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The last novel Ernest Hemingway saw published, The Old Man and the Sea has proved itself to be one of the enduring works of American fiction. It is the story of an old Cuban fisherman and his supreme ordeal: a relentless, agonizing battle with a giant marlin far out in the Gulf Stream. Using the simple, powerful language of a fable, Hemingway takes the timeless themes of courage in the face of defeat and personal triumph won from loss and transforms them into a magnificent twentieth-century classic.
From the book
INTRODUCTION: THE RIPENING OF A MASTERPIECE
The April 1936 issue of Esquire contained an article entitled "On the Blue Water: A Gulf Stream Letter," written by the magazine's featured contributor Ernest Hemingway. It was a rambling little piece that began with a debate between the author and a friend on the relative thrills of deep-sea fishing and big-game hunting. After a page or so of badinage, Hemingway embarks on a passionate apologia for the joys and beauty of life on the Gulf Stream. That and the other great ocean currents are "the last wild country left." He goes on to describe his own fishing experiences, adding stories told to him by his Cuban mate Carlos. One of the latter was about a giant marlin:
...an old man fishing alone in a skiff out of Cabañas hooked a great marlin that, on the heavy sashcord handline, pulled the skiff out to the sea. Two days later the old man was picked up by fisherman sixty miles to the eastward, the head and forward part of the marlin lashed alongside. What was left of the fish, less than half, weighed eight hundred pounds. The old man had stayed with him a day, a night, a day and another night while the fish swamdeep and pulled the boat. When he had come up the old man had pulled the boat up on him and harpooned him. Lashed alongside the sharks had hit him and the old man had fought them out alone in the Gulf Stream in a skiff, clubbing them, stabbing at them, lunging at them with an oar until he was exhausted and the sharks had eaten all that they could hold. He was crying in the boat when the fishermen picked him up, half crazy from his loss, and the sharks were still circling the boat.
This is clearly an almost perfect short short-story. It is also an unforgettable one, not only because of the strangeness of the event but also because it conveys an almost physical sensation to the reader.
I read it as a schoolboy of fifteen. In my boarding-school days, Esquire was frowned upon by our rector, Dr. Drury, on the grounds that it was "not manly." (I wonder how Hemingway might have responded to that criticism.) In any case, the story stuck in my mind ever after.
More important, it stuck in Hemingway's mind. Clearly he appreciated its value as the germ of a work of literature. Three years later, in a letter to his editor Max Perkins about a new book of short fiction he was planning to write, he mentioned
one about the old commercial fisherman who fought the swordfish all alone in his skiff for 4 days and four nights and the sharks finally eating it after he had it alongside and could not get it to the boat. That's a wonderful story of the Cuban coast. I'm going out with old Carlos in his skiff so as to get it all right. Everything he does and everything he thinks in all that long fight with the boat out of sight of all the other boats all alone on the sea. It's a great story if I can get it right. One that would make the book.
But the collection that was to contain that story never got written because one of the stories about the Spanish Civil War "took off," and before he knew it Hemingway had written fifteen thousand words and found himself well into the novel that was published the following year under the title For Whom the Bell Tolls.
It was not until January 1951 -- fifteen years after its first appearance in Esquire -- that Hemingway returned to the "Santiago story," as he called it. He was living then in his home in Cuba and able to devote himself to the work. The writing went unusually well, and Hemingway was overjoyed by this surging of creative powers.
As he had originally planned to do, Hemingway...
National Book Award Finalist(National Book Foundation)
Pulitzer Prize(Columbia University)
Nobel Prize in Literature Awarded Author(Nobel Foundation)