Remembered Ernestly

Book review of The Letters of Ernest Hemingway Volume 1, 1907-1922, edited by Sandra Spanier and Robert W. Trogdon

Books Literature
Despite his wartime injuries, the 18-year-old Hemingway had a lust for life

Ernest Hemingway the myth long ago replaced Ernest Hemingway the man in the public imagination. The iconic image remains the famous Karsh of Ottawa portrait, taken in 1957. He stares warily out of the photograph, hairy, leathery, monumental. This volume of letters is the first in an ambitious series that will collate and annotate every scrap of his massive correspondence. The project is important, say the editors, because it will allow readers to “follow the thoughts, ideas and actions of one of the great literary figures of the 20th century in his own words”. Hemingway is still widely read today, but perhaps not much considered. Unlike his friend and rival Scott Fitzgerald, it is hard to imagine him having anything very relevant to say about modern times. He belongs to the first half of the 20th century and, had he not blown his brains out when he did, would surely have found the Sixties hard going.

This does not diminish his importance. His books defined an age and the authenticity of his vision is confirmed by the breadth — geographical and ideological — of the contemporary acclaim they received. These letters deal with the period of his formation — before, as it were, Hemingway became Hemingway. They cover the the first 22 years in his life and his transformation from all-American boy to member of the rich crop of international literati who fetched up in Paris in the early 1920s.  

There are 275 letters here, most of them unpublished until now, a fraction of the 6,000 or so he churned out in his lifetime. Encouraged by his parents in childhood, Hemingway scribbled letters, notes and postcards compulsively all his life, sometimes writing a 3,000-word screed in the evening when his morning literary output amounted to a bare 500 words. As is to be expected, they are often ungrammatical, barely punctuated and misspelled, but they vibrate with vigour and immediacy. His big personality is evident from the outset. Almost from the first time he puts pen to paper there are traces of his less attractive traits — boastfulness, machismo, competitiveness. But the overwhelming impression is of an engaging young man, bursting with joie de vivre. Young Ernie clearly loved his family and friends and his enthusiasm for nature is unfaked.

Many of the defining events of his life occurred in the years covered by the volume. In 1918 he went to war in Italy, was wounded and fell in love — unrequitedly — for the first time. In 1921, back in America he met and married his first wife Hadley Richards and at the end of that year moved with her to Paris. Thus began an intense dual relationship between the old Europe of bullfights and mountain trout streams and the avant-garde brasseries, bars and salons of the fifth and sixth arrondissements.

The letters are a reminder of why, at some point in their lives, so many men who grew up in the second half of the last century, went through a Hemingway phase. His sense of adventure is intoxicating. He went to war gaily. “Oh boy!!! I’m glad I’m in it,” he wrote to friends back home on first arriving on the Piave front. He describes modern warfare accurately enough, in his already distinct style: “When a shell makes a direct hit in a group where you’re standing…your pals get spattered all over you. Spattered is literal,” he wrote to his “Dear Folks” on August 18 shortly after he was mortared, and wounded in the legs. Yet, he clearly would not have missed it for the world.

Hemingway the fighter is a pose. It’s writing that consumes him and for all the fun, the life he and Hadley lead in their appartment in the Rue du Cardinal Lemoine is frugal and disciplined. For such a bluff fellow, he fits easily into bohemian Paris, chumming up with Ezra Pound (“a really good guy”) and Gertrude Stein (“very large and nice”), who will help him on his path to greatness. 

The most unexpected element in the correspondence is the extent of Hemingway’s niceness. There is a wonderfully touching letter to Bill Horne after the break-up of his friend’s relationship, offering him an escape from his misery. “Bill, if you want to keep the old ideals straight and cut loose from the damned dirty money grubbing for a year I’m your man…we are Simpatico Bill and we could go anywhere and have a good time…And we’ll discover every place we go. And we’ll have thousands of adventures. And we’ll work when we have to and we’ll loaf. And we’ll live Bill! We’ll live!” This is the voice of the young, exuberant and still innocent Hemingway — the one we wanted to be — before the light went out from his eyes.

The book combines the most serious scholarship with great readability — the perfect Christmas gift for anyone who has sat in the Closerie des Lilas with a glass of wine, a copy of A Moveable Feast and a Moleskine notebook.