Life and Death on the Big Two Hearted River

Life and Death on the Big Two Hearted River

A young veteran seeks relief from PTSD in the Michigan wilderness

Dr. Lorin Swinehart

estres postraumatico


The recent PBS series created by Ken Burns has caused a resurgence of interest in the life and writings of Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway is not an easy person to categorize. As a man, he was bombastic, sometimes bullying, self aggrandizing, too often intoxicated and never loathe to turn on his friends and benefactors.

Many men appear to admire Hemingway for all the wrong reasons, and many women despise him for all the wrong reasons. They simply do not get it.  Underneath all the boasting and bellicosity, Hemingway’s writing reveals a man for whom pain, anxiety and fear were never strangers. His most potent writing is saturated with angst, perhaps no more so than in his early collection of stories In Our Time, particularly the iconic “Big Two Hearted River”.  

Hemingway always denied that his protagonist Nick Adams was his alter ego, but the parallels between the fictitious Nick and the real life author are difficult to overlook. Nick is wounded on the Italian Front during World War I. Hemingway himself was wounded on the Italian Front when he was struck by an Austrian mortar shell that left fragments of shrapnel in his thighs, right foot, knee, hand and scalp. Two Italian soldiers beside him suffered more grievously, one killed and the other having his legs blown off. Hemingway, then only 18 years old, carried a wounded comrade to safety at an aid station, for which he was awarded the Italian Croce de Guerra.

In one of the vignettes preceding “Big Two Hearted River”, Nick has been wounded and finds himself propped against a wall, his legs sprawled out in front of him. Nearby lies a dead soldier. The scene is too similar to Hemingway’s own experience to be coincidental. There are other parallels; Nick’s and Hemingway’s boyhood lives in the forests of northern Michigan, the tyrannical mother figure with her twisted logic and hint of sadism, experiences of love and loss.

World War I has been referred to as the first modern war. The unexpected horror it unleashed spawned some of the most powerful literature exposing the true cost of modern warfare: Erich Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front;” Dalton Trumbo’s “Johnny Got His Gun,” the gritty, realistic poetry of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Alan Seeger.

Nick’s and, by implication, Hemingway’s period of recuperation in an Italian military hospital was traumatic. In the wee hours, he was terrified by a sense of levitating out of his body, looking down upon himself. In order to maintain his grip on reality, he imagined all the trout streams of his boyhood in Michigan. He found that if he focused hard enough on fishing, his spirit remained anchored to his body.

Big Two Hearted River, Parts I and II, comes at the end of In “Our Time” and cannot be truly appreciated without taking the complete book into consideration as well as the entirety of the Nick Adams stories. The vignettes that intersperse the chapters could easily be overlooked by readers. Most highlight incidents of disappointment, abandonment, violence, pain, death, insanity. Hemingway opens his book with a scene of horror that occurred at the end of the war as the Greeks were evacuating Smyrna. The author describes mothers refusing to part with dead infants, pack animals with broken legs left to drown in the sea. Later, the vignette separating the two parts of “Big Two Hearted River” describes in horrific detail an execution by hanging.

In Our Time opens with the story “Indian Camp”, in which a very young Nick accompanies his physician father by canoe across the waters of a northern lake where a Caesarean delivery is performed with a pocketknife. During the course of the procedure, the woman’s husband commits suicide by slitting his throat with a straight razor. All too much for a young boy to witness. “Indian Camp” sets the stage for more nightmarish scenes to come.

While the term did not exist in 1925 when Hemingway published his story, Nick suffers from severe case of what today is labeled post traumatic stress disorder. His backpack is a heavy one, far more so than those toted into the wilds by more recent trekkers like Colin Powell and Cheryl Strayed. His gear consists of a canvas tent, no less than three blankets, a skillet, a coffee pot, an ax, his fly rod and fishing gear, mosquito netting, even canned goods. However, his spiritual backpack outweighs his physical one. It is overflowing with dark memories and thoughts visions he cannot erase from his psyche. One can survive a trauma, but one can never escape the memory of it.

Nick makes his post war journey up the Big Two Headed alone, but ghosts dog his footsteps all the way. Try as he may, he cannot extinguish the horrors he has witnessed on the battlefield, his own brush with mortality, and very likely too many vivid memories of boyhood traumas. He concentrates as obsessively on the sticks and pieces of setting up his camp—staking down his tent, preparing a meal, filling his water bucket, making coffee in just the exact right way—as he ever did upon trout fishing when back in the hospital. Such a determined focus may keep the ghosts at bay. For a while. However, the past intrudes. It always does.

As he tries out his newly erected tent, he struggles to convince himself that his wilderness sanctuary is inviolable. He muses, “Nothing could touch him. It was a good place to camp. He was there, in the good place. He was in his home where he had made it.”

As Nick sits down to his campfire meal of canned spaghetti and beans, he exults, “Geez! Jeez Christ!”

All is settled. He has survived the terrors of war and has found healing and peace in the safety and sanctity of the arms of Mother Nature, or so he wishes to believe.

The ghosts will not be dismissed. They come slinking back again and again, a reality that Hemingway recognized all too well, a reality that all of us must confront, whether or not we have been in a war. There is no final escape from the ghosts. They will continue to whisper their dark messages despite one’s best defenses.

Some say that if a thing fails to kill you, it makes you stronger. That item of ersatz wisdom does not appear to be true in Nick’s case. Not in Hemingway’s either. Others say that if a thing doesn’t kill you, it simply doesn’t kill you and that is all you get, probably nearer the truth. In Nick’s case, even the scorched country and the blackened wreckage of the town of Seney, devastated by a forest fire, that he traverses on the way to his campsite is reminiscent of the battlefield, a place of death and destruction. He has survived, but he has not been made stronger. Not yet.

Darkness descends, and Nick’s feelings of dread grow as a mist rises and begins to obscure the riverbank opposite his campsite. Soon, the bank is blanketed by the mist. What dark presences lurk in the mist, fell things that continue to haunt Nick. Given the earlier stories, the reader has a good idea.

Nick reflects upon friends who have vanished from his life, particularly a fishing pal named Hopkins. Hopkins struck it rich in the oil fields. He had great plans to take Nick and his other friends fishing along the north shore of Lake Superior the following summer. We are not told what happened to Hopkins, only that his friends never saw him again. Was he killed in the war, or did his new riches sentence him to a bloated meaningless life as an effete, Gatsby-like fop, a life in death and a death in life? Whatever became of Hopkins, it does not seem to have been a good thing.

The fate of Hopkins is a dangerous subject for Nick to think about, “His mind was starting to work. He knew he could choke it because he was tired enough.”

Through Nick, we learn that there are many forms of death; death in battle, death in the bull ring, death of relationships, death of the mind and soul. Nearly all of Hemingway’s stories involving Nick focus upon death. In some of the stories from In Our Time, Nick and his closest friends equate marriage with death, the end of carefree lifestyles. Craving a simple life and panicked by the threat of marital and parental responsibilities, painfully aware that he would live a life of ennui among his one dimensional in-laws, particularly his toxic future mother-in-law, Nick brings one love relationship to a quick, cruel end. Later in the story “Cross Country Snow”, Nick, having fallen victim to the biological trap that the author seems to have feared all of his days, reluctantly departs from a ski trip in the Swiss Alps in order to return to America where he will take up the responsibilities of husband and father. There is a sense of doom in the story, the loss of Eden, reentrance now forever barred by flaming cherubim.

The story ends with Nick fearing to fish in the river where it flows through a dark swamp. The old familiar feelings of dread reappear as he considers the branches meeting closely overhead, and the chest deep water creeping ever higher as he wades after the elusive trout. The fishing there would be “tragic” the author tells us, and Nick decides to put off the swamp until another day. Nick’s greatest psychic energies are exhausted in his struggles not to  probe the darkest waters of his consciousness. While the water and the wilderness provide some healing for the ravaged soul, it seems that Nick’s ghosts may accompany him after he returns to civilization. We need to be careful about which dark streams we cast our lines into.

Nick Adams is Everyman as he navigates his way through life, experiencing moments of triumph and  tragedy. The “Our Time” of Hemingway’s book highlights the menaces posed by the recently elapsed twentieth century and suggests the threat of similar challenges during the course of the present one. Human history is not typified so much by one nightmare after another as it is by the same nightmares repeated over and over again.

Perhaps Ernest Hemingway was on to something when he sent Nick Adams off into the wilderness following his wartime traumas. There is a growing understanding that immersion in the wilderness, most recently labeled ecotherapy, can be helpful to those suffering from PTSD. A recent publication by Cindy Ross, entitled “Walking Toward Peace: Veterans Healing on America’s Trails,” includes stories of those who have conquered depression, nightmares, flashbacks, extreme vigilance, feelings of guilt, even thoughts of suicide, the standard symptoms of PTSD, by hiking the Appalachian Trail.

As for the great author himself, he obviously failed to find the peace that he sent Nick in search of. On July 2, 1961, at his home in the mountains of Idaho, suffering from severe physical pain and emotional turmoil, he shot himself in the head with his 12 gauge shotgun, ending his tortured life. Perhaps he would have been a happier man if he had remained in his beloved north country, content to pen his many short stories. Success, fame, celebrity often extract a high price.

As a footnote, my wife and I have passed the town of Seney, Michigan on several occasions, and it is still there. It was never destroyed by a forest fire. Too, the real Big Two Hearted River meets Lake Superior about thirty miles east of Seney, while it is the Fox River that passes the town.


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