We are all bitched from the start: A Review of the Hemingway Letters, Volume 5.

When one thinks of Ernest Hemingway, two images usually spring to mind. There is the familiar Ernest of the 1920s in Paris: youthful, energetic, courageous and fearless, with dimples in his cheeks; an image perpetuated by the author himself in his posthumous memoir A Moveable Feast. Then there is the seminal image of Papa Hemingway in his Christian Dior sweater as immortalised by celebrity portraitist Yousuf Karsh. Gazing purposefully far into the distance, freckled from the sun, sagacious and valiant, Hemingway appears as eternal as some of the works he produced. Papa Hemingway has become so iconic that look-alike contests take place at Key West yearly, with bearded old men flocking to pose for the oversized medal that reads ‘In Papa We Trust’. While such depictions are emblematic of the success and celebrity Hemingway enjoyed throughout his life and posthumously, the letters of 1932-1934 tell a different story.

The publications of the Death in the Afternoon (1932) and Winner Take Nothing (1933) were judged to be underwhelming after A Farewell to Arms (1929), which had solidified Hemingway’s place as one of the most important writers of his time. Death in the Afternoon sold poorly. Winner Take Nothing only received three reviews the week following publication and was advertised, the editors of the fifth volume of The Letters of Ernest Hemingway note, with less than one-tenth of the budget allocated for A Farewell to Arms. Reviewers of Winner Take Nothing evidently didn’t approve of the collection’s subject matter that included suicide, self-mutilation, prostitution, and homosexuality. Instead of falling into obscurity, however, Hemingway gains notoriety. These are the years that the author is heavily criticised for his virile masculinity: ‘It is of course commonplace that Hemingway lacks the serene confidence that he is a full-sized man,’ Max Eastman wrote in ‘Bull in the Afternoon’ for the New Republic, adding, ‘[b]ut some circumstance seems to have laid upon Hemingway a continual sense of the obligation to put forth evidences of red-blooded masculinity’. This exaggerated machismo is at the forefront of Hemingway’s publicity during 1932-1934. ‘The March 1934 issue of Vanity Fair,’ writes Sandra Spanier in the ‘General Editor’s Introduction’, ‘featured a full-page, full-color Ernest Hemingway paper doll, captioned “Ernest Hemingway, America’s own literary cave man; hard-drinking, hard-fighting, hard-loving – all for art’s sake”’. Symbolically, perhaps, at the centre of the page sits the paper doll of ‘Ernie, the Neanderthal Man’, an image that would be reproduced both visually and verbally throughout the 1930s. A month after the release of Vanity Fair’s paper doll, Wyndham Lewis published a scathing essay in Life and Letters titled ‘The Dumb Ox: A study of Ernest Hemingway’. Giving many of the characteristics that could also be found in the Neanderthal Man, Lewis calls the author ‘a dull-witted bovine, monosyllabic simpleton . . . [a] lethargic and stuttering dummy . . . a super-innocent queerly-sensitive, village-idiot of a few words and fewer ideas’.

The letters of 1932-1934 show some sides of the author that are less familiar and more flattering than Lewis’ simplifying characterisation: the son, the lover, the brother, the friend, the father, and the businessman navigating the price of his art. There are, of course, the same old, recognisable sides of Hemingway that remain a pleasure to read, such as the writer who feels wronged both by literary critics and old friends alike, ready to throw punches just to show that he definitely doesn’t have false chest hair. The letters give the reader the opportunity to get to know Hemingway as Ernie, Pappy, or (problematically) Hemingstein; even the man who affectionally sketches circles with a dot at each centre, signifying toosies (the Hemingway family term for kisses), a habit picked up from his childhood.

The Hemingway of the early 1930s may be lesser-known, but he is equally important in understanding both the man and the legend of Ernest Hemingway. This is the time when Hemingway actively produces a public image through the letters he writes for Esquire. In those letters, he is a fisherman, a hunter. He implicitly tells men how to be men, how to live the good life, or he at least gives them the opportunity to live vicariously through his exploits. According to John Raeburn in Fame Became of Him (1984), by 1936 Esquire ‘was selling some 550,000 copies a month, more than any other magazine of comparable cost. . . with a readership that may have reached one and a half to two million’. Pictures of Hemingway posing next to his animal trophies crowd the magazine: most notably a picture of the writer, standing next to a gigantic 468-pound marlin. In a personal letter from 1933, Hemingway may state that ‘I have tried, sincerely to avoid all personal publicity’, but his actions tell us otherwise. It is in the 1930s that Hemingway distinctively publishes most of his nonfiction and pushes forth his audacious, glamorous lifestyle. While his literary reception seems to be suffering, his celebrity status is steadily rising.

Privately, Hemingway is preoccupied with the advances of film, noting in a letter how he ‘[w]ould like to make a bull fight picture in Spain — and a fish picture — Could make two bloody fine ones — . . . The damned movies are dying from lack of action and movement’. He also expresses his desire to write ‘a very long [book] on the Gulf Stream and its migratory fish’. Though he never wrote that book, one can find traces of the ideas that would later shape up to be To Have and Have Not (1937) as well as The Old Man and the Sea (1952). He negotiates with his editor Maxwell Perkins about Death in the Afternoon, showing displeasure when Perkins suggests that they include 16 illustrations to make the edition cheaper. Hemingway replies: ‘Photography has been brought to the point where it can represent some things better than a man can write of them.’ They compromise by agreeing to 81 illustrations. He accepts advice from John Dos Passos to cut ‘unnecessary tripe’ in Death in the Afternoon, writing ‘[h]ave gone over book 7 times and cut out all you objected to — (Seemed like the best to me) God damn you it really was —.’ He writes a begrudging reply to one George Albee when asked to join the writers’ cooperative, declaratively stating: ‘I hate magazines . . . Have never written a line of a story as hack stuff nor changed a word to suit an editor. When I have to do that the 12 dependants and the rest can bloody well starve along with me.’ (Hemingway may well have been thinking of F. Scott Fitzgerald when writing this, given that the author of The Great Gatsby made a living out of selling popular stories to magazines.) In an instructive note, the editors have added the rejections that Hemingway suffered from 1922 to 1924: publications include Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Magazine, the Dial, and none other than Vanity Fair. The letters ooze with typical forcefulness and ‘gusto’, a word that Carlos Baker, one of Hemingway’s biographers, often used to describe him. He reads Zelda Fitzgerald’s novel, Save Me the Last Waltz, calling it ‘absolutely unreadable. I tried to read it but I never could’. Most poignant is the one solitary letter sent to F. Scott Fitzgerald on 28 May 1934 where he chastises Fitzgerald for ‘changing [Sara and Gerard Murphy in Tender is the Night] into other people and you can’t do that Scott’. It is in this letter that this famous quote comes from: ‘Forget your personal tragedy. We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to be hurt like hell before you can write seriously.’

Beyond literary and personal feuds, there is also the homely Hemingway who discusses his ‘wonderful water-work system’ and the trees that Pauline planted at Key West. He writes to his mother-in-law, Mary Pfeiffer, about how he ‘goes to church every Sunday and am a good father to my family or as good as I can be’. He remarks upon female anatomy a great deal; how a woman ‘can be utterly ruined by not being careful for eight weeks after a baby is born (until the placental site is healed)’. He blames Gertrude Stein’s menopause for ‘losing all taste’ both to Maxwell Perkins and Ezra Pound, evidently hurt by the last instalment of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, where Hemingway is called, among other things, physically fragile. He also discusses abortion with his sister Carol. Here, we find disappointingly that he is pro-life: ‘Abortion is murder,’ he writes. ‘It has just as happy an effect on you and on the people you do it to.’ At least the reader, if it is any consolation, finds that Hemingway himself wasn’t against birth control (despite his and his wife’s Catholic beliefs). ‘This is not a tract against birth control,’ he adds, ‘and if Gardner was a man rather than an unbalanced child there would be no need for you to think or to worry about abortions.’ It is moments like this that the editors’ insight is invaluable and necessary. Here, they include a fragment of Carol’s reply to Hemingway: ‘I just know if you can’t afford to have children, you can’t afford to have children. If you take any precautions at all, why not go to the whole hog of preventions. I don’t consider a broken condom an act of God.’

What makes this volume remarkable is how perfectly it captures a mood: the letters’ verve is accentuated by em dashes and a general lack of punctuation. In their ‘Note on the Text’, the editors make a point, rightly so, to highlight that ‘the text is transcribed exactly as it appears in Hemingway’s hand or typewriting, in order to preserve the flavor of the letter’. The flavour of the letters is preserved: Hemingway’s excited writing is adorned (as opposed to littered) with typos and inconsistencies; I would go as far as to say they are the heartbeat of the letters. There are reading lists (requests to Maxwell Perkins) that include Somerset Maugham, D.H. Lawrence, William Faulkner, even fishing books for those that are interested in what Hemingway was reading at the time. The books he read, the places he visited, the people he wrote to, the number of times his typewriter gave way mid-sentence, a newly found list of Hemingway’s eleven most beautiful words in English (‘morning’, ‘evening’, ‘night’ and ‘bed’, to name a few): they all tell a story. In the process of mythologising an author, elements of their persona get lost or they are altogether erased. Through the letters, some of this lost nuance is recovered and preserved for future readers to find and explore. The introduction to the volume, written by Miriam B. Mandel, ends aptly with a quote from Patrick Hemingway, one of Hemingway’s sons: ‘To know what Ernest Hemingway was really like, don’t read biographies of him. Read his letters.’

This review was originally published on Review31.

Published by Elena Zolotariov

Elena Zolotariov reads, writes, and researches literature. She is an English literature graduate of Aberystwyth University, where she completed her BA Hons in 2017, and the University of Kent’s Paris School of Arts and Culture, where she gained her MA (Dist.) in 2019. She will begin her PhD research later this year, focusing on the life and works of Ernest Hemingway. In the meantime, she will be blogging here about books, art, and contemporary culture.

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