Letters From Papa: An Unexpected Hemingway Emerges From His Correspondence

Lloyd Arnold, Hulton Archive, Getty Images

The first volume of the letters of Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) comes out from Cambridge U. Press this week. The author disapproved of the photo above, taken in Idaho in 1939, saying, "I don't work like this."
October 10, 2011

To know what Ernest Hemingway was really like, don't read biographies of him. Read his letters. That's the advice of Patrick Hemingway, the author's surviving son. Soon readers will be able to take that advice, thanks to an ambitious publishing project, The Letters of Ernest Hemingway. The first volume, covering the years 1907 to 1922, comes out this week from Cambridge University Press.

The younger Hemingway has given his blessing to the project, which seeks to collect and publish as many of the writer's surviving letters as it can find. An editorial team led by Sandra Spanier, a professor of English at Pennsylvania State University at University Park, has spent a decade scouring the world for Hemingway correspondence. She and Robert W. Trogdon, a professor of English at Kent State University, edited the first volume. The work is expected to run to at least 16 volumes, maybe more, and to take 20 years to complete.

The publication comes at a time when literary scholars are taking a fresh look at Hemingway's work, and challenging the conclusions drawn by their colleagues a few decades ago. The letters are likely to further that project, as well as alter Hemingway's image in the popular imagination.

Against His Wishes

Hemingway did not want his letters published, according to instructions he wrote to his wife Mary in the late 1950s. A few letters have trickled into print since then, and Mary Hemingway did permit an edition of selected letters in 1981, but the large majority remain unpublished. (Some, including his letters to his wartime love, who was a Red Cross nurse named Agnes von Kurowsky, and many of his letters to his first wife, Hadley Richardson, were destroyed by the recipients; Hemingway tended to keep the letters he received as well as copies of many of the letters he wrote.) Patrick Hemingway says it's been long enough since his father's death that it's time they became more widely available, partly as a response to the stereotype of the writer as a tortured figure.

"My principal motive for wanting it to happen was that I think it gives a much better picture of Hemingway's life than any of his biographers to date, including Mr. Hendrickson," Patrick Hemingway says. He's referring to Paul Hendrickson, the author of Hemingway's Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961 (Knopf), the latest exploration of the writer's life and psyche.

Mr. Hemingway dismisses such depictions of his father as "utterly inadequate" and distorted.

"Hemingway was not a tragic figure." he says. "He had the misfortune to have mental troubles in old age. Up until that, he was a rather lighthearted and humorous person." The letters "will elucidate his humanity, which is what people are always looking for in a writer," Patrick Hemingway says.

Mr. Hemingway says he learned a lot about his father from the letters in the first volume. "It's very hard to support the thesis of an unhappy childhood with Ernest Hemingway," he says. "I really don't think his is the case of an unhappy childhood at all."

Ms. Spanier, the general editor of the Letters, calls them "the raw footage of his life." She agrees with Mr. Hemingway that through them "you see many sides" of the writer "that get flattened out in biographies."

For instance, the young Ernest Hemingway's letters to his family challenge the idea that he and his parents didn't get along. "It's sort of a commonplace that Hemingway hated his mother, and it's true that they had a very strained relationship later on," Ms. Spanier says. "What's striking about these early letters is the closeness of the family, the loving tone in which he speaks to both his parents."

Hemingway also tailored the letters to the interests of the people to whom they were sent. So he will write to his mother, a singer and classical-music lover, about performances he's attended. "With his father, who was a physician and a great outdoorsman, he will describe his medical symptoms" and treatment, and share descriptions of animals he's seen, Ms. Spanier says.

Volume I covers not just the budding writer's childhood in Oak Park, Ill., but also his time as a reporter for The Kansas City Star, his experiences as an ambulance driver on the Italian front in World War I, the heartbreak of his romance with Agnes von Kurowsky—an episode that helped inspire A Farewell to Arms—his marriage to Hadley, and their plunge into artistic life in Paris. "We really see him launched from the American Midwest into this milieu of avant-garde Europe and the postwar political happenings of Europe," Ms. Spanier says.

Her co-editor, Mr. Trogdon, says that what really stands out for him "is how much of the early fiction shows up in the letters." In a 1919 letter to his friend Jim Gamble, for instance, Hemingway describes a Michigan scene that becomes the setting for a story he wrote several years later called "The End of Something." Many of the letters record "sources and motifs and settings" that appear later in the fiction, he says.

They're also idiosyncratic, lively, dotted with nicknames, doodles, and unusual spellings, and typewriter-induced typos. Many have a refreshingly off-the-cuff feel that contrasts with the polish of his published work. He urges correspondents to "screed" him—to write him back—calls friends and siblings "kid" and "old bean," and refers to his typewriter as "the typer."

Textual Idiosyncrasies

Such idiosyncrasies created an interesting publishing challenge, according to Linda Bree, editorial director for arts and literature at Cambridge University Press. The Letters project isn't a facsimile edition, but the editors wanted to preserve some of the offbeat textual and graphic elements. Cambridge has published several comprehensive collections of the letters of literary figures, including D.H. Lawrence and Joseph Conrad. "But one of the unusual things about Hemingway's letters is that he did quite a bit of doodling, and there are lots of little pictures and images that decorate his letters," Ms. Bree says. That was a technological challenge, according to the editor, but Cambridge decided that public and scholarly interest in Hemingway continues to be so robust that the effort would be worth it.

Most challenging of all was the work required to locate as many letters as possible and get permission from rights holders to use them. It's taken Ms. Spanier and her team the better part of a decade, and it required the cooperation of both the Ernest Hemingway Foundation and the Hemingway Foreign Rights Trust, which hold the U.S. and international copyrights to the letters. To the disappointment of some scholars, the press has no plans for a digital version; the rights clearances are just too complicated, the editors say.

Mr. Trogdon points out the essential role played by Penn State, which gathered photocopies of all the letters the editors located. That database has been invaluable, he says. Whenever they could, the editors checked the copies against the originals.

The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, in Boston, holds the largest collection—more than 2,500 letters. Princeton University has about 1,400 in its library, including the archives of Hemingway's longtime publisher, Scribner, and Hemingway's correspondence with his editor Max Perkins. Other collections exist at many other institutions, including the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and many individual letters are in the possession of family members or collectors. For instance, a descendant of the pilot of the plane that crashed with Hemingway aboard during an African trip in 1954 got in touch to share some letters the editors hadn't known about. (That pilot was also a passenger on the rescue plane that crashed with the Hemingways aboard soon after the first accident.)

Ms. Spanier estimates that the editors gathered copies of letters from about 70 institutional repositories and many more from individuals. They have identified at least 6,000 letters to publish, and she expects that others will emerge as word of the project spreads. That's one reason that Cambridge doesn't yet know exactly how many volumes there will be in the complete series.

"I really congratulate the editors," Patrick Hemingway says. "They have done a marvelous job of getting these letters. It's an enormous work of scholarship to put all this together."

New Scholarly Questions

The Letters project comes at a good time for Hemingway studies. In the 1980s and 90s Hemingway fell out of favor in academe. "It seems that a lot of people were discouraged from working on Hemingway," says Mr. Trogdon. "A lot of this had to do with the view that he was a misogynist." Then there was all that "hunting and fishing and killing poor defenseless animals, as someone once put it to me." Now "a lot of people are taking a closer look and seeing that's not always the case," he says. In particular, he mentions a number of female scholars who "are just doing tremendous work on Hemingway," moving beyond the stereotypes.

One scholar who's spent a lot of time on Hemingway is Hilary K. Justice, an associate professor of English studies at Illinois State University. "There's been a huge upsurge in masculinity studies as providing the other bookend to gender studies, which used to be conflated with feminism," she says. That means there are more scholars who want to put Hemingway and the stereotypes of masculinity he's associated with in context. Having access to the letters will be a huge help, she says. The editors "have cast their net so broadly and so thoroughly, it's beautiful."