Interest in Ernest Hemingway—the first literary love of so many readers—never seems to recede. On the heels of a cameo in Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen’s Paris-in-the-1920s nostalgia trip, and Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961, Paul Hendrickson’s warts-and-all biography, comes The Letters of Ernest Hemingway—1907-1922, the first of 12 volumes—12!—of Hemingway’s complete letters, 85% of which have never been published.
The first edition finds the author during his apprenticeship, before In Our Time, his first published book. This was also before he met F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, the lost generation luminaries he’s most commonly associated with, and before he adopted the pompous nickname “Papa”.
Much of the material contained was made possible by the 2009 opening of the archive at Finca Vigia, Hemingway’s Cuba redoubt, and by the efforts of the editors, Sandra Spanier and Robert W. Trogdon, in tracking down these letters from libraries and collectors. The letters in the first volume informed much of In Our Time and A Farewell to Arms, making them of interest to fans, scholars and completists.
Recovering from war: Hemingway as a young man in Europe, where he fought briefly in World War I.
The early letters only hint at the brawny, modern writing that would make Hemingway’s name. They reveal his love of fishing, hunting and the outdoors—contained here is a graphic description of the thrashing of a porcupine with a woodsman’s axe by 11-year-old Ernie that would find its way into what could be his first short story, self-published months later in a home-made volume.
Curiosities like this aside, the earliest letters feel like the palate-wetter before the entrée that is World War I, when, at 19, the author served as an ambulance driver on the Italian front. From his account, Hemingway had a blast during the war. To a colleague at The Kansas City Star, where he had been a cub reporter, Hemingway wrote: “Having a wonderful time!!! Had my baptism of fire my first day here when an entire munition plant exploded… I go to the front tomorrow. Oh boy!!!”
Hemingway’s time at the front would last only six days; he was hit 227 times in the legs by shrapnel from a trench mortar round. “My pants looked like somebody had made currant jelly in them and then punched holes to let the pulp out,” he reported to his family, in one of the finest and longest letters in the collection. “I’ll have to learn to walk again,” he said
And walk he did, but not before what sounds like a splendid vacation. “They’re going to send me down to the Riviera to convalesce after I get well so I can walk, so I’ll get some sea fishing and boating and swimming…” Indeed, war is hell. (To be fair, Hemingway was decorated for wartime valour.) It was also during this period that Hemingway entered into a doomed romance with Agnes von Kurowsky, the nurse on whom he based Catherine Barkley, the heroine of A Farewell to Arms.
After the war, Hemingway rededicated himself to stateside journalism and fishing, but quickly set his sights on Europe, where the low cost of living would allow him to write fiction. What’s “the use of trying to live in such a goddamn place as America when there is Paris and Switzerland and Italy,” he wrote persuasively to a friend.
Before commencing one of the most storied literary expat lives, Hemingway married Hadley Richardson, notorious now for allowing a suitcase full of the near entirety of Hemingway’s writing to date to be stolen at Paris’ Gare de Lyon station in 1922. Hemingway’s letters to Richardson are the most conspicuous absence here, Richardson having burned them after discovering her husband’s extramarital dalliances and the couple’s subsequent divorce in 1927.
Hemingway arrived in Paris with letters of introduction to the likes of Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Ezra Pound and Sylvia Beach, proprietress of Shakespeare and Company, the book store that served as a focal point for the literary set. It’s here that the Hemingway of the popular imagination begins to take shape. In one gem, Hemingway recounts his sparring sessions with the comparatively meek Pound, who “has developed a terrific wallop, I can usually cross myself though before he lands them and when he gets too tough I dump him on the floor.”
These Paris letters are what most readers will be anticipating, but unfortunately there are too few of them here and too much time is spent getting to them. At the close of the volume Hemingway is just embarking on his most celebrated decade, the one that would gain him fame and make his letters collectors’ items by its close. Because of that, readers waiting for a companion to Hemingway’s Paris memoir, A Moveable Feast, might do better waiting for the second instalment.
IN SIX WORDSThe youthful importance of being Ernest