Writing about the connections between Jean Toomer’s Cane and Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time, Margaret Wright-Cleveland argues that both texts examine social constructions of race. Specifically, she notes that Hemingway’s text “makes clear that both whiteness and blackness are racial constructions.” As such, both Toomer and Hemingway position “race as a formative idea for American modernism.” Today, I want to look at the ways that Hemingway examines language and the construction of meaning and power that language carries with it. I have written about this some before, specifically looking at “Indian Camp” and “Fathers and Sons.”
In “The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife,” Hemingway interrogates the ways that language works to create meaning and maintain power. Hemingway does this by focusing both on the ways that the community defines Dick Boulton and on the terms that Boulton and Dr. Henry Adams use to describe the logs. Dr. Adams hires Boulton and a group of “Indians” to come and help him collect the logs stuck on the beach because “the lumbermen might never come for them because a few logs were not worth the price of a crew to gather them.”
The narrator describes Boulton as “a half-breed” who a lot of the farmers thought “was really a white man.” Thus, Boulton’s identity comes into question. He becomes defined by others, not by himself. The narrator continues by claiming Boulton “was very lazy but a great worker once he was started.” Wright-Cleveland points out that with this statement “Hemingway is careful to construct Boulton’s race as distinct from his work ethic–which race makes him lazy, which a good worker?”
Throughout the story, Boulton questions his position, something that Wright-Cleveland notes “would negate white privilege” because his questioning shows that he “does not need the guidance or discipline of the white man.” Perhaps Boulton’s most pointed questions deal with the role of language in the maintaining of power. Immediately following the narrator’s description of Boulton, we see him challenging Herny on the ways that he defines the logs they are pulling out of the sand.
As he works, Boulton says to Dr. Adams, “[t]hat’s a nice lot of timber you’ve stolen.” Dr. Adams takes umbrage with Boulton’s labeling of the wood as “stolen” and replies by telling him, “Don’t talk that way, Dick. . . It’s driftwood.” What is the difference between “stolen” and “driftwood”? Is it the same difference between “stolen” and “borrowed” in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? Hemingway famously said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” Hemingway’s engagement with language through how Dr. Adams and Boulton define “driftwood” and “stolen” highlights Hemingway’s claim.
Boulton tells Eddy and Billy Tableshaw to roll the log towards the water so they can wash off the sand “to see who it [the log] belongs to.” Through this action, Boulton challenges Herny by telling Eddy and Billy to wash it off and by proving to Dr. Adams that someone, specifically the “White and McNally” company owns the log. This news makes “the doctor . . . very uncomfortable” and he tells Boulton to leave it alone. Boulton continues by stating, “Don’t get huffy. I don’t care who you steal from. It’s none of my business.”
The conversation continues, focusing on the definition of “stolen” and its implications.
“If you think the logs are stolen, leave the, alone and take your tools back to the camp,” the doctor said. His face was red.
“Don’t go off at half cock, Doc,” Dick said. He spat tobacco juice on the log. It slid off, thinning in the water. “You know they’re stolen as well as I do. It don’t make any difference to me.”
“All right. If you think the logs are stolen, take your stuff and get out.”
Within this exchange, language becomes front and center. Dr. Adams does not agree with Boulton’s terminology that the logs are stolen. He just tells Boulton, “If you think they’re stolen, you don’t have to do anything.” For Boulton, the issue is not whether or not the logs are stolen; instead, he wants Dr. Adams to admit that he does not own or have any right to the logs because they are the property of White and McNally. If they were, as Dr. Adams claims, “driftwood,” then he would have every right to gather them up. However, the marks on the logs tell us they are not “driftwood.”
By placing the “stolen” onto Boulton, Dr. Adams works to control meaning and exert power over the situation. Wright-Cleveland notes, “Perhaps Boulton wants to humiliate the doctor, but his usurpation of the power to name or bestow identity is his greater offense, for naming is a function of language reserved for whites.” Boulton’s challenging of Adams’ terms serves as a usurpation of Adams’ power to name and control. Boulton continues his opposition by calling Dr. Adams “Doc.” Adams takes issue with this and tells Boulton, “If you call me Doc once again, I’ll knock your eye teeth down your throat.” In this manner, Boulton does not just rename the logs; he renames Adams. Adams cannot let this stand, so he tells Boulton to take his tools and leave.
Speaking with his wife, Adams works to regain his power by claiming that Boulton quit due to laziness: “Well, Dick owes me a lot of money for pulling his squaw through pneumonia and I guess he wanted a row so he wouldn’t have to take it out in work.” Adams blames Boulton’s leaving on his mixed-ancestry, implying that his Ojibway lineage causes him to be lazy, starting a fight just to get out of work. Mrs. Adams challenges her husband, telling him that she does not “think that anyone would do a thing of that sort intentionally.” In this manner, she aligns herself with Boulton in challenging Adams’ construction of power.
The story ends with Adams taking his shotgun and going into the woods. He finds his son Nick sitting against a tree and Nick asks if he can go hunting with his father. Adams agrees, and the two go off in search of black squirrels. The ending presents a very pastoral image, one where nature and the woods serve as a space of escape and rejuvenation. However, this ending is problematic. If the pastoral provides escape, what is Adams escaping from? He’s escaping from challenges to his power as a white man. He’s fleeing into the woods to regain his power. This is interesting and needs to be considered more, especially in relation to other stories in the collection.
In the next post, I will focus on the ways that Hemingway uses language in “The Battler” to highlight the social constructions of race. Until then, what are your thoughts? Let me know either in the comments below or on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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