The Mailer Review/Volume 13, 2019/Angst, Authorship, Critics: “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” “The Crack-Up,” Advertisements for Myself

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« The Mailer ReviewVolume 13 Number 1 • 2019 »
Written by
Raymond M. Vince
Abstract: Mailer, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald face personal and cultural angst. Despite critical disapproval at the time, the works use counterfactuals and aesthetic distance to mark “a fundamental change in American consciousness.” Vladimir Nabokov suggests that we possess “only words to play with.” Using such frail and fallible words, these writers transformed their personal angst into great art, creating works that—like Mount Kilimanjaro—endure.
Note: An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Seventeenth Norman Mailer Conference at Wilkes University, Pennsylvania, 10–12 October, 2019.

It is not easy being a great writer. Nor is it easy—as various members of Norman Mailer’s family have testified—living with a great writer. The vocation of the serious author involves, along with a multitude of passions and perspectives, a good deal of angst. In using the term angst, I mean a deep sense of existential dread, but more particularly a peculiar experience of alienation that may be inseparable—it has been argued—from twentieth-century authorship. Hilary Justice has described a kind of “writer/author alienation”[1] experienced both by Mailer and Hemingway, and their differing responses to that alienation.[a]

Hemingway saw this alienation as a paradox and sought to eliminate it through force of will and pedantry. Mailer, having learned from Hemingway (and writing not as a Modernist but Postmodernist), embraced the paradox and gave it center stage. . . . Their future success as novelists (which would in both cases be uneven) would depend for the remainder of their careers on how successfully each negotiated the inescapable alienation of writer from author that was intrinsic to mid-twentieth-century American authorship.[2]

Her description of Mailer as one who “embraced the paradox and gave it center stage” sounds familiar to those of us who value and teach his work. The phrase brings us face to face with the complex relationship between Mailer’s fiction and nonfiction, and between the writer and the public figure. Few contemporary writers have “embraced the paradox” as much as Mailer, but this “writer/author alienation”[1] would seem to be common to many twentieth-century authors. My conviction is that these three authors—Norman Mailer (1923–2007), Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961), and F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940)—in struggling with that alienation, reveal a profound experience of angst, an angst that was both personal and cultural. Their literary responses were very different, as we shall see, but each writer was able to find a degree of aesthetic distance that transformed that angst into art.

To illustrate this claim, I want to compare Mailer’s genre-bending work Advertisements for Myself (1959) with Hemingway’s short story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” (1936) and Fitzgerald’s three essays known as “The Crack Up” (1936). There are some interesting parallels to note. In career arc, each writer had published about three major works—one of which now has classic status. In age, each man was between 36 and 39 years old. In their public role as authors, each felt challenged and embattled by the critics. In addition, these two historical moments—1936 amid the Great Depression and 1959 a decade or so into the Cold War—portray an America experiencing great uncertainty and on the cusp of enormous change. Personally and culturally, there was plenty of angst going round.

Hemingway and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” (1936)

In his short story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” Hemingway began his long search for what Rose Marie Burwell has called “a form and style that would express his reflexive vision of the artist,”[3] a search that occupied him to the end of his life.[b] The story tells of Harry, dying on the African plain of gangrene, arguing bitterly with his wife, Helen. With regret, he remembers his life: what he had seen, what he remembered, and what he had not written.

He had seen the world change; not just the events; although he had seen many of them and had watched the people, but he had seen the subtler change and he could remember how people were at different times. He had been in it and he had watched it and his duty was to write of it; but now he never would.[5]

“Snows” is a complex and beautifully told story, certainly one of Hemingway’s best. The structure, however, seems fragmented and the tone is dark.[c] So, what is happening? This story is a tale not of what is but of what might have been. To use Jennifer Harding’s useful term, the story is all about counterfactuals.

The central theme of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” I believe, is the exploration of unrealized alternatives and the coincident judgments of these alternatives by characters, narrator, and implied author. The explorations of “what might have been”—which appear in some form in every section of “Snows”—unite the story’s fragments and provide the key to its total thematic effect, inviting the reader to participate in the process of judgment.[7]

In 1933, Hemingway was living in Key West, Florida. Michael Reynolds tells us that he “was in a period of reassessment, melancholy and morose . . .”[8] He felt battered by the critics and preoccupied with death. It was the middle of the Great Depression. Fascists and Nazis were on the march, and another cataclysmic War seemed imminent. As Hemingway was working on what would become “Snows” and “Francis Macomber,” the first two of Fitzgerald’s three “Crack-Up” essays appeared in Esquire. Reading them, Hemingway was “depressed and appalled,” partly because—rightly or wrongly—he believed Scott was alluding not only to his own breakdown but also to Hemingway’s “suicidal gloom”.[8] True or not, Hemingway would have his revenge.[d] Even so, the “Crack-Up” articles may have been the catalyst that Hemingway needed to write this masterpiece. Reynolds continues the story,

In April of 1936, shortly after reading Fitzgerald’s third instalment in Esquire, Ernest finished his story of the dying writer in disrepair, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” in which Harry berates himself for the same kinds of failure that haunt Fitzgerald: squandering talent which never creates the fiction of which it was capable. . . . The result is a collection of short stories inside of a short story about a writer who failed his talent by not writing these very stories.[9]

The larger setting is Africa the continent described as the Cradle of Mankind. The veneer of civilization is removed, human illusions stripped away. The story is told with a simplicity and universality reminiscent of the parables of Jesus in the New Testament. As was his wont, Hemingway uses several natural symbols, emerging spontaneously it seems from the setting—plain and mountain, hyena and leopard, heat and snow, symbols that Carlos Baker has well described.[e] Hemingway uses these symbols to portray a series of contrasts. The hot, humid plain where Harry receives his death-wound is contrasted with the cold, pure summit of Kilimanjaro. The “evil-smelling emptiness” represented by the hyena[11] is juxtaposed with “the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard”[12] found near the summit—a contrast to which we shall return.

The immediate setting is the African plain. The plain is the dwelling place of mankind, the natural landscape of human mortality, the stage upon which each of us faces life’s challenges. Inevitably, it is also a stage where each must face death. Carlos Baker reminds us that Hemingway was a master of “cultural synecdoche” [13], so it may not be too farfetched to see in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” a retelling of the Garden of Eden parable—with a new Adam and Eve, and a new Fall from innocence.7 In “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”—a story that appears quantum-entangled with “Snows,” the hunter Robert Wilson quotes Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part II, “we owe God a death and let it go which way it will, he that dies this year is quit for the next” [14].8 For both Harry and Francis, this would be the year.

How do we read “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” meaning not only the title but the controlling image of the story? Sometimes, we may underestimate the crucial role of place in Hemingway’s work, what his character Colonel Cantwell called the “accidents of terrain” [15]. Here is Gerald Kennedy’s helpful summary,

As a writer, Hemingway was of course intensely interested in human conflicts and challenges, but he perceived in the physical order an ultimate, irreducible truth that he strove to capture. He understood how deeply “accidents of terrain” had shaped his work and how important “dreams of places” were to the construction of his stories and novels. As suggested by “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” that most geographical of his fictions, he also recognized that place is the organizing principle of memory and so conceived the last reveries of Harry, the dying writer, as a series of topographical visions. To the end, doing country (or doing city) remained arguably the crux of Hemingway’s poetics, the generative principle of narrative itself. [16].

Kennedy perceives that in Hemingway “place is the organizing principle of memory” [17]. This claim rings true: we may think of the title and epigraph for Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926) or we could reflect on the archetypal nature of so many settings in Hemingway’s work.9 We might think about the complex relationship between inner and outer landscapes, remembering Mailer’s poignant description of Hemingway, that his “inner landscape was a nightmare” [18].10 Maybe it was. It needs to be said, however, that whenever we encounter landscape, it is always as pictured through our senses, as refracted through our own perspective, as recreated from our own memories.

So Kennedy writes of Harry’s “topographical visions” in “Snows.” These are a series of five vignettes, printed in italic type, describing places, people, events, sensory impressions, hints and allusions that represent “what might have been.”They do not yet exist as stories, as developed plots and narratives. They are merely the possibility of a story. They exist only in Harry’s fevered imagination—they are the thoughts of a dying man. Containing the raw material for a dozen stories, all remain unwritten. In other words, returning to Harding’s term, these five vignettes printed in italics are counterfactuals, one of three different sets in this story. But even the non-italic sections—the bitter arguments between Harry and Helen— also, deal with “what might have been.” Harry wonders—if I had taken better care of the initial wound, this would not have happened. But it did happen. Helen reasons—if we had never come to Africa, this death-wound would not have happened. But it did happen. Hemingway’s story is full of such counterfactuals. Indeed, it is as if Hemingway has written the whole story in the subjunctive mood, written with an excess of content, with dozens of potential stories yet to be told. As told by the normally minimalist Hemingway, this “excess of content” seems unusual—at the very least.

What of the story’s end? We discover that the subjunctive mood extends to the final act—and to the two endings. In the first ending, Harry is rescued from the African plain by Compton and flown past the snow-covered mountain of Kilimanjaro, “as wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun” [19]. This we could call the “happy” ending—beloved of Hollywood and the Hallmark Channel. Ostensibly, the flight and the mountain could represent immortality. But, we ask, immortality for whom? Not for poor Harry, for just before this scene we read that “the weight went from his chest” [20]. Does the story itself, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” possess a kind of immortality, one that is shared by its implied author, Ernest Hemingway? Perhaps it does.

Then, with a jolt, we realize the truth. The triumphant flight past the pure white snows of Kilimanjaro is yet another “might have been” for poor Harry. The first ending, the “happy” ending, is abruptly followed by a second— where Helen discovers her husband’s lifeless body. After Harry’s fantasy ride to Kilimanjaro, the story ends in stone-cold naturalism, with the hyena’s uncanny cry and Helen’s beating heart [21]).

What is the significance of another animal, the leopard, mentioned at the beginning of the epigraph? Surely that—even at the point of death—this skilled hunter was still climbing, still searching for its prey. Ben Stoltzfus draws a contrast between Harry and the leopard: ”The leopard near the summit is one of the objects in the chain of animal events, death, and sensory impressions that contributes to the particular emotion of the story. The epigraph states that no one has explained the presence of the leopard at that altitude, but Hemingway’s story is the answer to the riddle and it explains the cat’s presence” [22]. Harry, by contrast, as a writer was neither climbing nor hunting. “Leopards hunt and they do what leopards do, whereas Harry, the would-be writer, does everything except write” [23]. Both man and leopard die—as eventually do all living things—but they die for different reasons.

How do we reconcile the two endings, the first of which, although printed in normal font, not italics, is, in reality, counterfactual in nature? Here again Harding is helpful.

By the end of the story, readers have not only learned what Helen and Harry regret but have also been supplied with an opportunity to judge Harry’s talent through the memories and thoughts conveyed in the italicized vignettes. The story ultimately privileges the counterfactual past, endorsing the notion that Harry should have written his stories. Harry, the narrator, and the implied author all seem to agree on this point, and readers are led to share this evaluation as well. The false rescue ending encourages readers not only to understand Harry and Helen’s regrets but to experience a sense of disappointment for themselves[24].

At this point, in 1936—and for while afterwards—Hemingway’s life was different from Harry’s. As both narrator and implied author, Hemingway recognizes the temptation that Harry represented, one that he would wrestle with until the end of his life. But in this story, at least—on any reading, a true masterpiece—Hemingway has learned his lesson from Harry’s fatal mistake. Rich in regret and counterfactuals, this story “flaunts the creative presence of an implied author who has made no such mistake—an author who has flirted with multiple narrative possibilities while maintaining a tight grip on the story’s ultimate trajectory”[25], right up to the alternative endings. Hemingway feared Harry’s fate, yet in this story, he brilliantly demonstrated his “own final control of the text” [25]. Like Fitzgerald, Hemingway had bared his soul, revealing his angst. Unlike Fitzgerald, he employed a complex fictive form to do so. Sadly, however, his “final control of the text”[25], as illustrated in “Snows,” would not be the final act. Towards the end of his life, as serious physical illness, depression, and alcohol abuse took over, Hemingway would begin to breakdown, finally in 1961 taking his own life. Burwell has poignantly described this disintegration, linking Hemingway’s complex narrative style with the metaphor he himself used to describe his task as an author—that of the iceberg. Burwell concludes with this description of the later postwar Hemingway,

Working throughout the postwar years at the four novels he could not bring to closure, Hemingway examined the life of the creative male from childhood through late middle age. He unified the narrative by invoking memory in a consciously Proustian manner, by twinning painters and writers as characters; by writing recurrently of the loss or destruction of the writer’s manuscripts by his wife, and by focusing intensely on the growth and decline of the artist. Always Hemingway was aware that the narratives were very personal; and sometime he would speculate that they could not be published while he was alive. . . . In the final months of his life Hemingway discovered that in venturing from the old narrative forms which had protected him from introspection, he had descended into the iceberg [26].

So it was that losing his “final control of the text” [25] and realizing his inability to write as he had done in an earlier period, experiencing serious physical and psychic pain, depression, and paranoia, Hemingway would on July 2, 1961, take his own life. But whatever his personal demons and however we understand his tragic end, it is Hemingway’s commitment to his art that should have the last word, and for which he will be remembered. For, as Ben Stoltzfus has written,

The one constant in his life was fidelity to writing and the subordination of almost everything else to it. When it comes to art, he is an authentic and original genius, and we admire the discipline that enabled him to create his masterpieces. . . . That is

Hemingway’s essence, a Nobel laureate who altered the direction of twentieth-century writing[27].


. . .Fitzgerald’s three revealing Esquire essays, “The Crack-up,” were not well received in 1936. Hemingway was “appalled,” and his reaction was typical. When, after Fitzgerald’s death, the larger 1945 book, The Crack-Up, appeared, critics and contemporaries were more respectful. This very useful collection, edited by Edmund Wilson, contains—along with the three  “The Crack- Up” essays—some of Fitzgerald’s other significant essays, such as “Echoes of the Jazz Age” (1930), “My Lost City” (1932), and “Early Success” (1937), his Notebooks, letters to and from friends, and much more. His essays in particular present an interesting “autobiographical sequence.” Wilson points out in a preliminary Note,

The following pieces have been selected from the articles written by F. Scott Fitzgerald between 1930 and 1937. They make an autobiographical sequence which vividly puts on record his state of mind and his point of view during the later years of his life.


  1. In arguing her claim, Hilary Justice compares Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon (1932) with Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself (1959), using the phrase “authorship and alienation.” This suggested to me the theme of writer/author alienation, but I decided to use instead Hemingway’s short story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” (1936), published four years later, and to add Fitzgerald’s “The Crack-Up” (1936). It seemed to me that “Snows” is a more successful work than Death in the Afternoon, and was also published the same year as Fitzgerald’s articles. All three works, I believe, reveal this writer/author alienation, but I decided to use as my title “Angst, Authorship, and the Critics” to highlight other factors. The article by Justice, however, was the primary catalyst for my paper.
  2. Hemingway’s long search for a “reflexive vision” culminated in the four works that he worked on until the end of his life but could not complete. Eventually, in various edited forms, they were published posthumously. “Together these four narratives form a serial sequence that was at times consciously modeled on Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. . . . In their totality, the four narratives record Hemingway’s fifteen-year search for a form and style that would express his reflexive vision of the artist. It is a search he had begun as early as the fall of 1936 as he wrote in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” of a dying writer’s imaginative triumph over the distractions that have limited his art. There is a discernible movement towards what we have come to call postmodern narrative in these works.”[4]
  3. Kenneth Johnston suggests that Hemingway wrote the story “to exorcise his guilt feelings for having neglected his serious writing.”[6] He reminds us that Hemingway had published no novel since A Farewell to Arms (1929) and not much short fiction. The critics were not kind.
  4. Angry because of Fitzgerald’s allusions to his own “suicidal gloom,” Hemingway mocks Fitzgerald in several places in both “Snows” and “Francis Macomber,” even after his editors asked him to tone down the attacks.
  5. “The story is technically distinguished by the operation of several natural symbols. These are non-literary images, as always in Hemingway, and they have been carefully selected so as to be in complete psychological conformity with the locale and the dramatic situation. . . . Like the death symbol, the image for immortality arises ‘naturally’ out of the geography and psychology of the situation.”[10]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Justice 2010, p. 260.
  2. Justice 2010, p. 230.
  3. Burwell 1996, p. 1.
  4. Burwell 1996, pp. 1–2.
  5. Hemingway 2003, p. 17.
  6. Johnston 1984, p. 223.
  7. Harding 2011, pp. 21–22.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Reynolds 1997, p. 222.
  9. Reynolds 1997, pp. 222–223.
  10. Baker 1972, pp. 193–194.
  11. Hemingway 2003, p. 15.
  12. Hemingway 2003, p. 3.
  13. Baker 1972, pp. 206.
  14. Baker 1972, pp. 178.
  15. Kennedy 1999, pp. 325.
  16. Kennedy 1999, pp. 328-329.
  17. Kennedy 1999, pp. 328.
  18. Sipiora 2013, pp. 170.
  19. Scribner 2003, pp. 27.
  20. Scribner 2003, pp. 25.
  21. Scribner, 2003 & 28.
  22. Stoltzfus 2005, pp. 224.
  23. stoltzfus 2005, pp. 224.
  24. Harding 2011, pp. 32.
  25. 25.0 25.1 25.2 25.3 Harding 2011, pp. 33.
  26. Burwell 1996, pp. 4-5.
  27. Stoltzfus 2005, pp. 218.

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