December 2013 - January 2014

Arts & Letters

‘The Letters of Ernest Hemingway, Vol. 2: 1923–1925’

By Kevin Rabalais

Hemingway’s passport, 1923. © John F Kennedy Library, Boston

A portrait of Papa as a young man

In 1924, the year before he wrote The Sun Also Rises and defined the sensibilities of a generation deemed lost, Ernest Hemingway was gored in a Pamplona bullring. Or at least that’s how it was reported. Hemingway never required assistance to self-mythologise. Long before he became a household brand of declarative prose, known even to non-readers as “Papa”, Hemingway understood that an enviable life can be as momentous as a work of art.

As a Red Cross ambulance driver during World War I, Hemingway had already received widespread publicity for becoming the first American injured on the Italian front. So what if he was distributing chocolate and cigarettes and not ensconced in the trench, rifle aimed, when those Austrian mortars fell? It would take more than all the enemies he never had the chance to kill in battle to prevent Hemingway from telling it otherwise.

Hemingway was a servant of literature rather than fact. His implicit mantra was in line with what the poet Emily Dickinson proposed: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” So neither his ego nor his “courage and grace under pressure” suffered from the Chicago Tribune’s front-page story on 28 July 1924, accompanied by the 25-year-old Hemingway’s photograph. The headline read ‘Bull Gores 2 Yanks Acting as Toreadores’. With his friend Donald Ogden Stewart in trouble, “Hemingway rushed to rescue his comrade and was also gored.” Two days later, the Toronto Star, a paper for which Hemingway worked from 1920 to 1924, ran a similarly false headline: ‘Bull Gores Toronto Writer in Annual Pamplona Fiesta’. The truth was that he had simply been in a bullring at the time. Decades later, Hemingway would again read of his death, this time from back-to-back plane crashes while on African safari.

Already becoming a major figure in his own work at the time of the Pamplona incident, Hemingway invented from experience and fashioned an epic. “And what became of him?” Hemingway’s friend Archibald MacLeish asked in his poem ‘Years of the Dog’, published in 1948. “Fame became of him / Veteran out of the wars before he was twenty: / Famous at twenty-five: thirty a master.”

The Letters of Ernest Hemingway, Vol. 2: 1923–1925, edited by Sandra Spanier, Albert J DeFazio III and Robert W Trogdon (Cambridge University Press, $69.95), exhibits many sides of the complex man who was on his way to becoming that master whom the Nobel Committee honoured in 1954. In more than 240 postcards, cables and fragments, as well as letters sent and unsent, the young Hemingway grants unflinching glimpses of the three-year period so integral to his growth as a man and writer.

Above all, this volume chronicles Hemingway’s artistic development as well as his ravenous appetite for gossip, literary or otherwise. With his persistent requests for “the dirt”, we discover a young writer of mischievous creation. He is nervous about money, hungry for publication and, in the beginning, still besotted with his first wife, Hadley Richardson, and their son, John, nicknamed “Bumby”, born in October 1923. We find him jocular and often silly. In a letter to the poet and critic Ezra Pound, he describes “Winter coming like a James Joyce heroine.”

This selection of correspondence reveals a man who salivated over his goals and was unafraid to slash and burn to achieve them. These are the miraculous years, the era when Hemingway shed his role as apprentice and, as MacLeish’s poem continues, “whittled a style for his time”. These days of hunger in Paris didn’t preclude binges on champagne and oysters, as readers of the posthumously published memoir A Moveable Feast – or, for that matter, those who encounter his fictional incarnation in Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris (2011) – already know. Among the young writer’s famous friends were Pound, Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Beach and F Scott Fitzgerald, whose The Great Gatsby – “an absolutely first rate book”, as Hemingway judged it – had just been published when the writers met in 1925.

Gertrude Stein with John ‘Bumby’ Hemingway, Paris, 1924. © John F Kennedy Library, Boston

This volume commences in January 1923. A month earlier, a suitcase of Hemingway’s manuscripts was stolen from Hadley in Paris’ Gare de Lyon, while she was on her way to meet him in Lausanne, Switzerland. Hadley thought she would please her husband by packing all of his work. The carbons and copies she hoped would surprise him – work Hemingway later termed “juvenilia” – were never recovered. Of the theft, he writes to Pound, a major recipient here and a writer whose fascist leanings cause Hemingway to often address him as “Duce”: “You, naturally, would say, ‘Good’ etc. But don’t say it to me. I aint yet reached that mood. I worked 3 years on the damn stuff.”

Still Stein’s apprentice in 1923, Hemingway toiled that year on the vignettes that would become in our time (1924), a condensed, Paris-published version of the bulkier volume released the following year in the United States with a capitalised title. By the time this volume of letters closes, Hemingway has emerged from his tutelage as a writer with fewer friends (having alienated, among others, Stein and Pound) but whose confidence and authority will lead to his most productive years. Already aware of his achievement, he leaps to inform his one-time mentors that the roles have shifted: the apprentice is now the master, and legions of readers (namely, those who aren’t “mad”) will venerate his “stuff”. Here, he writes to his first American publisher, Horace Liveright: “My book [In Our Time] will be praised by highbrows and can be read by lowbrows.” Hemingway delivers one of his best and most valuable directives on writing while shoving aside any reverence for Fitzgerald, his highly successful friend: “I think you should learn about writing from everybody who has ever written that has anything to teach you … Like if I were now, suddenly, to discover the law of gravitation.”

The writers from whom Hemingway believed he could learn were long dead, but that didn’t stop him from placing himself in the canon. In April 1925, the keys of his typewriter locked, he is at once brash and self-deprecating about his growing fame. “IN GERMANY AM KNOWN AS JUNGE AMERIKANISCHE HEINE. IN RUSSIAN AS THE AMERIKANSVNA PUSHKIN. THIS IS A SECRET. SO NOT MENTION IT TO ANYONE. LEAST OF ALL THE GERMANS AND THE RUSSIANS.” Later that year, he offers this assessment: “War and Peace is the best book I know but imagine what a book it would have been if Turganieff [Turgenev] had written it. Tolstoi was a prophet. Maupassant was a professional writer, Balzac was a professional writer, Turganieff was an artist.”

An early letter to Edward J O’Brien, editor of the annual Best Short Stories series, shows a rare, vulnerable Hemingway. Telling O’Brien about a story rejected because the editors claimed it “lacked heart interest”, Hemingway writes:

It is ridiculous, of course, but it frightens me so when storys come back when there are letters like that. Throws me all off and makes it almost impossible to write. Seems to destroy any reason for publishing … And yet I want, like hell, to get published. What do you advise? If anything.

Nearly a year later, he complains to O’Brien, “It might give me a helpful kick if I did get some money.” Worry about income riddles this volume. Hemingway sends letters of distress to his first major American publisher, asking for the $US200 advance (less than $US3000 today) he was owed for In Our Time. And yet even in his irritation, Hemingway remains playful. In January 1925, he expresses frustrations to his lifelong confidant William B Smith Jr: “Down wit all the great writers that cant write. Down wit all the painters that are trying to be Great Painters instead of trying to paint swell pictures one at a time.”

As this volume concludes, Hemingway is polishing The Sun Also Rises. The flavour of real fame already on his tongue, he is falling deeper in love with Pauline Pfeiffer, who in 1927 became the second of his four wives. “To really love two women at the same time, truly love them, is the most destructive and terrible thing that can happen to a man,” he writes in A Moveable Feast. Ahead lies the publication of titles including Men Without Women, A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls. But that period came too quickly. It was gone too fast. Then there was the reign of uncertainty, the critics’ damnation. The writer with seemingly inexhaustible potential had chosen self-imitation, and in his longing to write a great book “Papa” grew ever more frustrated. In 1961, aged 61, he killed himself with his shotgun. Writing to MacLeish in the 1920s, it was as though he already understood the dangers of what his cravings unfurled: “It’s too much to hope for so much so early.”

Kevin Rabalais

Kevin Rabalais is the author of The Landscape of Desire.

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