Hemingway and O’Brien: Plunging Through Prose

Editor's Note: SDHC blog writer Ryan Woodard reflects on Tim O'Brien's 2017 South Dakota Festival of Books presentation "Timmy and Tad and Papa and I: Discussing Writing in General and Responding to Hemingway in Particular." The keynote lecture by O'Brien (pictured above) took place at the Deadwood Mountain Grand Event Center. 

Forming Connections Through Words

By Ryan Woodard

When I was 13, I read "The Things They Carried."

I took it from my dad's basement bookshelf, which is filled with classics. Years later, I still periodically pluck a book or two from the shelf. The choice is difficult. Choosing between Faulkner, Hemingway, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and Eliot is a bit like picking your favorite child.

One night this past January, I decided to re-read "The Things They Carried" and a book of short stories by Ernest Hemingway.

I knew Tim O'Brien was coming to the Festival of Books. I wanted his writing to be fresh in my mind before I interviewed him for this blog. That night, his book was a logical choice. But why Hemingway? He's certainly never going to attend another book event (although I'm guessing that if he did, he would be stuck signing an autograph or two). I'm never going to interview him.

I have no idea.

Or maybe I do.

In a few hours, I'd read the title story and a few others from "The Things They Carried" and Hemingway's "The Short Happy Life of Frances Macomber." Frances Macomber, an aspiring safari hunter, wants to prove his mettle to his straying wife by conquering a wild buffalo.

Hemingway's startling description of the hunters' chaotic chase gave me pause. "The car was going a wild forty-five miles an hour across the open and as Macomber watched, the buffalo got bigger and bigger until he could see the gray, hairless, scabby look of one huge bull and how his neck was part of his shoulders and the shiny black of his horns as he galloped a little behind the others that were strung out in that steady plunging gait and then, the car swaying as though it had just jumped a road, they drew up close and he could see the plunging hugeness of the bull, and the dust in his sparsely haired hide..."

Hemingway's description of these bulls makes you a little nervous; like they could get you.

I was so moved that I emailed my dad a photo of the page along with a quick note: "love the description of the buffalo." It was uncommon for me; I rarely check my phone when I'm reading a book, let alone email or text.

"Yes," he replied. "He puts you there." My dad, an English professor of 40 years who once moved to Mississippi to learn more about Faulkner, understood.

Ernest Hemingway poses with a water buffalo while on safari in Africa, 1953-1954. Photograph from the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, Boston. Hemingway depicts a buffalo hunt in the short story

Ernest Hemingway poses with a water buffalo while on safari in Africa, 1953-1954. Hemingway depicts a buffalo hunt in the short story "The Short Happy Life of Frances Macomber." Photograph from the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, Boston.

O'Brien Talks Hemingway

Eight months later, O'Brien talked Hemingway during his book festival keynote lecture, "Timmy and Tad and Papa and I: Discussing Writing in General and Responding to Hemingway in Particular."

Hemingway's influence on O'Brien isn't surprising. They are war novelists known for powerfully descriptive writing. Hemingway is a legend; O'Brien is approaching that status. So, I didn't think much of the lecture title when I saw it on the schedule a couple of months ago.

I thought a lot about it as I sat in O'Brien's audience at the book festival.

He talked about how a book of Hemingway's short stories had changed his life. The fact that the book was a gift from his own father made the work by "Papa" Hemingway especially meaningful.

Then he said he was captivated by Hemingway's repeated and profound use of the word "plunging" to describe a buffalo charging across a field.

O'Brien said the word was an unusual choice, but that Hemingway had used it perfectly in his short story, three times in two pages.

I froze. That same word choice had stopped me eight months ago, while a copy of "The Things They Carried," which has stopped me more times than the stoplight at 41st St and Louise Ave in Sioux Falls, sat nearby on the nightstand.

'Plunging Gait'

I hadn't thought about the buffalo since January. Now, once again, I could see their "plunging gait" in the crosshairs of my mind, as if it was the scope on Macomber's rifle.

As writers, O'Brien said, we pore over every page, stopping at certain words.

Hemingway's buffalo don't run across fields and get shot; they gallop with a "plunging hugeness" and are toppled by bullets that "whunk" into their sides after the hunter's rifle explodes with a "carawonging roar."

Listening to the lecture, I was stopped once again, this time by what seemed like an eerie coincidence.

But maybe it isn't.

Maybe it proves the telepathic power of words, their ability to travel time and space, through people, eras, readers, and writers.

Casually mention your belief in "mental telepathy" to someone, and they'll look at you like you need a mental evaluation. (O'Brien may give you more credit than most, as he's an amateur magician on the side). But "the process of transferring thoughts from one mind to another" (as the term is defined) is what writers do, isn't it?

It's not direct telepathy; Hemingway couldn't read minds or communicate with people like a character from a bad science fiction movie. But his words, years after he died, are still transferring thoughts from one mind to another.

Hemingway's mastery connected me to O'Brien before we had met or spoken to each other. I didn't know that until September, even though the connection formed in January. These words that Hemingway sent off into the world so many years ago hit us both like a "whunk."

Forming Connections

The Festival forms these connections en masse. I discovered one during a single presentation out of approximately 100 Festival events featuring 50-plus authors and more than 9,000 total session attendees.

We read these words, which turn into thoughts, which turn into mental connections we form with each other.

Some are revealed through discussion; others remain a mystery.

Written words are mysterious indeed. They live long after their author is gone. They inhabit our minds like a dream, waiting to emerge if sufficiently encouraged.

Writers excavate them from the depths of their cerebral cortexes, searching for adjectives and nouns that tell unbending truths. Readers cherish them.

Hemingway selected - probably after considering many other adjectives - "plunge." O'Brien rarely chooses the first word that he thinks of; he says he spends up to five days to create a page he considers "passable."

That's why O'Brien's plane doesn't land. It "slides down, and the mountains darken and take on a sinister cragginess."

As Alexander Pope said, "What oft was thought, but ne'er so well express'd."

Hemingway and O'Brien express themselves in ways that will always stop us, and "plunge" us forward in our quest to find those next prodigious adjectives.

They'll perpetually connect readers and writers.

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