First published in serialized form in 5 installments in Cosmopolitan Magazine in 1950, Across the River and into the Trees is a literary classic written by American author Ernest Hemingway.
Primarily, the novel’s overarching theme is death, and the way it is approached, revered and handled by man.
At the time of its publication, Ernest Hemingway was arguably the most famous writer in the world, and media, book critics and readers alike expected nothing short of greatness from this, his 13th novel to be published. After “For Whom The Bell Tolls”, readers expected another classic, but it would be several years after its initial publication before Across The River And Into The Trees would gain acceptance and recognition for its greatness.
Criticized by popular media at the time, of the over 150 reviews of it published, only two or three cast the story in a positive light. Some of the great literary minds of the day, such as Tennessee Williams, however recognized its potential, and lauded Hemingway’s “story beneath the story” style of writing.
Often called the iceberg style, Ernest Hemingway was fond of this style of writing, that required the reader to not just see the words on a page, but to take them in, to digest them and then to finally recognize the whole story that lies just beneath the surface of the words on the page. Even with all of the rejection by newspapers and literary critics alike, Across The River and Into The Trees was ironically, the only one of Hemingway’s novels to top the New York Times bestseller’s list, staying there for 7 weeks in 1950.
Many authors since his passing have tried to imitate this style, and recreate the greatness that was Ernest Hemingway’s storytelling, however few have achieved the level of writing genius, or of the tortured mind that is required for this type of in depth creation.
Even the title is a subtle reference to death, being a transposition of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson’s last words. Throughout the novel, the reader is carried over a man’s lifetime in a series of flashbacks as he sits and reminisces, beginning in a duck blind in Trieste, Italy.
The central character is one Colonel Richard Cantwell who is dying of heart disease, and must face his own mortality as death is now certain, after having survived World War II, and has lived to be fifty years old by the time the reader first meets him. In the beginning chapters, which are set in present times (the 1950’s) Cantwell recalls a recent weekend spent in the company of an 18 year old Venetian girl, and the novel is presented as a seemingly endless stream of memories and recollections throughout the protagonist’s life.
Told from a type of flashback perspective, the reader often becomes unaware that the events unfolding are a man’s memories, and instead often finds themselves living the recollections vicariously in the moment, rather than viewing them from the hindsight of a historical view.
Cantwell’s infatuation with his 18 year old Italian mistress is often seen as a parallel to Hemingway’s own infatuation with a young Adriana Ivancich, and the author even acknowledged that the teenager that Cantwell falls in love with in the novel is modeled after her.
Often seen as part allegory, and part autobiography, this novel models many of its characters on Hemingway himself, or on people and places important as a part of his life. It was written in 4 different places, with most of the writing taking place at Hemingway’s home in Cuba, and being finished in Venice, where the story opens.
Recently hired Cosmopolitan agent A.E. Hotchner had arranged for a meeting with Hemingway, and after asking for a short article, received the whole text of Across The River and Into The Trees instead. After its submission, the magazine decided to break it up into 5 parts, and publish it as a serialization from February to June of 1950. Serialization of novels, which has fallen out of favor recently, was once seen as a way to assure repeat business, both for the publisher and for the author, with some of the more infamous serialized novels even causing mass hysteria in New York and Boston in the early 1800s. The choice to publish this particular novel this way was not left up to the author, but was made by the magazine publisher. Later in that same year, (September, 1950) Charles Scribner’s Sons would publish the novel in its entirety. The first dust jacket would, oddly enough be designed by none other than the model for the primary female character, one Adriana Ivancich. Scribner’s chose to have her initial designs redrawn in house for the original publishing run of 75,000 books, more recent printings have used her original drawing for the cover.
Richard Cantwell, the primary character in this story is drawn in stark contrast to his teenaged lover, he is everything that men in the 1950’s were required to be, masculine and brusk. Along with this masculinity however, Cantwell is portrayed as being rude and some critics have gone so far as to describe him as a bastard, in comparison to his mistress, who is written as being very feminine, withdrawn and submissive to him.
Their relationship, as seen from Cantwell’s point of view is seen as a series of battles in the prolonged war with death that his life has become. Each bout of lovemaking is seen by him as a conquest, with territory to be overtaken, and enemies to be vanquished. Each of the colonel’s subsequent recollections deal primarily with war, either the war of his life, or to the wars he has fought in, and an inattentive reader will often lose themselves and forget which war is being fought at the time.
Cantwell’s descriptions of war and relationships are often blended so well together that entire passages must be re-read to determine, is he thinking about actual war? Or his own personal war against his impending death?