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The First Fine Careless Rapture

The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Volume I, 1907-1922
Edited by Sandra Spanier and Robert W. Trogdon
(Cambridge University Press, 431 pp., $40)

Hemingway: A Life in Pictures
By Boris Vejdovsky with Mariel Hemingway
(Firefly Books, 207 pp., $29.95)

With a flourish of publicity and as much shameless hype as one of the oldest and most prestigious academic publishers in the world can get away with, the first of an estimated sixteen volumes of Ernest Hemingway’s correspondence has been released. It covers his life from the painstaking duty scribbles of an eight-year-old to his marriage in 1921 to Hadley Richardson (a union dented, early, by her loss of almost all her husband’s manuscripts to a thief) and that first crucial year in Paris, when the unlicked Midwesterner was getting a quick, and badly needed, literary education from the likes of Sylvia Beach, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein. In between, of course, there came his early training as a newsroom journalist and the brief month or so he spent in wartime Italy as a Red Cross volunteer ambulance driver, before being knocked out by an Austrian trench mortar shell at Fossalta di Piave and falling in love with his American nurse, Agnes von Kurowsky, while hospitalized in Milan. We have here, in fact, most of the early public events that combined to create the Hemingway fiction and the Hemingway myth.

The professorial editors have gone to great pains to establish the academic credentials of this project (“Our aim is to produce an edition that is at once satisfying to the scholar and inviting to the general reader”). The design of this solid volume is discreetly elegant, and includes maps of Michigan, Paris, and Switzerland, as well as a plan of Oak Park. We are provided with a roster of correspondents, plus a short biographical note for each individual, as well as a calendar of letters, giving not only the date and the recipient of each item, but also its form (autograph, typewritten, postcard, cable, and so on), location, and prior publication (if any). There are painstaking notes to each letter. The editors, for whose imagined readers America is clearly the monoglot society targeted by European jokes, scrupulously inform us that rien means “nothing” and merci mademoiselle means “thank you miss”—even that monsieur is the equivalent of “mister.”

Above all, they stress that, in accordance with the wishes of Hemingway’s son Patrick, they have aimed to achieve, as nearly as possible, a complete collection—rather than a merely selective edition, or a fuller version of the Selected Letters 1917-1961 brought out in 1981 by Hemingway’s first biographer, the late Carlos Baker. To this end, they have tapped “nearly 250 sources in the United States and abroad, including more than 65 libraries and institutional repositories, and more than 175 dealers, private collectors, and Hemingway correspondents.” The final volume will contain any additional letters that turn up too late for inclusion at the correct chronological point. Patrick Hemingway’s view is clear: “I think the real interest from writers’ letters is all of them. Let the cards fall where they may. People can make up their own minds.” To this end our zealous editors have included “postcards, cables, identifiable drafts and fragments, in-house missives, and letters [Hemingway] completed but put away unsent.” (That last category is of some interest, since it mostly consists of bloody-minded vituperations about which the writer subsequently had second thoughts.) Since, as collectors have always known, Hemingway tended “to save nearly every scrap of paper he handled, including bills and grocery lists,” these sixteen volumes will, if the first is anything to go by, contain a dauntingly high percentage of trivia.

The editorial team has to be well aware that the secret, if there is one, of Ernest Hemingway’s achievement as a writer must lie in his formative years, and that ongoing research, especially during the last two or three decades, together with items such as the revelatory memoir At the Hemingways by his sister Marcelline (which appeared in 1962 and in a revised version in 1999), has tended increasingly to confirm this. Their assumption seems to be that the more scraps of correspondence that can be unearthed, the closer we will come to the truth. But what has emerged, in fact, is further confirmation of Hemingway’s almost limitless and instinctual ability, from very early on, to re-invent himself at need. Thus a reader of these letters needs to be constantly on the alert for suppressions or misrepresentations: some of the latter enjoyed a remarkably long shelf life, and there is no guarantee that critical detective work has yet uncovered them all.

The blurb to this first volume describes Hemingway’s correspondence as “unguarded and never intended for publication.” The first claim is certainly untrue—never was there a more carefully guarded persona than this one—and the jury is still out on the second. As early as 1978 Anthony Burgess (it takes one to know one) observed that Hemingway “had to turn himself into a Homeric myth, which meant posing and lying, treating life as fiction,” and pointed out that we in fact “know Hemingway the man not from letters and diaries” (there were no diaries, since the first person he needed to convince of the truth of his myth was himself), but rather from the endless tall tales of his activities, “growing all the time less reliable as their subject recedes into history.”

One promising exception to this rule might have been his numerous letters to women he loved, but here fate kept intervening in a typically old-fashioned way. When Agnes von Kurowsky became engaged to the heir to an Italian dukedom, he insisted on her burning all of Hemingway’s many letters to her. (The family soon afterward nixed the idea of his marrying a mere American commoner, so the gesture was wasted anyway.) The vast majority of Ernest’s letters to Hadley she herself destroyed when their marriage broke up. When his second wife, Pauline, died in 1951, she too left instructions to her executor that her entire correspondence should be burned. Her son Patrick agreed, and burned it was.

To get the best out of these surviving letters, then, it is highly advisable to have mastered at least the basic facts of Hemingway’s early life first—and that not merely in order to note the interesting lacunae and reshaping of facts, but also to have a full narrative line and background in the context of which to view the epistolary sequence. For the correspondence here assembled, though offering one or two intriguing items hitherto unpublished, consists of little but more or less unconnected glimpses from a life: glimpses invariably given the particular slant that “the enditer of this screed” (as young Hemingway frequently referred to himself) wanted for one particular addressee (father, mother, siblings, friends at school or work, ex-buddies from the Italian front) at one particular time. Like Philip Larkin, another classic compartmentalizer when it came to human relationships, Ernest Hemingway always, right from the beginning, knew just how to adapt style to audience.

THE PERIOD OF Hemingway’s childhood and adolescence, in the straitlaced Chicago suburb of Oak Park, with summers out at the family cottage on Walloon Lake in northern Michigan, is of particular interest, since he never wrote Oak Park into his fiction, and firmly discouraged attempts by would-be biographers to investigate it. To Charles Fenton, proposing a chapter on Oak Park for a study of the author’s “apprenticeship,” he huffed, with nervous emphasis, “If I had written about Oak Park you would have a point in studying it. But I did not write about it.” Now we have most of young Hemingway’s surviving letters from those formative years, and when we ask ourselves how much they add to what has been discovered through external research, in particular by such skilled literary sleuths as Michael Reynolds and Kenneth S. Lynn, the answer, not surprisingly, is very little.

What does get confirmed as a genuine passion, lending extra color to some of the Nick Adams stories such as “Big Two-Hearted River,” is the obvious delight with which, as an apprentice woodsman under his father’s expert instruction, Hemingway the boy took to the open-air life, above all to the difficult art of fishing, mostly in the Michigan rivers, but on occasion off-shore. In September 1910, aged eleven, on holiday in Nantucket, he writes: “Dear Dad, I went fishing by my self yesterday morning off the jettie. I caught 13 sea Trout. They are very gamy fish and fight like black bass.” Three years later, at Walloon Lake, he writes to his grandfather: “I have caught 147 trout day before yesterday I caught one 11 in long.”

He likes to present himself as the all-around country kid, a kind of latter-day Huck Finn. He boasts of having got in “about 8 tons of alfalfa and clover” at a family friend’s farm. He also would appear to have taken bean and potato harvesting in his stride. Self-promotion is there from the start. Apropos schoolwork, he notes of Cicero: “I could write better stuff than he could with both hands tied behind me.” As though in assertion of this, many of his letters are dotted with ungrammatical and syntactically illiterate Latin phrases. Foreign languages, though he took pride in his conversational fluency, were always a hit-and-miss (mostly miss) affair with Hemingway.

So far the general impression in these pages is of a large, cheerfully extroverted, and country-loving family. In addition to his fishing activities, Ernest reports on shooting a porcupine and tanning its skin. He writes to an uncle (though only after prodding by his mother) that “I am taking lessons on the cello, and will be able to play in the church orchestra by christmas [sic].” He apologizes to his father for bad behavior, and assures him that “I feel a lot better when all my work is done and my concience [sic] is clear.” As a rapidly growing fifteen-year-old he sends an emergency appeal to Mama, then vacationing in Nantucket, for some long pants: “Every other boy in our class has them,” and adds, “R.S.V.P. P.D.Q.” (acronyms which our ever-vigilant editors duly explain). He is dieting to keep his weight down. He passes notes (again carefully preserved) with friends in class. He reads and recommends Kipling’s Stalky & Co. and The Second Jungle Book: it may well be that Kipling also furnishedhim with the passion for claiming special areas of expertise.

Hemingway was over seventeen—late for normal adolescent tantrums—before these letters give us any real hint of trouble. That he was trying to break loose from the constricting world of Oak Park seems clear. That he had trouble creating a persona to sustain his new self-image is equally obvious. He began taking hiking, hunting, and fishing trips in the summer with school chums, during which he covertly started his lifelong love affair with alcohol, rapidly graduating from hard cider to wine (the exotic cocktails came later). He joined a boxing club (“K’O’s of Me 1; K’O’s by Me 4”) and got into at least one public brawl. His parents were not amused. College was discussed, but the young would-be writer greeted this prospect with rather less than full enthusiasm. He wanted to be in the thick of things.

This hope was answered in October 1917, when some discreet string-pulling by an uncle got Hemingway taken on as a cub reporter by The Kansas City Star and put on the beat that covered City Hall, the courts, hospitals, and the police blotter. Unlike the genteel suburb of Oak Park, Kansas City was still a rough town. The new boy became a familiar figure at emergency rooms, police stations, and morgues; he studied the professionals and copied their cynicism. He met, in the course of duty, VIPs such as the visiting Lord Northcliffe and Major General Leonard Wood, the founding commander of Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. He learned to write with accuracy and brevity, stressing the facts, eschewing opinions—training that proved invaluable later when he began hammering out his fictional style.

We also find him thanking his mother for food parcels, but reacting to her complaint that he no longer attends church Sundays with the irritated explanation that he works until the small hours every Saturday night putting the Sunday edition to bed. He is also acquiring a new, and pretentiously polysyllabic, slang. To a fellow-reporter he writes: “Ha Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Tis none other than the greatest of the Hemingsteins that indicts this epistle”; and to chosen recipients he is still in this vein as late as 1922: “I have been a sick male the last brace of diurnals”—that is, for two days. Fantasy, as always, had its place among the facts. He writes with lyrical enthusiasm to his sister Marcelline of an incendiary love affair, complete with letters and photos, and hopefully heading for marriage, with the silent movie star Mae Marsh, on which the editorial note comments drily: “When asked years later if she ever met Hemingway, she replied, ‘No, but I would have liked to.’”

All this experience was nevertheless subordinate to a quite different private determination. In April 1917, the United States finally entered the war against Germany and its allies. Oak Park society, still locked in a near-Victorian world-view, approached the conflict with ideals virtually indistinguishable from those of Rupert Brooke or Julian Grenfell. When Ernest wrote to Marcelline in November-at which point he had already joined the Missouri Home Guard—that “believe me I will go not because of any love of gold braid glory etc. but because I couldn’t face any body after the war and not have been in it,” he was simply voicing an accepted social commonplace, and there is no reason to doubt that his claim was—for whatever reason—completely sincere. To begin with, he says, he dithered between the Marines, aviation, the Navy, the Army, or, finally and surprisingly, “the snappy O.D. [olive drab] and officers belt of an American ambulance man in the Italian service.” It was, of course, the last-named that won out: bad eyesight was afterward held responsible for the exclusion of the other, more romantic—but also more demanding—options.

IN MID APRIL 1918, Hemingway was writing to his father about the toughness of a newsman’s responsibilities: “absolute truth and accuracy. A middle initial wrong may mean a libel suit.” A month later he was in New York being kitted out with an officer’s uniform and equipment prior to being posted to Italy as a Red Cross ambulance driver with the honorary rank of lieutenant. Still fantasizing about Mae Marsh, he cheerfully wrote his family that he was engaged and thinking of getting married now that he was an officer. The news, according to his father, left his mother “broken-hearted” (though she had taken in her stride the possibility that her heroic laddie might be killed at the front), and he was obliged to send an emergency telegram explaining that he had been “just joking.” But to a fellow reporter he remained ebullient, saying, “Miss Marsh no kidding says she loves me,” and that he had spent $150 on an engagement ring. He also “stalked down Broadway and returned 367 salutes night before last,” and marched in a Red Cross parade reviewed by President Wilson. Letters home during the sea-crossing, and from Bordeaux and Paris (“I have picked up a lot of French and can sling it pretty fast”), are cheerful and confident.

Hemingway reached the Italian front on the Piave about mid-June. There is only one surviving letter from this period, to a school friend named Ruth. He describes the noise of the guns and the mortars. He explains, correctly, that he is there “to dispense chocolate and cigarettes to the wounded and the soldiers in the front line.” The editors’ note on this runs, in full: “With little fighting in the mountains, EH and other ambulance drivers stationed in Schio volunteered to operate canteens near the line of the Piave.” But to Ruth he also writes that “I’m ranked a soto Tenente or Second Lieut. in the Italian Army and I left the Croce Rosa Americana Ambulance service a while back, temporarily, to get a little action down here.” On this interesting statement the editors remain silent.

With dramatic suddenness, the next item is a letter dated July 14 to Hemingway’s parents by his old friend and fellow ambulance driver Ted Brumback, giving news of their son’s wounding and hospitalization, and the award to him of the Italian Silver Medal of Military Valor. Ernest himself writes from Milan that “this is a peach of a hospital and there are about 18 American nurses to take care of 4 patients.” With a newsman’s passion for specificity, he announces that there are 227 wounds in his legs, and reports on the medical prospects regarding the removal of “bullets and pieces of shell.”

Miraculously, no bones were shattered. We also hear of battlefield souvenirs (“I was all through the big battle”) including medals, pistols, and “Boche helmets.” To his mother he adds that he “managed to strike several slight blows towards discouraging the Austrians,” and that Milan is “about the most modern and lively city in Europe,” and that he is now fluent enough in Italian to act as an interpreter, though the samples he gives are, as usual, syntactically and grammatically excruciating. He is cheered by a crowd in the piazza, when he appears on the saluting dais, as “the American hero of the Piave.” To Marcelline he writes of “the many Austrians that have fallen at my hammy feet.”

By the end of 1918, Hemingway might well have said (as he did, years later, after surviving a horrific plane crash), that “my luck she is running very good.” In a few short months, with virtually no training, he had acquired a commission (honorary, but the photos looked just as good), gone to the front, suffered a serious but not incapacitating wound (again, crutches photographed well), and received two Italian medals: all this without serving as a combatant in any army. (To his father he claims that the Italians commissioned him as a first lieutenant in September, after the event, while he was still in hospital, and at least one photo shows the two gold stripes.) To round off this picture he could report a romantic, but ultimately frustrated, grande passion for his hospital nurse. Hemingway: A Life in Pictures documents this period better than I have ever seen it done: rare photos from the Piave front and from Ernest’s convalescence, a reproduction of the Oakparker’s report on his welcome home, even a holograph letter from Agnes—but not, alas, the original of the March 17, 1919, letter breaking off their relationship (“I am still very fond of you but it is more as a mother than as a sweetheart”).

Even better, the November armistice meant that, rather than serving on indefinitely, he could go straight back to the States, a dashing figure in his black silk Italian officer’s cape, and at last impress the Oak Park moralists as he had always dreamed of doing. (Very soon, in invited lectures, he was boasting of having led Arditi, Italian crack mountain troops, in battle.) He had got himself an instantaneous past, and the jubilant crowing tone of his letters home at this point shows just how much it meant to him. And in a letter of August 7--to his parents, yet—he refers to himself, for the first known time, as “Papa.”

After a round of Italian visits, final surgery, and happy references to Agnes as “my girl,” even as “the wife” or “the missus,” and talk of their knocking back drink for drink (“Ag says we can have a wonderful time being poor together”), he manages to book passage home on January 4, 1919. By February he is already writing a Red Cross buddy, Bill Horne, “God but I’m sick of this country,” and “All Chicago femmes look like a shot of Karo Corn Syrup,” and “Father has lost his fighting face. What hath Mars wrought?” To his former captain Jim Gamble, the message is the same: “I’m patriotic and willing to die for this great and glorious nation. But I hate like the deuce to live in it.... I’m so homesick for Italy that when I write about it, it has that something that you only get in a love letter.”

THE SCENE WAS now set—all too predictably, in hindsight—for the events (up to the end of 1922) covered in this first volume of correspondence: increasing tension between Ernest and his parents, including an open, and serious, temporary break-off of relations with his mother, Grace (July 1920); an early marriage, in September 1921, almost certainly on the rebound from rejection by Agnes, to Hadley Richardson (whom, ironically, Ernest might never have met had he not been in digs in Chicago after eviction from the family’s summer cottage by Grace); and a growing determination, eventually made possible by Hadley’s trust fund, to leave America and embrace the expatriate writer’s life abroad. The newly married couple sailed for Europe in December 1921.

Once again, Hemingway’s luck was running very good. He was the Toronto Star’s roving European correspondent. Better still, Sherwood Anderson had taken the young journalist under his wing. He not only persuaded Hemingway that Paris, not Italy, was where a wannabe writer should settle, but provided him with letters of introduction to all the key anglophone figures—Pound, Beach, Stein, Lewis Galantière, and others—of the postwar Parisian literary world. Trogdon claims that “the letters in this volume add new details to [Hemingway’s] earliest encounter with the city,” though Carlos Baker’s selection, it turns out, has already published almost all the best ones. Paris (as Trogdon reminds us) certainly offered a welcome change from Oak Park. Liquor was cheap, and Prohibition unheard of. Sexual experimentation among expatriates had become fashionable. Ezra Pound had his mistresses. Sylvia Beach, Gertrude Stein, and Robert McAlmon were homosexual. Stein comes to dinner and stays till midnight. (“She is about 55 I guess and very large and nice.”)

Interestingly, the pick of the new letters deal not with Paris, but with skiing and lugeing at Chamby-sur-Montreux in Switzerland, and give off that whiff of pure joy in physical action that marks Hemingway at his best: “The bob [sled] gets a speed of sixty miles an hour on some of the streches [sic].... You ought to see us come down with Hash [Hadley] steering. She thinks it is a sign of cowardice to ever put on the brake! I use it every once in a while on account of the fine way it makes the slivers of ice fly up.” They “have enormous meals twice a day” and are both “getting into splendid shape.” This unself-conscious youthful ebullience, this revelling in food, exercise, and landscape comes across as young Hemingway’s most genuinely, and spontaneously, likable trait in the entire collection.

Some of the enthusiasm spills over into descriptions of the Paris apartment, comfortable, cheap, “the jolliest place you ever saw,” “and Bones [Hadley] has a piano and we have all our pictures up on the walls and an open fire place and a peach of a kitchen.” It is hard not to think forward, through all those marriages and accidents, to the sad nostalgia of A Moveable Feast, that “this is how Paris and other places were in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.” Almost the last event in 1922 covered by this volume—yet, significantly, referred to only by the editors, since Hemingway first mentions it in a letter to Pound in 1923--is the theft in the Gare de Lyon of the suitcase containing the bulk of his manuscripts, which Hadley was bringing to her husband in Lausanne. Almost the first noteworthy event of 1923 is Hadley’s pregnancy. Ernest duly made a myth of the baby as Mr. Bumby, watched over by the family cat, but bitterly confessed to Gertrude Stein that “I, I am too young to be a father.” His moveable feast of expatriate Paris was not originally designed to include young families.

Thus the cut-off point of this initial volume was well-chosen. It marks the end of the first fine careless rapture (a cliché, but exactly right for the newlyweds’ essential honeymooning exploration of Paris and the Swiss Alps), and foreshadows the much resented, and long delayed, business of growing up. The miseries, eclipsing the splendors, of the literary life made for an increasing vulnerability to those siren temptations, promising true self-fulfilment, of the American group’s new code of sexual freedom. It was also true that, however hard he worked—and for much of the time it was very hard indeed-Hemingway still had to find his true voice as a writer. Until he made that life-changing trip to Pamplona in 1925, he was still a reporter most of whose efforts at fiction, despite the support of Pound and others, came back to him by return. It was The Sun Also Rises that marked his breakthrough, and at the end of 1922 that breakthrough lay four years ahead.

It is also true, and cannot be sufficiently stressed, that anyone first coming to this great writer’s life by way of his collected correspondence, and remembering how he famously defined courage as “grace under pressure,” can have no idea of just how formidable, in Hemingway’s case, that pressure was. It began, in a very literal way, in his genes. Dr. Clarence Hemingway suffered from chronic, possibly bipolar, depression, with what seems to have been occasional nervous breakdowns, and committed suicide: not only Hemingway himself, but two of his siblings were to follow their father’s example. Ernest’s dominant mother, Grace, treated him and his sister Marcelline as twins of the same sex, and continued to dress him in girl’s clothes beyond the normal accepted age: was it pure coincidence that his own youngest son, Gregory, known as Gigi, was a compulsive, and guilt-racked, cross-dresser and eventual transsexual? We hardly need any psychosexual babble to see the kind of adult emotional legacy, the fraught relationships with both father and mother, the driving urge to prove his masculinity—and the obsessional need for secrecy about his early years—that bedeviled Hemingway for most of his life. That against such odds he succeeded as well as he did was surely his greatest, most extraordinary, achievement: he deserves our heartfelt compassion at least as much as our praise.

Peter Green is the former fiction critic of the London Daily Telegraph, a professional historian and translator, and currently a faculty member of the Department of Classics at the University of Iowa. This article appeared in the February 16, 2012 issue of the magazine.