The Old Man and the Sea

BY Ernest Hemingway
Book Information1/1/0/US/SN/1952/50,000  •  ?  •  ?  •   Pulitzer'53   •   Nobel'54 

"The Old Man and the Sea", at just over 26,000 words in 141 pages (the first edition), is Hemingway's final, and probably most read or most associated, work. According to Nobel Prize's biography on Hemingway (he won it in 1954), it also counts amongst the writer's best work. William Faulkner, a contemporary equal and rival, lauded the slim novella as Hemingway's best, and that "[t]ime may show it to be the best single piece of any of us, I mean his and my contemporaries". But Faulkner went on to suggest that "[t]his time he discovered God, a creator", an assertion of Christian symbolism throughout this allegorical story of an old fisherman's quest that Hemingway vehemently denied. Hemingway famously remarked that "[n]o good book has ever been written that has in it symbols arrived at beforehand and stuck in", and that he had merely "tried to make a real old man, a real boy, a real sea and a real fish and real sharks".

Despite Hemingway's refutation, the symbolists have a compelling case. The story's protagonist is Santiago, an aged fisherman who had gone without a fish for over eighty days; an old man  - who has young eyes and who "can be destroyed but not defeated" - going back into the treacherous sea in search of his salvation. Crucifixion, as a literary allusion, was deployed numerous times by referencing to Santiago's hands, first with "deep-creased scars from handling heavy fish on the cords", then while fighting the marlin, with "[t]he speed of the line was cutting his hands badly, and finally culminating to that exclamation of "Ay", "just a noise such as a man might make, involuntarily, feeling the nail go through his hands and into the wood", when Santiago detected the first two sharks. As if these are not enough, the allusion of Santiago as a Christ figure is again invoked towards the end of the story where, "having sailed into the little harbor", Santiago "unstopped the mast and furled the sail and tied it. Then he shouldered the mast and started to climb." It is hard to resist drawing parallels between the mast and the Christian cross. Finally, Santiago gives the marlin head to Pedrico, a fellow fisherman who reminds one of Saint Peter.

An alternative, secular interpretation is along the line of dark romanticism that emphasizes the treacherousness of nature and fragility of human. Like Melville's Moby Dick, Santiago and Ahab both have a point to prove against the marine: Ahab wants his revenge against the white whale while Santiago wants to prove his worth with a great catch. Santiago did get his prized catch, but much of the marlin ended back in nature's realm as the sharks devour the fish, and Santiago was helpless since "what can  a man do against them in the dark without a weapon?" Accepting that "he was beaten now finally and without remedy" as the "sharks hit the carcass as someone might pick up crumbs from the table", Santiago recognizes that he "went out too far" against the merciless sea. It is also worth noting that the book is dedicated to two of Hemingway's closest friends, Maxwell Perkins, his editor who passed away in 1948, and Charles Scribner, his publisher who died in 1952. Add these to the negative reviews on his previous book, "Across the River and Into the Trees", Hemingway might have been feeling vulnerable to the tune of W.B. Yeats' "no country for old men", and Santiago might be his alter ego.

Regardless, the book was a critical and commercial success. On its publication history, New York Times reported that "this was the first time that such a situation had arisen, that a novel by one of the world's most celebrated writers was to appear in a magazine complete in one issue eleven days before its publication in book form". Scribner was reported to have published the book, at $3 each, on Sept 8 while "Life" magazine published the story in its August 28 issue. Both the magazine and the book sold very well, and the first printing size was reported to be 50,000 copies. The book also won the Pulitzer prize in 1953. Often the two fiction juries that year, one ranked the book top in his shortlist while the other ranked it only 14th with Carl Jonas' "Jefferson Selleck" his top choice. 

The first edition, first printing of this title is not exactly rare, and buyers can find long listings in the usual forum like Abebooks, but the price has gone up steadily over the years. The value of the first edition almost always rests with the condition of the dust jacket that typically suffers from spine sunning and chips. There are two variants of the first state dust jacket, namely with a blue tint or an olive tint to the photograph of Hemingway at the back. I think it is widely accepted now that there is no clear precedence - and therefore no price difference - over the two although in earlier days, it was suggested that the blue tinted one takes precedence. One last thing about the dust jacket: it has a very nice design, but very little is known about who the designer is except that he or she is simply acknowledged as "A". If you has interesting information of the designer, please let me know.

The first edition book without the dust jacket is not worth very much, but the identification of the first printing book warrants some clarification as many sellers on eBay peddle book club or later printings as the true first edition. To identify the true first edition, check the copyright page:
  • With both letter "A" and Scriber Seal: This is the true first edition, first printing, and is worth some money, more if with dust jacket (see pictures below)
  • With no lettering and but with Scribner Seal: This is later printing, and almost surely with later state dust jacket. Not much value but sometimes passed off as first edition
  • With letter "A" but no Scribner Seal: This is the first book club edition. Again not much value but also passed off as first edition
  • With letter "W" but no Scribner Seal: This is the later book club editions. No value.
The book I recently purchased comes with an interesting ephemera, a note describing the book that comes with every purchase from Bauman rare books. Now I got my first first editions - Frost's "A Boy's Will" and Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" - from Bauman, so the fact that this book came from Bauman too adds sentimental value, although I must confess that I seldom buy from there anymore because they sell at too high a premium. Nevertheless, it does look like the note is quite old because the stationery on which it is printed listed only two Bauman stores - Philly and New York - without the Vegas one. Also, the Philly's address is Locust street instead of the current Walnut street while the New York address was Waldorf-Astoria instead of the current Fifth avenue. I did a little check of Bauman's history, and apparently, its Philly office was in Locust street from 1989 to 2005 when it moved to Walnut street, and its New York office was at Waldorf-Astoria from 1989 to 1999. So this book must have been with Bauman, and possibly sold, between 1989 and 1999. If only there was the old school, hand-written sales invoice as well.

One final thing about the purchase. I got this book from the early 2017 auction from Bonhams New York, and I will never buy from them again after this painful first experience. Bonhams seems to think it is ok to leave client's email unanswered for weeks and work on its own leisure pace. The auction was in early March, and I paid for the book the next day and asked that the book be shipped to me. One week past and nobody got back to me on the shipping. I sent a reminder, and it was only a week later when I heard from someone from the shipping department via email, asking me to select one of two shipping options. I replied with the selection and asked to be invoiced. Nothing happened again over a week, and I sent another reminder. Still no reply or acknowledge or invoice after three more days. I had no choice but to use my contact to call someone inside, and miraculously, I was invoiced but had to wait for about one more week before my book was shipped. Maybe I was unlucky and knocked on Bonhams' door at the wrong time, but I'll not be knocking there anymore.

This is the first edition first printing with first state olive-tinted dust jacket that is unclipped, showing the correct price of $3 on the front flap in brown. The book is bound in blue-clothed board and silver lettering at spine. The copyright page has both the letter "A" and the Scribner seal., which are sufficient indicators of the true first edition.

This book is not rare and a copy with VG dust jacket can be purchased from eBay or Abebooks at $1,000 and above. A copy without the dust jacket can be gotten at around $200-400. This is a NF copy with a NF dust jacket that is very vivid and has no close tear or sunned spine, and just very little chipping at the creases. The book is VG with no marking internally except for a seller's penciled code at the ffep, but suffers from spotting on both the front and back covers.

You may be interested in: