Intriguing glimpse of Hemingway’s formative years
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/11/2011 (4084 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
ON May 20, 1958, three years before he committed suicide, Ernest Hemingway wrote a note to his future executors: “It is my wish that none of the letters written by me in my lifetime shall be published. Accordingly, I hereby request and direct you not to publish, or consent to the publication by others, of any such letters.”
So much for the wishes of the best-known American writer of the 20th century. With the blessing of his heirs, a group of Hemingway scholars has made a commitment to publish all 6,000 existing letters in a projected 16 volumes.
The first item in Vol. 1 is a postcard written around his eighth birthday in July 1907; last of the 264 included here is a letter from Switzerland, where he was covering the 1922 Lausanne Peace Conference as a reporter.
Readers wanting something light should look elsewhere. This is a scholarly volume, with 84 pages of introduction and myriad footnotes that often exceed in length the letters to which they are appended.
What is most fascinating about this book is the evidence of how early in his life Hemingway recognized his ambition to be a novelist. Virtually everything he did after high school in Oak Park (a suburb of Chicago, also the birthplace of Carol Shields) became part of his self-styled apprenticeship. Though his upper-middle-class parents wanted him to go to university, he took a job with the Kansas City Star and was writing news stories at the age of 18.
His mother encouraged her six children to write letters and she liked to keep them; she even kept notes Ernest passed to schoolmates in class. About half the letters here are to his family, putting his parents at ease about his aspirations and later about his love life.
He developed his legendary wanderlust early. Turned down by the U.S. army because of bad eyesight, he joined the Red Cross in 1918 and was assigned to Italy, where he ran supplies to the front lines. He was hit by an Austrian mortar shell. His letters play down the danger but carry their own kind of suspense: facing death, convalescing, being cited for bravery, falling in love with an American nurse. These experiences became the stuff of his best fiction.
Many of his letters are riddled with typos and grammar mistakes. He apologizes, blaming a bad typewriter or his own haste. The editors have painstakingly preserved the errors, using footnotes to clarify where needed. Unfortunately, many of his letters to male friends are almost incomprehensible, couched as they are in their private slang. But Hemingway’s fine sense of humour shines through.
An amusing aspect of the letters: the many pre-1950 colloquialisms, such as “He’s a peach,” “I got all the dope,” “the dames,” “I’m getting a little pep back,” and “I’m making plenty of jack.”
Back in America, Hemingway met Hadley Richardson, married her, and yearned to return to Europe despite his love of fishing in Northern Michigan. He landed a dream job with the Toronto Star — foreign correspondent in Paris. In a later letter to a friend back home, he wrote, “What’s the use of trying to live in such a goddam place as America when there is Paris and Switzerland and Italy.”
There have been scores of books written about Hemingway, but Carlos Baker’s Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story (1969) is still the definitive biography. This first volume of letters gives an intriguing glimpse of the Nobel-Prize-winning writer’s formative years.
Dave Williamson is a Winnipeg novelist whose journalist daughter Linda was born on the day Hemingway died.
The Letters of Ernest Hemingway
Edited by Sandra Spanier and Robert W. Trogdon
Cambridge University Press, 515 pages, $41