Just re-read this one for a panel I’ll be moderating about marine environmental literature at Final Frontiers: Exploring Oceans, Islands, and Coastal Environments, a weekend conference at the Island Institute in coastal Maine in mid-October. Haven’t been through it since ninth grade, when I found it frankly a bit dull. Hemingway’s combination of high modernist style and old-fashioned masculinism has grown on me somewhat, or perhaps I’m just a more sympathetic reader now.
As an imagination of the limits and fantasies of human bodies in an oceanic world, it’s quite a rich little prose-poem, and a very promising text for blue cultural studies. The moment that grabbed me, though, was the old man’s brief vision of an airy rather than oceanic globalism:
It must be very strange in an airplane, he thought. I wonder what the sea looks like from that height? They should be able to see the fish well if they do not fly too high. I would like to fly very slowly at two hundred fathoms high and see the fish from above. In
the turtle boats I was in the cross-trees of the mast-head and even at that height I saw much. The dolphin look greener from there and you can see their stripes and their purple spots and you can see all of the school as they swim. Why is it that all the fast-moving fish of the dark current have purple backs and usually purple stripes or spots? The dolphin looks green of course because he is really golden. But when he comes to feed, truly hungry, purple stripes show on his sides as on a marlin. Can it be anger, or the greater speed he makes that brings them out? (71-2)
Hemingway’s a hinge figure in so many ways, but here he reaches forward, from wet to airy globalism. If you follow the logic of this passage, it starts by a fantasy of altitude — the view from above — and then dives into color-distorting salt water. Looks green but really golden: the dolphin fish surely allegorizes something.