In America’s national imagination and in the private thoughts of individual writers all over the world Ernest Hemingway looms large in one of two ways. First, there is the Papa Hemingway profile: older, grizzled, weather-worn, white-haired, and always bearded. That’s the Hemingway of the 1950s, in the afterglow of The Old Man and the Sea (which was his last book-publishing triumph while alive).
But then there is the Young Hemingway of Paris in the Twenties renown. The boundary-testing, barrier-breaking prose innovator, who with The Sun Also Rises, plus a legendary batch of early short stories (“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” “Big Two-Hearted River,” “In Another Country” and others), transformed American writing as he influenced world literature in the mid-to-late 1920s.
Even now, more than a half-century after his 1961 suicide and nearly one hundred years after his first books appeared in the 1920s, aspiring writers yearn to create books and affect culture with something resembling Hemingway’s power. Indeed, while Hemingway is the ultimate Dead White Male in the opinion of many, he remains a towering literary role model for others.
The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: 1932-1934 is Vol. 5 in the ambitious series of tomes that Cambridge University Press is issuing to chronicle every letter-writing year of Ernest Hemingway’s existence. This 600-plus page collection is devoted to a period of three years and that is a remarkable reminder of how prolific Hemingway was as a correspondent.
What’s most fascinating, though, about this guided tour through 1932, 1933, and 1934 in the life of Hemingway is that it captures one of his most important in-between periods.
After making his mark as a fiction writer of the first rank between 1925 and 1929, when A Farewell to Arms became a popular as well as critical favorite, the early 1930s were defined by Hemingway’s pivot toward nonfiction with an experimental work titled Death in the Afternoon. That book-length exegesis was a bold effort to convey not just the author’s varied ideas about the art of writing and the making of art in general, but most of all to examine and explain bullfighting to a readership that presumably knew little about the rituals and mysterious ethos of what Hemingway consider a secular form of worship.
In our time, nothing could be less appealing in many quarters than the mention of bullfighting. Like deep-sea fishing, big game hunting, and other pursuits now out of favor due to violence and mayhem directed at animals, the world of bullfighting is doomed in the realm of political correctness. Yet, as a writer obsessed with how war and prizefighting were all-consuming challenges requiring durability on the part of participants, Hemingway was supremely preoccupied with bullfighting.
To his way of thinking, a matador had one primary trait in common with a good soldier or a great boxer: that is, the ability to endure “grace under pressure.” And those three words— “grace under pressure”—came to define what’s still known as the Hemingway Code. Even closer to Hemingway’s heart was his conviction that writers, too, were likely to be wounded like matadors or boxers or infantrymen. The private anguish and psychic punishment endured by serious writers struck Ernest Hemingway as the domestic equivalent of the physical damages sustained by the above.
Therefore, it is no surprise that in this volume of letters there are dozens of exchanges with Hemingway’s esteemed Scribner’s editor, Maxwell Perkins, about all the details and elements involved in Death in the Afternoon in 1932. As a densely textured full-length nonfiction book about a range of topics that to modern, mainstream audiences seemed alien and disconnected, Death in the Afternoon was exceedingly different from the fiction that had put Hemingway on the map. It was a risky detour.
But the years 1932-34 were marked by many other detours. Hemingway continued writing admirable short stories; and his 1933 collection, Winner Take Nothing, had a Zen-like title, worthy of Kerouac. Perhaps most important was that during those years in the early half of the 1930s, Key West in Florida became Hemingway’s new home. Far removed from Paris in the Twenties and before serving as a war correspondent in the Spanish Civil War circa 1937, the years covered in this volume reveal Hemingway’s unfolding life on American turf—just barely.
In those Key West years, Hemingway was deep into his second marriage while America was getting deeper into the Great Depression. Many of the letters, notes, telegrams and whatnot addressed to Max Perkins at Scribner involve endless calculations in regard to royalties, advances, IOUs, and every other type of fiscal transaction. Money was always on Hemingway’s mind because he was a generous friend, forever loaning sums to other writers who did not have even a fraction of his commercial success.
But despite the bestselling profits from A Farewell to Arms, most of all (a 1932 film of that novel enhanced both bank account and public popularity for Hemingway), the consistent flow of monetary requests between author and publisher remind us that even a successful writer is often tapped out.
Letters, notes, blurbs, and occasional outbursts sent to fellow writers John Dos Passos, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and others also fill this volume with Hemingway’s idiosyncratic short-hand style of expressing himself in private. These are not polished, well-crafted epistolary gems in the tradition of James Baldwin or Sylvia Plath, who took to letter-writing as an art form.
Hemingway’s letters are often brusque. Sometimes sloppy. He could be curt, profane, poetic, and humbly ambitious (oxymoron intended) all in one missive. This note to Max Perkins is an example:
“ . . . and my idea of a career is never to write a phony line, never fake, never cheat, never be sucked in by the . . . movements of the moment, and to give them as much literature in a book as any son of a bitch has ever gotten into the same number of words.”
The most fascinating thing about The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: 1932-1934 is that it allows readers to inhabit that in-between part of the author’s life where he was already established and yet at the same time still yearning to prove himself, always daring to try something new, never repeating himself.
In this collection of letters, Ernest Hemingway is in his 30s and not resting on any laurels. He could not know what triumphs and tragedies lay ahead. But he knew how to live fiercely and with conviction.
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