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The Slopes of Kilimanjaro
Into one famous short story Ernest Hemingway threw “the material of four novels.” Here his foremost biographer probes that story to reveal a great writer at work
August 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 5
In August, 1935, Ernest Hemingway completed the first draft of a story about a writer who died of gangrene on a hunting trip in what was then Tanganyika. The nonfiction “novel,” Green Hills of Africa , was already in press and due for publication in October. But the book had not used up all the material which Hemingway had accumulated in the course of his shooting safari of January and February, 1934. The new story was an attempt to present some more of what he knew, or could imagine, in fictional form. As was his custom, he put the handwritten sheets away in his desk to settle and objectify. Eight months later, on a fishing trip to Cuba, he re-examined his first draft, modified it somewhat, got it typed, and gave the typescript one final working over. Then he mailed it to Arnold Gingrich for publication in Esquire magazine in August, 1936, exactly a year after its inception. Although he had sweated mightily over the title, as he commonly did with all his titles, his ultimate choice displayed the true romantic luminosity. It was called “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”
The new story was curiously and subtly connected with Henry David Thoreau’s Walden . Thoreau had lately been in Hemingway’s consciousness. “There is one [author] at that time [of the nineteenth century] that is supposed to be really good,” he had asserted in Green Hills of Africa . “I cannot tell you about it [ Walden ] because I have not yet been able to read it. But that means nothing because I cannot read other naturalists unless they are being extremely accurate and not literary.—Maybe I’ll be able to [read it] later.”
If he ever read the second chapter of Walden , “Where I Lived and What I Lived For,” Hemingway would certainly have been struck by Thoreau’s statement about his reasons for the sojourn at Walden Pond. He took to the woods in order “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.” He wanted to learn the lore of nature as early as possible so that he would not reach the point of dying only to discover that he “had not lived” in any real sense at all. It is of course a far cry from Thoreau’s asceticism to Hemingway’s aggressive hedonism. Yet the passage from Walden , slightly modified, embodies the theme of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” For Hemingway’s protagonist, Harry, dying of an infection on the plains of Africa, is made to reflect bitterly upon his failure to set down the results of his experience of life in the forms of fiction. Although Hemingway wisely changed his mind before the story appeared, it is a curious fact that his original name for the dying writer in “The Snows” was Henry Walden.
The revised typescript of the story was garnished with a pair of epigraphs, neither of them from Thoreau, but both from “other naturalists.” One was drawn from a remarkable book called Speak to the Earth: Wanderings and Reflections among Elephants and Mountains (1935) . Its author was a naturalized Englishwoman named Vivienne de Watteville, an exact contemporary of Hemingway’s, a friend of Edith Wharton’s, and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. She was the daughter of Bernard de Watteville, a distinguished Swiss naturalist from Berne. She had been orphaned at the age of twenty-four when her father was mauled to death by an African lion. She had been with him when he died and subsequently wrote a book called Out in the Blue , based on her diaries from that safari. She returned to Africa again four years later, recording her adventures in a second volume, Speak to the Earth . There Miss de Watteville wrote of her determination to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. An adviser who had already made the ascent drew her a rough map of the trail up the mountain and told her that she “could pick up a guide and porters at Moshi.” “This,” she said, “fired me more than ever to make the attempt. I had, of course, no climbing outfit with me; but the difficulties, he said, were not in the actual climbing. It was a long grind, and success depended not on skill but on one’s ability to withstand the high altitude. His parting words were that I must make the attempt soon, before there was any risk of the rains setting in.”
Hemingway’s second epigraph, composed by himself, stated simply that “Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai ‘Ngàje Ngài,’ The House of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.” Hemingway had gleaned his facts from the guidebooks he had used in preparing for his trip to Kenya and Tanganyika. He had heard the story of the leopard (whose carcass was still there in 1967) from Philip Percival, his white hunter, during an evening’s conversation on safari in 1934.