CLOSE
istock (background) / Scribner (cover)
istock (background) / Scribner (cover)

11 Facts About Hemingway’s The Old Man And The Sea

istock (background) / Scribner (cover)
istock (background) / Scribner (cover)

The Old Man and the Sea was the last major work Ernest Hemingway published in his lifetime. The simple story is about an old man who catches a giant fish in the waters off Cuba, only to have it devoured by sharks. Defeated, he returns home with the fish’s skeleton attached to the boat. Many consider this spare novel to be Hemingway’s best work. 

1. Hemingway wrote the novel to prove he wasn’t finished as a writer.

When The Old Man and the Sea was published in 1952, Hemingway hadn’t written a significant literary work for over a decade. His last successful book, For Whom the Bell Tolls, came out in 1940. To make matters worse, his 1950 novel Across the River and Into the Trees was panned by critics. People were saying that Hemingway was "through" as a writer. He began The Old Man and the Sea to prove that not only was he still in the writing game, he had yet to produce his best work. 

2. The story had been in his mind for years.

In 1936, Hemingway wrote an essay for Esquire that contained a paragraph describing an "old man fishing alone in a skiff out of Cabañas" who hooked a big marlin that dragged him eastward for two days. The man killed the fish and then fought off sharks attracted to its blood. When the man was finally picked up, "what was left of the fish, less than half, weighed eight hundred pounds." Two years later, Hemingway started writing The Old Man and the Sea, but then got sidetracked by For Whom the Bell Tolls. By the time he returned to the story, it had been percolating in his brain for at least 16 years. 

3. The old man was based on a blue-eyed Cuban named Gregorio Fuentes.

Fabrizio Zampa,Wikimedia Commons

Although Hemingway said the old man, Santiago, was based on "nobody in particular," he most likely used aspects of his fishing buddy Gregorio Fuentes when developing the character. Like Santiago, Fuentes was gaunt and thin, had blue eyes, came from the Canary Islands, and had a long, battle-scarred history as a fisherman. Fuentes was the captain of Hemingway’s boat and the two frequently talked about the novel.

4. The fish was an Atlantic Blue Marlin.

While living in Florida and Cuba, Hemingway frequently fished for marlin in his boat, the Pilar. Not to be confused with a swordfish, Atlantic Blue Marlin are large billfish that live in the temperate and tropical regions of the Atlantic Ocean. They can get up to 14 feet long and weigh 2,000 pounds. Like in the book, a common predator is the white shark.

5. The book was dedicated to recently deceased friends.

The dedication in The Old Man and the Sea reads "To Charlie Scribner And To Max Perkins," both friends who passed away before the book came out. Max Perkins, who also edited F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe, died in 1947 and Scribner, who was president of Charles Scribner's Sons, died in 1952. They were among many of Hemingway’s literary peers who died in the preceding decade, including Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Sherwood Anderson, and James Joyce.

6. Hemingway claimed there was no symbolism in the book.

The fable-like structure of the novel suggests that the story is symbolic, which is why many view The Old Man and the Sea as an allegory. But Hemingway thought all that was bunk—or at least, that’s what he said. "There isn’t any symbolism," he wrote to critic Bernard Berenson. "The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man … The sharks are all sharks no better and no worse. All the symbolism that people say is shit. What goes beyond is what you see beyond when you know."

7. He believed the novel was his finest work.

When Hemingway sent the manuscript to his editor, Wallace Meyer, he said, "I know that it is the best I can write ever for all of my life, I think, and that it destroys good and able work by being placed alongside of it." Then he added that he hoped it would "get rid of the school of criticism that I am through as a writer."

8. The 'Life' Magazine excerpt sold out immediately.

Life featured an excerpt of The Old Man and the Sea in its September 1952 issue. The five million copies of the magazine sold out in two days. Luckily, you can peruse the original yourself online. 

9. The Old Man and the Sea made Hemingway a celebrity.

Of course, Hemingway was a known and respected author beforehand, but The Old Man and the Sea elevated his reputation to the literary giant we think of today. Critics loved the book. It won the 1953 Pulitzer Prize and was cited as a reason Hemingway won the 1954 Nobel Prize. It was also a best seller and made Hemingway a fortune. In 1955, it was made into a movie starring Spencer Tracy.

10. Even Hemingway’s literary rival, William Faulkner, liked it.

The following is a one-paragraph review Faulkner wrote about The Old Man and the Sea, published in Shenandoah:

"His best. Time may show it to be the best single piece of any of us, I mean his and my contemporaries. This time, he discovered God, a Creator. Until now, his men and women had made themselves, shaped themselves out of their own clay; their victories and defeats were at the hands of each other, just to prove to themselves or one another how tough they could be. But this time, he wrote about pity: about something somewhere that made them all: the old man who had to catch the fish and then lose it, the fish that had to be caught and then lost, the sharks which had to rob the old man of his fish; made them all and loved them all and pitied them all. It’s all right. Praise God that whatever made and loves and pities Hemingway and me kept him from touching it any further."

11. You can watch the Oscar-winning stop-motion film of the book. 

This stop-motion animation of The Old Man and the Sea was made by Russian animator Aleksandr Petrov. The film uses 29,000 images that he and his son, Dimitri, painted on glass over two years. It’s no wonder it won the 2000 Academy Award for Animated Short Film. 

nextArticle.image_alt|e
MICHAL CIZEK/AFP/Getty Images
arrow
Lists
15 Powerful Quotes From Margaret Atwood
MICHAL CIZEK/AFP/Getty Images
MICHAL CIZEK/AFP/Getty Images

It turns out the woman behind such eerily prescient novels as The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake is just as wise as her tales are haunting. Here are 15 of the most profound quips from author, activist, and Twitter enthusiast Margaret Atwood, who was born on this day in 1939.

1. On her personal philosophy

 “Optimism means better than reality; pessimism means worse than reality. I’m a realist.”

— From a 2004 interview with The Guardian

2. On the reality of being female

“Men often ask me, Why are your female characters so paranoid? It’s not paranoia. It’s recognition of their situation.”

— From a 1990 interview with The Paris Review

3. On limiting how her politics influence her characters

“You know the myth: Everybody had to fit into Procrustes’ bed and if they didn’t, he either stretched them or cut off their feet. I’m not interested in cutting the feet off my characters or stretching them to make them fit my certain point of view.”

— From a 1997 interview with Mother Jones

4. On so-called “pretty” works of literature

“I don’t know whether there are any really pretty novels … All of the motives a human being may have, which are mixed, that’s the novelists’ material. … We like to think of ourselves as really, really good people. But look in the mirror. Really look. Look at your own mixed motives. And then multiply that.”

— From a 2010 interview with The Progressive

5. On the artist’s relationship with her fans

“The artist doesn’t necessarily communicate. The artist evokes … [It] actually doesn’t matter what I feel. What matters is how the art makes you feel.”

— From a 2004 interview with The Guardian

6. On the challenges of writing non-fiction

“When I was young I believed that ‘nonfiction’ meant ‘true.’ But you read a history written in, say, 1920 and a history of the same events written in 1995 and they’re very different. There may not be one Truth—there may be several truths—but saying that is not to say that reality doesn’t exist.”

— From a 1997 interview with Mother Jones

7. On poetry

“The genesis of a poem for me is usually a cluster of words. The only good metaphor I can think of is a scientific one: dipping a thread into a supersaturated solution to induce crystal formation.”

— From a 1990 interview with The Paris Review

8. On being labeled an icon

“All these things set a standard of behavior that you don’t necessarily wish to live up to. If you’re put on a pedestal you’re supposed to behave like a pedestal type of person. Pedestals actually have a limited circumference. Not much room to move around.”

— From a 2013 interview with The Telegraph

9. On how we’re all born writers

“[Everyone] ‘writes’ in a way; that is, each person has a ‘story’—a personal narrative—which is constantly being replayed, revised, taken apart and put together again. The significant points in this narrative change as a person ages—what may have been tragedy at 20 is seen as comedy or nostalgia at 40.”

— From a 1990 interview with The Paris Review

10. On the oppression at the center of The Handmaid's Tale

“Nothing makes me more nervous than people who say, ‘It can’t happen here. Anything can happen anywhere, given the right circumstances.” 

— From a 2015 lecture to West Point cadets

11. On the discord between men and women

“‘Why do men feel threatened by women?’ I asked a male friend of mine. … ‘They’re afraid women will laugh at them,’ he said. ‘Undercut their world view.’ … Then I asked some women students in a poetry seminar I was giving, ‘Why do women feel threatened by men?’ ‘They’re afraid of being killed,’ they said.”

— From Atwood’s Second Words: Selected Critical Prose, 1960-1982

12. On the challenges of expressing oneself

“All writers feel struck by the limitations of language. All serious writers.”

— From a 1990 interview with The Paris Review

13. On selfies

“I say they should enjoy it while they can. You’ll be happy later to have taken pictures of yourself when you looked good. It’s human nature. And it does no good to puritanically say, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t be doing that,’ because people do.”

— From a 2013 interview with The Telegraph

14. On the value of popular kids' series (à la Harry Potter and Percy Jackson)

"It put a lot of kids onto reading; it made reading cool. I’m sure a lot of later adult book clubs came out of that experience. Let people begin where they are rather than pretending that they’re something else, or feeling that they should be something else."

— From a 2014 interview with The Huffington Post

15. On why even the bleakest post-apocalyptic novels are, deep down, full of hope

“Any novel is hopeful in that it presupposes a reader. It is, actually, a hopeful act just to write anything, really, because you’re assuming that someone will be around to [read] it.”

— From a 2011 interview with The Atlantic 

nextArticle.image_alt|e
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images
arrow
Design
China's New Tianjin Binhai Library is Breathtaking—and Full of Fake Books
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A massive new library in Tianjin, China, is gaining international fame among bibliophiles and design buffs alike. As Arch Daily reports, the five-story Tianjin Binhai Library has capacity for more than 1 million books, which visitors can read in a spiraling, modernist auditorium with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.

Several years ago, municipal officials in Tianjin commissioned a team of Dutch and Japanese architects to design five new buildings, including the library, for a cultural center in the city’s Binhai district. A glass-covered public corridor connects these structures, but the Tianjin Binhai Library is still striking enough to stand out on its own.

The library’s main atrium could be compared to that of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Guggenheim Museum in New York City. But there's a catch: Its swirling bookshelves don’t actually hold thousands of books. Look closer, and you’ll notice that the shelves are printed with digital book images. About 200,000 real books are available in other rooms of the library, but the jaw-dropping main room is primarily intended for socialization and reading, according to Mashable.

The “shelves”—some of which can also serve as steps or seating—ascend upward, curving around a giant mirrored sphere. Together, these elements resemble a giant eye, prompting visitors to nickname the attraction “The Eye of Binhai,” reports Newsweek. In addition to its dramatic main auditorium, the 36,000-square-foot library also contains reading rooms, lounge areas, offices, and meeting spaces, and has two rooftop patios.

Following a three-year construction period, the Tianjin Binhai Library opened on October 1, 2017. Want to visit, but can’t afford a trip to China? Take a virtual tour by checking out the photos below.

A general view of the Tianjin Binhai Library
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

People visiting China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A general view of China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A woman taking pictures at China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A man visiting China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A woman looking at books at China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A general view of China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

People visiting China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

[h/t Newsweek]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios