American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

ISLANDS IN THE STREAM (1970). Entitled and published posthumously, this novel by Ernest Hemingway* (1899-1961) consists of three editorially renamed segments about the sea that the author tentatively prepared for a projected novel on the sea, land, and air. In “Bimini,” in the mid-1930s, a major painter of seascapes, the lonely father of three sons by two failed marriages, tries to use island seclusion, disciplined work, fishing habits, and emotional detachment to control his remorse over having put art before loved ones. By reliving that distraction, he hopes to fulfill his artistic potential and capture the sea's essence in his painting. In a memorable fishing episode, one visiting son learns that unaccountable loss must be accepted in life, but the artist himself has not fully learned this lesson, so central to his strategy, for he is overcome by the accidental death, shortly, of two of his sons and their mother, compounded by the loss of his remaining son in World War II ten years later.

This added blow is revealed in “Cuba,” part two, set in 1944. Too depressed to paint, the artist drives himself obsessively on his boat, searching for German submarines. Yet his creativity persists; in his desperate ruminations ashore, painterly views of the sea recur.

On the artist’s next patrol, weeks later in “At Sea,” the novel’s final section, as he and his crew pursue escaped German sailors through the islands of the Camaguey archipelago, his painter’s eye initiates moments of intuitive insight. Two of these are induced by a flight of flamingos, in which the ugliness of individual parts contributes to a beautiful, visual composition (ch. 15). He is moved at last to accept instances of apparent disorder, including by implication his personal losses, as part of a reassuring order that can be sensed by the human mind, even though not understood. Realizing at the chase's end that now nobody could match him as a painter of the sea, he is fatally shot (ch. 21).

For some readers overreliance on human logic is revealed in “At Sea” as the root cause of the artist’s difficulty in resigning himself to gratuitous adversity, and it also explains his impairment in relationships and creativity. By “seeing,” in the ocean’s visible forms, the operation of a natural truth that he feels no need to verify discursively, he has already “painted” the sea that he can never put on canvas. Had he lived, could he have sustained this liberating intellectual humility in his art and in fathering the surrogate sons in his crew? His uncertainty leaves readers to ponder the extent of his progress.

In 1977 the novel was adapted into a film that starred George C. Scott.

Bickford Sylvester