American author Ernest Hemingway’s novel Across the River and into the Trees
was his first published fiction since 1940’s For Whom the Bell Tolls
with his only book in the interim being 1942’s anthology, Men at War
, a collection of war stories by various authors for which he served as editor. Although Hemingway worked on the text in the late 1940s while he was in Cuba and France, Across the River and into the Trees
was not published until 1950. It was first published in serialized form in Cosmopolitan
magazine in the early part of 1950. It was Hemingway’s first experience receiving negative reviews for one of his novels. The reception did not, however, deter the public from embracing it, as it became his first and only novel to reach the number one spot on The New York Times
Best Seller list, spending seven weeks in the position. In subsequent decades, critical response has softened and it has come to be viewed as a significant work of the author. The title comes from the final statement of United States Civil War general, Thomas J. (Stonewall) Jackson. The Confederate leader said, “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.” The book was the last full-length work published by Hemingway in his lifetime and was followed only by 1952’s The Old Man and the Sea
, a novella.
The book begins with an elderly Colonel Richard Cantwell, who suffers from a heart condition, on a duck hunt in Trieste, Italy. On the hunt, the colonel is angry with his boatman, who is less than proficient, but he displays great pride in himself when he bags two ducks. The life of the colonel is then recalled in a long flashback. Cantwell thinks about countess Renata, a young Venetian woman, and of the things he had experienced in World War I as a one-star general in Venice. The narrative tells of Cantwell and Renata's romantic times together and paints a sorrowful picture of a warrior approaching the end of his life.
Colonel Cantwell is being driven to his rendezvous with Renata by a man named Jackson, a non-commissioned officer. On the way he persists in pointing out the ways that Venice should be appreciated. The things Cantwell speaks of go back to, and long before, his service in the Italian army during World War I. Following the long, and to Jackson, boring, travelogue, they arrive in Venice and Cantwell meets with the countess. The girl is almost nineteen years old, while Cantwell is middle aged. It is never really made clear what it is that Renata finds attractive about Cantwell. She is naïve and from a wealthy background. She apparently does not mind him referring to her as “daughter” nor does his being older than her father seem to concern to her.
After spending three days in Venice enjoying food and drink and making love to Renata, Cantwell, foreshadowing
his own death, quotes the final words of Stonewall Jackson. He then makes his way to the backseat of the staff car and dies of a heart attack. Much of the critical opposition to Across the River and into the Trees
suggested that the novel did not have much of a plot. In response to such statements Hemingway pointed out that he had included such events as a military breakthrough in Normandy and the taking of Paris, as well as the Hurtgen Forest battle that he witnessed firsthand as a war correspondent. The stories of the war that the colonel tells the countess bolster the plot even though the main story focuses on the affair of the two main characters and the premature death of Cantwell.
While Across the River and into the Trees
has garnered respect over the years, it is difficult to ignore the disappointment with which it was met upon its original release. Commentary
magazine was among those that published the harshest responses to the book, “The first thing to be said about this novel is that it is so egregiously bad as to render all comment on it positively embarrassing to anyone who esteems Hemingway as one of the more considerable prose-artists of our time and as the author of some of the finest short stories in the language. Hence the disappointment induced by this latest work of his, a work manifestly composed in a state of distemper, if not actual demoralization . This novel reads like a parody by the author of his own manner-a parody so biting that it virtually destroys the mixed social and literary legend of Hemingway that has now endured for nearly three decades.” Still, amid the violent negativity, the publication recognized the greatness of the author. “For it can be said that not since the days of Dickens and later of Mark Twain has a writer of fiction in English succeeded in beguiling and captivating his readers to the extent that Hemingway did; and his success had a quality of ease and naturalness that was essentially exhilarating.”