Nick Adams is a recurrent character and alter-ego in and of Ernest Hemingway’s famed short story serials chronicling the author’s coming of age in northern and upper peninsula Michigan. In The Battler, (1925) Nick has hopped a freight train, mainly, for fun and, supposedly, to make his way to and from some isolated villages doting the region.
He is caught and thrown off the train by the brakeman. During the scuffling and fall, Nick suffers a banged up knee and a black eye. He limps several miles down the tracks and spies a fire. Scrambling down the embankment he makes his way through the forest following the inviting glow. It is getting dark and the air is crisp.
In a clearing there is a small man in a wool hunter’s cap standing in front of the fire. Nick announces himself and walks into the camp. They exchange hellos and Nick is taken aback by the man’s flattened nose, crooked mouth; his eyes narrowed by edema and sunken into blotchy lumps. Nick tries to play off his surprise but the man is sensitive to the reaction.
“Don’t you like my pan?” the man asked.
Nick was embarrassed.
“Sure,” he said.
“Look here!” the man took off his cap.
He had only one ear. It was thickened and tight against the side of his head. Where the other ear
should have been there was a stump.
“Ever see one like that?”
“No,” said Nick. It made him a little sick.
“I could take it,” the man said. “Don’t you think I could take it, kid?”
“They all bust their hands on me,” the little man said. “They couldn’t hurt me.”
It turns out that the man is washed up boxer who at one time was quite famous. His name is Adolf Francis, “call me Ad,” he says. Ad prods Nick about whether or not he recognizes his name. Nick acts like he does, but he’s never heard the name before and Ad senses it.
Although Ad is friendly enough there are undertones in their exchanges that make Nick uncomfortable. Then Ad confides that he is mentally ill. He comes right out and says so.
“Listen,” the little man said. “I’m not quite right.”
“What’s the matter?”
He put on his cap. Nick felt like laughing.
“You’re all right,” he said.
“No, I’m not. I’m crazy. Listen, you ever been crazy?”
“No,” Nick said. “How does it get you?”
“I don’t know,” Ad said. “When you got it you don’t know about it…”
Nick is relieved when an African American man enters the campsite. His name is Bugs and he has brought ham and eggs for dinner. Unlike the small squat boxer, Bugs is a tall man. He is soothing and polite; his voice, gentle and soft.
Bugs puts Nick at ease while at the same time taking command of the situation. He is the leader. The caretaker. He calls Nick Mr. Adams and Ad Mr. Francis.
Ad and Bugs invite Nick to eat dinner with them. Nick is ravished and readily accepts. Bugs begins to cook up the meal. But things turn sour when Bugs asks Nick to slice the bread. Ad spies Nick’s knife and asks to handle it. Bugs tells Nick to keep hold of his knife. This offends Ad, but he is not mad at Bugs. He takes out his frustration and embarrassment on Nick.
“Who the hell do you think you are? You’re a snotty bastard. You come in here where nobody asks you and eat a man’s food and when he asks to borrow a knife you get snotty.”
He glared at Nick, his face was white and his eyes almost out of sight under the cap.
Nick stepped back. The little man came toward him slowly, stepping flat-footed forward, his left foot stepping forward, his right dragging up to it.
“Hit me,” he moved his head. “Try and hit me.”
“I don’t want to hit you.”
“You won’t get out of it that way. You’re going to take a beating, see? Come on and lead at me.”
“Cut it out,” Nick said.
“All right, then, you bastard.”
Unbeknownst to Ad, Bugs has stepped behind him wielding a blackjack–a small hand held bludgeon made of a lead weight and a leather strap. He strikes Ad in the head with it and the little man falls to the ground, out cold.
As Bugs tenderly cares for Ad, placing a folded jacket under his head and then bathing his face, he assures Nick that little man will be okay. He hates to have to resort to such harshness but sometimes that’s the only recourse when Ad gets out of control.
Then he goes on to tell Nick Ad’s story: Yes, Ad was a great boxer at one time; a handsome man who made a lot of money with his fists. He was extremely strong for his size and stubborn–he took too many beatings. It messed up his mind. Then, on top of that, his beloved wife and manager, who looked so much like Ad that she could have been his sister (in fact there were those who thought she was his sister) up and left him. All of this was too much for Ad to bear and he went off the deep end.
Bugs makes Nick a ham and egg sandwich and then asks him to leave the campsite.
“I can wake him up any time now, Mister Adams. If you don’t mind I wish you’d sort of pull out. I don’t like to not be hospitable, but it might disturb him back again to see you. I hate to have to thump him and it’s the only thing to do when he gets started. I have to sort of keep him away from people. You don’t mind, do you, Mister Adams?”
Nick walked away from the fire across the clearing to the railway tracks. Out of the range of the fire he listened. The low soft voice of the negro was talking. Nick could not hear the words. Then he heard the little man say, “I got an awful headache, Bugs.”
“You’ll feel better. Mister Francis,” the negro’s voice soothed. “Just you drink a cup of this hot coffee.”
The backdrop of The Battler is 1920’s America. Rugged individualism as a recognized philosophy had not been manifested but would be soon ratified by Herbert Hoover on the eve of an economic melt down known as The Great Depression. Yet, Hoover did not invent this concept, he merely put it into words: the individual is completely self reliant and therefore independent of any governmental assistance and or interference.
Ad and Bugs are the inconvenient residue of this uniquely American philosophy and way of life. Ad is mentally ill and disabled. Today we recognize his condition as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). It is prevalent in athletes that participate in sports such as football, soccer, boxing and hockey and those in the military who endure repeated blows to the head. People suffering from CTE have a myriad of neurological symptoms including poor impulse control, marked impulsivity, aggression, depression and paranoia.
Bugs is an African American making his way above the Mason-Dixon line (the demarcation between Northern and Southern United States.) On the surface things are significantly better for Blacks like Bugs who are not ensnared in the Jim Crow South. But their reality is actually quite similar to their down South brethren.
Racial violence sporadically erupts into deadly riots in cities like Chicago, Saint Louis, Baltimore and Tulsa as an illiterate white underclass competes with black laborers migrating from the oppression of the former Confederate states. Even in the best circumstances African Americans are marginalized, scapegoated and victimized. Above all they are expected to be subservient to whites.
Hemingway explores these mores in The Battler. It is written from Nick Adams’ perspective. Nick displays typical male teenage bravado when he grapples with himself after being kicked off the freight train. He curses the brakeman and vows vengeance on him. But when he meets Ad, he immediately defers to the little man and tries to placate him with agreeableness.
Nick is relieved when Bugs comes on the scene and though he is very cooperative deferential, his inner voice displays his prejudice. When he hears Bugs shout out hello and sees the big man moving in the shadows he thinks to himself only a “negro” sounds and moves like that.
Moreover as he observes the interaction between Ad and Bugs, Nick sometimes refers to Bugs within his inner voice with a racial slur, though he has no overt animosity to the man. This is especially evident when Bugs must take the upper hand with Ad. These are the attitudes and belief systems about white privilege and black subservience prevalent in 1920’s America, above and below the physical and overt line of racial demarcation into the psychological response of an ordinary young man who owes a black man, perhaps, his very life.