July 1, 2010

A Farewell to Arms is not a love story. It is, rather, the tale of a chance encounter, an involvement which results in a double tragedy, a variation on the albatross theme, with Catherine Barkley as the bird (English slang for “female”) and Frederick Henry as the unfortunate slayer who must tell and retell his story.
— Margaret DeAngelis, b. 1947, American writer
                           opening paragraph of an unpublished essay written on July 30, 1970

It was a casual request, conveyed via Facebook. “Hey, Marm, can Nick borrow A Farewell to Arms? He has to read it for school.” Nick is the younger brother of Lynn’s boyfriend. He’ll be a junior in high school next year, the year traditionally devoted to American literature. My favorite age to teach. Lynn knew I had the book because she used it when she was a high school junior.

I went to the bookshelf in our library/family room/tv room/music room and found it easily among my alphabetized fiction titles. I have a number of “classic” titles among my Fiction Fifty, kept in a row at my studio, some Faulkner, MacKinlay Kantor’s Andersonville, some F. Scott Fitzgerald. But no Hemingway. I have no idea why I didn’t put some Hemingway on that list.

The copy that I keep at home is the one I acquired in the summer of 1970. I was taking my first graduate level class. I wasn’t in a formal master’s degree program. I was just taking what courses seemed interesting at the University Center, a consortium of colleges that offered graduate level credits for teachers, like me, who needed to start amassing their 24 post-baccalaureate credits toward “permanent certification.”

I had spent my first year out of college living with my parents, teaching in the school district where my father was an administrator, expecting to be in that situation only one year. After that, I was certain, I was going to Pittsburgh to join my college boyfriend and stand beside him to fight poverty, end racism, and reform education. (He’d been at it since we graduated, but there’d probably be something left to do.) He put the kibosh on that sometime around my birthday (my birthday!) by announcing that he was marrying somebody else. I screamed, cried, swore I would never speak to him again, and then sent him a wedding gift and got on with my life.

That included moving into my own apartment, taking a job in a different school, and getting busy on that permanent certification. The first course I took covered the American Novel in the Twentieth Century, taught by Dr. Sumner Germain, a witty, urbane, and learned man whose regular post was at Lebanon Valley College. I spent my days that summer decorating my new apartment, learning to cook on a two-burner stove with an oven too narrow for the cookie sheets my mother gave me, washing dishes in a three-inch deep sink, and sitting in the window seat that overlooked Walnut Street reading Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway.

Twice a week I went uptown to the riverfront campus that I can see from the window where I write this. It would be full sun when we got there, and dark when we left. Sometimes I drove north on Progress Avenue and then west on Linglestown Road to meet a classmate for a sandwich before class. That route would take me past what was then a farmer’s field, the same field where in six years I would build the house I still live in. By the end of the summer I’d recovered, mostly, from the Screaming Breakup Miseries, felt better about myself, and was ready to try love again.

I think A Farewell to Arms helped me. It was atypical Hemingway, Dr. Germain said, his only love story, and Catherine Barkley was his most fully-realized female character. According to the opening of the paper I wrote about the novel, I readily challenged the love story assertion. And Catherine Barkley may indeed be Hemingway’s most fully-realized female character, but that doesn’t save her from being a whining ninny who willingly loses herself in Frederick, and then loses herself utterly.

The analysis of Catherine wasn’t in the paper. I know because I have the original, typed out on the Royal electric I’d used since high school. Some of the keys had become misaligned, so that the rows of letters have something of a crooked cast to them. The five-page paper, about 2500 words, plus a note on the edition of the novel used (it is a wholly original analysis, depending on no critical sources, so no footnotes and no bibliography) a title page, and an epigraph, is fastened with a paper clip that has rusted and left its outline on the title page and the end page.

To handle that paper again, to open the Scribner Library trade paperback edition I paid $1.95 for, and to look at the notations I made in red felt-tip Flair pen, is to touch again the girl I was, the girl who underlined places where Frederick mentions Catherine’s hair, where he mentions “the permanent rain” (on about 80% of the pages), the earnest, studious girl who wrote “C” and “F” beside the lines of unattributed dialogue that went on in some places for more than a page (a hallmark of the Hemingway style).

And it is to look again at the notes for the paper I didn’t write, the one about weak and silly Catherine, who keeps saying that there isn’t any her anymore, there is only him, they are the same person. “Catherine subsumes her personality in Frederick, and thus loses her Self, and, by the time the novel ends, loses her baby and her very life as well. Frederick Henry stays with her body for a while, but he says ‘. . .it wasn’t any good. It was like saying goodbye to a statue.’ And then he turns his back on her, and walks back to the hotel, in the rain, alone.”

Hemingway has said he wrote the last page of Farewell thirty-nine times. I wrote the last paragraph of both versions of my paper only once. I submitted the one that concentrated on Frederick Henry’s obsession with the night and with Catherine’s hair as a mantle he uses to protect himself from loneliness and fear. The paper got an A— because I did not fully develop the metaphor of the albatross and the telling of the tale. And in my indictment of Frederick Henry as a self-centered individual who uses Catherine as he has used other women, it’s pretty clear to me (now) that paper was not really about Frederick Henry.

A Farewell to Arms is an American classic, the novel that gave us the phrases “a separate peace” and “strong at the broken places.” A sentence about how abstract words like glory and honor are obscene beside the names of real soldiers who have died and real villages that have been destroyed should be tattooed on the arms of everyone who has the power to send our beautiful children to war. I’ve read the book a dozen times now, and I never get tired of it. To read it in the annotated copy I have carried with me for forty years, the copy that was in my car when I went shopping for a wedding gift in 1970 for a man I loved very much, the same copy that was in my car again when I met that same man for lunch last week, is to be reminded of some of the things that make me who I am.

In an autobiographical essay about the secret places of her childhood, North Carolina writer Jill McCorkle talks about a piece of coal she picked up on the playground her last day of elementary school. “I wanted permanence. . . . I gripped my friend Susan’s arm and held up that piece of coal and said, ‘This piece of coal will make me think of right now for the rest of my life.’ ”

Ms. McCorkle will be my chief tutor and reader at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. I think we’ll be speaking the same language.

And I think I might get Nick his own copy of A Farewell to Arms.


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