NEW YORK (AP) — Eighty years after the release of “Green Hills of Africa,” the son and grandson of Ernest Hemingway are urging a fresh look at a work critics have often set aside.
Published in 1935, “Green Hills of Africa” was Hemingway’s account of a hunting safari on the Serengeti Plains, a chronicle of adventure and a literary challenge Hemingway set up for himself. Anticipating by decades Truman Capote’s “nonfiction novel,” the classic “In Cold Blood,” Hemingway wanted to prove that “an absolutely true book” can “compete with a work of the imagination.”
The new edition is part of a series authorized by the Hemingway estate that already includes reissues of “A Moveable Feast,” ”The Sun Also Rises” and “A Farewell to Arms.” Grandson Sean Hemingway contributes an introduction, while son Patrick Hemingway, a boy at the time his parents were in Africa, shares personal memories. The book also includes photographs, early drafts of the finished narrative and a diary kept by the author’s then wife, Pauline Pfeiffer.
“She’s not a person who’s well known, so it’s wonderful to have a sustained piece of writing by her,” Sean Hemingway said recently of his grandmother, the second of Ernest Hemingway’s four wives. “It’s also a wonderful complement to my grandfather’s work.”
As Pfeiffer’s diaries reveal, “Green Hills of Africa” was not entirely factual. The author rearranged some chronology and minimized a bout of dysentery so severe that he had to be flown out of the area. Pfeiffer’s journal also describes a near-tragedy — the author’s rifle fell off a car and fired — that inspired Hemingway’s classic short story “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” in which the title character is killed by a sudden blast from his wife’s gun.
In the decade before “Green Hills of Africa,” the story collection “In Our Time” and the novels “The Sun Also Rises” and “A Farewell to Arms” had made Hemingway one of the world’s most famous authors. Critics have viewed “Green Hills of Africa,” written while he was in his mid-30s, as an early sign of his legend overtaking his work. Edmund Wilson, who had been a leading champion of Hemingway, despaired that the author in his nonfiction persona had become a bloated parody, “Ernest Hemingway, the Old Master of Key West.”
“Something dreadful seems to happen to Hemingway as soon as he begins to write in the first person,” Wilson wrote. “Among his creations, he is certainly his own worst-drawn character, and he is his own worst commentator. His very prose style goes to pot.”
More recently, “Green Hills of Africa” has been criticized for its detailed catalog of animal slaughter and for its reduction of Africa and Africans to backdrops for the author’s personal experiences. “I hope I won’t offend with heresy when I say that Hemingway never had both feet down on Africa, never really was in Africa,” Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer of South Africa said during a 1999 symposium at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, where Hemingway’s literary papers are stored.
Sean Hemingway acknowledged that parts of “Green Hills” might be uncomfortable for modern readers, but noted that the book had inspired many people’s interest in Africa — his own included — and provided a snapshot not just of the author in his physical prime but of a historical moment.
“I do think that’s part of the great value of this book — that it is a true life account of an actual safari at that time,” he said, adding that many of the places his grandfather camped are now parks and heritage sights where hunting is banned.
“I think people get something more (out of the book) than the rather empty tourism that happens so often now,” Patrick Hemingway said during a recent telephone interview. “I have had to listen to a lot of people tell me what a wonderful time they had in Africa, riding in a minibus and seeing a lion in a tree.”
Among the first people to raise concerns about the events in “Green Hills” was Ernest Hemingway. In the book, he wonders if a broken arm he once suffered was retribution for hunting and imagines how a bull elk would feel “if you break a shoulder.” He also fears the consequences of Western countries expanding into an undeveloped region.
“A continent ages quickly once we come. The natives live in harmony with it. But the foreigner destroys, cuts down the trees, drains the waters supply so that the water supply is altered,” he writes. “The earth gets tired of being exploited.”
This story has been corrected to show the book was first published 80 years ago, not 70 years ago.
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