The Torrents of Springs has an interesting place in the Hemingway canon. It’s under 100 pages, but couldn’t be more different than the similarly short The Old Man and the Sea; the latter was a masterpiece, cost the author great effort, and won him a Pulitzer Prize, towards the end of his career. The former was early in his career and took him a matter of days to complete; it’s a work of parody and was intended to break Hemingway’s contract with publisher Boni and Liveright. The contract stated that B&L would publish the young up-and-coming’s first three novels unless one were rejected; in the case of rejection, the contract would be broken. Thus tricky Hemingway, who wanted to sign with Scribner’s, submitted this brief and, Hadley Hemingway’s word, “nasty” novella, had his contract broken, and carried on. The Torrents of Spring has never received much critical attention. It is accepted as it was presented: a lark, and not a particularly good-natured one. In my Hemingway studies, though, I wanted to see what it was about – perhaps all the more so because it has such a prickly reputation. (F. Scott Fitzgerald, the dissenter, apparently found it impressive.)
So I picked up this slim little book and read it in a day. It reads like a parody. (But I knew this going in. Hm. An unbiased reader I was not.) It’s a little ridiculous, consciously skipping over character development and explanations in favor of repetitious sentences.
In some ways it was the happiest year of his life. In other ways it was a nightmare. A hideous nightmare. In the end he grew to like it. In other ways he hated it. Before he knew it, a year had passed. He was still collaring pistons. But what strange things had happened in that year. Often he wondered about them.
But these strange things are not explained to me, “the reader.”
The author addresses “the reader” and asks for allowances to be made:
It is very hard to write this way… the author hopes the reader will realize this… I don’t want to rush the reader any… I only wish the reader could help me.
There is definitely a note of less-than-seriousness. It’s also simple, and less than proper in its treatment of certain minority groups (which latter fact is pretty standard for the time period).
If you think you hear Hemingway’s famous “voice” here, you’re not alone. However, I think I hear Sherwood Anderson‘s “voice” here, too. Anderson is one of the writers being parodied; but he also appears in an article years after the publication of The Torrents of Spring as Hemingway’s recommended reading, which is a little odd. But then, Hemingway did make a habit of pushing-and-pulling at his literary friends and rivals, who were too often the same people.
Oh, did you want to know what it was about? Plot is not this book’s strong point, but I’ll tell you briefly. Scripps O’Neil was married to a woman in Mancelona (Michigan), but she left him; he then journeys towards Chicago but ends up in Petoskey (also Michigan, and one of Hemingway’s haunts). Here he works in a pump factory and marries an elderly waitress with whom he quickly becomes disenchanted. His coworker at the factory, Yogi Johnson, who was in the war, worries about losing his interest in women; drinks with some Indians whose luck runs out; and regains his interest in women upon encountering a nude squaw. The plot is not the point; the point is the funny style.
I have to agree with the critics this time; this is not an important literary creation on the scale of Hemingway’s great works (like The Sun Also Rises, which like Torrents was published in 1926). But it’s amusing, and stylistically interesting. I wouldn’t go about freely recommending this to just any reader. I think you would want to be especially interested in Hemingway, or Anderson, or literary playfulness of their era, to appreciate it. If that’s not you – if you’re interested in exploring Hemingway generally – I can recommend much better books, and much better examples of his craft. The Sun Also Rises, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Old Man and the Sea are my favorite of his novels; A Farewell to Arms is well-respected as well; A Moveable Feast is a lovely memoir of Paris; and I find his short stories marvelous (and nice short entries to his style if you’re hesitant). The best I can say about The Torrents of Spring is that it will not take much of your time! And is mildly noteworthy as an anecdote of Hemingway’s career.