Who Was Ernest Hemingway?

Ernest Hemingway wrote the first letter in this collection when he was twenty-three, the last when he was twenty-six. In these three years, living mostly in Paris, he fathered his first child, grew disenchanted with his first wife and took up with his second, quit his first job as a reporter, published his first three collections of stories and poems, wrote his first two novels, saw his first bullfight, and began transforming himself from a writer who conveyed inward experience in all its anxious detachment “so that…you actually experience the thing” into an aficionado who praised strength and bravery in “people that by their actual physical conduct gave you a real feeling of admiration.” He also began inviting that kind of admiration for himself. By the end of the book, the avant-garde disciple of Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound, collecting rejection slips from little magazines, was already remaking himself as Papa Hemingway, celebrated everywhere for plain-style toughness.
This volume, the second of a planned seventeen in The Cambridge Edition of the Letters of Ernest Hemingway, includes almost 250 letters, three times the number from the same period printed in Hemingway’s Selected Letters 1917–1961, edited by Carlos Baker (1981). The newly published letters are bracingly energetic and readable, and they add depth and detail to the already vast biographical record of Hemingway’s early years. The editors’ extensive annotations explain historical and personal allusions, record the minutiae of Hemingway’s finances, and tell more than anyone needs to know about the many boxers and bullfighters he admired.
What makes the book revelatory is not its biographical detail but the spacious view it gives of Hemingway’s mind at work in his long, eager, and unguarded letters to boyhood friends. For the past fifty years, ever since his embittered older sister Marcelline reported that their mother had dressed the young Hemingway as a girl and had tried to raise the two of them as twins, and ever since his posthumous novel The Garden of Eden (1986) revealed his androgynous fantasies, the conventional reading of Hemingway explained him away as the product of sexual confusion and category-crossing. This turns out to be as simplifying and crude as the he-man image it supplanted. These letters make clear that both the he-man and the androgynous fantasist were surface expressions of a deeper wish that shaped Hemingway’s life and work, a driving impulse that ultimately had nothing to do with sex.
Hemingway’s letters are copious with gossip and boasting that he often enlivens by invention. He assures a friend at one point, “Quite a lot of the above paragraph is true.” Except in a few authentic-sounding outbursts against his parents, almost everything he says about his emotional life seems false. His reports of perfect marital happiness with Hadley Richardson grow more insistent as he becomes increasingly disenchanted with her.
He constructs a different style for each of his correspondents. To publishers and editors he is formal and calculating. To Gertrude Stein he is flattering and deferential:
I made it all up [“Big Two-Hearted River”], so I see it all and part of it comes out the way it ought to, it is swell about the fish, but isn’t writing a hard job though? It used to be easy before I met you. I certainly was bad, Gosh, I’m awfully bad now but it’s a different kind of bad.
To Ezra Pound he is bigoted and obscene:
You heard of course of [Lincoln] Steffens marriage to a 19 year old Bloomsbury kike intellectual.
Low-ebb the exjewish magazine publisher [Harold Loeb, ex-editor of Broom] and I play tennis occasionally.
Uneasy shits the ass that wears the crown etc.
To his sanctimonious parents he alternates between dull formality and furious self-justification:
I have no time or inclination to defend my writing[;] all my thoughts and energies go to make it better and truer and a work of art that is really good never lacks for defenders, nor for people who hate it and want to destroy it. Well it doesn’t make any difference. They can’t destroy it and in the end it just frightens them and they back away from it.
None of the different styles deployed in the letters resemble the narrative voice of his fiction. At the same time that he was perfecting the tension and tautness of “Big Two-Hearted River” and The Sun Also Rises (1926), he was writing to boyhood friends and to colleagues from his wartime ambulance unit in a mixture of private slang (“yencing” is the sexual act) and polysyllabic buffoonery. Reporting someone’s mishap on the way to an outdoor privy at night, he adds:
Needless to say the enditer [i.e., Hemingway] never would peristalsis except in broad daylight wit the solar system doing its best to warm the function.
Three months after submitting to The Dial his story about an aging matador, “The Undefeated,” he reports: “The Dials had my long Stier Kampf story now for almost a trio of the monats so they may produce kickage in [i.e., payment] also.”
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