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Having a Wonderful Time

David McKechnie

The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Volume 1, 1907-1922, by Ernest Hemingway, Sandra Spanier and Robert W Trogdon, Cambridge University Press, 516 pp, £30/$40, ISBN: 978-0521897334

Will the real Ernest Hemingway please stand up? The real Ernest Hemingway did stand up, at least during the incalculable hours when he wrote, as George Plimpton noted in a spicy Paris Review interview conducted in the writer’s home in Havana in 1958: “He stands in a pair of his oversized loafers on the worn skin of a lesser kudu ‑ the typewriter and the reading board chest-high opposite him.” The meeting took place in Hemingway’s bedroom, which was also his favoured writing space, and if its workspaces were crowded with papers, books and manuscripts, Hemingway’s replies were similarly cluttered with serious and abrasive observations.

INTERVIEWER: Do you find it easy to shift from one literary project to another or do you continue through to finish what you start?

HEMINGWAY: The fact that I am interrupting serious work to answer these questions proves that I am so stupid that I should be penalized severely. I will be. Don’t worry.

Plimpton’s interview offers a fascinating glimpse of the dedication and focus Hemingway brought to his craft, but for all the severity and sourness the writer displays in the conversation it reveals only one meagre facet of Hemingway the individual, at a certain time, in a certain place. We could call it Late Hemingway – and it was not the best version of the man. Three years after meeting Plimpton, Hemingway made a final escape from the physical and psychological ailments of his final years – among them poor eyesight, high blood pressure, diabetes, impotence, paranoia and depression – by getting a shotgun and taking his own life in his house in Ketchum, Idaho. He was nineteen days short of sixty-two years old.

Could a real Ernest Hemingway have ever stood up? The annual lookalike contest in Key West may indicate otherwise, but it would be a perverse oversimplification to suggest any single authentic version of the man existed. Yet it is also true that the sometimes ridiculous public persona of Hemingway’s middle and later years was a titillating veneer on some sort of authentic self. This first volume of all of Hemingway’s known letters, covering the first twenty-three years of his life, details not only what could loosely be called his formative years (Hemingway was so obsessed with amassing experiences that his entire life was peculiarly formative); it also allows us intriguing insight into the evolving personality before it entered the public arena and was consumed by all. In other words, these letters may bring us closer to the authentic heart of Hemingway – the source of the big-hearted river – than we will ever know.

Hemingway was a prolific letter-writer – in Selected Letters 1917-1961, published in 1981, Carlos Baker estimates he wrote six to seven thousand letters in the fifty years before his death. Only a fraction of Baker’s selection are chosen from the years up to 1923, which means eighty-five per cent of the material in this new, 274-letter volume is published for the first time. It covers experiences Hemingway drew upon for some of the best writing of his career, in particular his early short stories and the 1920s novels A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises. Between his upbringing in the conservative Chicago suburb of Oak Park, and the first year of his life in Paris in 1922, we are brought through three defining stages of the young man’s life: the weeks and months spent fishing and working the land in rural Michigan; his apprenticeship as a journalist and writer; and the injury he suffered with the American Red Cross ambulance service in Italy in the First World War, which leaves his badly hurt legs looking “a bit disgruntled” and his life changed forever.

What emerges is a curious, playful, driven youth; a respectful and dutiful son; a loving brother; a fanatic for the company of men and the wild outdoors; a lover of women and of being in love; a teller of exaggerated stories and tall tales; an often reluctant journalist; a deeply dedicated writer. Above all, we see the great speed of his development as a personality and thinker after his wartime injury, as he reaped benefits from the frontline of experience.

This is an elegant volume for the handsome and intense young soldier who stares out from its dust-cover. The introductions, detailed appendices and maps of the places that young Ernest called home carefully construct a life that reaches beyond the confines of the letters he wrote, and whet the appetite for forthcoming volumes, which are sure to contain material on Hemingway’s famous rivalries and fallings-out – material which will correspond with one of his favourite phrases, “the dirt”.

On the face of it, Hemingway did not write letters the way he wrote stories. The precise and spare style is rarely evident, although he did use it effectively in one frustrated cable to a news bureau manager in Paris: “SUGGEST YOU UPSTICK BOOKS ASSWARDS”. It is a rare and comic exception; the overwhelming majority of letters to family, friends, lovers and acquaintances are enthusiastic and open, their energy propelled by Hemingway’s penchant for slang (“Screed me and tell me all your troubles”), nicknames for both himself and others (he is, to use his aliases, “The Stein”, “Hemingstein”, “Old Brute”, “The Antique Brut”, “Butch”, “Massive Woodsman” and so on) and wordplay (“If a baby balls, does a base cry?”). He even draws sweetly innocent sketches of his war ribbons and distinctions in a letter sent home from a Milan hospital bed. There is a plain and energetic delight in the use of words and the possibility of inverting meaning and convention. When replying to an advertisement for an advertising writer in the Chicago Daily Tribune in November 1920, a year before moving to Paris, he begins his letter with a brash and amusing form of mock-deprecation:

No attempt will be made to write a trick letter in an effort to plunge you into such a paroxysm of laughter that you will weakly push over to me the position advertized in Sunday’s Tribune.

The great disparity in style between Hemingway’s fiction/reportage and his letter-writing shows not only that he regarded writing letters as a break from more serious work but also that he took his professional writing very seriously indeed. As one might expect, his letters are spontaneous and imperfect (although he did procrastinate over them); his “real” writing painstaking and crafted. On several occasions he apologises for the quality of his letters. “Couple of screeds of this character would topple a man into the casket,” he tells a friend, William B Smith Jr. His mother, Grace, receives a more elaborate and revealing apology at a time, in February 1922, when Ernest is living in Paris as European Correspondent for the Toronto Star: “I am very sorry to write such dull letters, but I get such full expression in my articles and the other work I am doing that I am quite pumped out and exhausted from a writing stand point and so my letters are very commonplace. If I wrote nothing but letters all of that would go into them. You know what Flaubert said, ‘The artist must live like a bourgeois and think like a demi-god.’”

So the letter-writing and professional writing appear to be distinct entities. The reality is more complicated, however. Hemingway biographer Jeffrey Meyers has outlined how Ernest told numerous tall stories as a boy, believing that lying was part of his training as a writer – in fact, throughout his life Hemingway seemed entirely comfortable with blurring the lines between truth and fiction, with omitting or altering facts if the result better communicated the authenticity of an experience. This applied to his journalism too, where he showed less interest in factual reporting than in capturing ranges of character. In A Moveable Feast, his entertaining collection of retrospective essays on life in Paris, he also proved himself a grand revisionist. As he wrote in its preface: “If the reader prefers, this book may be regarded as fiction. But there is always the chance that such a book of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact.”

In his real fiction, Hemingway chronicled experiences that had passed through the prism of his talent and come out as something quite different. Like the imagist friend he was only too happy to beat up while sparring in Paris, Ezra Pound, Hemingway was engaged in a constant process to “make it new”, using a subtle blend of reportage, experience and fiction to capture the essence, rather than the actuality, of truth. As the years passed and he became a giant figure in public life, he was also happy to make personal history new in deference to his reputation. Scott Donaldson has written of how, in 1949, Hemingway asked that one important change be made to Malcolm Cowley’s profile, “A Portrait for Mr. Papa”, for Life magazine. Cowley had described the schoolboy Hemingway as “a literary boy, not a sports boy”, which, although broadly accurate, suggested a sensitivity Hemingway was not entirely comfortable with. The change was duly made.

There are traces of such meddling in his early correspondence too. Few young men fail to exaggerate their prowess to family and friends, and so we must be careful with our judgments; nonetheless, reading these letters it is helpful to remember that, even in front of a selected, private audience, the great master of fiction was not necessarily a supreme teller of truths.

The environment in which Ernest Hemingway grew up was not one he was likely to return to after exposure to a more sophisticated world. Oak Park, Illinois was a genteel, Protestant suburb of Chicago and the six Hemingway children were born into a deeply religious home. At seven weeks old Ernest went on the first of twenty annual summer trips to Walloon Lake in northern Michigan, visits that helped initiate his lifelong love of the outdoors. A letter sent to sister Marcelline when he was nine reveals an early attraction to mischief, teasing and physicality:

Dear Marc.

Our room won in the field day against Miss Koontz room.

Al Bersham knocked two of Chandlers teeth out in a scrap and your dear gentle Miss hood had Mr. Smith hold him while she lickt him with a raw hide strap.

Lovingly, Ernest

More than half of the letters in this volume are written to Hemingway’s parents, Grace and Clarence, or to his siblings, with Marcelline a regular recipient of playful correspondence. Grace and Clarence had contrasting personalities that worked satisfactorily together, and that Ernest seemed to split down the middle: Grace was temperamental and artistic; Clarence manly, sporting, hard-working. Meyers’s claim that Hemingway’s childhood was nowhere near as unhappy as he later made it seem is borne out, or at least there is little sign of such unhappiness here. The boy’s letters to his parents are friendly, factual and restrained, their lack of emotional detail corresponding with the conservative nature of their audience. “Thank you very much for the handkerchief and good letter. Everything is going good up here but today and yest. it stormed bad probably equinoxials,” he writes from the family farm in Michigan.

Throughout his youth and into young adulthood, Ernest appears especially eager to impress his father, as many boys are, from comprehensive reports of catches on fishing trips and of working hard on the farm – “Pulling beans is some hard job but I can pull about twice as many as Wesley” – to the salary he makes as a cub reporter at the Kansas City Star. The tone of this macho correspondence was set comically early: as an eight-year-old child, Ernest boasts to his “papa” about killing a sleeping porcupine:

I went in and gave I[t] a wack with the axx.

Then I cave I[t] anthor and another.

Then I crald in the wood.

Wrane to Mr Clous and he got his gun and Shot It.

To be fair, when he’s not excitedly reporting achievements hunting or fishing, the young Ernest’s letters to his father are about more mundane matters such as his living conditions and his early career in journalism. But some of these are also telling. Clarence is sometimes given details about Ernest’s earnings that seem especially designed to impress, and they are jarring in how much they reveal. “I am now drawing $75 per month, the Star by a rule layed down by Col Nelson, only gives one raise a year. If I stayed intil mext April 1st I would get another raise of 15 or 20 beans. Making at the most $100 per month. Well I have an opportunity to go to Dallas at $30 a week, to Topeka at $30 a week and to St. Louis at $30 a week or to start as an out side man for the United Press at $25 a week. And every fellow on the staff tells me that I am a fool to stay here.” Perhaps this is natural in a boy starting out in the business at the Kansas City Star. Four years later, however, as a mature young reporter working in Europe, he is just as forthcoming to Clarence about his salary: “My credentials for Russia from the Star came today and also a good check, 465.00, expenses and three weeks salary at 75 dollars a week. It was quite welcome.” This is the pattern throughout this early stage of Hemingway’s life: keep the family well informed, but always impress the father.

There are few better ways to excite the folks back home than by becoming a war hero. Hemingway’s enthusiasm for joining the effort has a tinge of the idealism and naivety one might expect of someone his age. Nonetheless, it is a shock to find a friend at the Kansas City Star receiving an excitable letter from Italy about what was, in fact, a terrible scene of death and mutilation as Ernest prepares to go to the front:

Having a wonderful time!!! Had my baptism of fire my first day here, when an entire munition plant exploded. We carried them in like at the General Hospital, Kansas City. I go to the front tomorrow. Oh, Boy!!! I’m glad I’m in it. They love us down here in the mountains.

Thirty-five people were killed in this incident. What sort of report is this from a young man already schooled, through journalism, in the importance of accuracy? Or, to put it in terms more pertinent to Hemingway’s letters and writing as a whole: where does the art of exaggeration end and myth-making begin?

The date of the letter is June 9th, 1918. Within weeks, Ernest’s friend Ted Brumback has informed Grace and Clarence of their son’s condition and bravery after his legs are injured in a trench mortar attack at Fossalta di Piave. At the time, Hemingway was in the ostensibly unheroic business of handing out cigarettes and chocolate to soldiers and the wounded on the front, having requested to be closer to the action. The precise details of the event have been lost in the irreconcilable accounts here, elsewhere and in their fictionalised state in A Farewell to Arms. In the letter published in Hemingway’s home-town newspaper, Oak Leaves, and reprinted in the Kansas City Star, Brumback writes that “although some two hundred pieces of shell were lodged in him none of them are above the hip joint ... A third Italian was badly wounded and this one Earnest, after he had regained consciousness, picked up on his back and carried to the first aid dug-out”. Hemingway himself describes the events to his family several weeks later, although in retrospect he would admit not remembering what had happened: “The 227 wounds I got from the trench mortar didn’t hurt a bit at the time, only my feet felt like I had rubber boots full of water on ... I kind of collapsed at the dug out. The Italian I had with me had bled all over my coat and my pants looked like somebody had made current jelly in them and then punched holes to let the pulp out.”

Hemingway’s bravery in the circumstances is beyond dispute – which is more than can be said about the facts. Robert W Lewis has argued that Hemingway most likely did not carry a wounded man back to the trenches, and also that the two decorations he received – the Silver Medal and the Croce al Merito di Guerra (War Cross of Merit) – relate only to his participation in action and his wounding, rather than any additional act of heroism. It is impossible to be sure. In A Farewell to Arms, Frederic Henry is carried away to safety before he has an opportunity to help his comrades, but it is more tempting to read into Hemingway’s short story “Soldier’s Home”, which describes the underwhelming return from war to Oklahoma of a Corporal Krebs:

His town had heard too many atrocity stories to be thrilled by actualities. Krebs found that to be listened to at all he had to lie, and after he had done this twice, he, too, had a reaction against the war and against talking about it. A distaste for everything that had happened to him in the war set in because of the lies he told ... His lies were quite unimportant lies and consisted in attributing to himself things other men had seen, done, or heard of, and stating as facts certain apocryphal incidents familiar to all soldiers.

This is not to say that Hemingway’s description of his wartime experience is untrue. It is clear, however, that the maturing writer had gained an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the benefits of storytelling and myth-making, and believed that distinctions between truth and fiction were broadly irrelevant to his work. An apparent love affair with the actress Mae Marsh, for instance, described in impassioned letters to friends, turns out to have been a work of fantasy; Marsh insisted she had never met Hemingway. When a copy of Oak Leaves describing his wounding arrives in the post as he recuperates in a Milan hospital, he almost appears pleased to take a position outside the moment: “It’s the next best thing to getting killed and reading your own obituary.” Unsurprisingly, after returning home from war Hemingway was able to put his quickly developing imagination to good use – as Meyers points out, the hero took every opportunity to burnish his legend when invited to public speaking engagements in the local community.

Hemingway’s war experience certainly accelerated his development (“I’m about an 100 years older”, he tells the family), especially in the arena of love affairs – at least the ones that actually did happen. The contrasting way he writes to and about his Milan nurse, Agnes von Kurowsky (a version of whom is immortalised as Catherine Barkley in A Farewell to Arms), and his first wife, Hadley Richardson, marks an impressively swift journey from callowness to maturity. Hemingway sweetly claims to Agnes that “we can have a wonderful time being poor together”, but by the time he meets Hadley he has no interest in being poor, and in Paris they live well on Hadley’s $3,000 a year trust fund. The relationship may not have lasted, but in these letters it is easy to see Hadley’s attraction for Ernest. The many male friendships he made in combat and afterwards dominate the postwar correspondence – in Paris he admits “I am lonely for the men” – but Hadley is an active presence as well as a stabilising one: they hike and fish together, as though Hadley were one of the boys. “Jo Eezus, if it were not for the presence of Hash a man would tumble by the squard,” he writes.

The couple arrived in Paris on December 22nd, 1921, and two weeks later found a flat at 74 rue Cardinal Lemoine, near Place de la Contrescarpe in the fifth arrondissement, then a run-down corner of the city. The flat was cramped, noisy and grim, according to Meyers, and the Hemingways’ bathroom was a recessed closet with a slop jar.

It is the jolliest place you ever saw, [Ernest writes to the family]. It is the most comfortable and cheapest way to live 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 and a dining room and a big bed room and dressing room and plenty of space. It is on top of a high hill in the very oldest part of Paris. The nicest part of the Latin quarter.

Why make a house of the truth, when you can make a story a home?

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