Blame it on Hemingway and America’s historical love of hunting! That’s the latest charge arising out of the anger over the recent killing of Cecil, the beloved Zimbabwe lion with a striking black mane, by Dr. Walter Palmer, a dentist and big-game hunter from Eden Prairie, Minnesota.
Linking Palmer to Hemingway is very understandable. In his heyday Hemingway did as much as any American writer to glamorize big-game hunting. In the early ’30s he drew widespread attention to himself when he traveled to East Africa to undertake a safari with Philip Percival, who years earlier had served as a hunting guide for ex-president Theodore Roosevelt.
In Kenneth Lynn’s massive biography of Hemingway, which contains a long account of Hemingway’s hunting adventures in Africa, there’s even a picture of Hemingway proudly posing with a huge rhino that he just shot.
The problem with linking Palmer and Hemingway is that the differences between Hemingway’s ideas about hunting and those of Palmer, who in 2008 pleaded guilty to making false statements to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about killing a black bear in Wisconsin, far exceed their similarities.
Cecil was killed outside Hwange National Park, where, protected by Zimbabwe law, he had happily lived for 13 years—just under the 15 to 18 years the Pittsburgh Zoo says is the average lifespan for an African lion in the wild. According to reports from the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, cited by The Washington Post, Cecil was lured out of Hwange National Park with a dead animal tied to a vehicle.
Once that happened, Cecil’s fate was sealed. Palmer, who paid $50,000 to go on the hunt, initially wounded Cecil with his bow and arrow, according to the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force; then 40 hours later, along with his guide, Palmer tracked down the wounded Cecil and shot him with a gun.
By contrast, at the core of Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” his most famous story about hunting in East Africa, is a morality tale that argues there are strict rights and wrongs in hunting. In “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” these rights and wrongs are taught to Macomber by Robert Wilson, an English-born, professional hunter.
Wilson won’t let Macomber shoot game from the safety of a car, and when Macomber wounds, but does not kill, a lion, Wilson insists they must go after the lion, despite Macomber’s desire to let the matter drop. “For one thing, he’s certain to be suffering,” Wilson tells Macomber. “For another, someone else might run into him.”
Wilson’s hunting ethics are ones that Hemingway embraced in his own life and sharply defined in three letters from Tanganyika that appeared in Esquire in 1934, two full years before “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” was published in the September 1936 issue of Cosmopolitan. In those letters Hemingway makes a distinction between what he calls “shootism versus sport” and rails against hunters who do little more than “murder a lion” when they go on safari.
In “Notes on Dangerous Game: The Third Tanganyika Letter,” which appeared in the July 1934 Esquire, Hemingway uses language that might well have come from Robert Wilson. “In the ethics of shooting dangerous game is the premise that the trouble you shoot yourself into you must be prepared to shoot yourself out of,” Hemingway writes.
Macomber, a once fearful man, learns to accept this set of ethics for himself after an incident in which he admits, “I bolted like a rabbit.” The irony of Hemingway’s story is that, once Macomber has changed, his happy life ends. He is shot—whether accidentally or accidentally on purpose is the question—by his wife, Margot, who resents her husband’s newfound inner strength.
We never get to see what Macomber would be like after the hunt he has paid for concludes. All we know is that he has changed for the better. Linking Macomber to Wilson and Hemingway is the belief all three share that how you pursue an animal, not the trophy you bag, is the true measure of a hunter.
Nicolaus Mills is professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence College. He is currently at work on a book about Ernest Hemingway and his World War II circle.