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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
The two epigraphs had in common the idea of immense height. Both Miss de Watteville’s anonymous adviser and the examole of the dead leopard indicated that the chief problem for the mountaineer on Kibo Peak of Kilimanjaro was “one’s ability to withstand the high altitude.” In the story, Hemingway’s hero was obliged to confront the fact that never in his life had he attempted to climb that high. His bitterness arose from the realization that he was now literally rotting to death without ever having attained the heights of literary achievement to which he had once aspired. In the end, Ernest deleted the epigraph from Vivienne de Watteville, retaining the one he had himself composed.
Harry tries to assuage his bitterness by making a scapesoat of his pleasant wife, Helen. He blames her wealth for his own aesthetic decay. Because of it he has followed a life of ease and sloth instead of realizing his former ambition to be a great writer. More than twenty years after the story first appeared, Hemingway explained how he had arrived at his portraits of Helen and Harry and his conception of the central theme. “If you are interested in how you get the idea for a story,” he wrote, “this is how it was.” On returning to New York after the African trip early in April, 1934, he was met at the pier by ship news reporters who queried him about his future plans. He told them that he was going to work until he had accumulated enough money to go back to Africa. When the story appeared in the newspapers next morning, “a really nice and really fine and really rich woman” invited him to tea. After “a few drinks,” she said that she “had read in the papers about the project.” She was unable to sec any reason for delay. “She and my wife [Pauline] and I could go to Africa any time and money was only something to be used intelligently for the best enjoyment of good people.” The oiler struck Ernest as “sincere and fine and good,” and he liked the lady “very much.” But for various reasons he felt obliged to decline her invitation.
Back in Key West he began to reflect upon what might have happened to someone like himself, whose defects he knew, if he had accepted the offer. Out of these reflections gradually arose a portrait of the lady, whom he named Helen, and one of Harry, the dying writer, to whom she was married. To describe the dying part was no problem to Hemingway. He had been through all that, said he, early, middle, and late. So he invented someone who could not sue him, which was himself, speculated on how he would have turned out under the circumstances, and then put into one short story the material of four novels. He made up the man and the woman, loaded his story with personal and imagined memoirs, and found that even with this load (the heaviest, he thought, that any short story had ever carried) the story still managed to take off and fly. As for the leopard, he was part of the metaphysics. Hemingway did not propose to explain that or a lot of other matters connected with the story. While he knew what they were, he was under no obligation to tell anyone about them.
There was a log house, chinked white with mortar, on a hill above the lake. There was a bell on a pole by the door to call the people in to meals. Behind the house were fields and behind the fields was the timber.—A road went up to the hills along the edge of the timber and along that road he picked blackberries. Then that log house was burned down and all the guns that had been on deer foot racks above the open fire place were burned and afterwards their barrels, with the lead melted in the magazines, and the stocks burned away, lay out on the heap of ashes that were used to make lye for the big iron soap kettles, and you asked Grandfather if you could have them to play with, and he said, no. You see they were his guns still and he never bought any others. Nor did he hunt any more. The house was rebuilt in the same place out of lumber now and painted white and from its porch you saw the poplars and the lake beyond; but there were never any more guns. The barrels of the guns that had hung on the deer feet on the wall of the log house lay out there on the heap of ashes and no one ever touched them.
Among the other matters that Hemingway felt no obligation to explain was the fact that Helen was a composite of at least two women. One, if we can trust the story, was the munificent lady in New York. The other was his own second wife, Pauline. He had seen her in action during the recent safari, and he could not forget that her father was among the wealthiest citizens of northeastern Arkansas or that her paternal uncle, Gustavus Adolphus Pfeiffer, was a millionaire who had generously underwritten the trip to Africa with a grant-in-aid of twenty-five thousand dollars. While Hemingway had not by any means surrendered his integrity as a writer in the presence of riches, and while he often complained at this period about his shrunken bank balance, he knew very well that among his “defects” was a liking for the pleasures wealth could buy. The dying writer in his story was an image of himself as he might have been if the temptation to lead the life of the very rich had ever overcome his determination to continue his career as a writer.