Review: “Papa At Ketchum, 1961”

I just finished a short stoy by Joyce Carol Oates called “Papa at Ketchum, 1961.”  It is the fifth story in her collection, Wild Nights!, in which she takes on the last days or major moments of five famous writer’s lives–Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway.  She does so in the style of each of the writers, and the text is superb.

“Papa” is meant to portray the suicide of Ernest Hemingway at his home in Ketchem, Idaho in July of 1961.  It is a rambling, mad, first person narrative that is supposed to shed light on his state of mind preceding the suicide. 

I’m biased, here, but I thought the story showed a lack of compassion. I feel about Hemingway the way one feels about a nasty relative–I recognize his weaknesses, but I love him, and if other people point out those weaknesses, I get defensive. 

Aside from being one of the most important American writers of all time, Hemingway was a person–a troubled person.  To take on his final days soaked in despair, anger, and confusion, and expose all his tremors, flaccidness, edema, and cirrhosis–the very conditions that led to the suicide in the first place–is cruel.

I will read the rest of the stories for a complete book review in the upcoming days, but for now, bad form Ms. Oates.


3 thoughts on “Review: “Papa At Ketchum, 1961”

  1. […] already  expressed my feelings on Oates’ story of Heminway’s suicide, so I’ll look at the other four stories in […]

  2. John Riebow says:

    I have to disagree with your assessment of this story, Erika. Joyce was writing about Papa’s final days as if Papa would have written about himself. There are several times in the narrative where it’s made clear that Papa wished he could be writing about his experiences and cursed his body and mind for letting him down. I found this story very difficult to read because I felt it wrung too true, and yes, it is sad. It’s gritty, like much of Papa’s fiction, much like his life, much like his demise.

  3. erikarobuck says:

    John–When I read this, it rung so clearly of one of the most negative Hemingway biographies that I felt Oates read just one Hemingway biography and portrayed him based on the one.

    Thanks for commenting.

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