Reading Hemingway's Personal Letters

Go back in time by stepping into the world of a revolutionary wordsmith

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There isn't much that hasn't been said about Ernest Miller Hemingway. He was, after all, a literary titan of the 20th century, winner of the 1954 Nobel Prize for Literature; a man who, through his short stories and novels, captured the imagination of the world by pinning his vulnerable, damaged characters in extraordinary situations and exotic locales. As The New York Times boasted in 1950, Hemingway was "the greatest writer since Shakespeare."

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With the recent publication of, The Letters of Ernest Hemingway, Volume 3: 1926–1929 (Cambridge University Press, $45), the question begs to be asked, what more does any reader need to know about the boy from Oak Park, Illinois? The answer, quite frankly, is a hell of a lot.  

The years of this volume, 1926 through 1929, should appeal to any aspiring writer or ardent reader. Indeed, the book of letters commences with Hemingway on the cusp of international stardom, as his first major novel, The Sun Also Rises (1926), is about to be released. Between those three tumultuous and prolific years, Hemingway's letters provide a startlingly candid voice on the divorce from his first wife, Hadley; his remarriage to Vogue writer, Pauline Pfeiffer; the birth of his second son; the writer's relocation to Key West and newfound fondness for big game fishing; completing his second book, Men Without Women (1927), and third novel, the now-iconic, A Farewell to Arms (1929). There's also the suicide of Hemingway's father, a tragic event the writer kept close to heart as expressed in a letter to his then-mother in law: "I was awfully fond of my father – and still feel very badly about it all and not able to get it out of my mind and my book into my mind."

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At its core, the volume of 345 selected letters – 70 percent of them previously unpublished – reveal a writer at times envious of others, unsure of his place in the world, fearful of the future, nostalgic of the past, eager for gossip, hungry for attention, but always earnest in his drive to be the best writer there ever was.

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Hemingway's novels have come to be understood as the apogee in economical prose, works meant to be adored by high-minded reviewers as well as high school novices. In stark contrast to his tight, highly edited, carefully crafted published works, Hemingway's personal letters display little of his rigorous rewriting approach, reading more in the style of contemporary, and fellow literary juggernaut, William Faulkner, in a stream-of-thought technique the southerner made famous.

We see a man who would seemingly grab at anything (receipts, hotel stationary, or even the back of a discarded draft page from an original version of A Farewell to Arms, as he did in a 1929 letter to artist Henry Strater) to write any one of these now-famous recipients: Ezra Pound, Maxwell Perkins, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, Sherwood Anderson, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, among others.

Smaller tidbits of interest for the loyal Hemingway enthusiasts are sprinkled throughout the volume. "Write me all the dirt," Hemingway prodded F. Scott Fitzgerald in a 1927 letter, yearning for gossip. In a 1928 letter to his father containing an apology for his long silence from writing the family: "I am sorry not to have written more and oftener [sic], but it is almost impossible to write a letter when you are writing as hard as I am on this book."

In another letter that year to longtime friend Waldo Peirce: "My god it is hard for anybody to write. I never start a damn thing without knowing 200 times I can't write – never will be able to write a line – can't go on – can't get started – stuff is rotten – can't say what I mean – know there is a whole fine complete thing and all I get of it is the bacon rinds." 

As fascinating as it is to read Hemingway's letters and see the pains he took in publishing such drum-tight prose, it's the fodder the writer extracted from his letters and used in his later fiction that makes The Letters so crucial for aspiring writers. While writing the first draft of A Farewell to Arms, his second wife, Pauline gave birth by Caesarean section to son Patrick. The surgery and subsequent birth of the boy nearly took Pauline's life.

In a July 1928 letter to his parents, Hemingway wrote of the episode, "He is very big strong and healthy. He is too big, in fact, as he nearly killed his mother." In the final pages of A Farewell to Arms, shortly after Catherine Barkley gives birth by way of Caesarean, and soon before her death, a nurse asks Frederic Henry (who nearly all but in name was a spinning image of Hemingway during World War I) if he is proud of his newborn son. Frederic's response comes straight from the letters: "'No,' I said. 'He nearly killed his mother.'"  

Though Hemingway never wanted his letters to be published, he knew the inevitable would happen. Hemingway once told his son, Patrick, "It doesn't really matter what you write to me, but it's very important what I write to you."

The fact remains that Hemingway was among, if not the most influential writer of the 20th century. As a result, readers are rightfully curious as to where and to what end his inspirations were drawn from. As his son, Patrick, commented on the role of his father's collected letters being published, "When we read a really fine work of fiction, I think we're always interested in the author. We think, how did this man gain the insights and the knowledge to write so well?"

Reading Hemingway's letters is to go back in time by stepping into the fascinating world of a revolutionary wordsmith; a voyage through decades to the very moments when literature was taking a sudden bend in the road; a shift that was being steered by the father of modern literature. Indeed, the value of these letters cannot be overstated.

This article was originally published on Esquire.com

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