Onwards!’s First Product Review—Luggage, Literature and More!
My favorite of Ernest Hemingway’s works is In Our Time, and my favorite story in that book is “Big Two-Hearted River.” I read it as a junior in college and was quick to teach it when I got in front of a class in graduate school.
In Our Time falls between a collection of short stories and a novella. It is a challenging read because its sparse structure and Hemingway’s minimalist writing leaves a lot to the imagination.
What with all my trips out west this summer—Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon, Utah, California, Colorado—I’ve been thinking about the way our very landscape is challenging—overwhelming and sparse. I’ve been thinking about the way men tell stories when they belly up to the bar and about American aesthetics. I’ve been thinking about the fundamental ambivalence latent in what it means it means to be American and about tragedy and beauty.
I’ve also been packing a lot of gear.
All that put me in mind of in In Our Time, and Nick Adam’s camping trip in “Big Two-Hearted River.”
The publishing history of In Our Time is pretty interesting. It turns out that Ezra Pound commissioned Hemingway to write six prose poems on World War I for the 1923 Little Review. The volume also contained work by Gertrude Stein, Mina Loy, and HD.
Hemingway wrote some more and published in our time the very next year under Pound’s editorship. This version of In Our Time is just thirty-one pages and was originally printed on hand-made paper in a run of only 170 copies. The back page lists a short catalogue under Pound’s editorship, including Pound’s Indiscretions, Ford Madox Ford’s Women and Men, and William Carlos Williams’ The Great American Novel.
Hemingway followed up in 1925 with yet another version of In Our Time, now properly titled In Our Time. With this version, he added short stories between the vignettes to transform it from a pamphlet of prose poems to a collection of short stories, or more, an elliptical novella. Hemingway added another story in 1930, which is the version I first read as a junior at Vassar. In this way, In Our Time grew over the first half of the 1920s, becoming more complete but remaining fragmentary.
That 1923 version features Henry Strater’s portrait of Hemingway as “the author.”
Rereading the text and looking at the portrait, the book seems both of the early twentieth century but also utterly contemporary to us, a playlist of flash fiction accompanied by a strikingly filtered image, all curated by a master tastemaker, Ezra Pound.
As much as in our time is within time, then, it also exceeds time. It resonates with me differently at different times, as a junior, as an early teacher, and now as a, um, “a blogger.” Somehow all these differences are tied together with Hemingway’s identity as an American author, as the shadow behind Nick Adams, as a specific human being. Which is the true In Our Time—the pamphlet, the collection of short stories, the 1930 version? Who is the true Hemingway? Is Hemingway more real in his words, in Strater’s portrait, in his character Nick Adams, or in the legend that evolved over the twentieth century? Do all forms—prose fiction, portraiture, legend—ultimately miss the mark?
And so, one might ask where are we? In our texts flying through the etherwebs? In the images scrolling through our social media channels? In our friends’ imaginative evocation of who we are and what we are doing when we post?
In Our Time never fully coheres, not in the 1923 journal, 1924 pamphlet, 1925 collection, or 1930 edition. What is says, it says through absence—the distance between the stories and the prose poems, the separate the words in all those terse little lines of prose. Hemingway’s minimalism often appears quite literal—short stories of violence and humiliation—but it triggers imaginative figuration. Because of this, I find it difficult to characterize Hemingway as a racist, or a misogynist, or a homophobe, because I find that minimalism is always evocative. His is a fiction of aporia, and thus painfully ironic and, ultimately, tragic.
In the same way, I find that people never fully cohere. People are always unpredictable, and that’s what makes loving them alternately magical and tragical, maybe more simply, magically tragic.
The beauty of the “Big Two-Hearted River” lies in its detail around material things.
I don’t know why Hemingway titled his story “Big Two-Hearted River.” Nick could never have walked to the Two-Hearted river from the train stop at Seney, MI. The action takes place at the Fox River.
Nick huffs and puffs, carrying his bag out of the burned out town of Seney, towards green pine trees near the Fox river.
Nick walked back up the ties to where his pack lay in the cinders beside the railway track. He was happy. He adjusted the pack harness around the bundle, pulling straps tight, slung the pack on his back, got his arms through the shoulder straps and took some of the pull off his shoulders by leaning his forehead against the wide band of the tump-line. Still, it was too heavy. It was much too heavy. He had his leather rod-case in his hand and leaning forward to keep the weight of the pack high on his shoulders he walked along the road that paralleled the railway track, leaving the burned town behind in the heat, and then turned off around a hill with a high, fire-scarred hill on either side onto a road that went back into the country. He walked along the road feeling the ache from the pull of the heavy pack. The road climbed steadily. It was hard work walking up-hill. His muscles ached and the day was hot, but Nick felt happy. He felt he had left everything behind, the need for thinking, the need to write, other needs, It was all back of him.—Ernest Hemingway, “Big Two-Hearted River, Part I”
In part, the story’s charm comes from the way Nick later produces, like a magician with a hat, items from his pack. The pack opens up like Batman’s utility belt, revealing cans of beans and spaghetti, a fly book, an aluminum leader box, a tent, nails, rope, the makings of coffee and onion sandwiches. There is more: three blankets, an ax (not a hatchet), a grill, a frying pan, a plate and utensils, a knife, cigarettes. The pack is like the circus clown car—how many more things can come out? A folding canvas water bucket, flour, a jar of apple butter, oiled paper for just the occasion that we might now use a zip-lock bag. The list goes on: a can of apricots, a can of grease—and that’s just the first day of the trip.
Gear—clothes, parts, accessories, and of course the motorcycles themselves—are fundamental to motorcycling. They mediate the relationship between the rider and the world. The best a rider can do is bridge that relationship to become fluid with the machine, in an inseparable flash of motion that embodies harmony and grace. The worst a rider can do is foul off that relationship and end up on the pavement, the motorcycle lying on its side by the wayside, off its tires, wrongly set in the world.
Still, Nick simply has too much stuff, and his pack is much too heavy. I’ve never understood why riders choose gigantic machines. To carry all their stuff, I imagine. Electra Glides, Gold Wings, R1200GS Adventures—anything with suitcases built onto the sides—look like Nick’s pack to me. I think those riders, no matter how proud, how fit, and how accomplished, feel a little bit like Nick strapped into his pack: aching from hard work and still telling themselves they have left everything behind when in fact that are bringing it all with them.
I am a minimalist when it comes to my motorcycles and my gear. Although I like big engines (more on that in another post), I like my motorcycle to feel elemental. The Harley I ride on my trips is essentially no more than a grouping of triangles (the frame, the engine’s shape, the seat, the forks, and the general contour of the gas tank) and circles (the wheels, headlight, and front of the gas tank). These two basic shapes evoke stability and unity and movement. Together, they summon up the simplicity of an earlier American aesthetic. That my Harley usually works pretty well makes me think that its aesthetic is more than just a nostalgic overlay but fits the function of the machine. It’s excessive in its minimalism, no doubt, but it’s still minimal.
I don’t carry too much stuff with me when I ride. I pack one change of clothing and no gadgets beyond my phone. Extra shoes take up the most space.
I don’t want to spend more than three minutes packing the bike in the morning or unpacking it in the evening. Should the bike break down, and it did, I would rather only have stuff I can carry with me.
As with Nick’s pack in the “Big Two-Hearted River,” motorcycle luggage has a certain fascination in-and-of-itself. When the trip demands capacity, say when camping, I use Harley Davidson’s T Bag. Mine is an older model, and I picked it up on eBay for half price. It came with a smaller bag that I don’t use. Write me. You can have it.
The design of the T-Bag is pretty plain. A big bag with a few pockets and a handle. It’s difficult to carry, but it fits over the sissy bar and straps on with two clips in about a minute. It opens up with the pull of one zipper. I can pack a tent, a sleeping bag and pad, as well as a few books, clothes, maps, chargers, knives, a tire repair kit, and my toiletries. All of this, like Nick’s amazing pack, fits in the Harley T-Bag.
More recently, I’ve rediscovered the original messenger bag, designed by Frank De Martini of Globe Canvas.
Let me unpack this bag: In the late seventies and early eighties the Globe Canvas bag was the bag to have if you were a New York City messenger. De Martini color coded them according to New York’s messenger companies. City Cycle’s were bright yellow, which ironically became emblematic for NYC bicycle messengers overall.
When I became a motorcycle messenger at Instant Courier in 1981, the dispatch operator chided me for not getting a proper Globe Canvas bag. I complained that I couldn’t afford one, and he let me off the hook. But I simmered for one, I sure did.
I got one the next year, after TV commercials proved more lucrative and a whole lot safer then riding around NYC on commission. The bag was bright green and so damn cool that even the fashionable young ladies at my Upper West Side high school took note.
To get a Globe Canvas messenger bag, I had to go down to Little Italy and find the entrance to De Martini’s basement factory. It smelled cool and comforting below the city. There, I discovered his grown daughter, hard at work. She told me that the Israeli Army had just bought a shipment of bags for their grenades. I was impressed. She didn’t seem to notice my bright red helmet, which I remember casually but ostentatiously swinging at my hip.
I kept the bag until well after college, using it for all my trips to Canada.
This summer I got a new Globe Canvas bag and a new Aerostich wax cotton jacket. Both are made in America, and both companies are a pleasure to work with.
The jacket is warm and waterproof, with a stylish and snuggly cotton plaid interior. It’s called “The Falstaff,” a reference I’ll have to deal with in another post. It’s a pricey unit. Truth be told, it’s a little fiddly, with too many velcro adjustments and straps. There’s probably a tump-line somewhere. Still, the waxed cotton has a luxurious feeling, the lining is beautifully done, and the front pockets are cavernous. I recommend it, and advise going a size smaller than one’s normal suit jacket.
Like the Harley, De Martini’s bag is elemental. The version I had back in high school is now called the 3602 and costs just over a hundred bucks. Max at Globe dug up the the exact green of my 1982 bag, but I couldn’t go back that far. High school memories aren’t all happy. The new one is black nylon with a yellow plastic liner. It has pockets my first version lacked and a better velcro arrangement, but otherwise it’s the same piece of hardware.
I understand my new bag is both a specific thing in time, and somehow beyond time, evocative of earlier moments in my life.
Aerostich makes a knock off of De Martini’s bag, as do so many others. I bought one a decade ago and found it to be over-designed and cumbersome across my back, where the Globe Canvas bag always feels light, no matter how full.
That it never gets too heavy for me is a good feeling, and it’s fluidity in time recalls how an object is also a representation, how it is wrapped up in individual memory and all the meanings that accrue there.
Minimalism and excess. Hemingway’s little pamphlet of prose poems; the Globe canvas bag—both are trim and neat but become full through imagination and memory. Our relationship with objects in the world is our way of mediating our larger experience of depth of meaning.
motorcycling for me, then, is about things and time, about moving through literal and figural space, about leaving things behind but also about holding them in memory, and about abandoning them and revisiting them.
At the end of the long passage above, Nick Adams announces that he has left a lot behind. He tells us that he is leaving thought, the need to write, and other needs. As “Big Two-Hearted River” is the last story in the book, it does seem to leave all the other stories and vignettes—all their emotional violence, their cruelty to animals and people, their punishments and humiliations—behind as well.
Nevertheless, Nick is overloaded, and not just with gear. Just as his pack is overfilled, his head is filled with memories. He remembers friends. He remembers techniques for fishing and he remembers recipes for cooking. Even though his mindset is deeply minimalist, it’s also excessive— he is carrying too much stuff.
Nick is very much in his head.
Nick gets down to some serious fly fishing in part two of “Big Two-Hearted River,” and the story introduces a new complication, the swamp:
Nick did not want to go in there now. He felt a reaction against deep wading with the water deepening up under his armpits, to hook big trout in places impossible to land them. In the swamp the banks were bare, the big cedars came together overhead, the sun did not come through, except in patches; in the fast deep water, in the half light, the fishing would be tragic. In the swamp fishing was a tragic adventure. Nick did not want it. He didn’t want to go up the stream any further today.
The swamp has temptations. Nick can hook a big trout in the swamp. But it is horribly overgrown, which makes it dangerous.
In the way that all of this is layered, I see the swamp’s danger as both physical and emotional, material and symbolic. When the narrator concludes, “in the swamp fishing was a tragic adventure,” it seems fair to say that if one is entirely in one’s head—thinking one has left things behind that one is actually still carrying—one is physically and emotionally at risk. One could drown while fishing, crash while riding, or otherwise screw up a relationship if one is too much in one’s head.
Nick avoids the swamp for now. He might well revisit this decision, and the story’s last line suggests just that: “There were plenty of days coming when he could fish the swamp.”
“Big Two-Hearted River” is about healing, then. It begins with Hemingway’s character, Nick Adams, leaving a blacked, fire-ravaged wilderness and making his way to green pines. It leaves destruction and imagines that, through paring things down and sorting things out, Nick might be able to fish the swamp.
Sort your stuff out, get yourself a De Martini bag (so to speak), and you might clamber into the swamp or ride a little more smoothly.
That is to say, if one accepts that the material and immaterial qualities of life are layered upon one another—that physical experiences and tangible objects are redolent with the representation of abstract ideas, and that memory and reflection are a gateway into depth of meaning,—then the adventure only becomes deeper, more holistic, and more intriguing.
In Our Time is prose fiction paired down to its material and representational essence. Its minimalism demands interpretation to make any sense of it beyond the obvious. In Our Time is a lot like a great motorcycle ride: elemental. In engaging that energy, in allowing the possibility of something greater than the literal truth, In Our Time—motorcycling—åopens onto the excess of emotional power, which, sticky and swampy, demands expert navigation.
To my mind, this brings us back to where we started: Few things cohere. People don’t cohere.
By riding out into the world, into our America, we learn about each other.
We’re better when we know each other.
Honestly, I don’t know if riding out is a tragic adventure by definition, but in the end, I really can’t say enough good things about the Globe Canvas messenger bag.