The Place

Seney, Michigan is an ideal setting for an Ernest Hemingway, rough-and-tumble, protagonist. Originally a center for the lumber industry, by the 1880’s, Seney had gained a reputation as “tough, [and] two-fisted a town as any on earth.” Lumberjacks, who had to endure difficult lives in isolated camps, would come to Seney to spend their hard earned money at the town’s numerous hotels and saloons. Through the center of Seney runs the Fox River, which is known for great fishing. The forests surrounding Seney are home to several different huntable wild animals [1]. Seney is thus an ideal place for one of Hemingway’s characters to roam, and Nick Adams finds himself in Seney, fishing the Fox River, in the story “Big-Two Hearted River.” Although Hemingway summered in Northern Michigan as a youth, he had never been to Seney until after World War I. Hemingway visited in August 1919, in order to take advantage of the great fishing surrounding Seney. From this adventure, the story “Big-Two Hearted River” was born.

The pristine Fox River

The Village of Seney

The Story

Nick Adams, meanwhile, finds Seney to be a burned-out ghost town. “Even the surface had been burned off the ground,” Hemingway writes. The great fire that engulfed Seney in “Big Two-Hearted River” never happened in real-life. However, Seney did lose a great deal of its population when the logging industry left [1]. Thus, the description of an empty town is somewhat accurate. Hemingway probably used the image of a burned out Seney to draw a parallel with the devastation of war. After departing the depot in Seney, Nick follows a road (modern day M-28) along the railroad tracks until he reaches the Fox River. Eventually, he turns onto another road (modern day M-77). He travels north for a few miles, until he eventually finds a suitable place for camp near the Fox River. The next few days are spent fishing, and Nick is clearly elated to be in nature. He sets up a tent, and refers to it as “home.”

The Hemingway Connection

Hemingway had a similar adventure to Nick, shortly after his return to the United States following World War I. In Petoskey, Hemingway and two friends, Jack Pentecost and Al Walker, boarded the Grand Rapids & Indian Railroad, and headed for the Northern Peninsula of Michigan. When they reached Seney, they walked the one hundred or so yards until they reached the Fox River, like Nick. Following an unused set of railroad tracks north, camp was eventually set on the east bank of the Fox, like Nick. The three young men spent the next week fishing the Fox, catching “over 200 [1].” When fishing bored them, they hunted the surrounding swampy areas instead. Thus, Hemingway’s trip is clearly the basis for Nick Adams’ adventures in “Big Two-Hearted River.”

More parallels to Hemingway’s life appear when the timing of the story is considered. Hemingway wrote “Big Two-Hearted River” was "about a boy coming home beat to the wide from a war [3-107].” Thus, even though war is never mentioned, “Big Two-Hearted River” occurs following Nick’s involvement in World War I. Similarly, Hemingway’s experiences in Seney occurred shortly after the war as well, so soon that Hemingway was still recovering from his physical injuries [1]. The escape to fishing the Fox River may be viewed as a therapeutic way for both Nick and Hemingway to deal with the traumatic experience of war.

Although the story “Big Two-Hearted River” is clearly set on the Fox River, twenty miles northeast of Seney is the actual Two-Hearted River. There is some speculation that Hemingway purposely misnamed the river to prevent others from stealing his fishing hole [2]. However, this is probably an erroneous assumption. More likely, Hemingway used two-hearted to describe Nick. One Nick Adams is innocent, loving to fish. The other Nick Adams has been severely scarred by war. Fishing the Fox River is an attempt by Nick to regain his innocence, alone in the beauties of the Northern Peninsula.