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Thursday, March 10, 2016

Why My Old Man is not one of Hemingway's best stories

Editors Lorrie Moore and Heidi Pitlor select Ernest Hemingway's story My Old Man as one of 3 to represent the 1920s in their anthology, 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories. Clearly this is neither one of Hemingway's best stories nor is it one of the best of the 1920s (American), but their hands are tied - I think they are restricted to stories that appeared in one of the annual Best Short Stories collections - which skew a little toward mid- to late-career stories (easier to go w/ a safe pick than to cast lots on a newcomer) and, if the first 3 stories in the anthology are evidence, with fairly conventional, plot-driven stories that either have a full narrative arc or build to a point of revelatory crisis, or both (though this may be evidence of Moore/Pitlor taste - mine as well, frankly). My Old Man is a first-person narrated account, by a young man, though it's hard to gauge his exact age, either in writing the story (he is looking back on his youth, but he might be no older than a teenager) or the exact age of the events of the story - probably very early puberty, as he develops a crush on a girl he's seen in a cafĂ©, but has no sense of how to meet her or speak to her. Otherwise, his life is entirely male-dominated. His "old man" is a jockey working the tracks in Italy and, later, the Paris region - the young boy is living with his father and going to the track every day - not receiving any formal education. Mother, we learn almost en passant, has died; the boy and father are American, but the father thinks America has gone bad in some way (unspecified) though he wants to go back to the U.S. someday for the boy's education - all this very unspecific. The boy, however, does receive a good education in re European horse racing (as do we), and Hemingway takes special delight in the argot - race horses are "skins," for ex. The heart of the story is the boy's loss of innocence, his gradual if vague dawning knowledge that his father was a cheat - fixing races and trading inside info with other jocks - which causes some trouble for them and leaves his father w/out work for a while. As the story progresses, the father dangerously increases his drinking and his risk-taking, with expected results. The story his the beauty of Hemingway's acute observation and simple prose, but without the concision and allusiveness of his greatest stories - Hills Like White Elephants, Clean Well-Lighted Place, Indian Camp (another father story), two name just 3 - compared w/ which My Old Man is a bit more obvious and explicit. Read it in its time and you'd say it's a fine magazine story but you don't exactly see Hemingway as a ground-breaking writer here who would establish a tone of voice and a set of parameters for the short story that would influence writers for 100 years.

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