Cambridge University Press has released the second of a projected 17-volume Letters of Ernest Hemingway, with accounts from the writer’s early Paris years (1922–25), a period of intense creativity that produced works such as In Our Time and The Sun Also Rises and launched the writing career of the man who would later be referred to as the “Papa” of 20th-century American fiction. The starred review of the work (LJ 9/1/13) notes, “Hemingway did not want his letters published, but this carefully researched scholarly edition does them justice.…[D]evotees will find this and future volumes indispensable.” Indeed, the correspondence is vital for readers interested in the personal side of Hemingway, as the spare speech he used in his fiction cannot fully contain the wide-ranging thoughts made visible in the exchanges. Here, he reveals a caustic sense of humor and a genuine concern with the events of daily life, the happiness of family and friends, and the success of other writers. Both self-conscious and proud, Hemingway possessed a duality that comes to life in his letter writing, and the result is captivating.
While letter collections are not new, it may take a writer like Hemingway, with a larger-than-life reputation, to bring attention to their value as literary companions: essential to the research of scholars but enlightening for all, they provide insight into the time and culture that penetrated the author’s writing.
What goes into the meticulous process of letter selection, arrangement, and editorial decision-making is worth investigating, as it requires the cooperation of multiple parties, from literary executors to scholars at academic and public institutions, and, perhaps most important, the intellectual acuity of detective-like minds. Scholarly editing is a craft in itself: there are clues to follow and patterns to recognize, and every decision is a crucial one; mistakes can be costly. But the pleasures are getting to know the author on a personal level, as the editor learns to decipher penmanship, rule on the meaning of a particular revision, and connect the events of the life the writer led to the life written down. One can easily see the job’s appeal; full immersion in details constituting the life of an exciting writer can be extremely alluring.
It was with great pleasure that I met with Pennsylvania State University’s Sandra Spanier, general editor of the Cambridge edition of The Letters of Ernest Hemingway and coeditor of Volume 1, 1907–22, to discuss the project’s origins in 2002 and her experience locating his letters, which continue to be discovered. The letters are spread among institutions within the United States (the largest repository of Hemingway’s papers is at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston) and San Francisco de Paula, Cuba, where Hemingway owned a home, from 1939 to 1960, that he named Finca Vigía (Lookout Farm).
Volume 2 begins where Volume 1 left off—the legendary incident of the suitcase stolen from Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley, at the Gare de Lyon in Paris, which contained three years of his writing and was intended as a surprise for Hemingway to work on while the couple vacationed in Switzerland. In a letter to Ezra Pound dated January 23, 1923, that reports the loss of his “Juvenilia,” Hemingway says, “All that remains of my complete works are three pencil drafts of a bum poem which was later scrapped, some correspondence between John McClure and me, and some journalistic carbons.” Throughout the volume, footnotes fill the page facing each letter, providing readers with detailed backstory, the identification of named individuals, and corroboration of other sources noting the event in question. The descriptions in the letters, later to be found in Hemingway’s fiction, reflect the bright voice of an adventurous muse clearly at work in every area of his life.
Readers can expect more intrigue in Volume 3, spanning the period 1926–29, which opens with letters detailing Hemingway’s break from publisher Boni & Liveright, his relationship with Maxwell Perkins, and how he entered into a lifelong publishing contract with New York publishing giant Charles Scribner. Spanier, who is deeply passionate and knowledgeable about her work, believes that “in the final analysis, his letters may prove to be the most honest log of Hemingway’s fascinating life-voyage, the truest sentences he ever wrote.”