The time Ernest Hemingway wrote “F— elephant hunting”

Ernest Hemingway hunting in Africa in 1934

There are a few things that everyone seems to know about Ernest Hemingway – one of which is that he loved big game hunting. It’s a trait that has won him many critics as well as many followers. It features prominently in a number of his stories, with little to no sympathy for the animals being hunted. However, his posthumous novel The Garden of Eden (1986), the last of his full-length works of fiction to be published, includes a character who straight up tells his father, “F— elephant hunting.” To say I was surprised when I came across this is an understatement.

The Garden of Eden is an extremely interesting work for a number of reasons. It tells the story of David Bourne and his wife Catherine on their honeymoon in Le Grau-du-Roi, France. Married for three weeks, they are celebrating both their new union as well as the successful publication of David’s second novel. One day she says she has a surprise for him, that she’s “going to be changed,” but gives no indication what that means. Kissing him goodbye, she rides her bicycle into town. Returning later, she is sporting a boys haircut. “That’s the surprise,” she tells him, “I’m a girl. But now I’m a boy too and I can do anything and anything and anything.” (Pg. 15)

From that day forward, Catherine moves back and forth between seeing herself as male or female, speaking at one point of them as brothers, and at another point saying that she would be female during the day and male at night. This extremely contemporary examination and view of gender fluidity has caused critics to reevaluate Hemingway’s work. Indeed, it is interesting and worthy of exploration, as Catherine is one of his strongest female leads ever, but for me the story within the story – that which deals with hunting – is even more interesting.

David is working on a series of stories based on hunting with his father in Africa. Later on in the novel it switches back and forth between the main storyline and the stories that David is writing. These come to a head in Chapters 22 through 24.

Young David is traveling with his father and their guide Juma “following the spoor of the elephant on an old elephant trail that was a hard packed worn road through the forest.” They find the skull of an elephant they had previously killed, which David’s father explains to him was a friend of the one that they are currently hunting. This interests David who wants to know how long they had been friends. When he asks he is told that Juma “doesn’t know or care really.” But David does, saying to himself, “The bull wasn’t doing anyone any harm and now we’ve tracked him to where he came to see his dead friend and now were going to kill him. It’s my fault. I betrayed him.” He then has the realization, “My father doesn’t need to kill elephants to live.”

In a work by any other writer this wouldn’t be very surprising, but in the work of Hemingway it’s a major departure from his usual treatment of the subject. A few paragraphs later the following exchange takes place:

“F— elephant hunting,” David had said very quietly.
“What’s that?” his father asked.
“F— elephant hunting,” David said softly.
“Be careful you don’t f— it up,” his father had said to him and looked at him flatly.

From there they go on to track down the elephant and kill it. David realizes there is nothing that he can do about it and it tears him up inside. After the elephant is dead, David has the following reflections, “The elephant was his hero now as his father had been for a long time and he had thought, I did not believe he could do it when he was so old and tired. He would have killed Juma too. But he didn’t look at me as though he wanted to kill me. He only looked sad the same way I felt. He visited his old friend on the day he died.”

Stunning stuff from old Papa.

There’s much more subtlety to this part of the story and it is well worth a read. Obviously this storyline lends itself to any number of interpretations, but it seems clear to me that it is worth revisiting the idea of Hemingway as a cold-blooded killer of big-game. If he could weave a narrative like this, it’s clear he must’ve given hunting a lot more thought than he is normally credited with in the public consciousness of the “Hemingway myth.”

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