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Arts & Entertainment

The Writer’s Workshop: “Indian Camp”

Joyce Carol Oates

Lesson time 12:22 min

Joyce and two of her students—Lindsey Skillen and Corey Arnold—read from Ernest Hemingway’s story “Indian Camp.” They review the work as they would in one of Joyce’s collegiate or graduate classes.

Joyce Carol Oates
Teaches the Art of the Short Story
Literary legend Joyce Carol Oates teaches you how to write short stories by developing your voice and exploring classic works of fiction.
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[MUSIC PLAYING] - This is Lindsay, and this is Corey, and each of them has written a story for today. We'll be taking up Lindsay's story first. Then we'll take up Corey's story. But first we're going to talk about a classic famous American story by Ernest Hemingway called "Indian Camp." So this story has all the quintessential elements of a classic Hemingway story, the nature of the style, the movement of the story, the pacing, what is put in, and particularly what's left out, what is implicit, what's implied. Just a minimum of characters-- no last names, characters who are related to one another in ways that might be a little bit mysterious. But if you read it carefully, you can figure it out. So people who are used to reading a story by Henry James, Edith Wharton, reading this story-- or Willa Cather-- reading this story, the average reader might have really wondered what it was about. And the average reader at that time would have felt the ending was just totally almost shocking, because it's so abrupt. And readers at that time were used to a more rounded ending. Readers were used to being told what to think. And in a story by most of Hemingway's contemporaries, the characters in this story, at least one of the characters, would have certain thoughts that would tell the reader what to think. Hemingway leaves all that out, and he leaves a lot of things out. Therefore, though he wrote the story a long time ago, it still is very contemporary. In some ways, it seems completely contemporary of our time. So just anything you want to say about the story as a reading experience? - Just in general, it just makes me think about how much Hemingway trusts his reader to kind of co-create the story alongside him, which is true of most of his stories that I've read. And it strikes me that that takes a lot of confidence in your reader, because-- and you have to relinquish some control there and leave room for misinterpretations and things. I think maybe as young writers-- I know this is a problem for me-- you want to have-- you want to direct somebody's emotional response very closely. And if you write in a style, that's just not a possibility, or it's less of a possibility, I would say. - Yeah, that's a very good point that he trusts his readers to read carefully. So you really have to read the story more than once. Hemingway is-- Hemingway's easy to read, but he's not easy to understand. - Yeah. - And the famous Hemingway dialogue seems as if it's natural, but it's really stylized, and people don't-- don't actually talk that way at all. It's a very sort of almost like a postmodernist sort of appropriation of how people talk, but it's not really literal. So we noticed the vocabulary is scaled down, so it could be the vocabulary of a boy about eight or nine. I think that's how old he is. I love that beginning. "At the lakeshore, there was another rowboat drawn up," period. "The two Indians stood waiting." It's j...

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The author of some of the most enduring fiction of our time, Joyce Carol Oates has published 58 novels and thousands of short stories, essays, and articles. Now the award-winning author and Princeton University creative writing professor teaches you how to tap into your storytelling instincts. Find ideas from your own experiences and perceptions, experiment with structure, and improve your craft, one sentence at a time.


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J.C. S.

As a writer, Earnest Hemingway has been misinterpreted since he published his first short story "Pinky Deserved Better." This short story, Indian Camp, which reads quite straightforward at first blush, is filled with oblique metaphors and personal references. The story begins with a short boat ride across the bay. For Hemingway, life is represented by water, be it a river or bay, even just a glass of water with meals. "The two boats started off in the dark" suggests that Hemingway believes that each life begins as a clean slate, no preconceived notions, no moral or ethical imperatives, no education. These, Hemingway imagined, had to be gathered by each of us hence the description of the Indians rowing motion, "quick choppy strokes," meaning, our indoctrination into life can come quickly or slowly, depending on how ardently we apply ourselves. "Indian camp," in this story amounts to Hemingway's idea of adulthood, with "dogs barking" representing financial issues to be reckoned such as mortgages and life insurance, and with and "lanterns" in this instance representing the guides or mentors that lead us in our adult journey from ignorance to enlightenment. The image of men, including Uncle George, "smoking a cigars" is clearly a reference to Hemingway's own father who, at one point in his life, was arrested in Miami for selling cigar butts to midgets as king-sized Havanas. This embarrassing episode caused a great rift between father and son, leading to long periods when they would not acknowledge each other in public, but would only celebrate each other's birthdays by sending one another a slender goose by mail. The first thing Nick's father does when he gets to the pregnant woman's shanty is "order some water be put on the stove." Here Hemingway is trying to suggest a life at "boiling point," inciting incident, crisis and climax all rolled into one important event. Nick's father tells Nick "This lady is going to have a baby," clearly suggesting that as we age, weight will always be a problem for all of us, thus, we should eat well and lay off the snacks. Nick's father "washes his hands very carefully," obviously a reference to "keeping one's hands clean," and "staying out of trouble" as we navigate through life's myriad adult temptations. As the drama of the last act begins to wind down, Uncle George is "bit on the arm," clearly a reference to Hemingway's lifelong fear of addiction, and Nick's father must wash the wound clean with "peroxide." When Hemingway felt he had drank too much the day before, he would bleach his hair blonde with peroxide in a subliminal attempt to hide his shame. As Nick and his father are about to leave the island, Nick's father tells all that a "nurse from St. Ignace shall come and bring everything we need." While not only Hemingway's ill-thought through attempt to close out his story using the Greek Theater's tragic shortcut of Deus Ex Machina, this reference to a nurse suggests Hemingway's eternal optimism that he would meet a woman late in life who would provide for him in his later years, someone to "brush my teeth and make my gruel," as he posited in his next to be published Short Story - "The Indomitable Mr. Tebbs." As the story is ending, father and son are rowing home as the new day awakens with the sun rising over the hills, and we get the sense that Hemingway is at peace with his life though fearful of his own mortality. As readers we are left with a single question we can carry away into our own lives. Why, in such a short story, did Hemingway use the word "the" forty-six times? Was he trying to tell us something?

Val V.

As far as I can remember, I have only ever read three of Hemingway's short stories: Hills Like White Elephants, The Killers and, now for the first time, Indian Camp. I have to say I found all of them boring and, basically, pointless. I've since talked about the first two with other people and they tell me that Hills Like White Elephants is about a couple who have just found out that she is pregnant. The man wants her to abort the baby and she wants to keep it. I have no idea how the people I spoke to worked out that this was what the story was about! I read it several times and could never make head nor tail of it. The Killers I found took too long to get anywhere, and even then it didn't get very far. I didn't enjoy it at all. Indian Camp I liked better than the other two: the descriptions of the setting they were in were appealing and what was happening to the poor Indian woman was believable and sad. I didn't see why the bit about the Indian husband had to suddenly be thrown into the mix. Anyway, I am probably showing my ignorance by writing all this about the famous Hemingway, but I'm really not fond of his short stories so far, although JCL says they are his best writing. I'm going to read all three stories again and see if I get any more out of them this time.

Steve B.

I agree with Clint Hill, for I hold to the same literary analysis along with the same criticism toward Lindsey and Corey. Furthermore, I disagree with JCO about the very last sentence of the story. “In the early morning … he felt sure that he would never die.” When I first read this story almost fifty years ago, I assumed the second “he” referred to the boy Nick. But when my wife and I raised both a boy and a girl who witnessed our professional work among the poor and dying in Africa, their concerns were more about the dangers Mommy and Daddy faced. We, like Nick’s father, had to explain to them how people’s lives are in the balance, and sometimes people die—and joyfully many times people live. Children view death differently than adults, as if death happens to others but not themselves. Their bigger fears are that they would lose a parent not that they would lose their own lives. It seems to be granted to children to not think and worry about their own mortality. It may be a mental and, perhaps, a neurological safeguard. As my children observed how their daddy seemed to have the power of lifesaving skills, maybe they, like young Nick thinking about his father, felt assured that I would never die. Therefore, I hold to the view that Nick in “Indian Camp”, after seeing his father help bring life into the world, “felt sure that he (Daddy) would never die.” JCO wrote, “‘Indian Camp,’ like many pieces of fiction, has evolved and will continue to evolve with time.” So it has with me. As Clint rightly observes, “Interpretation of meaning behind a story is almost always subjective and naturally varies from reader to reader.” Thank you, Clint, for posting a point that respects the simplicity and genius of Hemmingway.

Clint H.

Interpretation of meaning behind a story is almost always subjective and naturally varies from reader to reader. However, I cannot imagine how the two students (?) of Ms. Oates’ class could be more off course in their navigation of the Hemingway short story. Lindsay was off the reservation (no pun intended) with her comments on the short story “Indian Camp” by Ernest Hemingway. The character of Uncle George was not the father of the baby being born, nor representative of an expectant father, either. It is my contention that Uncle George was necessary as a character simply because A.) he was along on the fishing trip with Nick’s father, the doctor, and B.) the author needed another character (aside from young Nick Adams) to hold down the mother as she was operated on without anesthesia. Corey was less off the mark with his comments but reminded one of someone trying to create lofty assessments of a now-recognized great literary work after-the-fact when the story is one of great simplicity. It is a story about Life and Death, plain and simple, a description often attributed to Hemingway’s writing style. A baby was born, and its father died by suicide. In the story, there is the beginning of life, and the end of life, all in one scene. Hemingway’s father committed suicide when Ernest Hemingway was in his late twenties. The son nestled in his father’s arm in the rowboat is Hemingway creating a moment that he wanted to happen if it did not, and illustrated it in this story if it did happen. The water is Life, for water is the requisite source of all life on Earth. The rowing of a boat is the journey of their lives on the water of Life.

Karina M.

The lesson was awesome, Joyce is very capable in seeing what lies underneath. BUT… Is uncle George really the father? Just because of the cigars? And most horrible, is WHY Hemingway went little out of his way to tell us about the father, who committed suicide? We are left why little material to understand things. He had hurt his leg/foot 3 days before… an unsolved mystery, I say - A thorn in my heart…

Tolga C.

This "boy <-> father"-relationship is interesting. So he wanted to show his son perhaps something very beautiful; that a woman gives birth to a new little human, getting to know another culture. And then everything was different, but more for the father, then for the boy; because everything the boy would have seen, it would have been new to him. And yes, perhaps he saw another beauty, his father trying his best, be a man - so the lesson got it´s own dynamic somehow, like life. #justThinkingLoudly I think it´s an interesting idea, to start the story with a sentence where something in you says "yes, now we are talking" - interesting method. This method is somehow like the story itself I guess.


Story Study – Indian Camp - I read the story for the third time to understand. It’s a piece of classical work. First reading – I felt it was a dull, lackluster, easy story of some backward community woman (I know I am not fully and politically correct here), the aboriginal American Indians who had great wisdom and culture too. I also realized I have lost my imaginative thinking where the reader co-creates the story along with the narrator. I am pretty darn sure it is because of my more of AV watching and it has been ages since I have read good work. My eyes were a sort of a problem. Second reading – I grasped good amount of details and I understood the end. The boy who feels so assured and secure when his father is rowing the boat. When we are children, we all need one of our parent or a close family member to look up to assure us, provide security and stability. Third reading – I pretty much grasped what I could not from the first two readings. One the entire geography of the environment, time and place he was picking up – probably contemporary for his time. I was thrilled that it was pictured in the lake Ontario area and could then looked up on google to find out that it could have been Mackinac Island because the story mentions St. Ignace. The story keeps the characters involved limited and leaves a lot to the reader’s imagination. Without pressing with flash light, music and camera style story telling. Keeps the readers riveted to details and making them think more and more with every reading. No wonder it is a classic and it makes me look to read rest of his work.

James Walter L.

Often when I read Hemingway, I feel like there is no room to move. There is a sternness to his writing that tells you how it is and how it is going to be. I do greatly enjoy and admire his work. "Old Man at the Bridge," is one of my favorites.

Jeanned'Arc L.

I enjoyed going back through a childhood memory. I was surprised at how vivid the detail of my experience was. WC 958 Intimacy In the deep cold of February, farmers kept their cows in the stable, at night. It was 1959. On this particular Saturday, Jan turned six years old. This morning she was accompanying her father to the stable for the morning ritual of milking. Dad was a dairy farmer and he milked twenty-one Holsteins and one Jersey cow, twice a day, at precisely 5:30 a. m and at 5:30 p. m. without fail. At bedtime, Jan often asked her dad, “ Can I come with you in the morning?” He’d say. “When you get bigger.” Last night, dad said. “Okay, you still want to get up at 5:00 and give me a hand with the stable chores?” “Yea!” she giggled in his beard as he kissed her goodnight. “Happy birthday honey. You ready?” he whispered helping her with her coat and boots. It was 5:30 a. m., Dad and Jan stood at the foot of the stairs where a tight space brought the first step to face a wall or to permit entrance to the kitchen, if you didn’t step the other way into the vestibule. The vestibule was full of coats loosely draped over hock. All in a row, each family member had his own hook. Below each coat were boots that stood without insoles because those items were set to dry next to the woodstove. The only light came from the lantern father set on the floor, while he helped her dress. The kitchen had no lights at all but Jan could see an odd reflection of herself from the kitchen windowpane. It caught the glow of the lantern. Dad held the lantern high in his left hand holding her hand, righting her every time she slipped. They broke through the crust of snow covering the path to the stable at a slow pace. A cold wind bit Jan’s face. She pulled her hood close to her cheeks and tucked in tight to her dad’s leg. Once they arrived at the stable, he reminded her. “ Now, you will stay near me but watch not to get in the way, right?” Jan often heard him use those words when he reprimanded her brothers for having been underfoot. They had been too close, or not close enough. “Use your instincts,” was another thing dad would say to end his scolding. It wasn’t long that dad forget Jan was with him. At first he brought bails of hay out from the barn and stacked them in the narrow corridor boarding the view of hay, from the cows. He cut the string with a short pocketknife and spread slabs of hay in front of the 22 cows. They slowly blinked long lashed eyelids over their dark eyes and up again. Jan though they were moving in slow motion. With unassuming elegance they twisted large jaws in semi circles chewing forever on the one handful of hay as they blinked. They knew to crane their neck and push on the steel collar that held them to their space. The exercise allowed the cow’s long face to dip into the shallow bow located on a post, next to them. The water tap was in the bottom of the bow, pressing it caused water to fill it. “You make a lot of noise.” Jan said to the cow and she tried to mimic the sound. The cow stared in her direction. Jan stared back at the huge dark eyes. From the huge pink nostril of that cow came a “himff” of air explosion. She jumped back and hustled away. Cautious and smiling, Jan kept her distance while her father gathered tools for the obvious routine of milking cows. She watched how he moved around his captive herd. He used a stiff bristled brush on their hide before wiping udders with warm soapy water. Then he attached the automatic milking machine. It looked heaving, made of shiny metal. But it was not heavy at all. The four tubes fit and held in place with ease. Immediately milk appeared in the reservoir. The cow behaved as though noting was happening. He father patted each cow on the back before he moved to repeat the same procedure on the other. But some, for reason unknown to Jan, he hand-milked. That’s when she was needed. When she heard her name. “Jan?” He dad had called. She made her way out, dragging her gloved fingers along the wall of the narrow barn-wood corridor, the to the white washed corridor behind the animal. Hooves and legs and tails all in a row. The lighting here was bright. Light bulbs hung on thin wires, mid air along the corridor. A soft hum of machinery mixed with the smell of manure, beast and disinfectant took away the smell of fresh hay. Slow and cautious, she approached her dad. He stood on the opposite side of the poop-gutter. He grabbed the cow’s tail and handed it to Jan. “You hold it tight now.” He said. He sat on the stool, positioned the shiny stainless bucket between his knees and wiped his hand from the soapy solution he just squired in his hands. His hat was twisted backward, to press his forehead into the cow’s belly. He began hand-milking process. Each squeeze of milk met with the bucket like a plucked note on a string. Jan made up a singsong, a harmony she belted out without care. She held the tail from whipping her father’s head. It was her job. It took concentration. Without notice, the tail would try pull away. It was all that Jan could do to recapture it. It would take a while before the rush of having nearly dropped it, would pass. Those tiny woven braids were added power to a weapon, such as a tail. And, “Gosh” was all she could say when the cow started to pee. He own wide eyes blinked in slow motion. She sighed, .

Maureen O.

When Joyce Carol Oates asks why Nick's father took Nick to this camp, I remembered my midwife mother taking me about the same age to go deliver a baby during the Biafran War. The same question has crossed my mind several times, Why did she take me? I was the 4th of her 5 children, a typical middle child, not special in any way. Why did she take me? The experience was life altering and I still remember the child we delivered, a grown man now. My mother is late and I never got to ask her. I still don't know why.