In December 1919, the young Ernest Hemingway confessed his fledgling literary aspirations in a letter to his sister Ursula. “You know,” he gushed, “I really do think that I will be a heller of a good writer some day. Every once in a while I knock off a yarn that is so bludy good I can’t figure how I ever wrote it. … Everything good takes time and it takes time to be a writer, but by Gad I’m going to be one some day.” Still only twenty years old, and without a single publication to his name, Hemingway’s hubristic visions of future glory have turned out, in hindsight, to fall short of the mark. He became much more than just “a good writer” churning out vaguely entertaining literary amusements. He became one of the most stylistically radical writers of his age and one of the greatest in the American pantheon.
That letter to Ursula and scores of others to friends and family have now been collected in The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Volume 1, edited by Sandra Spanier and Robert W. Trogdon. The first in a projected sixteen-volume collection of Hemingway’s complete correspondence, Letters covers the years from July 1907 to December 1922. This period takes the young writer from his eighth birthday through to age twenty-three and the piecemeal publication of the work that would reappear in his first collection of fiction and poetry. Although replete with critical notes aimed squarely at Hemingway scholars, the scholarly apparatus is unobtrusive and the volume as a whole seems targeted at non-academic readers. Letters requires only broad familiarity with and affection for Ernest Hemingway, not a detailed knowledge of his life and labour.
But what exactly is the value of reading Hemingway’s letters at all? If his major literary achievements took the form of short stories and novels, what can a reader possibly gain from browsing his private outpourings? Three possible gains come to mind: the biographical, the stylistic, and the aesthetic. Perhaps the letters reveal the sources of Hemingway’s later literature, the real events that flowed out from the life he lived into the fiction that made him famous. Or perhaps the letters mark the stages in his stylistic development, the discovery and refinement of the rhetorical manipulations which would eventually allow him to produce his more celebrated work. Or perhaps the letters offer their own sort of stimulation, an exploitation of the letter as a literary form whose artistic rewards rival the rewards of alternative forms.
The bad news is that readers who turn to Hemingway’s letters for either the first or the last reason are bound for disappointment. With the exception of the wartime injury that worked its way into A Farewell to Arms, none of the life events covered in the letters were a major influence on the Hemingway oeuvre and, as for the artistry of the letters, the author himself acknowledged their simplicity and occasional banality. “I am sorry to write such dull letters,” he confessed to his mother, Grace, in February 1922, “[but] I get such full expression in my articles and the other work I am doing that I am quite pumped out and exhausted from a writing stand point and so my letters are very common-place. If I wrote nothing but letters all of [my passion for other literary forms] would go into them.” The good news, however, is that readers who turn to the letters with an eye towards Hemingway’s stylistic development are in for a treat — and particularly since the letters display varieties of stylistic experimentation which do not at all resemble the minimalism that made Hemingway famous.
Although the letters are presented chronologically without categorization, they fall into three phases which only faintly overlap. The first phase takes Hemingway from his childhood in Michigan to his early manhood on the Italian front. The second phase takes him from his wartime injury to the courtship of his first wife, Hadley Richardson. The third phase takes him from his marriage to Hadley to the brink of literary success following their emigration to Paris.
Hemingway’s childhood in rural Michigan seems to have consisted of a series of boys’ own adventures in the spirit of his Nick Adams stories, as the idyllic outdoors perfectly suited the young author’s rugged, rambunctious, and occasionally violent temperament. Here, for instance, is a letter he wrote to his father on July 23, 1909, two days after his tenth birthday:
today Mama and the rest of us took a walk.
We walked to the school house.
Marcelline ran on ahead.
Wile we stopt at Clouse’s.
In a little wile she came back.
She said that in the Wood Shed of the Scool house there was a porcupine.
So we went up there and looked in the door, the porcupine was asleep.
I went in and gave I[t] a wack with the axx.
Then I cave I[t] anthor and another.
Then I crald in the wood.
Wrane to Mr Clous and he got his gun and Shot It.
Hear some of the quills.
He learned to suppress his violent streak over the following years, but otherwise he rarely hesitated to unleash his inner provocateur. In September 1910, he wrote a letter to his sister, Marcelline, in which he recalled accompanying his mother to a women’s suffrage meeting “thru which I slept soundly.” In May 1913, he was forced to write a “Confessional Letter” to his father, Clarence, in penance for some unspecified misbehaviour: “My conduct at the Coloseum yesterday was bad and my conduct this morning in church was bad my conduct tomorrow will be good.” In July 1915, he wrote a letter to an acquaintance, ‘Carissimus,’ in which he admitted to reading through some letters that Marcelline had received from her friends. He was “trying to find out what the dames think of me,” he said, when he came across a note from a mutual friend who had confessed to Marcelline her attraction to ‘Carissimus.’ “Gosh but [that letter] is mushy,” Hemingway went on. “I tell you guy beware! All females are alike.”
Hemingway’s attraction to literature first became evident between 1914 and 1916, at around the time he wrote that last letter, just as he entered adolescence. It seems to have manifested first as a tendency to conceive of his own life in literary terms, likening his unruly behaviour to that of a young boy who lived only on the page. On September 8, 1914, he wrote to his mother, Grace, about his adventures at school that day. A delayed train left him two hours late for his classes, he said, so that he arrived to find himself in a scenario straight out of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: “There was a report circulated around that I was drowned and some of my pals thot I was a ghost.” On July 13, 1916, he again alluded to Huckleberry Finn when he complained to a friend about his family’s views of his distaste for schoolwork. “Just think how pleased My family would be,” he said, “if they would civilize me and inculcate a taste for Math and a distaste for Fishing.”
Since the older Hemingway would someday hail Huckleberry Finn as one of the greatest works of American literature, perhaps it isn’t so surprising that his younger self should have been so in thrall to Twain’s most memorable characters. What is surprising, however, is that Twain appears to have been the exception to the rule of what the young Hemingway chose to read, the sole American writer in a reading list dominated by classicists and contemporary British authors and headed by Rudyard Kipling. And, at the same time that Twain exerted an influence on how the young Hemingway saw his own life, it was the stylistic stiff-upper-lip of Kipling that emerged as the clearest influence on the young author’s early literary output. “Well old soak,” he wrote to Marcelline in June 1916, “I suppose you have had quite the ‘Je su pas’ time as it were. While commencement was going on Lew and I were fishing all night on a pool of the Rapid River 50 miles from no-where. Murmuring pines and hemlocks — black still pool — roar of rapids around bend of river — devilish solemn still — deuced poetic.”
Insofar as echoes of the ‘black still pool’ and ‘roar of rapids’ appear in stories like ‘Big Two-Hearted River’ and in A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway clearly never lost his adolescent attraction to a particular sort of natural imagery, but those masterpieces are conspicuously lacking in phrases like ‘devilish solemn’ and ‘deuced poetic.’ Fancying himself a literary legend in the making, the young Hemingway seems to have turned to Kipling, one of the literary legends of the time, and set about aping his style. True to his temperament, Hemingway also sought to bolster his own legendary status by playfully but provocatively diminishing the literary skills of writers clearly more accomplished than himself. When he was living away from home and received word that Marcelline had been accepted as a member of a local writing group, his letter of congratulations included more barbed comments than evident good will: “You poor bonus caput how in the name of all things just and unjust did you get in the story club,” he wrote. “If I couldn’t write a better story than you I’d consign myself to purgatory. Congratulations.” More audaciously, he used a letter to his parents to reveal a jaundiced view of no less a writer than Cicero. “Cicero is a pipe,” he declared. “I could write better stuff than he could with both hands tied behind me.”
Until 1917, Hemingway rarely wrote letters in which his emerging literary sensibilities cast an overt stylistic veneer over his retellings of his adventures. On the one hand, he expressed admiration for certain literary heroes and confessed to holding literary aspirations. On the other hand, he simply went about living his life and wrote plainly about the life he lived. Only once in Letters does an incident from his life receive overt stylisation: the hyperstylisation of exaggeration and grotesquerie. “Another item of information,” he wrote to his friend Emily Goetzmann in March 1916, “is that my beautiful Graeco Roman Etruscan Irish nose, or to use the Language of the Vulgar my pulchritudinous proboscis has wandered over on one side of my face as a result of a little boxing bout. However it has about got back to normal and people can now pass me on the street without emmitting loud coarse guffaws of touching mirth.”
Those are the words of an aspiring writer just discovering the versatility of his craft — the elasticity of rhetoric — and flying high on the bravado of the discovery but apparently uncertain about how to take it more seriously after this point. A few pages later, when he discovers that the process of revision can refine the prose on the page and sharpen the imagery and invest the whole with new vitality, it’s hard to fight off a tingle down the spine. In his classic interview with the Paris Review, the fifty-nine-year-old Hemingway admitted to being an extremely disciplined rewriter: “I always rewrite each day up to the point where I stopped,” he said. “When it is all finished, naturally you go over it [again]. You get another chance to correct and rewrite when someone else types it, and you see it clean in type. … I rewrote the ending to Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied.” Included in Letters is a brief, wistful note that Hemingway wrote to his parents from rural Michigan on September 14, 1917, in which appears his first recorded attempt to affectively enhance a piece of prose by subjecting it to revision:
Probably I will be home in time for the Worlds Series in the middle of Oct. All the trees are turning red up here now. All the birds are putting on their beautiful autumn foliage and the trees are gathering in twittering flocks ready for their flight to the glorious south land.
Within weeks of writing that letter, Hemingway raced head-first towards a radical stylistic variation and a more disciplined writing practice. On scarcely a moment’s notice he left Michigan for Kansas City, Missouri, where he landed a job as a reporter at the Kansas City Star. According to the legend which he himself later bolstered, it was the house guide at the Star that formed the basis of his mature prose style. “All you have to do is write one true sentence,” he famously declared in A Moveable Feast, revealing the advice he gave himself when he made his first conscious efforts to write and fiction. “Write the truest sentence you know. … [C]ut the scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence” — and, as he told the Paris Review, “[o]n the Star you were forced to learn to write a simple declarative sentence.”
But Hemingway’s workload at the Star seemed to continuously replenish itself, and, not long after he took up his position, all those countless declarative sentences drove his more personal writing in an entirely different, opaque, and fragmented stylistic direction. “All cops live me like a brotherhood,” he wrote to Marcelline in October 1917:
I am Editor of Public Mind like Vox of the Pop. but am now promoted and edit mind with less frequency. This is copy paper. On it is written with a typewriter solely. Poor hand-writing has not handicapped me yet. At St. Josephine I was and have chance to work on St. Josephine Gazette. But the Salary! Merci! It is nought. A mere pittance! Here I receive 60 of them per month. A princely stipend. and why is it I hear from you not? Loneliness consumes me theoretically; practically I am all business and have no time but at the office there is a frequency of the Tempus.
As his workload increased towards the end of the year, the Star came to affect his literary style not only by demanding that his professional writing meet rigorously declarative standards but also by leaving him with almost no time in which to write anything but reportage. “I am sorry that I didnt get a letter off oftener last week,” he wrote to his parents in December, “but I aws right up to my neck in work and havn’t had a single minute¾.” The following month he sent a letter to another sister, Madelaine, in which his style suffered a devolution into borderline nonsense — “Was the old brute glad to hear ffn you.? Hw was that. He was that. He surely was that. … Some Damsel. Show this to jigggs will you.&%$#”_(&)” — and the devolution continued throughout the following months. “I’ve just time to scribble a little to you,” he wrote to his parents in March 1918. “We are awfully busy.”
On April 16, the workload finally took its toll on the young Hemingway, not yet nineteen years old, and drove him to the point of absolute exhaustion. He snapped, suffering a minor breakdown, and saw only two options before him: “a vacation or bust.” In a long and unusually intimate letter to his father, Hemingway gave voice to his demons:
This is the way things are lined up at present. I have been down here about seven months, granted. Until lately I have neen making not enough to live on. See High Cost of Living figures. I am only a kid of nearly 19 granted, and have been hitting the pace pretty blame hard. Working in competetion with men with threee to ten years more experience than I have. I have had to work like sin and have concentrated about three years work into one. … And now Pop I am bushed! So bushed that I cant sleep nights, that my eyes get woozy, and that I am loosing weight and am tired all the time. I’m mentally and physically all in, Pop, and there isn’t any body Knows it better than myself. Look at it this way. It is as though I had gone to college and been under the strain of cramming for an examination for seven months straight. For that is the way it is. Responsibility, absolute accuracy, thousands of dollars hinge on your statements, absolute truth and accuracy. A middle initial wrong may mean a libel suit. And allways working under a strain.
This is what makes you mentally fagged. Having to write a half column story with every name, address and initial verified and remembering to use good style, perfect style in fact, an get all the facts and in the correct order, make it have snap and wallop and write it in fifteen minutes, five sentences at a time to catch an edition as it goes to press. To take a story over the phone and get everything exact see it all in your minds eye, rush over to a typewriter and write it a page at a time while ten other typewriters are going and the boss is hollering at some one and a boy snatches the pages from your machine as fast as you write them.
Having resolved to quit his job at the Star, Hemingway decided to head north to Canada in order to do what he truly wanted to do and volunteer for military service in Europe. When the Red Cross sought a new intake of medical officers in June 1918, Hemingway took the chance to sign up. He travelled to Europe and spent some time seeing the sights — on June 3, in remarks that would become atypical of him, he wrote home with the verdict that “Paris is a great city but not as quaint and interesting as Bordeaux” — and then, stationed in Italy on June 9, he dashed off a note to a friend at the Star just after he had been briefed on his duties. “I go to the front tomorrow,” he wrote. “Oh, Boy!!! I’m glad I’m in it. They love us down here in the mountains.” But his service as an ambulance officer lasted barely a month, ending with an explosion that gave him both a lifelong injury and the basis for the novel that is perhaps his very best.
On July 14, 1918, Theodore Brumback, an old friend of Hemingway, contacted Hemingway’s parents with a summary of their son’s accident and news of his present condition. Brumback’s note is the only document in Hemingway’s Letters that does not belong to Hemingway himself. “I have just come from seeing Ernest at the American Red Cross hospital,” he wrote. “He is fast on the road to recovery and will be out a whole man once again, so the doctor says, in a couple of weeks. Although some two hundred pieces of shell were lodged in him none of them are above the hip joint. Only a few of these pieces was large enough to cut deep; the most serious of these being two in the knee and two in the right foot.” In the week before the incident, Hemingway had acquired a bicycle and had been cycling out to the frontline to deliver chocolate to the Italian soldiers. “[A]bout midnight on the seventh day,” wrote Brumback, “an enormous trench mortar hit within a few feet of Ernest. … The concussion of the explosion knocked him unconscious and buried him with earth. There was an Italian between Ernest and the shell. He was instantly killed while another, standing a few feet away, had both his legs blown off. A third Italian was badly wounded and this one Ernest, after he had regained consciousness, picked up on his back and carried to the first aid dug-out. He says he does not remember how he got there nor that he had carried a man until the next day when an Italian officer told him all about it and that it had been voted upon to give him a valor medal for the act.”
On July 21, his nineteenth birthday, Hemingway wrote to his father, a doctor, with an account of his condition that amounts to one of his most tender letters. When writing to his mother about a week later, he offered a self-deprecating but frank assessment of his recovery prospects. “[F]rom present indications I will never look well in kilts as the old limbs present a somewhat cut up appearance,” he joked. “They look a bit disgruntled. For a time Maw I resembled a walking blacksmith shop.” When he wrote to his father, however, he began by sugarcoating the severity of his injuries — “Everything is fine and I’m very comfortable and one of the best surgeons in Milan is looking after my wounds” — and then he cast his recovery prospects in terms that deftly walk the line between the physician’s professional desensitisation to injury and the young masculinist’s determination not to let his injuries make him flinch. Taking a no-nonsense view of the physical damage that left him incapacitated for weeks, the young writer attempts to meet his father in exclusively rhetorical terms: to represent his injuries with a stylistic austerity that strikes a balance between his own fascination with masculine stoicism and his father’s presumed interest in the bodily particulars of his wounds:
There are a couple of pieces still [stuck] in [my legs]. One bullet in my knee that the X Ray showed. The surgeon… is going to wait for the wound in my right knee to become healed cleanly before operating. The bullet with then be rather encysted and he will make a clean cut and go in under the side of the knee cap. By allowing it to be completly healed first he thus avoids any danger of infection and stiff knee. That is wise dont you think Dad? He will also remove a bullet from my right foot at the same time. … All the other bullets and pieces of shell have been removed and all the wounds on my left leg are healing finely. … There will be no permanent effects from any of the wounds as there are no bones shattered. Even in my knees. In both the left and right the bullets did not fracture the patella. One piece of shell about the size of a Timken roller bearing was in my left knee but it has been removed and the knee now moves perfectly and the wound is nearly healed. In the right knee the bullet went under the knee cap from the left side and didnt smash it a bit.
During his recovery period, of course, Hemingway met Agnes von Kurowsky, the young Red Cross nurse who later became the inspiration for Catherine Barkley in A Farewell to Arms. Although their relationship is known to have been a passionate one, very little of the passion appears to have made its way onto the page as Kurowsky is mentioned in only two letters. “In regard to the question you asked I will reply,” Hemingway wrote to Marcelline: “Yes. She is a Cross Red Nurse. Further more I cannot state I am of a dumbness.” But the dumbness had worn off by the time he described Kurowsky to his lifelong friend Bill, with whom he tended to be less guarded. “Bill this is some girl and I thank God I got crucked so I met her,” he wrote. “Damn it I really honestly can’t see what the devil she can see in the brutal [Hemingway] but by some very lucky astigmatism she loves me Bill. … Why man I’ve only got about 50 more years to live and I don’t want to waste any of them and every minute that I’m away from that Kid is wasted.” An aura of tragedy settles over those words for readers who know that the young man who wrote them could not have foreseen that his romance was doomed or that Frederic Henry, Hemingway’s eventual fictional stand-in, would love Catherine Barkley much more than Hemingway himself ever appeared to love Agnes von Kurowsky.
The letters that follow the dissolution of Hemingway’s relationship with Kurowsky are littered with oblique references to other people whose names would eventually trickle down into Hemingway’s fiction — Neroni, Krebs, Wemedge, and others — until he suffered a renewed cri de coeur at the beginning of 1919. The end of the war left him uncertain of his direction in life and his attempts at becoming a writer were marked by a distinct lack of progress. Although he had not yet spent any time as an American expatriate in Spain, he felt himself burdened by much the same sense of ennui and listlessness as that which colours The Sun Also Rises and he yearned for an opportunity to prove himself worthy of some sort of greatness. His hopeful, enthusiastic, and hubristic remarks to his sister Ursula — “I really do think that I will be a heller of a good writer some day” — were written at the tail end of this period.
“I’ve written some darn good things Jim,” he declared in a spirited letter to Jim Gamble, editor of the Saturday Evening Post, in March 1919. “That is good for me. And am starting a campaign against [the Post]. I sent them the first story Monday last. … Tomorrow another one starts toward them. I’m going to send ‘em so many and such good ones, no I havn’t really got the big head, that they’re going to have to buy them in self defence.” A footnote spells out the young writer’s disappointing fate: “The stories EH mentions submitting remain unidentified: nothing he wrote would ever appear in the Saturday Evening Post.”
“I’m all up in the air about what to do next fall,” he confessed to Gamble about a month later. “Wish a war would come along and solve my problems. Now that I don’t have to do to work I can’t decide what the devil to do. The family are trying to get me to go to college but I want to go back to Italy and I want to go to Japan and I want to live a year in Paris and I want to do so damned many things now that I don’t know what the deuce I will do. … It was very simple while the war was on. Then there was only one thing for a man to do.” It was at this time that Hemingway experienced the crystallisation of the worldview and the attendant moral dilemma that would together preoccupy his imagination for decades yet to come. “Idealists lead a rough life in this world Jim,” he told Gamble. “But like hermit crabs they acquire shells that they cover their ideals with and that they can retreat into and protect the ideals with. But sometimes something comes along with a heavy enough tread to crush the shell and the ideals and all.” What is an idealist then to do? A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Old Man and the Sea, and others all offer varying responses to that one unanswerable question.
Surprisingly, though, Hemingway’s own response during the onset of this listlessness was not so far removed from the response of Jack Kerouac, Hemingway’s successor as the spokesman of a generation but very much his opposite in terms of literary style. In August 1919, with the autumn fast approaching, Hemingway wrote to his friend Bill with a proposed plan of action. That plan now reads like a missing fragment of Kerouac’s On the Road scroll, written almost thirty years before Kerouac and Neal Cassady ever hit the road:
Bill if you want to keep the old ideals straight and cut loose from the damned dirty money grubbing for a year I’m your man. There is so much of this world we haven’t seen and it is just a little while that we’re here anyway.
We are Simpatico Bill and we could go anywhere and have a good time. If you want to go out to Hawaii and the South Seas meet me in Chicago this fall. We’ll bum — it may take us quite a while to get there. But you know we’ll have a good time together. The more money we had to start with the better. But it isn’t a necessity. We’ll go through the South West to the coast and you can get to Hawaii for 45 dollars from the coast. And we’ll discover every place we go. And we’ll have thousands of adventures. And we’ll work when we have to and we’ll loaf. And we’ll live Bill! We’ll live!
Hemingway certainly lived, but he didn’t live as he dreamed of living when he sat down to write to Bill. Between that one letter and the end of Letters there is scarcely any correspondence in which Hemingway elucidates the circumstances he fell into, but the suddenness with which he fell into them is implicit in the scarcity of such elucidation. In December 1920, Hemingway met Hadley Richardson through mutual acquaintances: Richardson’s roommate, who would eventually marry John Dos Passos, had a brother who shared a house with Hemingway in St. Louis. Hemingway and Richardson were married less than a year after meeting, and, in December 1921, Hemingway landed the job at the Toronto Star that enabled the two of them to move to Paris. The last pages of Letters reveal Hemingway’s Parisian attempts to establish himself as a writer of fiction and poetry by impressing writers already established and carefully cultivating his ties to them. Fresh off the success of Winesburg, Ohio, it was Sherwood Anderson who had originally suggested that Hemingway would benefit from a relocation to Paris, and so it was Anderson who received one of the earliest letters in which Hemingway described his impressions of the city. The floweriness of its language contrasts with the more utilitarian rhetoric of concurrent letters and suggests that Hemingway wanted as much to maintain contact with Anderson as to appeal to his literary sensibilities:
Well here we are. And we sit outside the Dome Café, oposite the Rotunde that’s being redecorated, warmed up against one of those charcoal brazziers and it’s so damned cold outside and the brazier makes it so warm and we drink rum punch, hot, and the rhum enters into us like the Holy Spirit.
And when it’s a cold night in the streets of Paris and we’re walking home down the Rue Bonaparte we think of the way the wolves used to slink into the city and Francois Villon and the gallows at Montfaucon. What a town.
The poetic imagery of the second paragraph is a reference to Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘A Lodging for the Night,’ but beyond that point all the poetry belongs to Hemingway himself:
In a couple of days we’ll be settled and then I’ll send out the letters of introduction like launching a flock of ships. … There’s a deathly, tired silence you can’t get anywhere else except a railway compartment at the end of a long ride. … We came via Spain and missed all but a day of the big storm. You ought to see the spanish coast. Big brown mountains looking like tired dinosaurs slumped down into the sea, gulls following from behind the ship holding against the air so steadily they look like property birds raised and lowered by wires. Light house looking like a little candle stuck up on the dinosaurs shoulder.
Other mainstays of Hemingway’s years in Paris make their debut appearances towards the end of Letters. The volume includes a striking photograph of the young author standing amid stacks of books inside Shakespeare & Company, supposedly in the spot where he first met Ezra Pound, while the photographer’s byline credits Sylvia Beach herself as the woman behind the camera. “Gertrude Stein who wrote Three Lives and a number of other good things was here to dinner last night and stayed till mid-night,” Hemingway writes in one of these Parisian letters. “She is about 55 I guess and very large and nice. She is very keen about my poetry. … [And on] Friday we are going to tea at Ezra Pounds. He has asked me to do an article on the present literary state of America for the Little Review.”
That was in February 1922. The following months appear to have given Hemingway little opportunity for further stylistic experimentation, at least in his letters, but they certainly afforded him the material for his early short stories as his duties for the Toronto Star took him to other European destinations, to Constantinople, and to war-ravaged Smyrna. Before the year was out, he lost almost his entire body of work when Hadley misplaced a suitcase full of his manuscripts — an incident that will open the next volume of letters, since Hemingway did not write about it until he described it to Ezra Pound in January 1923 — after which six more years in Paris and a lifetime of literary greatness awaited the unsuspecting aspiring author.
Within the next twelve months, Hemingway would become both a father and a published writer of fiction and poetry. He would also visit Pamplona, Spain, and witness the first of the many bullfights that gave him literary inspiration. In the two years after that, he would edit the transatlantic review with Ford Madox Ford, twice return to Pamplona, publish the legendary In Our Time, dedicate a solid eight weeks to producing a draft of The Sun Also Rises, and begin a long affair with the woman who would become his second wife. These experiences will no doubt shape Letters: Volume 2, as will perhaps Hadley’s discovery of her husband’s affair, the slow death of their marriage and their divorce, Hemingway’s brief but traumatic battle against anthrax, the publication of Men Without Women, his new marriage, and his decision to leave Paris in pursuit of the sun and the sea in Key West, Florida.
It remains to be seen how those experiences might have shaped Hemingway’s style and driven him decisively in the direction of minimalism, particularly as he engaged in further stylistic experimentation and developed greater awareness of the affective properties of various styles. For now, though, it is enough to be able to watch him coming into an awareness of style as a repository of affective power and of endless potential for manipulability. If Letters offered little more than a catalogue of autobiographical details, a rote record of Hemingway’s experiences and the people he encountered, it would be effectively interchangeable with a more straightforward biographical study — and, to the extent that readers approach the volume as a de factoautobiography, it is bound to be disappointing because so interchangeable. What makes it valuable is its status as a record of Hemingway’s initially tentative but increasingly confident modulation of rhetoric in service of a variety of private disclosures and for an extraordinary range of readers. What emerges from letter to letter is a gradual but steady accretion of literary ability via experimentation, a sketch, in words, of a writer enmeshed in becoming a writer. Letters is as much the opening chapter in the story of Hemingway himself as it is the opening chapter in the story of the Hemingway style, and to watch that style slowly resolve itself on the page is a privilege available nowhere else but here.