The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber by Ernest Hemingway

Of course we would start with Hemingway, and of course it would be with Francis Macomber. It couldn’t be any other way, really. The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber was the first short story I ever read. That isn’t true. There plenty of times I was forced to read condensed classics, abridged into easily digestible morsels. Those public middle school mistakes made me distrustful of shorter works because they often were insulting. My opinion at fifteen was short fiction was for chumps.

When I think of my evolution as both a reader and as a writer, my introduction to Hemingway was an important milestone. Important enough that I can remember it eleven years later. Francis Macomber was the first short story that challenged me and revealed all that could be possible in just a few quick pages. It started a love affair with brevity that is still running its course.

It also started a fascination with gimlets, but is that really relevant here?

As I said, this classic work was the first short story I ever really read. Ever wanted to read. I remember being left breathless by the ending, and my entire fiction class, all 12 students, being stunned silent for longer than I’d ever seen a group of teenagers be quiet. And then our lovable curmudgeonly instructor, who we didn’t know well enough to love yet, laughed at us.

“Oh boy,” he said. “It’s only going to go down hill from here!” Then, if memory serves right, he promptly left. Thus began my education. My real one, anyway.

Much has been said on Hemingway and his womanizing habits and his views on women. Margot Macomber has not escaped dissection either, and she’s been used several times to reveal Hemingway’s thoughts of women. While it’s true if Francis Macomber had been written today it would have died in some politically correct maelstrom, it was not written today. It was first published in 1936, and it is certainly a product of its time. Which is a good thing.

The story takes place on a classic kill-them-dead safari, the likes of which are highly illegal today. Naturally it involves killing a lion. Hilarity ensues. Er, I mean, a bunch of awful things happen. A coward is revealed, and his wife is horrified. There is implied extramarital sex, and a scoundrel eats breakfast. Plenty of gimlets and much whisky is drunk.

Basically, the safari turns into a shit show. Everyone knows it’s a shit show, but no one is willing to abort the whole thing and go home.

If you’ve never read The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, go find yourself a copy. If you have? Go ahead, visit it again. It will be like an old friend you haven’t seen in ages.

First appeared in the September 1936 issue of Cosmopolitan (good luck finding that!). Now available in a few short story collections for around $10-15, depending on format.

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