An Intricate Feast: Reviewing The Letters of Ernest Hemingway, 1929-1931

Reading the private letters of a Great Author is a tricky proposition. On the one hand you hope to see flashes of genius that got you to like the author’s works in the first place. On the other, because such things were never intended for commercial publication, you run into things that can bore you or learn things that you wish you hadn’t.

It gets more complicated when the Great Author lived in a time before you were born, because the Author’s letters are to people you’ve probably never heard of, about events that you may have vaguely read about in college or the last time you browsed through Wikipedia. Which is why, if you’re assembling a collection of letters from a Great Author, you need good editors, to identify the correspondents and set the letters’ contents into a proper historical context.

Fortunately the Hemingway Letters Project has some very good editors. If you’re a fan of Hemingway’s works, you need to know about this project, as well as the collections they’ve published so far.

(Disclosure: this review is based on an advance reading copy of Volume 4, sent to me by Diana Rissetto of the Cambridge University Press for reviewing purposes. Thanks, ma’am.)

They made a few decisions that do help the letters read better, as well as help add to the reader’s understanding of Hemingway and his times. The major one is to reproduce, as much as is practicable, the punctuation, spelling errors and other eccentricities that Hemingway put in his text, both handwritten and typed. (On occasion, photo examples of Hemingway’s writing appear: in a letter to Owen Wister dated July 26, 1929, he writes a literary pun on “literary meter” and the metric system in the form of a math fraction, which is reproduced graphically; and there’s a dedication note to Doctor Carlos Guffey in a presentation copy of A Farewell To Arms, written with his left hand due to a bone in his right hand being fractured, presented as a holograph.) Yes, it does show a certain carelessness in his writing, but it illustrates a certain level of comfort with the people he writes to, that they’re not going to get anal about the occasional cross-out or mistype the way some social media virtue signallers would today.

The letters aren’t divided into chapters (say, for example, by year), but are reproduced as a continuous stream. Each letter is also followed by footnotes, which makes getting the historical context much easier to get than lumping the stuff in at the end the way most academic histories do. There’s a list of Hemingway’s correspondents at the end, which contains brief biographical sketches and is very helpful in understanding the relationships that the letters document.

The extent of Hemingway’s preserved correspondence, shown here, is quite astonishing. Yes, we do have letters to the famous and about the famous — plenty of letters to F. Scott Fitzgerald as well as his editor Maxwell Perkins, for example. But there are also inscriptions, in books, to readers who cherished his autograph, as well as a letter, in Spanish (with editor’s translation), to a Spanish official requesting fishing licenses. From a literary standpoint, there’s little value, but as a way of gaining insight into Hemingway’s character and personality during this period, they’re golden.

Any negatives about Volume 4? Well, unlike some of Hemingway’s novels, you’ll likely need more than a couple of evenings to get through it. Bear in mind that this is really a historical work as opposed to a literary one; if you like Hemingway’s works for the disciplined prose and artistry, you’ll definitely find it here, but it’ll require more effort on your part. The footnotes and explanatory texts are crammed for detail, and it would take a tremendous amount of discipline in reading to ignore them, in order to see the author’s voice in the same way you would in, say, A Movable Feast. That’s because that latter work was edited with an intent for casual reading; this is edited for History of American Letters 201, and while this historical stuff is invaluable, it’s a bit like a DVD audio commentary; you definitely want to see the movie first.

If you’re a serious fan and student of Hemingway’s work, then you definitely need to have The Letters collection in your library; so far four volumes are in print, out of a projected seventeen.

About phantomobserver

I'm a professional librarian currently working in Ottawa, Ontario.
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