Review of The Letters of Ernest Hemingway, Volume 3: 1926–1929, edited by edited by Rena Sanderson, Sandra Spanier, and Robert W. Trogdon
If your Friday night companion was to slap the table, spill your pint, and announce to the bar: ‘I’m going to collect every single letter Hemingway wrote, and put them in a book! Lots of books!’ you might be forgiven for suggesting that your chum’s next moves be a warm lamb sandwich and a taxi home to bed.
Clearly, Cambridge University Press responded differently to the editors of The Letters of Ernest Hemingway. When I reviewed the excellent first volume for ABR in February 2012, the worldwide hunt for all of Papa’s correspondence was projected to fill twelve volumes. In this, their third, the estimate has risen to seventeen. Volume Three (1926–29) is another stellar contribution to a series of grand scope and vision, executed with rigorous professionalism, and resulting in a deeply satisfying volume for the reader and an unsurpassable resource for the scholar.
Volume One (1907–22) presented Hemingway’s adolescence – the friendships and Michigan summers that informed his early short stories, and his World War I experience in Italy that influenced A Farewell to Arms (1929). Volume Two (1923–25) offered the author’s formative years in 1920s Paris – drinking with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ezra Pound, attending Gertrude Stein’s salons – a period memorialised in A Moveable Feast (1964). In Volume Three, Hemingway returns from Europe to America, and reaches maturity, both as a writer and a man.
1926–29 was a vital period of consolidation: Hemingway evolved from a promising expatriate, published by small French presses, to a major author published in America and throughout Eur-ope. In 1926 he signed with Scribner – where he would stay for life – and began working with his (and Fitzgerald’s) revered editor, Max Perkins. That year he published The Torrents of Spring and The Sun Also Rises, his sprawling beauty of a first novel. A short story collection, Men Without Women, followed in 1927, and his great war novel, A Farewell to Arms, was completed in 1929.
Volume Three‘s letters are an invaluable record of Hemingway as a professional author. There is less on his aesthetic than in earlier correspondence – Hemingway is more confident now in his art. But his writing methods are covered in detail. While endorsing ‘working like a bastard’, Hemingway believed in time away from writing to let the ‘juice come back’. He reports ‘ski-ing and working on alternate days’. Longer breaks were necessary after completing novels. Hemingway tells Perkins his plan to put A Farewell to Arms ‘away for a couple or three months and then re-write it. The rewriting doesn’t take more than six weeks or two months once it is done. But it is pretty important for me to let it cool off.’
The work itself was draining and demoralising: ‘My god it is hard for anybody to write,’ he tells Waldo Pierce. ‘I never start a damn thing without knowing 200 times I can’t write – never will be able to write a line.’ Hemingway swings between joy and despair at The Sun Also Rises, first ‘drinking a great deal of wine and feeling very damned good’, but later viewing the book critically: ‘It has many many faults …You work very hard and then afterwards (after the thrill is gone) it seems so very awful.’ His exhausted updates while writing A Farewell To Arms – pages written, booze consumed – are succinctly pessimistic: ‘Book probably shit.’
But this pessimism was partly the result of a strategic, pragmatic, yet ambitious view of his career. ‘Oh Christ I want to write so well,’ he says, but ‘[h]ave for long time cherished idea of becoming good author before great author – have quite a way to go to become first.’ His artistic integ- rity plays out in letters to Perkins, whom Hemingway thanks for letting him be an ‘author’, not a ‘professional writer’: ‘I know very well I could turn books out when they should come out. (And you have been very damned decent about not even asking me to …) but we only want good ones – Both of us.’
While 1926–29 was a time of artistic success, it was also one of personal turmoil. Hemingway fell in love with Pauline Pfeiffer, a friend of his and his wife Hadley’s. All three were anguished by the resulting divorce: ‘I’ve felt absolutely done for and gone to pieces Pfife,’ Hemingway writes to Pauline, ‘you … that I love more than all that is and have given up everything for and betrayed everything for and killed off everything for are being destroyed and your nerves and your spirit broken.’ To Hadley, he writes: ‘I pray God always that he will make up to you the very great hurt that I have done you – who are the best and truest and loveliest person that I have ever known.’ It has been ‘hell’, he tells Fitzgerald, and ‘completely my fault in every way’.
Hemingway was tormented by illness, injuries, and ‘depressions’. He was also poor, having voluntarily assigned Hadley his Sun Also Rises royalties: ‘I would never have written it’, he writes, without ‘your loyal and self-sacrificing and always stimulating and loving – and actual cash support backing’. In 1928, as Hemingway ‘sprint[ed]’ to finish A Farewell To Arms, Pauline nearly died in labour in America, surviving a ‘Cesaerian (can’t spell it)’ but becoming ‘dangerously sick’. Frantic at the hospital, then tormented by summer heat and the baby’s cries, ‘[c]onditions’, Hemingway writes, ‘have not been ideal for finishing my novel’.
Later that year, Hemingway’s father shot himself – an event recorded in urgent telegrams as Hemingway got off a train to Florida, but found himself without enough cash to return to his family: ‘PLEASE WIRE $100 IMMEDIATELY’, he telegrams Perkins. ‘MY FATHER DEAD MUST GET FIRST TRAIN CHICAGO.’ Fitzgerald came to Hemingway’s aid, rushing to meet his train with the fare when it stopped at Philadelphia: ‘You were damned good and also bloody effective to get me that money.’ But Clarence Hemingway’s finances were in ruin, and Ernest (aged thirty) became financially responsible for ‘(1) Mother (2) Sisters (1) Brother (1) Wife (1) (Ex-wife) – (2) children’ – a concrete reminder of his maturity.
The joy of Hemingway’s letters is the revelation of a man often rendered cartoonish by the ‘Papa’ mythos. He is variously funny, anguished, rude, respectful, loving, nasty, and kind to young authors and friends in trouble, particularly Fitzgerald, his ‘best damn friend’, whose drinking and wasted talent agonised Hemingway. There is remarkable contemporaneity in his jokey ‘screeds’ to mates: ‘punished 18 [shots of kirsch] yest while shooting cards,’ he tells Bill Smith. ‘Love to Zelda and little Scotty if you can keep her off the stuff long enough to understand the message,’ he writes to Fitzgerald. ‘You shouldn’t let that child have Heroin Scott. I’ve thought it over from every angle and it can’t be good for her.’ And Hemingway’s remarks on the process of typing provide a tangible sense of immediacy: ‘admirably conceived – beautifully executed (fuck this typewriter)’.
Volume Three ends in triumph. A Farewell to Arms was finished, Scribner serialised it for a vast sum, and Hemingway discovered Key West – the Florida island where he would spend the next portion of his life. There he could balance hard work with long days fishing in the Gulf, and nights drinking liquor by the sea. He had, by 1929, found something like home.