I grew up hating Hemingway. He seemed to me like those weird paintings at the museum downtown where a tennis ball would rest on a nuclear warhead, and people would comment how profound it was. Unlike the other writers I liked, Hemingway liked short sentences. Short words. Poignant pauses. The end.
It's hard to reach people, and I know because I was hard to reach. Several Hemingway evangelists tried to convert me but to no avail. I thought "The Old Man and the Sea" was obvious and painful, and if it wasn't assigned, I wasn't reading any more Hemingway.
One fortunate event intervened. The library just up the street gladly loans me books twice a week. It also has, in its foyer, a place to sell donated books that they don't need another copy of in the library. I found a copy of Hemingway's short stories, a recent enough edition worth absolutely nothing to collectors, and bought it for fifty cents.
I bought it because it smelled good. It smelled like books kept in good places: not humid, not dusty, not too much sunlight, not a lack of air stirring. It smelled like an old book and since I have fond memories of these, I had to haul it home. And then I read "The short happy life of Francis Macomber."
This short story covers a common enough event in its day: a wealthy Westerner goes to Africa, hires a hunter and goes to shoot a lion, then panicks and flees at a crucial moment. His wife immediately turns toward the sexy hunter instead. But what makes this story great is that we can sense this man plucking up his courage, trying it again, and eventually beating his own fear.
To my mind, this story packs more into thirty pages than most people do into a lifetime, and it finally convinced me of Hemingway's worth: life really is a test of our will against our cowardice, and when we overcome that, we gain a greater peace of mind than material goods or even sexual pleasure can bring us.
It's also about what literature is about. We don't need books to make us feel better about life. We need books to make us want to dive into life again, fighting hard and fast, and to make something of it.
I used to think literature was about telling us all the bad things in life, and would avoid it for that reason, but in short stories like this one, I see what I've always liked about literature as opposed to everday humdrum escapist fiction: it makes me want to live life to its fullest and find meaning even in the bad pthings.
That's why "The short happy life of Francis Macomber" is my favorite short story and has been for a decade.