Sunday, July 18, 2021

The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife

Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961)
From Ernest Hemingway: The Sun Also Rises & Other Writings 1918–1926

Ernest Hemingway, c. 1905, photographed by his father at Horton Creek near Windemere Cottage, the family summer home on Walloon Lake, Michigan. Image from the Facebook page of the JFK Library.
It remains unclear how a copy of the December 1924 issue of The Transatlantic Review, a literary monthly edited in Paris by Ford Madox Ford and published in London, reached Clarence Hemingway at his home in Oak Park, Illinois. The journal wasn’t widely available in the United States and only twelve issues were ever published; in fact, the December number was actually the last. However it happened, he had a copy in his hands the following March, read the story “The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife” by his son Ernest, and sent a letter to him in Paris:
I know your memory is very good for details and I surely saw that old log on the beach as I read your article — I got out the Old Bear Lake book and showed Carol and Leicester [Ernest’s younger sister and brother] the shots of Nic Boulton and Bill Tabeshaw on the beach sawing the big old beech log. That was when you were 12 years old and Carol was born that summer. Wish, dear boy, that you would send me some of your work often.
Ernest Hemingway’s relief is palpable in the response he wrote to his father. “I’m so glad you liked the Doctor story,” he began. He explained that he had not sent his parents any of his recent work because they had returned the copies of his recent book, in our time, to the publisher, and so he had assumed they “did not want to see any.” According to Ernest’s older sister, Marcelline, their father was offended by the book’s mention of venereal disease and its “vulgar expressions,” and “he would not tolerate such filth in his home.” Little did his parents know that it was actually their son’s second book, since Ernest didn’t have the nerve to show them the first, Three Stories and Ten Poems, which included “Up in Michigan,” a story that, due to its sexual content, he was unable to publish in the United States until 1938.

Because “The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife” reminded his father of a seemingly innocuous event from their past, when an “old beech log” was chopped up during the summer of 1911 at the family’s summer cottage on Walloon Lake (Bear Lake) in Michigan, Hemingway felt he needed to make clear the boundary between the events of his childhood and what he had written on the page. Much of the rest of the letter, then, borders on defensiveness:
I put in Dick Boulton* and Billy Tabeshaw as real people with their real names because it was pretty sure they would never read the Transatlantic Review. I’ve written a number of stories about the Michigan country — the country is always true — what happens in the stories is fiction.

You see I’m trying in all my stories to get the feeling of the actual life across — not to just depict life — or criticize it — but to actually make it alive. So that when you have read something by me you actually experience the thing. You cant do this without putting in the bad and the ugly as well as what is beautiful. Because if it is all beautiful you cant believe in it. . . .

So when you see anything of mine that you dont like remember that I’m sincere in doing it and that I’m working toward something. If I write an ugly story that might be hateful to you or to Mother the next one might be one that you would like exceedingly.
What’s entirely unmentioned in Ernest’s explanation is that the story’s lead characters—the physician Dr. Adams and his wife—resemble in several obvious ways Ernest’s parents, and their portraits can hardly be called flattering. Grace Hemingway was most definitely not a Christian Scientist, however, a detail undoubtedly added to the character of Mrs. Adams to denote a woman with little faith in her husband or his profession. Adding to the autobiographical verisimilitude of “The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife” is the appearance at the story’s end of the young Nick Adams, the character widely regarded as Hemingway’s alter ego. Because he included echoes from his own life in his stories, Hemingway struggled to convince family members that his articles (to use his father’s term) were fiction. “Everything good he’d ever written he’d made up. None of it had happened,” Hemingway wrote in a passage deleted from a later Nick Adams story. “That was what the family couldn’t understand. They thought it was all experience.”

A quarter century later, in 1951, the literary critic Malcolm Cowley was mediating between Philip Young, who was finishing up the first major literary biography of Hemingway, and the author himself, who had become disillusioned by the whole project. “You missed a trick on the story ‘The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife,’” Cowley wrote in a letter to Young. “Hemingway said, ‘It’s a story about my finding out that my father was a coward’—with that key you can see how it fits into the rest of the pattern.” The context in which Cowley learned or remembered this statement is unknown, but when Ernest Hemingway: A Reconsideration appeared the following year, Young included the quote from Hemingway in a footnote while disagreeing with its relevance: “A writer’s intention is not necessarily the same as his accomplishment.”

Nevertheless, biographers and scholars during the last seventy years have been employing this “key” and other clues, both to determine which elements of the Nick Adams stories may have been inspired by known incidents of Hemingway’s biography and to reveal real-life events and details that have somehow remained secret. Often lost in this concern over what’s “real” and what’s “imagined” is an acknowledgment of the power and concision of the story itself; in a tale of just 1,400 words, Hemingway portrays a man whose authority and masculinity are challenged, first in his community and then in his home.

* Although Clarence Hemingway recalls Boulton’s first name as Nic, Ernest refers to him as Dick Boulton, both in his letter and in the story. The latter name is confirmed by documentary evidence for Richard Boulton, including records mentioned by Paul Smith in A Reader's Guide to the Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway (1989), as well as 1910 census records and school archives located by recent online researchers of Native American genealogy.

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For this week’s selection, we depart from the usual format and reproduce the selection, in its entirety, below.
You may also download it as a PDF or view it in Google Docs.


The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife

Dick Boulton came from the Indian camp to cut up logs for Nick’s father. He brought his son Eddy, and another Indian named Billy Tabeshaw with him. They came in through the back gate out of the woods, Eddy carrying the long cross-cut saw. It flopped over his shoulder and made a musical sound as he walked. Billy Tabeshaw carried two big cant-hooks. Dick had three axes under his arm.

He turned and shut the gate. The others went on ahead of him down to the lake shore where the logs were buried in the sand.

The logs had been lost from the big log booms that were towed down the lake to the mill by the steamer Magic. They had drifted up onto the beach and if nothing were done about them sooner or later the crew of the Magic would come along the shore in a rowboat, spot the logs, drive an iron spike with a ring on it into the end of each one and then tow them out into the lake to make a new boom. But the lumbermen might never come for them because a few logs were not worth the price of a crew to gather them. If no one came for them they would be left to waterlog and rot on the beach.

Nick’s father always assumed that this was what would happen, and hired the Indians to come down from the camp and cut the logs up with the cross-cut saw and split them with a wedge to make cord wood and chunks for the open fireplace. Dick Boulton walked around past the cottage down to the lake. There were four big beech logs lying almost buried in the sand. Eddy hung the saw up by one of its handles in the crotch of a tree. Dick put the three axes down on the little dock. Dick was a half-breed and many of the farmers around the lake believed he was really a white man. He was very lazy but a great worker once he was started. He took a plug of tobacco out of his pocket, bit off a chew and spoke in Ojibway to Eddy and Billy Tabeshaw.

They sunk the ends of their cant-hooks into one of the logs and swung against it to loosen it in the sand. They swung their weight against the shafts of the cant-hooks. The log moved in the sand. Dick Boulton turned to Nick’s father.

“Well, Doc,” he said, “that’s a nice lot of timber you’ve stolen.”

“Don’t talk that way, Dick,” the doctor said. “It’s driftwood.”

Eddy and Billy Tabeshaw had rocked the log out of the wet sand and rolled it toward the water.

“Put it right in,” Dick Boulton shouted.

“What are you doing that for?” asked the doctor.

“Wash it off. Clean off the sand on account of the saw. I want to see who it belongs to,” Dick said.

The log was just awash in the lake. Eddy and Billy Tabeshaw leaned on their cant-hooks sweating in the sun. Dick kneeled down in the sand and looked at the mark of the scaler’s hammer in the wood at the end of the log.

“It belongs to White and McNally,” he said, standing up and brushing off his trousers knees.

The doctor was very uncomfortable.

“You’d better not saw it up then, Dick,” he said, shortly.

“Don’t get huffy, Doc,” said Dick. “Don’t get huffy. I don’t care who you steal from. It’s none of my business.”

“If you think the logs are stolen, leave them alone and take your tools back to the camp,” the doctor said. His face was red.

“Don’t go off at half cock, Doc,” Dick said. He spat tobacco juice on the log. It slid off, thinning in the water. “You know they’re stolen as well as I do. It don’t make any difference to me.”

“All right. If you think the logs are stolen, take your stuff and get out.”

“Now, Doc—”

“Take your stuff and get out.”

“Listen, Doc.”

“If you call me Doc once again, I’ll knock your eye teeth down your throat.”

“Oh, no, you won’t, Doc.”

Dick Boulton looked at the doctor. Dick was a big man. He knew how big a man he was. He liked to get into fights. He was happy. Eddy and Billy Tabeshaw leaned on their cant-hooks and looked at the doctor. The doctor chewed the beard on his lower lip and looked at Dick Boulton. Then he turned away and walked up the hill to the cottage. They could see from his back how angry he was. They all watched him walk up the hill and go inside the cottage.

Dick said something in Ojibway. Eddy laughed but Billy Tabeshaw looked very serious. He did not understand English but he had sweat all the time the row was going on. He was fat with only a few hairs of mustache like a Chinaman. He picked up the two cant-hooks. Dick picked up the axes and Eddy took the saw down from the tree. They started off and walked up past the cottage and out the back gate into the woods. Dick left the gate open. Billy Tabeshaw went back and fastened it. They were gone through the woods.

In the cottage the doctor, sitting on the bed in his room, saw a pile of medical journals on the floor by the bureau. They were still in their wrappers unopened. It irritated him.

“Aren’t you going back to work, dear?” asked the doctor’s wife from the room where she was lying with the blinds drawn.

“No!”

“Was anything the matter?”

“I had a row with Dick Boulton.”

“Oh,” said his wife. “I hope you didn’t lose your temper, Henry.”

“No,” said the doctor.

“Remember, that he who ruleth his spirit is greater than he that taketh a city,” said his wife. She was a Christian Scientist. Her Bible, her copy of Science and Health and her Quarterly were on a table beside her bed in the darkened room.

Her husband did not answer. He was sitting on his bed now, cleaning a shotgun. He pushed the magazine full of the heavy yellow shells and pumped them out again. They were scattered on the bed.

“Henry,” his wife called. Then paused a moment. “Henry!”

“Yes,” the doctor said.

“You didn’t say anything to Boulton to anger him, did you?”

“No,” said the doctor.

“What was the trouble about, dear?”

“Nothing much.”

“Tell me, Henry. Please don’t try and keep anything from me. What was the trouble about?”

“Well, Dick owes me a lot of money for pulling his squaw through pneumonia and I guess he wanted a row so he wouldn’t have to take it out in work.”

His wife was silent. The doctor wiped his gun carefully with a rag. He pushed the shells back in against the spring of the magazine. He sat with the gun on his knees. He was very fond of it. Then he heard his wife’s voice from the darkened room.

“Dear, I don’t think, I really don’t think that anyone would really do a thing like that.”

“No?” the doctor said.

“No. I can’t really believe that anyone would do a thing of that sort intentionally.”

The doctor stood up and put the shotgun in the corner behind the dresser.

“Are you going out, dear?” his wife said.

“I think I’ll go for a walk,” the doctor said.

“If you see Nick, dear, will you tell him his mother wants to see him?” his wife said.

The doctor went out on the porch. The screen door slammed behind him. He heard his wife catch her breath when the door slammed.

“Sorry,” he said, outside her window with the blinds drawn.

“It’s all right, dear,” she said.

He walked in the heat out the gate and along the path into the hemlock woods. It was cool in the woods even on such a hot day. He found Nick sitting with his back against a tree, reading.

“Your mother wants you to come and see her,” the doctor said.

“I want to go with you,” Nick said.

His father looked down at him.

“All right. Come on, then,” his father said. “Give me the book, I’ll put it in my pocket.”

“I know where there’s black squirrels, Daddy,” Nick said.

“All right,” said his father. “Let’s go there.”

Originally published in the December 1924 issue of The Transatlantic Review and collected in In Our Time (1925).

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