ERNEST HEMINGWAY’S LETTERS from the summer and fall of 1925 are especially thrilling. “I’ve written six chapters on a novel and am going great about 15,000 words already,” he tells Sylvia Beach in August. Two weeks later, in a letter to Ezra Pound, he declares, “48,000 words writ. […] If novel not suppressed sh’d sell 8 million copies.” “It is a hell of a fine novel,” he tells Jane Heap a few days later; “Written very simply and full of things happening and people and places and exciting as hell and no autobiographical 1st novel stuff.” Then in a letter to his father in September, he triumphantly announces, “I have finished my novel — 85,000 words — and am very tired inside and out.”
The completion of The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway’s first novel, is the denouement of the second volume of his letters, which collects his correspondence from 1923 to 1925. (The first volume, published in 2011, includes letters from 1907 to 1922.) The letters document his development as a writer, his life in Paris and Toronto (where he worked as a reporter for the Toronto Star), his travels across Europe (including to Pamplona and Schruns), his marriage to Hadley Richardson and the birth of their son, and his friendships and quarrels with Pound, Gertrude Stein, Ford Madox Ford, Sherwood Anderson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and many others. The letters are a real time version of A Moveable Feast, combining the memoir’s romantic and gossipy depiction of expatriate life with a powerful sense of precarity. Hemingway describes his life as a struggling writer without knowledge of his future success.
The volume opens in 1923, with Hemingway, age 23, wintering in Switzerland with Hadley. They return to Paris in May, and he immediately departs for Spain to see the bullfights for the first time. “It isnt just brutal like they always told us,” he writes his friend William D. Horne Jr. “It’s a great tragedy — and the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen and takes more guts and skill and guts again than anything possibily could. It’s just like having a ringside seat at the war with nothing going to happen to you.” Bullfights will dominate his letters for the next two years. In 1924, he tells Pound that the bullring “is the only remaining place where valor and art can combine for success. In all other arts the more meazly and shitty the guy, I.E. Joyce, the greater the success in his art. There is absolutely no comparison in art between Joyce and [the matador] Maera — Maera by a mile.”
In the summer of 1923, in an attempt to save money, he moves to Toronto with Hadley, who is seven months pregnant. “Christ I hate to leave Paris for Toronto the City of churches,” he complains to Isabelle Simmons, a childhood friend. In a long letter to Beach, he writes, “Canadians are all tapettes at heart. […] There are no sporting papers here. It is also against the law to sell Candy in the drug stores on sunday. […] I would like to swing a crochet on the mention of Canada. I would like to hit all Canada a coup bas.” His plan to save money backfires, and he plots his return to Paris. “I am working very hard with very little pleasure,” he tells his parents; “Making no more money than I made in Paris with about 8 times the expense.” In October, his son, John Hadley Nicanor, is born (named after the matador Nicanor Villalta) and in December he resigns from the Star. By February, he is living with his family above a sawmill near the Luxembourg Gardens.
In Paris, he focuses on his literary career fulltime. His letters begin to illuminate major events in the history of modernism: the publication of his story collections in our time and In Our Time (the first with the small Three Mountains Press and the second with the major New York publisher, Boni & Liveright); his work for The Transatlantic Review, editing two issues and convincing the magazine to publish excerpts from Gertrude Stein’s massive The Making of Americans; the production of the first issue of This Quarter; the trip to Pamplona that would serve as the basis of The Sun Also Rises; the composition of the influential novel; and the completion of the satire, The Torrents of Spring (“Wrote it to destroy Sherwood,” he tells Pound. “Jesus Christ it is funny”). The letters also illuminate the contexts of modernism itself: rejections from Vanity Fair, Saturday Evening Post, Cosmopolitan, Collier’s, American Mercury, and Scribner’s testify to the culture that Hemingway would soon revolutionize.
The portrait of Hemingway that emerges from the letters is a familiar one. He is ambitious and confident, red-blooded and popular, disciplined and talented. The biggest surprise is how expertly he adapts his voice to satisfy the expectations (and prejudices) of his audience. In a letter to Pound, he describes Lincoln Steffens’s young wife as a “Bloomsbury kike intellectual,” while in a letter to Stein a few days later, he simply refers to her as “the new one.” (His letters to Pound display a brutal chauvinism that rarely intrudes on his other correspondence. “Nice Nigger show” is his shocking description of Josephine Baker’s debut in Paris.) Despite this inconsistency, Hemingway’s writing somehow maintains its famous sense of authenticity. His prose is unaffected — even when he is not.
Hemingway’s prime concern in the letters is always art. Friends and family are less important. When Stein balks at reviewing In Our Time, he ends their friendship. When Anderson writes a bad novel, he mocks him ruthlessly. His favorite target is Ford. In a letter to Pound, he criticizes Ford’s management of The Transatlantic Review:
You see Ford’s running whole damn thing as compromise. In other words anything Ford will take and publish can be took and published in Century, Harpers etc. except Tzara and such shit in French. That’s the hell of it. Goddam it he hasn’t any advertizers to offend or any subscribers to discontinue why not shoot the moon?
Earlier in the letter, he declares, “The thing to do with Ford is to kill him. […] This aint personal. It’s literary.” The one person who remains unscathed is Pound — perhaps because he is even more fanatically devoted to art.
Most of the letters are hastily written and unpolished. Nevertheless, they contain some of Hemingway’s most compelling writing. A selection: “I’m trying in all my stories to get the feeling of the actual life across — not just depict life — or criticize it — but to actually make it alive.” “Thing is not to have a lover so much as a love affair. Must love both ways or the show is no good.” “There is a swell beach here and the water as warm as pissing down your leg.” “Winter coming like a James Joyce heroine.” “To Hell with Literary snobbery and Vanity Fairism.” The letters to Pound are especially fascinating — despite their virulence or, perhaps, because of it. “You go on and learn everything,” he tells Pound. “I cant. I’m limited. But I’m going to know about Fucking and fighting and eating and drinking and begging and stealing and living and dying.” The sentence captures the form and content of Hemingway’s best work. All Hemingway fans — not only completists — will want to read the letters.
Does the book fundamentally alter our understanding of Hemingway or his art or modernism or American literature? When I first read the volume, I thought it might offer a radically new perspective on the most important period in Hemingway’s career — and one of the most important periods in literary history and American culture: Paris in the Twenties. But the answer is no. Aside from the insight into Hemingway’s construction of authenticity, the letters complement, rather than revise, the mythologies cultivated and analyzed by countless artifacts — novels, memoirs, films, biographies, and, of course, Hemingway’s own writing. The letters are wonderful; they are not crucial.
The volume itself is beautifully designed and skillfully edited. It includes a full scholarly apparatus as well as maps, photographs, and biographies of the letters’ recipients. As a book, it is perfect. Yet, it is also not fully satisfying: the volume is so interesting that it inspires a fantasy about a giant database that would include both sides of Hemingway’s correspondence as well as the correspondence of his contemporaries. Users would be able to read Pound’s responses (annotated and in facsimile), plus Pound’s letters to Ford, Joyce, and others. The database would, in this way, provide a comprehensive picture of the networks that define 20th-century art. This database is a fantasy, of course — but, in the age of the digital humanities, might not always be. Indeed, letters seem the ideal artifact for digitization. Perhaps by the time the final volume of Hemingway’s letters is published — the editors expect the full edition to include 16 volumes — scholars, engineers, and librarians will be working on the complete letters of modern art.
Joshua Kotin is an assistant professor of English literature at Princeton University. His essays and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in PMLA, Modernism/Modernity, Chicago Review, and Colloquium.