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Re-engaging with “The Old Man and the Sea”

If you’re like me, you’ll pack a book when you go away for a few days. It could be something you’re in the middle of, or a new book you’ve been looking forward to starting. Now, if you’re staying at someone’s house, be it a friend, relative, or at an Airbnb, chances are there will be books in the house, perhaps even in your bedroom. If you’re like me, you’ll look at them and think nothing of betraying the book your brought in order to have a short-time fling with a book you just so happen to be staying with.

This happened to me very recently. We were staying in Princeton, New Jersey, in the large and beautiful home of my girlfriend’s brother. Though the large outdoor pool with 85-degree Fahrenheit water was the main attraction, within minutes of arriving I noticed a junior high school favorite in the bookcase in our bedroom: The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway. This book has a prominent place in my life story because the A+ paper I wrote about it as a seventh-grader was my mother’s favorite. She held onto it and talked about it for years. The skill and style I exhibited in that paper may well have been an early inspiration for me becoming a professional writer. Sadly, it’s long gone but both the book and the paper are firmly embedded in my otherwise rapidly evaporating memory base.

In spite of the warmth with which I hold The Old Man and the Sea, I don’t believe I’ve reread it since junior high. It’s a very short book—a novella, really, with no chapters—clocking in at a lean 27,000 words, so I decided I could finish it over the course of the three-and-a-half days we were away. It was a wonderful reading experience, taking me out on the ocean for an adventure with the old man, Santiago, and his quest to reel in a large marlin. I was pleased that I remembered so many of the details in the story: his close relationship with the loyal boy, Manolin; his reverence for the fish he catches and all of nature; and his many references to Joe DiMaggio, whom he holds in near-equal devotion to Christ. In fact, he seems to equate the baseball legend’s bone spurs with Jesus’ suffering on the cross, using both as motivation to continue his quest in spite of his own pains and troubles.

Santiago’s reverence for the marlin, which he refers to as his “brother,” and his humility in the face of its withering dignity struck me especially hard this time around, for it reminded me of my all-time favorite book, James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. I didn’t know about that book in seventh grade; I first read it in a journalism class in college. Agee and photographer Walker Evans had been hired by Fortune magazine in 1936 to report on poor sharecroppers in the American South. Though their article was ultimately rejected, the ensuing manuscript was published in 1941 and became a classic. In his study of three tenant families, Agee repeatedly questions his privilege and notes his discomfort in witnessing and documenting the spare, brutally difficult lives of his simple but hard-working subjects. Both Santiago and Agee feel they have no right to impact the lives of other living beings, yet their respective professions put them in position to do just that.

The Old Man and the Sea was published in 1952. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1953, and helped Hemingway to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954. I read it 23 years later. As I said, I was in seventh grade. I was 13 years old, and I was in an English class taught by the dreaded Mrs. McDonough. Though I hadn’t take a class with her before, she had a reputation for being demanding and strict, even giving homework on the first day of school. I don’t know what else we did that semester, but reading The Old Man and the Sea was clearly a big deal for me and it proved—for me, anyway—that Mrs. McDonough wasn’t so mean after all. She loved my paper, in which I incorporated my own experiences going fishing at summer camp to explain why Santiago could love that which he kills. The last line of my paper was the clincher, though; I ended it by quoting a line in the book: “Sleep well, old man.” That just about melted Mrs. McDonough, and my mother, too.

I never had another class with Mrs. McDonough and hadn’t thought about her much in the ensuing decades, but rereading The Old Man and the Sea brought a surge of happy memories back to me. Needless to say, I still love the book and am planning to buy my own copy so I’ll always have it. Reading it again also brought up new questions, such as why is it titled The Old Man and the Sea and not The Old Man and the Fish, or The Old Man and the Marlin, because the central plot is about him landing and defending that prized creature? I suppose it’s because Santiago was battling not just his prey but his entire environment. The sea had kept his hook barren for 84 days. He’d endured sun and salt water, hosted birds, watched flying fish, killed sharks. He wished he’d planned better. He wished he’d had the boy with him. He wished to be great like DiMaggio. Though his quest ends as a noble failure, he gets what perhaps he needed most: rest, the tender care of the boy, and the respect of his fellow fishermen.

The Old Man and the Sea was Hemingway’s last major work and it’s easy to place him in the character of Santiago. Indeed, I felt much like the boy, Manolin, grateful to learn from him and happy to hold his story in my hands again.

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