Hemingway wrote Green Hills of Africa as an experiment. The story of his 1933 hunt in Tanganyika is true, and he wondered if a true story, well-told, could compete with a work of fiction.
His experiment was nearly successful. Green Hills is a bracing and sometimes beautiful book. It is as good as a novel, but not as good as a great novel. I read two different editions—the original Scribner’s and an excellent Scribner reprint which includes as appendices some wonderful Hemingway letters as well as the diary kept by his wife of the moment, Pauline. The diary confirms that Hemingway’s narrative followed faithfully the true course of events. Hemingway did change names—Pauline appears as “P.O.M.”, or “Poor Old Mama”—and he also omitted almost completely, much for the better, the first month of the expedition, which he spent deathly ill with a combination of dysentery and piles.
Hemingway bagged more than seventy animals on the trip, including lion, buffalo, leopard, rhino, cheetah, and on and on. But his ultimate passion was for the helically horned kudu, and his difficult pursuit makes the main thrust of the story. Hemingway’s guide was the great white hunter Philip Percival, who had been on Teddy Roosevelt’s 1909 expedition and was by the 30’s one of the two most famous hunters in the world. (The other, Baron von Blixen, was both second-cousin and husband to Karen Blixen, one of Africa’s finest chroniclers.) Percival appears in Green Hills as “Pop,” not to be confused with “Papa,” or “Poor Old Papa,” who is, of course, Hemingway himself. Fascinating campfire conversations give Hemingway a chance to expound on writing and writers. (Largely and unfortunately expurgated from the final draft, at his publisher’s request, was an amusing and obscene attack on Gertrude Stein.)
Great fiction makes a reader feel what the author feels: In this case, we should feel Hemingway’s love of hunting and Africa. It is a difficult task, depending on the predilections of the reader, and Hemingway has not been entirely successful. There are moments when we approach a revelation and imagine ourselves sitting in a blind next to Hemingway with a Springfield over our knees, binoculars round our necks and ants crawling into our socks. But these moments remain promised rather than delivered—a sun trying repeatedly to break through cloud-cover and never quite making it. The story is fascinating, but we are left with the question: “What makes a man want to hunt?”
Hemingway answers this question with total success in “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” a story that overpowered, at least temporarily, my own aversion to hunting. The feel of the country, the pursuit and the kill, its relation to courage and the concept of a man and manliness are exactly what Hemingway wanted to achieve in this longer, less fictional work. A little more fabrication in Green Hills might have put us closer to the truth—but it would also have robbed us of a remarkable achievement in a genre that defies traditional classification.
Overall Goodness Rating (OGR): 8/10
Green Hills of Africa, by Ernest Hemingway. First ed, Scribner’s, 1935. This ed, Scriber 2015, 281 pages.