Story posted November 10, 2009
Author: Anthony Doerr '95
Author: Margot Livesey
Photography: Bowdoin College Archives
Fifty years ago, The Hudson Review published a short story by Bowdoin professor Lawrence Sargent Hall ’36 that went on to receive a prestigious First Prize O. Henry Award in 1960. “The Ledge,” having appeared in over 30 anthologies—John Updike included it in The Best American Short Stories of the 20th Century—and still widely anthologized, retains its affect on readers today.
On the golden anniversary of the story’s publication, author Anthony Doerr ’95, himself a two-time O. Henry Award Winner, and novelist Margot Livesey, Bowdoin’s John F. and Dorothy H. Magee Writer-in-Residence for the past four years, comment on the staying power of “The Ledge,” which was inspired by an event in the waters off of Harpswell Neck, on December 27, 1956, not far from where Hall lived on Orr’s Island.
Larry Hall retired in 1986 as Henry Leland Chapman Professor of English after teaching at Bowdoin for more than 40 years, and he died in 1993. Remarkably, he published only two pieces of fiction, and both won major awards. Along with the O. Henry for “The Ledge,” Hall received the William Faulkner Award (now the PEN/Faulkner Award) in 1961, recognizing his novel Stowaway as the best American work of fiction that year.
This recording was made in 1959, the year that "The Ledge" was first published in The Hudson Review. Audio courtesy of The George J. Mitchell Dept. of Special Collections & Archives, Bowdoin College Library.
Undoubtedly the fisherman represents Jesus. That’s why he has no proper name, the story takes place on Christmas, and his death leaves him “absolved of his mortality.”
Well, hmm, maybe on second thought the fisherman is a hubristic Greek hero. He has “too much strength,” he’s “inclined to brag and be disdainful,” and he’s determined “to lick the element of time.” He flies a little close to the sun, if you know what I mean!
Err, wait, actually “The Ledge” looks a lot like an ecological parable. The fisherman scoffs at hunting limits. His shotgun shells fly into the ocean “unheeded.” Clearly Hall condemns the fisherman for his irresponsible treatment of nature.
No, no, no, if the fisherman is being condemned, it’s because he’s a misogynist. Trepidation about bad weather and cold seas? That’s “no more than woman’s fear.” Nice try, fisherman. How does your own medicine taste?
Wait, wait—ever read any Montaigne? Here’s the mustachioed Frenchman from an essay called On Solitude: “...When Albuquerque, the Viceroy of India for Emanuel, King of Portugal, was in peril from a raging tempest, he took a boy on his shoulders for one reason only: so that by linking their fates together the innocence of that boy might serve him as a warrant and intercession for God’s favor and so bring him to safety.
Ding! Ding! “The Ledge” is obviously a reiteration of an older story: an imperiled man in water puts a boy on his shoulders so that he can shelter under the mantle of innocence! Why, it’s just like Saint Christopher, a big ogre of a saint who, legend has it, put the Christ child on his shoulders and ferried him across a raging river, nearly drowning in the process. The name Christopher means ‘Christ-bearer,’ after all.
Place yourself under the protection of a child, of a child you’re supposed to protect. Traverse evil ballasted with a sacred burden.
Ah, I can hear my English 231 professor scribbling a nice, fat B+ at the end of my paper.
Here’s the problem. I don’t believe in any of it. Maybe Hall did intend “The Ledge” to be subjected to big, symbolic interpretations. But I don’t think such things—metaphor, allusion, abstraction—explain why his story continues to be read fifty years after its publication.
As a writer and as a reader, I’m interested first and foremost in the visceral, sensory impacts of narrative. I want to be airlifted into the moment-by-moment predicaments of other people. I want to see little black letters on a white page conjure up “freezing suds at the water’s edge” and “a black glossy rib of earth” standing up out of the sea. That’s the glory and the miracle of fiction writing: it uses common, abused little structures—words—and summons whole worlds with them.
Whatever you think about Hall’s most famous story, you can’t argue that it’s not intense. The tide is always rising, the cold is always looming. The dusky waste is ever-encroaching. Good stories are first and foremost about creating an engrossing, concrete, physical tension. Meaning? It takes every word of a story to convey its meaning. Meaning, as Flannery O’Connor suggested, is inseparable from story itself.
The best stories are like dreams. They convince you they are real, they fold you into their worlds, and then they hold you there. Only then, when you’re anchored in the moment-by-moment detail of a character’s experience, when the water is in your boots, when the boy is seated on your shoulders, can you let yourself rise up into the larger things, into the great mystery of what it means to turn a last page, read a last sentence, and reenter your own life.
I sat down to re-read “The Ledge” on a wintery afternoon not unlike the one portrayed in the story, and from the opening sentence—“On Christmas morning before sunup the fisherman embraced his warm wife and left his close bed.”—I knew I was in the presence of a writer who had a destination in mind. That oddly ambiguous word “close” sounded the first quiet note of menace, and summoned me to pay attention, as did the vivid particulars of the occasion: Christmas day, the new guns, the weather, the eggs sunny side up.
In the pages that follow Hall proves himself entirely worthy of that attention. Although the tone of “The Ledge” is, at times, old fashioned, the meticulous, vivid details are as fresh as the day he wrote them. By the time I reached the end of the first half of the story I was ready myself to go duck hunting in winter. I also knew that tragedy was coming—any doubts I might have were dispelled by the sentence “Things were perfect.”—and felt considerable suspense as to how Hall would play out his dark hand.
From my point of view, one of the most interesting choices the author makes is not to allow the story to mean too much, or his readers to know too much. He resists any impulse to explain or psychoanalyse his characters. By the last page of the story we don’t know a great deal more about the fisherman than we do on the first page: he’s a rough man who keeps his promises; he believes home is a place to return to after adventures; boys become men through hunting. And yet in the final pages the father and son do rise to meet each other with a tenderness that both embodies and transcends the stereotypes of men and hunting. As the sleet drove against my windows, I found myself far from my sofa, battling the rising waters with the fisherman and his son.
“The best stories are like dreams. They convince you they are real, they fold you into their worlds, and then they hold you there.” —Anthony Doerr ’95