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The Slopes of Kilimanjaro

June 2024
13min read

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

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.

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.

A similar mixture of “true stuff” and invention appears in the stream-of-consciousness monologues which periodically interrupt the surface movement of the story. These represent Harry’s memories of his past life, and many of them, naturally enough, are Hemingway’s own. It is only by knowing the course of his life in some detail that one can sort out truth from fiction. As in any process of free association of ideas and scenes, the episodes Harry recalls ignore strict chronology. Yet if they are arranged in historical sequence, they provide a rough running account of scenes from the life of the author. The, earliest of Harry’s internal landscapes reveals “a log house, chinked white with mortar, on a hill above the lake.” The lake is Walloon, nine miles from Petoskey, Michigan, where Hemingway spent the seventeen summers of his boyhood, beginning in 1900. The house is that of Grandpa Bacon, an aged patriarch with a red beard who was still alive when the Hemingway children were growing up. References to the First World War arc brief. There is one to the fighting around Monte Corvo on the Italian-Austrian front, a passage at arms that Hemingway had heard of but not seen, and another about trench warfare, presumably in France, in which an officer named Williamson is disembowelled by a German stick-bomb in the tangled barbed wire of no man’s land.

Hemingway returns to his own experience with a graphic cityscape—the hilltop on the Left Bank in Paris where he lived with his first wife, Hadley, in a walk-up flat in the rue du Cardinal Lemoine from the spring of 1922 until they left for Toronto in the summer of 1923. It is a part of Paris that lias changed relatively little in forty-odd years, and although Hemingway undoubtedly invented touches here and there, the quartier is still recognizable from his description. The allusion to the femme de ménage and her views on the disadvantages of the eight-hour working day is a direct quotation from Madame Marie Rohrbach, who was in service to Ernest and Hadley during most of their time in Paris.


There is also a reminiscence of a fishing vacation in the Black Forest of Germany in August, 1922. Hemingway romanticizes and fictionizes his trip to Constantinople and Adrianople to cover the Greco-Turkish War as correspondent for the Toronto Star . He also goes out of his way to insult the Left Bank literati by retailing a trivial incident connected with Harry’s homecoming from the Middle East. On the way back to his apartment the day of his return, Harry passes a café and glances inside. There sits “Malcolm Cowley with a pile of saucers in front of him and a stupid look on his face talking about the Dada movement with—Tristan Tzara.” Hemingway deleted Cowley’s name before the story appeared. Harry’s wife forgives him for going to Constantinople, just as Hadley forgave Ernest that October morning in 1922, though she had refused to speak to him for three days before his departure because she was afraid to be left alone in the rough neighborhood of the rue du Cardinal Lemoine and the Place Contrescarpe. Hemingway seems to have invented the episode in which Harry’s first wife discovers a love letter from another girl in the morning mail, though something not unlike this may have happened while Ernest was conducting a surreptitious liaison with Pauline Pfeiffer before she became his second wife.

The apartment in the rue Notre Dame des Champs, where Ernest, Hadley, and their infant son, John, lived after their return from Toronto, does not figure in this story because Hemingway had already used it in a flashback in Green Hills of Africa . But it was from this apartment, in the early winters of 1924–25 and 1925–26, that the Hemingways twice left for the village of Schruns in the Austrian Vorarlberg so that Ernest could write and ski in comparative peace. Harry is made to recall the village and to use the actual name of Walther Lent, who operated a ski school in Schruns and played poker with Ernest at the Madlenerhaus, an Alpine hut high in the Silvretta Range. Another of Hemingway’s favorite locales which comes into Harry’s mind is the valley of the Clarks Fork branch of the Yellowstone River in Wyoming. Harry is made to remember “the silvered gray of the sage brush, the quick, clear water in the irrigation ditches, and the heavy green of the alfalfa.” The violent anecdote of the halfwit chore boy who murdered his cantankerous employer is largely though not entirely an invention of Hemingway’s, based on a real-life story dating from 1912 that he had overheard during one of his visits to Wyoming. This brings to an end the pastiche of truth and fiction which courses through Harry’s memory as he lies dying, full of vain regret that he has not used enough of what he knows in what he has written.

For the climactic scene of his story, Hemingway drew upon yet another autobiographical episode. Though actually on the very brink of death, Harry is made to imagine that an airplane has arrived to carry him back to the hospital in Nairobi. Hemingway was flown out of the plains country to Nairobi on January 16, 1934, in a Puss Moth biplane for treatment of a severe case of amoebic dysentery. Harry recalls in detail the arrival of the plane, the appearance of the bush pilot, the look of the land, and the behavior of the grazing animals as the plane takes off for the long flight to the north, passing on the way the enormous snow-capped western summit of Kilimanjaro. This was where the adventurous leopard had succumbed to the altitude, only to lie preserved forever in his “metaphysical” fastness. But Harry has died without having attained a similar height.


One of Hemingway’s recurrent motivations to literary creativity throughout his life was the conviction that he might soon be going to die without having completed his work or fulfilled his unwritten promise to his talents. At the time when he wrote this story he knew very well that he had climbed no farther than the lower slopes of his personal Kilimanjaro. It is at least a legitimate speculation that he read the passage in Vivienne de Watteville in a symbolic as well as a literal sense. Certainly he must have been struck by the statement that success depended “on one’s ability to withstand the high altitude” as well as the warning that the attempt must be made “soon, before there was any risk of the rains setting in” to destroy his plans. This was one of the things he knew but felt “no obligation to tell” as he stood poised upon the slopes of the mountain in the midst of his career.

And there in the café as he passed was that American poet with a pile of saucers in front of him and a stupid look on his potato face talking about the Dada movement with a Roumanian who said his name was Tristan Tzara, who always wore a monocle and had a headache, and, back at the apartment with his wife that now he loved again, the quarrel all over, the madness all over, glad to be home, the office sent his mail up to the flat. So then the letter in answer to the one he’d written came in on a platter one morning and when he saw the handwriting he went cold all over and tried to slip the letter underneath another. But his wife said, “Who is that letter from, dearl” and that was the end of the beginning of that.

There never was another part of Paris that he loved like that, the sprawling trees, the old white plastered houses painted brown below, the long green of the autobus in that round square, the purple flower dye upon the paving, the sudden drop down the hill of the rue Cardinal Lemoine to the River, and the other way the narrow crowded world of the rue Mouffetard, The street that ran up toward the Pantheon and the other that he always took with the bicycle, the only asphalted street in all that quarter, smooth under the tires, with the high narrow houses and the cheap tall hotel where Paul Verlaine had died. There were only two rooms in the apartments where they lived and he had a room on the top floor of that hotel that cost him sixty francs a month where he did his writing, and from it he could see the roofs and chimney pots and all the hills of Paris.

From the apartment you could only see the wood and coal man’s place. He sold wine too, bad wine. The golden horse’s head outside the Boucherie Chevaline where the carcasses hung yellow gold and red in the open window, and the green painted co-operative where they bought their wine; good wine and cheap. The rest was plaster walls and the windows of the neighbors. The neighbors who, at night, when some one lay drunk in the street, moaning and groaning in that typical French ivresse that you were propaganded to believe did not exist, would open their windows and then the murmur of talk.

“Where is the policeman? When you don’t want him the bugger is always there. He’s sleeping with some concierge. Get the Agent.” TtH some one threw a bucket of water from a window and the moaning stopped. “What’s that? Water. Ah, thats intelligent.” And the windows shutting. Marie, his femme de menage, protesting against the eight-hour day saying, “If a husband works until six he gets only a little drunk on the way home and does not waste too much. If he works only until five he is drunk every night and one has no money. It is the wife of the working man who suffers from this shortening of hours.”

In Schrunz, on Christmas day, the snow was so bright it hurt your eyes when you looked out from the Weinstube and saw every one coming home from church. That was where they walked up the sleighsmoothed urine-yellowed road along the river with the steep pine hills, skis heavy on the shoulder, and where they ran that great run down the glacier above the Madlener-haus, the snow as smooth to see as cake frosting and as light as powder and he remembered the noiseless rush the speed made as you dropped down like a bird.

They were snow-bound a week in the Madlenerhaus that time in the blizzard playing cards in the smoke by the lantern light and the stakes were higher all the time as Herr Lent lost more. Finally he lost it all. Everything, the skischule money and all the season’s profit and then his capital. He could see him with his long nose, picking up the cards and then opening, “Sans Voir.” There was always gambling then. When there was no snow you gambled and when there was too much you gambled. He thought of all the time in his life he had spent gambling.

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