Published in 1925 as part of Hemingway’s In Our Time collection, “Big Two-Hearted River” takes place in the forests of northern Michigan a year or two after the end of World War I. The main and only character in this story is Nick Adams, who we know from previous tales in the Nick Adams series. He has recently returned from the War and its horrors. Nick goes to the woods, where he grew up as a boy, planning to camp and fish. As the story begins, he is dropped off in an abandoned logging town that has been burned to the ground and watches as a train moves out of sight. This will be Nick’s last contact with civilization in the story, as he immerses himself in the natural world.
Nick crosses a bridge and notes how the trout in the water below steady themselves with their fins, adapting to the river’s current. He then sees grasshoppers in the nearby fields that have turned black from living on the scorched land, but they too have adapted to their altered environment. As he moves further away from his normal life, Nick feels happy, sensing that he has left everything, including the need to think, behind him. Indeed, as he locates a campsite and sets up his tent, the tale’s third-person narrator tells us that “he had not been unhappy all day.” The reason for Nick’s positive mood is that he has been totally involved in the series of physical tasks required to make camp, cook dinner, and the like. His chores at a temporary end, Nick thinks of a one-time friend named Hopkins who left Nick’s circle when he became rich. But he is able to choke off these thoughts because he is tired; he crawls into his tent and sleeps.
On the next morning, Nick cooks breakfast and walks to a nearby stream where he fishes for trout. When he loses a huge trout from his hook, Nick’s mood turns dark, but he again chokes off his normal mentality and catches two other fish. As he eats his lunch, Nick notes that the river turns into a swamp further downstream and reasons that many large fish probably congregate there. But he does not want to go down to the swamp where “fishing was a tragic adventure.” He simply cleans his catch instead and goes back to his campsite. In the last line of the tale, the narrator relates Nick’s thought that “there were plenty of days coming when he could fish the swamp.”
The narrator tells the story of Nick Adams's return to his old fishing terrain after the war.
The train disappeared into the distance, through the burnt woods. Nick sat. The town of Seney was gone, burned down. He looked into the river. The trout were still there. He watched them. They still gave him the old feeling. Nick picked up his pack and started walking through the country. He was sore and hot, but happy. He felt he had left the need for everything, including writing and thinking, behind him. He came up to the pine tree plain. Far away, he could see the blue hills next to Lake Superior. He stopped for a moment to sit and smoke with his legs stretched in front of him. A black grasshopper attached to his sock. He realized that the grasshoppers had not always been black but had changed because the forest was all burnt out. Nick guided himself by the sun. He could have turned toward the river, but decided to keep going as far as possible that day. There was no underbrush near the pine trees. Under the shade of those trees, he took off his pack and went to sleep.
He woke up as the sun was going down. He was sore. He started out toward the river, which he thought couldn't be more than a mile. He finally approached the river on the edge of a meadow. He went down to the river to watch the trout rising to feed on the insects that were resting on the surface of the water. Nick set up camp. He spread out blankets for his bed and erected a tent, carefully and methodically. He was pleased with the home that he made for the night. He went outside to make dinner for himself. He dumped a can of pork and beans and one of spaghetti into a pan. He announced to no one in particular that he has a right to eat those things if he is willing to carry them. He made a fire and warmed the food. He let it cool before eating it, though. When he finished, he went down to the river to get water for coffee. He made coffee like Hopkins made it. He ate a can of apricots. He began to think about Hopkins, a serious man who was wealthy. Hopkins "went away when the telegram came." He gave Nick his gun and Bill his camera. They were all supposed to go fishing again the next summer. They never saw him again. Nick returned to the present. The coffee was bitter. He got into bed. He was comfortable, except for a mosquito buzzing in his ear. He killed the mosquito and went to sleep.
Nick's return home is infused with the issues faced by a man coming back from war. Everything at home is burnt out and abandoned. This state of Nick's homeland represents the feeling of many veterans returning home. Whether or not their homes are actually demolished, they are symbolically demolished. After seeing war, home can never seem as innocent and carefree. Further, no one else can understand what a soldier has gone through, so he might as well be alone. Finally, a burnt-out town looks similar to one that has been bombed out or blown apart. Therefore, it is as if Nick's home has also been destroyed by the war. Nick also confronts the new freedom of a man returning from the army. Now, he can choose whether or not to carry heavy food: He has that freedom. Further, he can make his own bed that no one can disturb. Even during his long day of hiking, he feels happy because he can decide for himself where to go and how fast.
Nick's return home is also full of experiences that he had along his developmental journey. He learned from Bugs how to cook in a pan with bread to sop up the left-over sauce. As he sits against the tree with his legs sprawled out, the reader is reminded of his being shot and propped up against a church. Nick remembers an argument with Hopkins, presumably just one of the friends he has lost.
The grasshoppers are an important symbol. They have become black to adapt to their new, blackened surroundings. Nick wonders how long they will stay like that. These grasshoppers represent Nick and other soldiers who become hardened by the war experience because they are in a tough environment. No one knows how long they will remain hardened either.