Saturday, May 7, 2011

Soldier's Home

In Our Time was Ernest Hemingway’s first published American book, a collection of short stories written with the force of a boxer’s fist against the side of the head. Reading this book in the late 1970’s was a life changing experience for me because of the power of Hemingway’s prose.

Many of the stories feature Nick Adams and draw upon Hemingway’s experiences during a time of great transformation and shifting values in our early twentieth century. Other stories in this collection capture the emotional disruption caused by World War I. In various ways the stories take us into deep and painful places, showing the impact of the war on what was later dubbed The Lost Generation, a label popularized by Hemingway himself. The first world war was a coming of age experience for America.

The story "Soldier’s Home," with amazingly simple prose, conveys the complex emotions of a soldier returning to his hometown after serving in the war. It is a story of a young man named Krebs who is unable to adjust to the banality of ordinary life after having gone through extraordinary experiences overseas. Hemingway doesn’t dwell on what Krebs went through. We only know that he is changed.

Everything is written with a flat matter-of-factness. "Krebs went to the war from a Methodist college in Kansas." He came back in 1919 after most of the other war heroes had come home and been celebrated. He received no accolades and no one was interested in hearing war stories any more. So the only way to get people to listen was to lie, which he did twice and hated, so he stopped talking about it.

The story goes along with Krebs sleeping in, lying around the house, a hero only to his sisters and mother. Krebs watches the local girls but does not interact. Nothing has changed in the town since he left, but the girls have grown up and things have become more complicated. He has neither the energy or the courage to try to play the game. This is a theme that will extend throughout Hemingway's writing, the manner in which women can make things complicated.

The story moves to an incident a month after he has returned in which his mother says that his parents agreed he could drive the car. It is written with subtle deftness. We are witnessing a painful period in this family's life. Krebs is in such a different place that it is impossible for him to ever convey this to his parents. Moreover, how could he hope to explain himself when he is as yet so unknown even to himself?

His mother's life is ordered by a simple faith, but her religious platitudes reverberate with striking hollowness in the presence of Krebs' internal fatigue and monotony. She believes that if he just kneels and prays with her everything will be better. Like his two lies about the war he lies to his mother in order to get her off his back. In the end he understands he must leave home and go to Kansas City and get a job.

Without ever saying it, the great stories often speak as metaphors for something more. In this case "Soldier's Home" -- and the entirety of In Our Time -- speaks of the disruptive changes that were occurring as a result of both the war and America's transition into the modern era. This tightly composed story forces you to feel its impact on relationships... between men and women, fathers and sons, disillusionment and faith, and the excessive weight of modern life.

The story tells much by focusing on a single turning point in one young man's life, the essence of story. Hemingway proved himself a master of the craft.


M. Denise C. said...

I really enjoyed this Ernest post. You know, the more I learn about Hemingway, the more I admire his work. He was only in Italy for two weeks before he got hit and was in the hospital. But he talked to so many other soldiers who were at so many places and he captured what they went through. Even though he wasn't a soldier fighting, I tend to forget that when I am reading his stories. There is so much personal stuff in his stories, too. Hemingway's relationship with his parents was strained in the year or two before he went to Italy and was never the same again. He couldn't take their Midwest values and way of life after the war. He had a really hard time adjusting when he got back. He was definitely shell shocked, I would say. Traumatic events change someone forever and a return to the way things were before is really not possible.

Ok, I am going to go reread Soldier"s Home . . .

ENNYMAN said...

>>>Traumatic events change someone forever and a return to the way things were before is really not possible.<<<
Perhaps this is what Thomas Wolfe meant when he wrote, "You Can't Go Home Again."

This book (In Our Time) really shows Hemingway's mastery. Thanks for the comments.