Reading Between the Lines in “Cross-Country Snow”

It’s the critical analyses of literature, the argument for specific meaning and intent, the mixing of presumption and humble discoveries that pays honor to a close reading of Hemingway. To Hemingway writing was art, and as a writer he was a grand artist. In exploring his writing style and methods we gain valuable insight into the iconic writer whose “business was to change writing itself” (Berman 52). He succeeded. By reading between the lines we can make arguments about the deeper meanings, metaphors, and intent within Hemingway’s fiction. This paper will analyze the style of Hemingway’s writing and evaluate arguments for deeper meanings within the action and dialogue of “Cross-Country Snow” and show how both are intimately linked to Hemingway himself.

Hemingway started writing when he was very young. He wrote hundreds of letters of varied tone, subject, perspective, intent and emotion. He wrote to family, friends, acquaintances, and strangers. He wrote for himself as an outlet of emotion and as a source for inspiration. In a small body of text using crisp economy prose he was able to create the setting, affect emotion into the scene, introduce the characters and place, create dialogue, and delve into moral and philosophical dilemmas that, when finished, left the reader a part of the story and begging for more detail, more answers. Hemingway said “if the stories are made so real that people believe them…[then] you are beginning to get what you are trying for, which is to make something that will become a part of the reader’s experience and a part of his memory” (Hemingway 181). “Cross-Country Snow” is this way, Hemingway makes you feel together with Nick and George on the ski run, and later with them in the inn.

Hemingway says in writing “I would invent not only from my own experience but from the experiences and knowledge of my friends and all the people I had known” (Hemingway 181). Then Hemingway would twist the details to suit the goal of the story, being sure to leave out that which made the story better by its very exclusion. For example in “Cross-Country Snow” Nick and George are skiing the mountains in Switzerland and enjoying it very much, in the story it says “George and Nick were happy” (IOT 110). And in a letter to Marcelline Hemingway dated 25 January 1922 Hemingway says of his time in Switzerland “we are very happy” (Letters 321). And in A Moveable Feast Hemingway writes it “was like a happy and innocent winter in childhood” (123). We know the next winter Hemingway, Hadley and Eric Dorman- Smith, also known as Chink, go on several ski trips to Switzerland and Austria together, in the story and in Hemingway’s letters they make mention of Montreux. The setting in “Cross-Country Snow” is a fictional history of Hemingway’s experiences with one of his best friends during the winter of 1922- 1923, a time when Nick and Hemingway were enjoying their European experiences, and their wives are newly pregnant.

Even though Nick and George are in the midst of a “gale scouring the exposed surface of the mountain” the opening description in “Cross-Country Snow” is very different from the dark description that starts many stories in In Our Time (107). From the start there’s a feeling of action and fun adventure, underneath a sense of looming responsibility. As Nick starts down “the rush and the sudden swoop as he dropped down a steep undulation in the mountain side plucked Nick’s mind out and left him only the wonderful flying, dropping sensation in his body” (107). In Doomed Biologically: Sex and Entrapment in Ernest Hemingway’s “Cross-Country Snow” author Olivia Edenfield argues the description of skiing parallels the action of sex that plays a central role in the theme of the story (142). Hemingway’s poetic ski description prose is similar to descriptions of sex. For example “The snow seemed to drop out from under him as he went down, down, faster and faster in a rush down the last, long steep slope….. he knew the pace was too much. But he held it. He would not let go and spill” (IOT 107).

Hemingway’s use of prose here is important because it was a literary trick of his to allude to one thing while describing another. In describing the act of skiing he suggests to the reader the act of sex, the same act that results in curtailing Nick’s freedom because of Helen’s pregnancy. Hemingway admits his close friend Gertrude Stein “had also discovered many things about rhythms and the uses of words in repetition that were valid and valuable” (Hemingway 27). Hemingway learned from other writers and quickly outstripped their talent and methods. The action of skiing in the story has a dual purpose; it creates a familiar setting for Hemingway to develop a story from experience and gives him a metaphor for the act which is responsible for his becoming a father. Hemingway is using Nick to describe, in part, how he feels about the changes ahead.

An important influence on Hemingway’s early fiction writing style was his experience as a news reporter. Many people influenced and helped him build upon his style of writing in the Paris years and earlier, but reporting the news and writing newspaper and magazine articles is the art he leaned and practiced first. Writing sharp, accurate, factual reports allowed him to develop an economy of prose and emotional description, which affected his fiction in later works. Christopher Loots, author of a Hemingway Review article critical of Hemingway’s writing style says “Hemingway was writing blind spots in hopes his readers would feel them by ignoring them, not try and fill them in by focusing on them” (81). Hemingway much later in life would say “In writing there are many secrets too. Nothing is ever lost no matter how it seems at the time and what is left out will always show and make the strength of what is left in” (Hemingway 222). It became the iceberg theory, or the theory of omission.

“Cross-Country Snow” begins with mention of a “funicular car” (IOT 107). Before Nick and George begin their ski descent down the mountain they first had to get to the top. When Hemingway was skiing he would sometimes climb the ski runs, saying “you climbed on foot carrying your skis and higher up, where the snow was too deep, you climbed on seal skins that you attached to the bottoms of the skis” (Hemingway 114). In this story they use the lift. The funicular car was predecessor to modern day ski lifts and the way in which Nick and George got to the top of the mountain. But Hemingway doesn’t describe the operation of the funicular car, he leaves that out of the story, and critics think it’s an important metaphor for the fundamental change happening in Nick and Hemingway’s life.

In Edenfields article she argues along with Barbra Sanders that the funicular car operates “under the tension of parallel opposites” (141) and highlights the tension between Nick remaining a boy and enjoying his new life and adventures in Europe in light of his new responsibilities as a father and returning to America. As one funicular car went up the mountain the other would balance the tension by going down, and as Hemingway’s youthful freedom winds down his adult responsibilities are on the rise. Much of the dialogue and action in “Cross-Country Snow” deals with Nick and Hemingway’s attitude toward this life altering change.

It’s no coincidence that critics find sexually suggestive prose linked to the description of skiing, and connections between the tensions of transition between boyhood freedom and adult responsibilities, because these are the deeper moral issues at the heart of “Cross-Country Snow.” Writing about skiing was the familiar canvas Hemingway needed to create the setting for this philosophical struggle. And what better to write about then what one truly knows? This time in Hemingway’s life was very important, in letters dated late January 1922 he says “[Switzerland] is the healthiest and the nicest place” and “this is the best country I was ever in” (Letters 320, 322).

In “Cross-Country Snow” Nick and George are close friends. From the beginning they communicate playfully using nicknames as they work their way down the mountain. “You took a beauty, Mike,” says George to Nick, “that’s lousy soft snow. It bagged me the same way” (IOT 107). Later Nick refers to George as “Gidge” (109). The use of monikers shows the characters’ companionship. They coordinate their descent, working together to decide who will go first down the next pitch. Nick even has a bad knee same as Hemingway. Their ski run ends and they work together to get over the fence and to the road, and from there they see an inn. Nick suggests they hike the road and “he climbed the steep road with the skis on his shoulder, kicking his heel nails into the icy footing. He heard George breathing and kicking in his heels just behind him” (109). This is important because at the end of the story it’s George to set out first and Nick the one to follow behind. This shows a balance between the men, a sign of common respect for the other; it’s an example of true friendship.

Nick and George dust the snow off and go into the inn. The first thing Hemingway writes is “Inside it was quite dark” (109). Of course it’s dark inside; whenever you transition from a white snowy world into a small cabin the relative darkness is contrasting. But after a short while the rods on your retina adapt to the low light and things become brighter. The slow adaptation to light will parallel the slow changing attitude Nick has about his future. Nick and George are described as “boys” as they “took off their jackets and sat against the wall on the other side of the stove” (109). But why the segregation between Nick and George and the two Swiss men, why did they sit on the other side of the stove and why does Hemingway call them “boys?”

The reason is because of the changes happening in Nick’s life. This is a time when Nick is distancing himself emotionally from the happiness of boyhood freedom and adventure in Europe and begins to accept his new role as a father in America. Nick and George sit alone because they’re foreigners visiting a place that’s not their own. They’re boys enjoying the skiing and traveling of youth. They’re not like the locals, or the woodcutters who come in later. Those men have jobs and adult responsibilities, and likely children.

Nick and George are isolating themselves from the locals and it shows by the disconnect between Nick and the waitress. After Nick orders a bottle of Sion, a type of wine that Hemingway admits to drinking in A Moveable Feast (46), there’s a strange interaction with him and the girl. Hemingway says “they had trouble” opening the bottle of wine (IOT 109). And later after the girl was short spoken George says “She isn’t so cordial, is she?” (110). This trouble between the sexes “hints at his underlying resistance to the confines of marriage” says Edenfield (143). And not until the second time seeing the girl does Nick notice that she’s pregnant, thinking “I wonder why I didn’t see that when she first came in” (IOT 109). Nick’s oversight of the girls’ pregnancy could have been subconscious; often people see what they want and Nick was still coming to terms with Helens pregnancy, just as Hemingway was with Hadley’s.

But Nick is critical of the girl and makes an argument for why she isn’t friendly, concluding “she’s touchy about being here and then she’s got that baby coming without being married” (110). And when George asks how Nick knows the girl’s not married Nick says “No ring. Hell, no girls get married around here till they’re knocked up” (110). The comment reeks of resentment. Edenfield argues “The crudeness of Nick’s remark suggests that he may be projecting his own experience onto the waitress. Nick knows that the waitress, like himself, is trapped biologically” (144). The unborn child entraps Nick biologically. Nick and Hemingway are at war with the changes in their lives.

Later in the story George questions Nick about his wife, Helen. If you take out all the extra words in the story and focus on just the specific dialogue between Nick and George the conversation is revealing on many levels. George says,

“Is Helen going to have a baby?”

“Will you go back to the States?”

“I don’t know,” (IOT 111).

Where is the emotion? Where is the description of all the feelings that make up these words? This is a truly male conversation, a prototypical male conversation, the essence of minimalism- so much conveyed and so little said. Here we see a clear example of Hemingway’s economic writing style that’s in perfect alignment with most truncated male conversations. Nick’s most revealing answer during the line of questioning is when he admits he’s glad about Helen having a baby saying “Yes. Now” (111). That’s a conditional yes. It’s a yes, but only because it was previously a no, he wasn’t happy. This shows the inner struggle Nick and Hemingway share as they warm to the idea of embracing their soon-to-be newborn responsibilities and the attached restrictions.

Nick’s responses, while short and to the point, are the first real hints at the love he’s feeling for his pregnant wife and their unborn child. Even after admitting to George that this is a life changing event, one that will force him and Helen to move back the States regardless of their wants, Nick responds with honor and courage and feeling when he says “No. Not exactly” to George’s question “It’s hell, isn’t it?” (111). That’s a stoic answer and a stoic attitude toward responsibilities. It’s the first evidence that Nick’s initial resentment will fade as he warms to his new identity. Edenfield says “The news is still too new upon him for his complete surrender to it. He knows that his life in the United States will not be like the life he’s leaving behind: a life full of travel, skiing, and camaraderie with George” (145).

To help Nick and the reader gain acceptance to his new adult responsibilities Hemingway uses a literary trick author Robert Lamb calls “repetition with variation” (123). Just as the Swiss woodcutters and men in the inn have responsibilities and a sense of home, so too will Nick. In the same line of questioning Nick critiques the ski mountains in the United States saying “They’re too rocky. There’s too much timber and they’re too far away.’

‘Yes,’ said George, ‘that’s the way it is in California.’

‘Yes,’ Nick said, ‘that’s the way it is everywhere I’ve ever been.’

‘Yes,’ said George, ‘that’s the way it is’” (IOT 112).

The dialogue is about skiing, and the use of repetition with variation gives it strength and universal characteristics. But it’s not really skiing they’re building into a universal law, it’s the fundamental transition between freedom and responsibility, boyhood adventure and grown-up reality that we all recognize as universal. Either way, Hemingway doesn’t want to leave Europe and return to the United States. In a letter written 27 January 1922 Hemingway says “What’s the use of trying to live in such a goddam place as America when there is Paris and Switzerland and Italy” (Letters 325).

Nick, just as Hemingway had, entered the inn a boy, in fact, on the hike up to the inn he was even “kicking in his heels” like a stubborn young man (IOT 109). Nick is enjoying the luxuries of a tourist seeking adventure in a foreign land, but leaves the inn with a new recognition that everything will soon change. Nick loves to ski, he loves the friendship with George, he loves his wife, and the tension pulling him in so many directions creates a conflict he must surrender to. Nick knows his life is changing and he’s brave enough to accept his new responsibilities, unsure where they will take him. That’s why he says “there isn’t any good in promising,” (112) after all, how can a promise hold up to the uncertainties of life?

Hemingway’s “Cross-Country Snow” is a beautiful story with subtle details throughout. Late in his life Hemingway says “I remember all the kinds of snow that the wind could make and their different treacheries when you were on skis. Then there were the blizzards when you were in the high Alpine” (Hemingway 122). This is the setting for his story. The iceberg theory was an important literary style and with close inspection we see so many missing details that don’t detract by their absence but strengthen the belief in their existence. The waitress only says “Opera, German opera” and “We have some apple strudel if you want it” (IOT 110) in the entire story! The rest of her actions and presumably, dialogue, are omitted. But her presence and importance in the story is so much more than what is actually written. The opening prose has rhythm and poetry. The conversation is manly, and subtle yet telling.

Hemingway was a genius because he worked the themes of sex, conflict, companionship, change, love, loss, and adventure into the story of “Cross-Country Snow.” These are the universal themes all readers know about; the themes connect the reader to the story in an intimate way. And readers recognize the goodness in Hemingway’s values. After all, don’t we all believe in the importance of family and friends, don’t we all share in love and loss, don’t we all continually change and seek adventure. Hemingway was a genius because his unique writing style brought alive the characters and deeper meanings with literary metaphors, poetic prose, repetition with variation, and crisp subtle details. The story leaves the reader, as many Hemingway’s stories do, on a hopeful departure, a new adventure, as Nick and George hike the road so “they would have the [ski] run home together” (IOT 112). Hemingway’s genius was making the reader feel truly human.

Berman, Ron. Hemingway’s Michigan Landscapes. The Hemingway Review, Volume 27, Number1, Fall 2007, pp. 39–54. Article.

Daiker, Donald A. How a Hemingway Story Works. Twentieth Century Literature, Volume 56,

Issue 4, Winter 2010, pp. 559–566. Article.

Edenfield, Olivia Carr. Doomed Biologically: Sex and Entrapment in Ernest Hemingway’s “Cross-

Country Snow.” Hemingway Review, Volume 19, Issue 1, Fall 1999, pp. 141–149. Article.

Hemingway, Ernest. A Moveable Feast. New York: Scribner, 1964. Print.

— — — — — — -. In Our Time. New York: Scribner, 1925. Print.

— — — — — — -.The Letters of Ernest Hemingway Volume 1 1907–1922. Spanier, Sandra and Robert Trogdon eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Print.

Kale, Verna. Hemingway’s Poetry and the Paris Apprenticeship. Hemingway Review, Spring 2007, Vol. 26, Issue 2, pp. 58–73. Article.

Loots, Christopher. The MA of Hemingway: Interval, Absence, and Japanese Esthetics in “In Our Time.” Hemingway Review, Volume 29, Issue 2, Spring 2010, pp. 74–88. Article.

Originally published at www.happinessfootprint.com on April 7, 2012.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store