Language in Ernest Hemingway’s “The Battler”

Last post, I wrote about the ways that Ernest Hemingway highlights the ways that language constructs race in his story “The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife.” There, I examined the ways that Dick Boulton and Henry Adams describe the logs that they pull out of the sand. Are they “stolen” or free for the taking. While Hemingway zeroes in on the ways that Boulton and Adams define the logs, he also focuses on the ways that Adams perceives Boulton, as a mixed-race individual. Adams places his preconceived conceptions on Boulton and wonder if his Native American half makes him lazy. The story concludes with Adams and his son Nick going to the forest to hunt squirrels. Today, I want to look at Hemingway’s “The Battler” as a continuation of the topics that he examines in “The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife.”

“The Battler” has always struck me as an interesting story, partly due to its language. The story focuses on Nick Adams, now grown up, and his encounter with the White boxer Ad Francis and the Black Bugs in the woods outside of Mancelona, MI. It begins with a brakeman kicking a stowaway Nick off of a train. Nick then proceeds to walk along the tracks, with the swamp on both sides, until he spots a fire in the distance. He approaches the fire and encounters Ads. They talk, and then Bugs appears. Ads, due to his time in the boxing ring, has mental issues and Bugs looks after him. The two travel the country together.

What makes “The Battler” important, in relation to my previous post, is twofold. On the one hand, it’s opening in the swamp and movement to a wooded beechwood forest that opens up recalls the end of “The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife.” Along with the physical setting, the language within the story disorients the reader and challenges Nick’s white privileged view of the world. Specifically, the seeming fluid interchangeability in the way that the narrator refers to Bugs as either “negro” or “nigger” works to interrogate the ways that language constructs meaning. Within the story, “negro” is used to identify Bugs 22 times while “nigger” appears 4 times as an identifier.

By opening “The Battler” in an area surrounded by three to four miles of swamp, Hemingway links the story to others in the collection, specifically “The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife” and “Big Two-Hearted River.” In the first story, Henry Adams, along with his son Nick, goes to the forest to escape the challenges from Dick Boulton and his wife to his position as a white male in the story. Throughout, they have challenged his power, and the only means of escape and relief comes in the form of him going to the woods to hunt.

In “Big Two-Hearted River,” Nick is returning from the war and seeks refuge in a pastoral environment. He walks through the burnt-out remains of Seny and comes to the river where he will fish. The swamp appears further down the river, but it appears in darkness. He does not fish in the swamp, claiming there will be plenty of time for that later. The swamp, here, counters the peaceful happy existence that Nick encounters in the forest. It exists as a foreboding space where he does not want to go because the spot by the river gives him happiness and comfort.

Upon getting thrown off the train in “The Battler,” Nick is surrounded by swampland. The swamp exists as a space of desolation and dread. As he walks alone along the tracks, “the swamp [appears] ghostly in the rising mist.” This “ghostly” appearance of the swamp and Nick’s isolation between Mancelona and Kalkaska creates an apprehensive atmosphere that disorients, to a certain extent, the reader. It’s not until Nick sees the campfire that the scenery opens up. He walks down the embankment into the beechwood forest towards the fire.

At the fire, Nick encounters Ad, and the two talk. Ad tells him about his boxing days, questions Nick’s toughness, and tells Nick that he is crazy. While talking, Bugs walks down the embankment towards the two men. At first, Nick cannot see Bugs, and when Bugs tells Ad hello, Nick registers Bugs’ voice as negro: “It was a negro’s voice. Nick knew from the way he walked that he was a negro.” Here, before the reader gets a physical identifier of Bugs as Black, he becomes constructed through sound and then appearance.


Margaret Wright-Cleveland argues that “The Battler” challenges Nick’s white privilege and that the story posits “the necessity for new language to delineate race in post-World War I America.”

From this initial moment, Ad presents Bugs as his equal, telling Nick, “This is my pal Bugs,” and Bugs works to create a sense of equality between himself and Nick when he asks Nick where he is from and his name. This positioning changes, however, when Ad gets irritated with Bugs because he thinks that Bugs is not listening to him. At this moment, which occurs right after the introductions, Bugs begins to refer to Nick as “the gentleman,” not by his name. At this, the narrator’s description moves from identifying Bugs as “negro” to “nigger.” While he cooks, Bugs crouches “on long nigger legs over the fire.” He becomes a servant, not an equal.

This linguistic shift occurs again when Ad asks Nick if he can see the knife that Nick is holding. Bugs interjects and tells Ad, “No, you don’t.” Here, the narrator states, “the negro said.” In this moment, Bugs is working to protect Nick, so he views him in a more positive manner. He does not, I would argue, view him as equal though. Rather, he views him as a subservient. This comes out, in part, because of his reference to Nick as “Mister Adams.”

When he serves Nick, the narrator refers to Bugs as “the negro”; however, when they are conversing and just sharing stories, he becomes Bugs. Through the use of “Bugs,” the men become equals, they exist on the same level, referred to by their names and not constructed words that position them as superior or inferior. When he tries to get Ad’s attention to see if he wants any food, the narrator shifts from “Bugs” to “nigger.”

“Will you have some, Mister Adolph Francis? “Bugs offered from the skillet.

Ad did not answer. He was looking at Nick.

“Mister Francis?” Came the nigger’s soft voice.

Ad did not answer. He was looking at Nick.

“I spoke to you, Mister Francis,” the nigger said softly.

Ad kept on looking at Nick. He had his cap down over his eyes. Nick felt nervous.

Here, Ad ignores Bugs, rendering him invisible. References for Bugs move from his name to a word that denies him his humanity. In this manner, Bugs becomes not equal but inferior. Ad’s focus on Nick also denies Bugs his humanity. Ad views Nick as an interloper trespassing in the territory that he and Bugs have created, a territory where the two men exist as equals. Nick’s encroachment, with his societal underpinnings, disrupts the space, and Nick and Bugs do not have the language to reinstate it. All Nick has is his familiarity with a language that labels Bugs either as a “negro” or a “nigger” and does not see any space for Bugs as an equal.

Ad attacks Nick, and Bugs knocks the former boxer with a blow to the head. Bugs protects Nick, and the narrator again labels him as “the negro.” From this point on, Bugs moves back and forth from his name (3 times) to “the negro” (10 times) before again being labeled as “nigger” near the end of the story. In this section, Bugs tells Nick how him and Ad met and why he stays with the former boxer. He tells Nick, “Right away I liked him and when I got out I looked him up. He likes to think I’m crazy and I don’t mind. I like to be with him and I like seeing the country and I don’t have to commit no larceny to do it. I like living like a gentleman.” Here, Bugs essentially describes himself as donning a facade in different situations. He is ok with Ad seeing him as crazy because it allows him to travel the country. He wants to travel the country and live like a “gentleman.”

Bugs’ statement is important because it highlights the malleability of language and the ways that it constructs meaning. It recalls Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask” and W.E.B. Du Bois’ Double Consciousness. Bugs masks himself for the situation, playing on Nick’s, Ad’s, and others preconceived images of him. Thus, in the story, he shifts between the images in Nick’s mind from “Bugs” to “the negro” to “nigger.” He does not exist as one entity or another.

Margaret Wright-Cleveland argues that “The Battler” challenges Nick’s white privilege and that the story posits “the necessity for new language to delineate race in post-World War I America.” Even with its moves to do this, “The Battler” fails, a Wright-Cleveland notes, to produce a new language. Instead, it only points out the social constructions of labels such as “Negro” and “nigger” in defining individuals. Changing language is important, yet difficult because of its ingrained connection within our lives.

When thinking about this topic, I always think about the student in Ernest Gaines’s “The Sky is Gray,” the opening of Amiri Baraka’s The Slave when Walker Vessels calls for a new language, or the usage of enslaved to refer to individuals who were held in bondage. How do we change language? It’s a slow process, but I would argue that in order to change the language we must first change the psychological tethers that connect the language to our systems of power and thought.

What are your thoughts? Please let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.  

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One thought on “Language in Ernest Hemingway’s “The Battler”

  1. Pingback: I’m the Victim of America’s Sin. I’m What Sin Is. | Interminable Rambling

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