“A heller of a good writer someday”

Review of The Letters of Ernest Hemingway, Volume 3: 1926-1929, edited by Rena Sanderson, Sandra Spanier, and Robert W. Trogdon

Australian Book Review, February 2012

There’s an entertaining moment in Woody Allen’s new film when the protagonist, Gil Pender, meets young Ernest in a bar. ‘You liked my book?’ Hemingway asks. ‘Liked? I loved all your work!’ gushes the time-travelling Pender. Hemingway looks chuffed and then proclaims his aesthetic.

The abiding interest in Hemingway is one of the reasons why Midnight in Paris is enjoying such success. Presumably, the same is true of the annual Key West Hemingway beard competition. ‘Papa’ has become a cultural icon, a figure of our literary imagination. Hemingway is, of course, more than that: his works remain largely in print, as they have since the 1920s. His presence in American letters is gigantic, as one of the most admired, taught, and critically examined figures of twentieth-century writing in English.

Cambridge University Press’s ambitious project – to publish every piece of Hemingway’s correspondence – has, then, broad popular and scholarly appeal. Uniting those two readerships, in a text ‘satisfying to the scholar and inviting to the general reader’, is an express objective of the editors. They do it with aplomb.

This initial volume – covering Hemingway’s first recorded letter (aged seven) to the beginning of his time as an emerging man of letters in 1920s Paris – is an impressive scholarly resource, complete with a carefully wrought method, a detailed chronology, a dramatis personae, and an incisive commentary. Yet the book is presented so as not to dull the general reader’s enjoyment. Avoidance, for example, of the ‘“barbed wire” entanglements of too many editorial marks’ shows a consciousness of that audience without detraction from the scholar, who finds painstakingly researched endnotes behind each letter.

As a piece of scholarship, the volume itself and the series it introduces mark a watershed contribution to Hemingway studies and to our understanding of literary modernity. The publication of (indeed, simply the decade spent finding and collating) the letters provides material that has never, in the main, been widely seen. That breadth is vital. A Selected Letters – like Carlos Baker’s of 1981 – is, by its nature, skewed to a single perspective. Notwithstanding the care taken by its editor or the merits of his or her approach, a selection removes the scholar’s capacity to judge what is relevant to the study of the author and his writing, and what is curiosity.

Mere curiosity is, of course, the risk attending close study of any writer’s biographical material. Deciding what is necessary and what is gossipy can be difficult, particularly when considering authors (especially cultural icons) who draw on biography to inform their literary work. But the right to make that distinction is important. There is, then, intellectual justification for publishing this corpus of letters, notwithstanding the occasional bit of quotidian correspondence – notes, for example, passed to school-friends during class. Yet even these show Hemingway trying out his voice, experimenting with tone, with slang, with his beloved nicknamage (as he might write it). They offer a Bildungsroman of him as writer.

The letters in 1907–1922 encompass Hemingway’s childhood in Oak Park, Walloon Lake, and Horton Bay, his first job as a reporter at the Kansas City Star, his time at war in Italy, and the start of his focused efforts to write in Chicago, Michigan, and Paris. Hemingway is less autoptical about his writing than the literary scholar might hope for, but the core of his ambition is clear. As he put it at sixteen, ‘Cicero … I could write better stuff than he could with both hands tied behind me’; and later, ‘sometimes I really do think that I will be a heller of a good writer some day. Every once in a while I knock off a yarn that is so bludy good I can’t figure how I ever wrote it’ (Hemingway’s spellings).Events, places, people that appear in or inspire aspects of his early fiction are here in Hemingway’s own words. The editors point to the most relevant of these, and no doubt the resource will stimulate further research on the biographical aspects of Hemingway’s writing. We see Horton Bay, that ‘priceless place’ of ‘the best trout fishing in the country’, which, with its surrounding area, formed the setting of so many Nick Adams stories. ‘[I]t’s a great life up there,’ Hemingway wrote to a war buddy, ‘just lazing around the old point and always having a line out or so for rainbow.’ There are early fishing trips and time spent farming with ‘Bill’ (William B. Smith), references to Hemingway’s alleged involvement with the Native American girl ‘Prudie’ (Prudence Boulton), and his teaching and falling out with ‘Marge’ (Marjorie Bump). All of these are present in the Nick Adams stories.

Hemingway’s experience in World War I – the physical and psychological effects of which haunt and drive his later works – is also recounted. Indeed, his contemporaneous descriptions of that experience contribute to making the volume important not only for literary scholars but also for social historians. Key events of the early twentieth-century are described by one of modernity’s greatest prose writers (who, for good measure, was also a trained journalistic observer). As Hemingway himself says in a letter home from the war: ‘I have glimpsed the making of large gobs of history.’Beginning with the clearly enjoyed ‘bore’ of ‘the constant returning salutes’ in a uniform that looks ‘a million dollars’, Hemingway later takes the reader inside a World War I hospital. Badly wounded, tended to by Italian doctors and American nurses, he writes of shell shock as well as of his physical pain: ‘The Doc says that I’m all shot to pieces, figuratively as well as literally … I cant work. I’m too shot up and my nerves are all jagged.’ In his letters are the sound of weapons – ‘The big Italian guns,’ he writes, ‘are all back of us and the[y] roar all night.’

We see Hemingway as war hero (he refused treatment before more seriously wounded Italian soldiers): ‘The crowd cheered me for about ten solid minutes and I had to take off my cap and bow about 50 times. They threw flowers all over me and every body wanted to shake my hand … Oh it was very thrilling. I tried to act very dignified but felt very embarrassed.’ Later, we have the wounded twenty-year-old, back from combat seeming ‘an 100 years’ older, ‘medalled up and shot up’, trying to readjust to civilian life. All of this is relevant to his writing (particularly, of course, A Farewell to Arms, 1929) but it also offers an important glimpse into the human experience of that conflict.

The advent of Prohibition features, too. Hemingway recalls ‘the last baccanallian rites of having a town go dry’: ‘We both lay on the grass out side of the club for some time. Your old pal Hem established the club record. 15 martinies, 3 champagne Highballs and I don’t know how much champagne Then I passed out. It was a wonderful occassion.’Towards the end of the volume he gives a sketch of literary life in 1920s Paris, the world portrayed in Allen’s film. Hemingway and his new wife, Hadley, visit Gertrude Stein’s salon, take tea with another literary mentor, Ezra Pound, and get drunk on French cocktails (‘I brew a rum punch that’d gaol you’). There is also evidence of Hemingway beginning to develop more rigorously the aesthetic that Allen pastiches in Midnight. In short, 1907–1922 gives the picture of a youth, adolescence, and early adulthood in the years leading to the jazz era, recorded from the ages of seven through twenty-three by an increasingly astute observer and presenter of life.

There is as much for the general reader here as for the professional scholar. Hemingway is a highly entertaining correspondent – witty, filthy, the progenitor of wonderful slang, the teller of fabulous tales. He’s funny, too. ‘I’m still in love with Hash,’ he wrote to his friend Bill Horne; ‘she still declares that if we met she would not seek to hit me over the head with a slice bar.’ And in one of the book’s more surprising letters, Hemingway writes that ‘I’ve been teaching Pound to box wit little success. He habitually leads wit his chin and has the general grace of a crayfish’. That’s a scene Woody Allen should have filmed.

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