again use the image of tree trunks rising high before their first branches and would specifically identify the image as representing virgin forest [JFK MS Item 383].) In Michigan, the old growth pines are today found at Hartwick Pines State Park, once an overlooked lumber tract near Grayling in the Lower Peninsula, where one may bend backward to see "the trunks straight and brown ... the branches high. Some interlocked to make a solid shadow on the forest floor" (CSS 166). As Nick rests in the grove of original pines, ghost pines, he may again feel "all the old feeling" as he did seeing the trout in the Fox/Big Two-Hearted River (164). These old feelings in the story may not be only the feelings Nick felt once before on a previous trip, but feelings of age, even antiquity, or of things somehow immortal. By 1919 near Seney the trees that evoked these feelings would have been logged away. Hemingway is "making [them] up" much as he made up Nick's implied earlier trip to lumber-era Seney.(5)
After his nap in the "island of pines" Nick turns west and eventually begins to make camp in an area of sweet fern and jack pine. Reference to the facts of Michigan botany will tell us that as Nick makes camp, he is out of the burned landscape of the scourged Seney in which he began, but not out of the danger of fire. Nor does he yet remain in the zone of the old growth white pines of legend and imagination. Nick's camp in fern and jack pine has a meaning hidden in the Michigan subtext of the story, for as it happens, both fern and jack pine are opportunistic colonists after fire. The generally scrubby jack pines are a notoriously flammable species that must burn in order to release the seeds from their cones. Without fire, they do not reseed themselves, are succeeded by other species and die out. Thus, as he camps near them, the fictional Nick is not really out of the fire zone, but in an area in which regrowth after fire is linked with the story's themes of potential death and potential regeneration.
Nick also is growing up, controlling his experiences. To consider a parallel from earlier in the chronology of Nick Adams's life, the older, more experienced Nick of "Big Two-Hearted River" is unlike the younger Nick of "The Battler" who found himself alone and afraid on a railroad through a swamp at the end of an earlier day. The younger Nick felt he "must get to somewhere" (CSS 97), an ambiguously identified "somewhere" and followed the railroad not to safety but to a dangerous encounter with Ad Francis, the half crazed little boxer, near Mancelona in Michigan's Lower Peninsula. The older Nick strikes out away from the railroad and the other remnants of man's works at Seney. (We can take much the same walk in today's Michigan.) Nick feels secure: his knowledge of topography tells him where the river is. Eventually Nick is "glad to get to the river" (166), a definitely located natural feature, not the ambiguous "somewhere" of "The Battler."(6)
In "Big Two-Hearted River" as in no other Nick Adams story, we see a Nick who finds a way to control his world and his life. He can do so of course only within the limits of human control, but he seems to find strength in connecting with the natural world and accepting his human limits. The Nick of "The Battier" seems more typical of the Nick Adams character, continually thinking he has learned from experience and continually proving through his actions that he has not learned so much as he might have hoped. That younger Nick learned that actions in the real world have real consequences, and continually forgot that lesson during the course of "The Battler." The middle-aged Nick of "Fathers and Sons" despite his ability to evoke wonderful images of his Michigan childhood and of his relationship to his own father, is unable to communicate these adequately to his own son. At the end of that story, the son asks Nick to take him to the tomb of his grandfather, but we can see Nick doing his best to avoid dealing with Dr. Adams' death and defeat. Placed alone in a real and imagined Michigan, the Nick of "Big Two-Hearted River" need not face such complications. He need deal only with himself.
In "Big Two-Hearted River" we live with Nick in a world that becomes more real to us as readers as it involves questions of life and death. We live in a Michigan selected by Hemingway to parallel Nick's states of mind as he looks for control. The story stays rooted in the historical and legendary Seney even as Nick hikes away from Seney, moving into a timeless Michigan, a Michigan of the writer's and the readers' imaginations in which much more seems implicated than only the lives and deaths of insects--"hoopers"--and trout. Still, Seney is the story's starting point, in Hemingway's imagination and in ours. It sets the story's mood, and it deserves our attention.
(1.) Today there is a town officially named Hell in honor of the lumberjacks' joke. However, the current Hell is in lower Michigan.
(2.) Some others less probably report the town's name as a corruption of "Sheeny's Place" for a Jewish fur buyer's trading post (Reimann 71).
(3.) Jack Jobst suggests a different fate for the hotel based on recent interviews; see his excellent Michigan History article (24). I've chosen to rely on Dr. Bohn's recollections of the 1930s.
(4.) The image of those gun barrels would not be thrown away by Hemingway, of course, but would reappear in 1936 in the ashes of Harry's grandfather's cabin in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" (50) as an image of waste and of the old man's pride, paralleling the image of Nick's father's burned Indian arrowheads and preserved snake specimens in "Now I Lay Me."
(5.) Much later in the story Nick sits on the gray, barkless logs that dam the stream (CSS 177). We are back in real time, in the 1919 in which these remaining logs are already timeworn. Later, after catching the second big trout, Nick will have to strike a match twice because of the decay of the surface of a hollow log on which he sits (179), a log which the evidence of Michigan history suggests to us has been there for longer than Nick has lived.
(6.) Of course the Michigan of "Big Two-Hearted River" is not wholly or perhaps even primarily a symbolic Michigan, however much it may be a fictionally reconstructed one. Yet all of the story's Michigan has its symbolic resonances. To take another example, in the description of feeding trout just breaking the surface of the water so as to look like rain (CSS 166) we find an absolutely accurate, realistic detail of the natural world of northern Michigan, familiar to fisherman and hikers. As Nick sees them and as they may be seen today, the tiny, spreading concentric circles left as trout rise for insects floating on the water's surface seem precisely like those left by drops of a gentle rain. But in the story as in reality they are not gentle rain' dropping from heaven, but life and death for the insects and the trout.
Adair, William. "Landscapes of the Mind: `Big Two Hearted River.'" College Literature 4 (1977): 144-51.
Baker, Carlos. Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story. New York: Scribner's, 1969.
Baker, Sheridan. "Hemingway's Two-Hearted River." The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: Critical Essays. Ed. Jackson Benson. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1975. 150-59.
Bohn, Frank P. as told to A. L. Miller. "This Was the Forest Primeval." Michigan History 21 (Winter 1937): 21-38; 21 (Spring 1937): 178-96.
Bowen's Michigan State Atlas. Indianapolis, IN: n.p., 1916.
Detroit Free Press (3-15 Sept. 1894) has accounts of fires in the lumber country.
DuFresne, Jim. Michigan: Off the Beaten Path. Chester, CT: Globe Pequot, 1988.
"Girls Lured to Ruin: Taken from Their Homes and Kept in Stockades." National Police Gazette (1 June 1895): 7.
"He Owned the Camp: A Lively Time in Michigan Lumber Camps." National Police Gazette (21 Dec. 1889): 6.
Hemingway, Ernest. The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: The Finca Vigia Edition. New York: Scribner's, 1987.
--. Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters, 1917-1961. Ed. Carlos Baker. New York: Scribner's, 1981.
Jobst, Jack. "Hemingway in Seney." Michigan History 74.6 (November/December 1990): 20-25.