Identity and Race in Two Hemingway Stories

I have written about Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time (1925) a couple of times in relation to both Ernest J. Gaines and Langston Hughes. Today, I want to examine Hemingway’s “Indian Camp” and “Fathers and Sons” in relation to how he constructs identity and privilege for Nick Adams, the protagonist of each story. In both texts, Nick’s white privilege appears through the ways that his father and himself perceive and treat the Native American women in the stories. Margaret Wright-Cleveland’s “Cane and In Our Time: A Literary Conversation about Race” argues that “Both texts assert the connection between the social construction of race and American identity. Cane and In Our Time posit race as fundamental to the burgeoning American identity, and develop a particularly American modernist narrative structure and voice in response to constructions of race” (151). For Hemingway, this becomes present in “The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife” when the “half-breed” Dick Boulton challenges Nick’s father about the “stolen” “driftwood” the doctor wants Dick to cut.

For me, though, “Indian Camp” presents an interesting look at the construction of white privilege in relation race. The story centers on Nick going with his father and Uncle George to an Indian Camp so his father can deliver a woman’s baby. The trio travel to the camp in two canoes, paddled by Indians as the serve the men and young Nick. Once they arrive,the woman screams in pain and Nick asks if his father can make her stop with anesthetics. The doctor simply replies, “No. I haven’t any anaesthetic, . . . But her screams are not important. I don’t hear them because they are not important” (16). Here, Nick’s father erases the woman’s identity, classifying her as invisible to himself. At this comment, “[t]he husband in the upper bunk rolled over against the wall” (116). Responding to the negation that the doctor expresses, the husband reacts by retreating into his thoughts.

At the end of the story, we find out that during the childbirth the father has cut his throat: “The Indian lay with his face toward the wall. His throat had been cut from ear to ear. The blood had flowed down into a pool where his body sagged the bunk. His head rested on his left arm. The open razor, lay, edge up, in the blankets” (18). In true Hemingway fashion, the sparse narration contains much more. Thinking about bringing a child into this world, like himself, the husband could not bear the insults of the doctor any longer or the pain of seeing his son grow up in a society where Nick and his father experienced privilege while the woman, husband, and baby would be, essentially, invisible and inconsequential.

The same disregard of a humanity or agency within those without white privilege occurs in “Fathers and Sons” from Winner Take Nothing (1938). A older Nick, now a father, drives with his son beside him. During the drive, Nick thinks back over his life, and the recollection of his first sexual encounter comes to his mind. Nick’s first sexual encounter occurs with Trudy, an Ojibway. As Nick, Trudy, and her brother Billy are in the forest, Billy asks Nick if he wants Trudy again. Nick replies in the affirmative, and the two have sex, apparently in front of Billy or in close relation to him. Immediately after this scene, the trio begin to talk and Trudy tells Nick that Eddie, her seventeen-year-old half brother, plans to have sex with Nick’s sister Dorothy. Enraged, Nick mimics murdering Eddie, and when Trudy tells him that Eddie was lying, Nick forgives the imaginary Eddie and pardons him. Here, the narrator states, “Nick had killed Eddie Gilby, then pardoned his life, and he was a man now” (157). Even though he does not physically kill Eddie, the performative act of killing then pardoning Eddie makes him a man, which is fascinating. In this manner, Nick’s actions appear similar to the protection of white Southern womanhood and the fear of its defilement by blacks and others.

Later, when Trudy asks Nick if he thinks they made a baby, he vehemently denies that they have. When she asks Nick this question, “something inside him had gone a long way away” (158). Nick wants the sex but not the children. For me, I could not help but think about Bonbon and Pauline in Of Love and Dust (1968). Bonbon takes Pauline by force, at first, but the two eventually fall in love. They have two children together, but Bonbon cannot publicly recognize the children even though everyone knows there are his. Thinking about Nick, he appears the same way. Bonbon does show affection to his two sons, in private, but I am wondering how Nick would act with a “half-breed” child.

Through “Fathers and Sons,” Nick highlights his white privilege and that privilege allows him to possess Trudy while also allowing him to be protective of Dorothy. Read against the backdrop of the South, this would be an interesting story to examine in relation to say Of Love and Dust, “Going to Meet the Man,” or other texts.  What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below.

Hemingway, Ernest. “Fathers and Sons.” Winner Take Nothing. New York: MacMillian Publishing Company, 1970. 149-162.

—. “Indian Camp.” In Our Time. New York: Scribner, 1996. 13-19.

Wright-Cleveland, Margaret. “Cane and In Our Time: A Literary Conversation about Race.” Hemingway and the Black Renaissance. Eds. Gary Holcomb and Charles Scruggs. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2012. 155-176.

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