Reading a literary biography or a collection of some great writer’s correspondence, one tends to slog impatiently through the early pages—the childhood stuff—out of a sense of duty, often more than a bit numbed by the obligatory details about parents, siblings, schooling, and such, and itching to get to the good bits; later, much later, as the subject, now (most likely) jaded, world-weary, and in artistic decline, approaches the final curtain, one follows the post-climactic personal and professional developments with (at the very least) a faint sense of melancholy. What’s almost always most gripping in such books, by contrast, are the pages in which we see the author’s art and career come into full bloom—those recounting the stretch of time during which the first major works are written and published, the public and critics begin to take notice, and the author, feeling, for a season anyway, that the sun is shining, that all the stars are aligned, and that the world is his or her oyster, plunges with hope and vigor into the glorious, still unmapped future.
As it happens, that’s precisely the period covered by this third volume of Ernest Hemingway’s complete letters.1 At the start, he’s an ambitious, energetic twenty-six-year-old from Oak Park, Illinois, who, after stints as a reporter at The Kansas City Star and Toronto Star and a dramatic interlude as a Red Cross ambulance driver in Italy during World War I, has been living essentially hand-to-mouth in Paris for four years, throwing back drinks with some of the other promising young cultural figures of the day and contributing stories to little magazines known pretty much only to the cognoscenti; at the close, three years later, having just published a highly acclaimed novel, he stands on the verge of international fame, his apprenticeship, his youth, and his Paris idyll at an end. Briefly put, as the co-editor Sandra Spanier writes in her forty-page introduction, this collection of letters “traces the trajectory of a rising star.”
And which author’s trajectory could be more thrilling to trace than that of Hemingway, whose 1920s sojourn in Paris has been the stuff of popular myth ever since A Moveable Feast, his posthumous memoir of the period, came out in 1964? Even now, the notions of Paris that most Americans carry around in their minds have less to do with the actual Paris of today—a social disaster, economic basket case, and cultural shadow of its former self—than with nostalgic images that can, to a remarkable degree, be traced back to A Moveable Feast. If Midnight in Paris (2011) was Woody Allen’s most successful film in years, it was largely because of the borrowed magic of Hemingway’s memoir. The book, as it happens, made headlines again as recently as November, when, following the deadly jihadist attacks in Paris and Saint-Denis, its sales in the French capital spiked, catapulting it onto the national bestseller lists—many Parisians apparently having chosen to respond to the crisis not by taking practical action but by congregating at fabled Left Bank watering holes and, a pack of Gauloises and a bottle of Moët at hand, returning in their imaginations, with the help of a paperback translation of an American classic, of all things, to their burg’s glorious past.
To be sure, Hemingway, ever restless, didn’t spend all his time in the City of Light between January 1926 and April 1929: reading these letters, we follow him to (among many other places) New York, Madrid, Antibes, Pamplona, Gstaad, San Sebastian, Berlin, Havana, Kansas City, and, last but not least, Key West—to which, in the book’s closing pages, he relocates. (No wonder he seems always to be broke.) In the spring of 1926, he publishes The Torrents of Spring, a book-length sendup, frankly unworthy of Hemingway’s talents, of Sherwood Anderson, a fellow Midwesterner who’d made a splash in 1919 with Winesburg, Ohio, the unconventional cycle of stories that would prove to be his chef d’oeuvre. Anderson isn’t the only former mentor whom Hemingway now seems to view less as a comrade than as a competitor, and whom he feels powerful enough to mock, belittle, and condescend to. About his fellow Paris expatriate Robert McAlmon, for example, who’d helped him out financially, whose Contact Press had issued Hemingway’s first book, Three Stories and Ten Poems, in 1923, and whose own autobiographical Bildungsroman, The Village, had earned acclaim in 1924, Hemingway now writes: “MacAlmon [sic], without money, would never have been published anywhere by anybody except for Village and about 3 maybe 4 stories.”
Even a former buddy’s death doesn’t quell his sneers: “I am not sorry Walsh is dead,” Hemingway bluntly informs Ezra Pound after the untimely passing of Ernest Walsh, who had printed some of Hemingway’s early work in his magazine, This Quarter, but whose less-than-glowing notice of Torrents had soured their friendship. “I have known too many good guys die,” writes Hemingway cold-heartedly, “to be able to sweat much from the eyes about the death of a shit.” If there’s a major exception, at this stage in his career, to this unattractive pattern of knocking down fellow writers who helped him on his way up, it’s F. Scott Fitzgerald, more than one of Hemingway’s letters to whom reads almost like a billet doux: “You do more and work harder and oh shit I’d get maudlin about how damned swell you are. My god I’d like to see you . . . you are the best damn friend I have. And not just—oh hell—I can’t write this but I feel very strongly on the subject.” (Hemingway won’t get around to smearing the hell out of Fitzgerald, who to the end had remained unwaveringly devoted to him, until nearly a quarter century after the latter’s demise, when he’ll center a whole chapter of A Moveable Feast on an anecdote cruelly calculated to humiliate his long-dead chum and champion.)
Later in 1926, The Sun Also Rises (titled Fiesta in the United Kingdom) hits the stores, winning extraordinary raves. The Atlantic: Hemingway “writes . . . as if he had fashioned the art of writing himself.” The New York Times Book Review: his “lean, hard athletic narrative prose . . . puts more literary English to shame.” Conrad Aiken in the New York Herald Tribune: “If there is better dialogue being written today I do not know where to find it.” One of the rare dissenting voices is that of the author’s mother, Grace Hall Hemingway, who, calling The Sun Also Rises “one of the filthiest books of the year,” maintains that “every page fills me with a sick loathing.” Hemingway famously hated Grace, whose unique combination of piety, possessiveness, political progressivism, artistic pretension, and passive-aggressiveness obviously did a number on him (his often unflattering portrayals of women and his perpetual need to prove his manhood have both been attributed to her baleful influence), but his letters to her here, while displaying sparks of understandable irritation, are respectful enough, if palpably dutiful.
In 1927, Hemingway publishes a short-story collection, Men Without Women, which rakes in even more praise. At around the same time, he begins writing A Farewell to Arms and splits from his first wife, Hadley, the mother of his small son, Jack (“Bumby”), and marries Pauline Pfeiffer, a journalist from Arkansas, with whom he presently fathers a second son, Patrick, born in Kansas City in June 1928. In December of that year, Hemingway’s father, Clarence, commits suicide. “PLEASE WIRE $100 IMMEDIATELY,” Hemingway cables his editor, Maxwell Perkins, from Philadelphia. “MY FATHER DEAD MUST GET FIRST TRAIN CHICAGO.” Three hours later, he cables again: “DISREGARD WIRE GOT MONEY FROM SCOTT [FITZGERALD].” After these wires, curiously, Hemingway’s correspondence is virtually free of any reference to the suicide or even to his father; indeed, he’s soon as jaunty as ever, or so it seems, as if this family tragedy had never occurred. (“Everything goes finely [sic] here. Pat has gotten his second tooth.”) As the volume winds toward its close, we see him putting the finishing touches on A Farewell to Arms, which will secure his position in the American literary firmament.
One thing that needs to be said about these letters is that there’s a lot of conscious image-making going on in them. As one of his biographers, Jeffrey Meyers, has noted, Hemingway pursued a path of “scrupulous honesty in his fiction” but routinely felt compelled, in both his conversation and correspondence, “to distort and rewrite the story of his life.” Indeed, already in these documents dating to his late twenties, we find Hemingway recounting his experiences in a way calculated to make him come off as the same strong, stoic figure who, in succeeding decades, would take hold of imaginations around the world, thanks largely to splashy Life and Look photo spreads of the Nobel laureate on safari, at bullfights, and deep-sea fishing. In a 1927 letter to Pound, mocking the leading Communist writers of the day (this from a man who’d later enjoy cozy relations with both the KGB and Castro), he’s already calling himself “Papa”: “Listen and papa will tell you why Messers [James] Rorty, [Joseph] Freeman, Mike Gold etc. etc. want a revolution. Because they hope that under some new order they would be men of talent.” How, one wonders, does Pound—who at this point is in his forties, and who cherishes his already well-established role as the mahatma of modernism—feel about being lectured at by some greenhorn protégé who has the nerve to refer to himself as “Papa”?
For Hemingway, this isn’t just an extremely busy but also an emotionally turbulent time. While riddled with guilt over divorcing Hadley, he’s helplessly in love with Pauline—whom he would, in turn, dump in 1940 to marry the now legendary war reporter Martha Gellhorn. (“Hemingway,” observes Meyers, “was a romantic at heart. Every time he fell in love with a woman, he sincerely believed that he had to marry her and would remain married to her forever.” The same, one recalls, was true of Henry VIII.) His letters make clear his great affection for Bumby, whose baby talk in French and English he quotes repeatedly (and who, it’s somehow jarring to realize, would grow up to father Mariel Hemingway, the teenage love interest in Woody Allen’s Manhattan). As for his career, Hemingway plainly enjoys his success, but seems to view it as nothing more than his due and tries not to let his head be overly turned by it; uncowed by reviewers and unimpressed (or determined to seem unimpressed) by almost all of the other popular and critically acclaimed writers of the day, he possesses (or at least projects) immense confidence in his own talent and a firm belief that he’s doing exactly what he should be doing with it.
The period of Hemingway’s life covered by these letters has, of course, been chronicled innumerable times. In one biography after another—notably Carlos Baker’s in 1969, Jeffrey Meyers’s in 1985, Kenneth S. Lynn’s in 1987, and James R. Mellow’s in 1992—these years make for lively reading. Alas, the same can’t be said of this unabridged assemblage. Rena Sanderson, in her own twenty-seven-page introduction—just in case Spanier’s forty prefatory pages aren’t enough for you (this doorstop of a book, which contains an excessively detailed chronology, a comprehensive roster of correspondents, and much else, is so packed with front matter that the letters themselves don’t start until page 121)—rightly uses words like passion, gusto, charisma, dynamic, and energetic to describe the Hemingway of these years. But this book itself is anything but a dynamic read. Hemingway was many things, but when it came to letter-writing, he was pretty close to the opposite end of the spectrum from, say, Noël Coward. A master in a dozen or so fields of creative endeavor, Coward viewed letters as yet another genre in which he could shine, if only for an audience of one (although he, like many another celebrated artiste, doubtless penned even the most intimate notes with posterity in mind). Not Hemingway. He didn’t labor over these things—to put it mildly. When he wrote to his parents and editors, his main objective was to get certain personal or professional obligations out of the way; his letters to such eminences as T. S. Eliot and James Joyce, in which he faked at least a touch of humility and deference, were chiefly a means of networking. Even when he’s sending off dispatches to such authentic amis as Ezra Pound, Archibald MacLeish, and Gerald and Sara Murphy, with whom he’s truly eager to stay in touch and swap literary news and gossip, he’s not out to amuse or scintillate; on the contrary, you can feel him winding down after a day of “real” writing.
And what a difference between these letters and that “real” writing! In his fiction, Hemingway could accomplish an astonishing amount—set a scene, bring a person to life, capture the mood of a situation—in just a few lean, straightforward sentences. It’s strange to read passages in these letters that bear traces of his characteristic manner but that just don’t begin to do any of the things his best stories could do. For example, here are the opening sentences of A Farewell to Arms:
In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.
It’s a beautiful, arresting, vividly impressionistic opening, its rhythms meticulously calibrated. The sentences—most of them compound in form—are longish, and grow longer over the course of the paragraph. Although nearly every word is a Basic English monosyllable, they’re strung together with exceptional subtlety, in a way calculated to grab you, draw you in, cast a spell. Consider, by contrast, this brief excerpt from a September 1926 letter to Isidore Schneider, publicity director of the Boni & Liveright publishing house, in which Hemingway—having just explained that he and Hadley are going through “hell,” and that hell is something one simply has to get through in this life—adds the following:
Or at least I always will [get through hell] I guess because I am very prejudiced against suicide because somehow I would not like to even run a chance of having to spend the rest of the time with a lot of the sort of people who commit suicide. Altho of course that doesn’t hold true because there are some swell ones. The real reason for not committing suicide is because you always know how swell life gets again after the hell is over. So you have to resolve in advance to last out the time when you don’t believe that.
Admittedly, the content is not entirely uninteresting, given that Hemingway’s father would put a bullet through his own skull just over two years later, and Hemingway himself, on July 2, 1961, would shuffle off this mortal coil in precisely the same way. But the style? Yes, the voice and diction, and the contours of that opening sentence—count the clauses!—scream out Hemingway. But the passage is clumsy, ungainly, even ungrammatical (“reason . . . is because”). As he acknowledged himself, Hemingway was no expert on grammar. (He routinely writes “feel badly” instead of “feel bad.”) Nor, like Fitzgerald, was he much of a speller. As it happens, the editors have chosen to leave his mistakes uncorrected—a decision that, while eminently defensible in a scholarly edition such as this, doesn’t exactly enhance the book’s allure for the general reader.
The point here, of course, isn’t that one expects these letters to be rich in vocabulary or crammed with complex sentences: this is Hemingway, after all, whose name is a byword for simplicity and calculated repetition. The point is that, while we’re used to this simplicity and repetition having an enchantment, an incantatory power, of its own—that being the whole thrust, needless to say, of the revolution he kindled in American literature—these letters, with only the occasional, very brief exception, utterly lack that magic. Nor does one expect Hemingway’s, or any author’s, letters to measure up to his best fiction; but one certainly hopes for something more than what one finds on page after page of this volume, in which the author’s fatigue is manifest, the simplicity and repetition reflective not of artistic calculation but of sheer creative exhaustion. Writing to Schneider above, Hemingway uses the word swell only twice; in many other letters, the word runs riot. For example, in a single two-page dispatch to his childhood friend Isabelle Simmons Godolphin, it recurs at least a dozen times:
you know what a punk correspondent I am even when things are swell. . . . You were awfully damned swell to write me. . . . She [Hadley] is swell and Bumby too. . . . We’re on swell terms. . . . I’m swell now. . . . Pauline thinks you are a swell girl . . . everything is very very good and everybody feeling swell. . . . My head’s working well again. Sleeping again. Can write and feeling swell. . . . Bumby is swell.
Compare this to Hemingway when he uses repetition to mesmerize—in, for example, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”:
What did he fear? It was not fear or dread. It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada. Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada.
To be sure, in his letter to Godolphin, and in many others, presumably in the interest of elegant (or not-so-elegant) variation, Hemingway now and then eschews swell and opts instead for good or fine or great or grand—all of which also abound in these pages, to numbing effect. In many of the letters sent to his closest male friends, moreover, he repeats not only swell and its synonyms but a handful of then-indelicate vocables, mainly hell and damn, his intention plainly being to establish a certain manly ambience. Here he is, for instance, communicating with John Dos Passos in February 1927:
I wish to hell you would have [sic] wired me last fall . . . . What the hell do you write a play for if it doesn’t go or if you’ve got enough jack? . . . Lay off and don’t try and do a damn thing and let the juice come back. You’ve done too bloody much writing and you are stale as heck on it. For christ sake you’ve published six books that I know about. . . . I know how you feel about folks being all shot to hell and they all get shot to hell. But ones come up and aren’t shot to hell until they get shot to hell. . . . Anyway I wish to hell I’d gone to Mexico with you.
Are this book’s editors aware of its dullness? One has the distinct impression that they are, if only because they seem to go out of their way to put a positive spin on it. Spanier, for example, quotes the biographer A. Scott Berg as contrasting Hemingway’s “deliberate and painstakingly chiseled” fiction with his “free-form and expansive—unsanded and unvarnished” correspondence. Challenging Hemingway’s famous comment that he sought, in his novels and stories, to “write one true sentence, and then go on from there,” Berg lamely suggests that “his letters may prove to be the most honest log of Hemingway’s fascinating life voyage, the truest sentences he ever wrote.” Well, the letters in this volume may be unpolished, and they may be chockablock with truth in the form of biographical data, but how is any of that necessarily a plus? What’s important is that they all too rarely make vivid for us what was indeed a fascinating stretch of Hemingway’s life. Sanderson, for her part, makes the claim that these letters reflect Hemingway’s “sharp eye” and “capture an era.” What she means by this, it emerges, is that they provide “insights into a time when cars were a luxury, travel and mail between the United States and Europe took at least one week and often longer, and transatlantic phone service, nonexistent until 1927, was very expensive. Literary production depended largely on manual typewriters (without correction ribbons) and on the frustratingly slow delivery and turnaround of proofs.” Well, readers who are surprised by any of these elementary facts about life in the 1920s may indeed learn something about the era from Hemingway’s letters, but it’s a grotesque exaggeration to suggest that they constitute some kind of treasure trove of historical illumination.
While most readers will be bored by these letters, some will be offended—for (trigger warning!) every so often Hemingway tosses off a word like kike or fairy or nigger. With one letter to the Murphys, he encloses a pamphlet of his story “Today Is Friday,” and on the list of other pamphlets in the same series he scrawls the word fairy next to the names of gay authors, writing in the margin: “Papa’s in gentle company. Maybe its a fairy house organ?” Although he was passionately in love at the time with a female journalist, Hemingway also has a couple of things to say about women writers that today would be considered, to put it mildly, politically incorrect. (One wonders how he’d have felt about his complete letters being co-edited by Sanderson and Spanier, both of whom are feminist critics—although it must be admitted that, in this volume, anyway, their political persuasions don’t noticeably intrude.) It’s a measure of the aridity of this book that your reviewer, a fairy in good standing, felt almost grateful for the outbursts of bigotry, which at least somewhat relieved the tedium.
To be fair, part of the reason why this volume is so yawn-inducing is that what we’re dealing with here are the complete letters. This means that, among other things, the editors reproduce in their entirety multiple long passages, written to different persons on or around the same day, that recount the exact same events and reflections in almost identical language. Back in 1981, Carlos Baker published a one-volume Selected Letters, which at 900-plus pages was at once comprehensive and fast-moving, taking the reader through Hemingway’s life at a relatively snappy pace, hitting all the highlights, and restricting itself to letters of at least moderate interest. (Baker also silently corrected Hemingway’s errors in spelling, grammar, and punctuation.) Other reader-friendly collections of Hemingway’s correspondence have appeared since, including an engaging selection of his exchanges with his (and Fitzgerald’s) legendary editor Maxwell Perkins.
The key word here, surely, is selection. Until the first volume of this set of complete letters began to roll off the presses in 2011, only fifteen percent of Hemingway’s known letters had ever been published in full. One reason for that is now becoming clear: most of them simply didn’t contain much worth printing. As it is, this series, originally projected at twelve volumes, is now expected to reach a grand total of seventeen volumes, containing no fewer than three million of Hemingway’s own words. Given his stature, a collection of every last letter he ever put to paper was doubtless an inevitability. But caveat lector: to read these letters alongside his finest fiction is to behold the chasm between a literary master off and on duty. Indeed, if there’s anything salutary about the lackluster prose in this volume, it’s that it does move you to crack open Hemingway’s novels and stories for a reality check—a reminder of what he was able to do when he really worked at it. And to witness that contrast is to feel genuinely renewed in one’s appreciation of his mastery.
1 The Letters of Ernest Hemingway 1926-1929, edited by Rena Sanderson, Sandra Spanier, and Robert W. Trogdon; Cambridge University Press, 731 pages, $45.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 34 Number 6, on page 13
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