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The Battler

Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters, 1917-1961

edited by Carlos Baker
Scribner’s, 948 pp., $27.50

Hemingway liked to write letters; his biographer Carlos Baker, selecting nearly six hundred here, thinks he wrote six or seven thousand in the fifty years preceding his death in 1961. He liked to write, scoffed at Conrad and others for grumbling. Since Hemingway’s “real writing” came so hard (he counted each day’s words like a prospector weighing his find) and was above all intended to look hard, it is obvious from these more than nine hundred pages of letters that letters were play, relaxation, a chance to warm up before the day’s stint and to cool down after it. With his usual devastating shrewdness about former friends and allies who had put him down in some way, he said in 1948 of Gertrude Stein:

It makes us all happy to write and she had discovered a way of writing she could do and be happy every day. She could never fail; nor strike out; nor be knocked out of the box because she made the rules and played under her own rules. When I can’t write (writing under the strictest rules I know) I write letters; like today. She found a way of writing that was like writing letters all the time.

Hemingway’s letters are more fun than Stein’s “writing.” I groaned from time to time under the weight of Hemingway’s personality as he recites where he wrote what, his triumphs, his blood pressure, his collar size, his women, his bad and good reviews, his scorn for James, Stein, Ford, Mencken, Wyndham Lewis, Sinclair Lewis, Malraux, Dos Passos, FDR, etc., etc. In the end, damn him, I am impressed all over again by his unrelenting standards for himself, stimulated by his slam-bang American boisterousness, but above all captured by the sheer command mysteriously emanating from a man so darkly anxious. So anxious, indeed, that as Harold Loeb’s friend Kitty Cannell saw, when he was young, still in love with his first wife Hadley, and Paris seemed all fun and games, he was “sinister.” Or as D.H. Lawrence said of the classic American hero, a killer. Hemingway certainly identified himself with heroism as a style. In a time that could not have been more unsuitable to the role (no matter how necessary to him), he tried to live it.

But the steady run of letters (letters flavorsome with hearty nostalgia to buddies from that first big war, letters dutiful to his father and mother, and the families of his four wives, letters ingratiating to his editor Max Perkins, contemptuous about critics and literary scholars, adoring to General “Buck” Lanham and Bernard Berenson) came, first, out of the need to keep in touch, to make sure of friends, to keep flanks well covered. Hemingway never lost his grudge against his severely Christian, disapproving and of course dominating mother. She abhorred the tone and substance of his early work, his immoral life, and is supposed to have sent him (in a package of goodies) the revolver with which his father committed suicide. A letter meant that there was still a world out there. He did not write these many letters, nor did he write this flowingly to particular cronies, with so much tenderness, brutality, chest thumping, just to postpone “real” writing.

This self-enclosed man, this violently self-assertive man, whose great gifts and cruel artistic intelligence only thickened the walls of his prison, never entertained the kind of “sacrifice” that Flaubert thought essential to a writer’s life. Hemingway expected, in addition to integrity, fame, the steady flow of cash, more pleasure and sensuous fulfillment to his life than the most spoiled and brainless heir to great wealth. He never ceased reciting his fishing and hunting scores; the “good life” was to be lived as an international sportsman, as an epicure of food, liquor, the best ski runs, the fightingest infantry regiment in the US Army, the most “aristocratic” girls in good old Venezia, the best town on the whole damned peninsula. No wonder he was always anxious about money, however much he made; long before the jet age, he hopped from continent to continent, usually at his own expense.

The letters were dispatches on his celebrity life, his innumerable moves from Oak Park to Paris to Spain to Idaho to Cuba to Key West to Africa. Beneath all the buzz of activity, the successive houses, the many physical accidents, he needed to know that someone was still at first base, that he was never out of anything, that things were under control, that he still had “gen” (army intelligence term) about anything and everybody. Was there ever such savage competitiveness in a man so truly “dedicated”? The great early style was formed out of habitual parody as well as the pose of “indifference”—an indifference well and truly earned, as he would have said. In 1932 he burst out—“these little punks who have never seen men street fighting, let alone a revolution, writing and saying how can you be indifferent to great political etc. etc…. Listen—they never even heard of the events that produced the heat of rage, hatred, indignation, and disillusion that formed or forged what they call indifference.” The studious anti-romantic of the stories unashamedly let himself go in novels after The Sun Also Rises; novels involve too much interaction with other people. Stories can be just about one character trying to read his fate. So in Hemingway’s life the effort to keep control vies with the sudden, abysmal feeling at the end of so many letters—“It’s all shit anyway.”

These “selected” letters make a sometimes unbearably continuous and too emphatic record of the man’s life, vehemence by vehemence. He never ceased to be pent-up, never gave up demanding action, then “peace” at any price. In these letters you see again—as you can from the ironic distance he contrived between Nick Adams’s curt silences and the unremitting violence of his experiences—what a struggle Hemingway put up with himself in order to get it into his prose. I read a great chunk of the early letters thinking what a tiresome brute he was, what an intriguer and gossip in the early Paris days, what a cutthroat. The man seemed so much more obvious than the writer that his unending self-recital and finagling ambitiousness left more of the pain accident-prone Hemingway always managed to leave with other people.

What power in this furious battler for fame, money, love, ease—what vindictiveness sizzling in every vein against Gilbert Seldes for having (reputedly) rejected a story for The Dial, against Dos Passos for showing him up in all his vanity when the Russians were making so much of him in Madrid, against Edmund Wilson for not liking something later when he had been so prompt to like the early stuff. The incessant self-protection and the absolutely stupendous self-love run through the letters like the heavy jokes on his name and his perfect pleasure in writing jig, kike, nigger, fairy. I did get tired reading over and again that Stein lost her talent when she had her menopause; I realized how long those shapely lies in A Moveable Feast about Dos Passos, Ford, Pauline Pfeiffer had been festering. “Besides, I’ve got the gun and it’s loaded and I know where the vital spots are and friendship aside there’s a certain damned feeling of superiority in knowing you can finish anybody off whenever you want to and still not doing it.”

The craziest example in the book is from a 1951 letter to their common publisher on James Jones’s From Here to Eternity. (Hemingway had especially unkind things to say about Scribner authors; Max Perkins and Charles Scribner were always sending him their books.) Some of this is not just loony but in view of actual circumstances, pitiful. “Things will catch up with him and he will probably commit suicide…. To me he is an enormously skillful fuckup and his book will do great damage to our country. Probably I should re-read it again to give you a truer answer…. I hope he kills himself as soon as it does not damage his or your sales. If you give him a literary tea you might ask him to drain a bucket of snot and then suck the pus out of a dead nigger’s ear.”

As Lawrence said—“hard, isolate, stoic, a killer.” But as you read on and on and the man’s minute exertions land on you in all the furious detail of work, love, physical accidents, of terrifying outcries and heroic lies mixed in with the tough Hemingway patois about “deads” (knocking Edmund Wilson’s “shit” about “hidden wounds” in The Wound and the Bow, he tells Arthur Mizener: “I have 22 wounds that are visible…and have killed 122 sures beside the possibles”), you find yourself not tiring of the warrior, reluctantly admiring the battle he constantly puts up. He never yields his belief that literature is all-important, that the first-rate alone is interesting, that American life accommodates an immense number of “jerks.” Once you see through the steam of his almost professionally Western bad temper, you see how right he is about many things. And the vehemence of his opinions, the arduousness of his daily struggle, even the physical catastrophes (perhaps only the broken arms, smashed skull, perforated guts provided some rest from the endless battle) make him continuously interesting with a harshness that certain political and religious personalities attain. And that many American novelists today do not.

The self-enclosure certainly helped; Hemingway was relatively free of the distraction that our totally politicized world forces on us today. Of course he became famous putting up the will against a disintegrated moral order he located “in our time.” But though he often writes as if he were at the point of death (probably no one commits suicide without thinking of it much of his life), Hemingway does regard himself as morally “free”—free to put up this fight for his life, free to lose it. Free to conduct his life as if the salvation of his soul was the central drama in the first half of the twentieth century. Free, above all, to find himself continuously interesting, so that everything connected with him became, positively, a piece of the true cross.

To understand Hemingway’s achievement we now have to imagine a writer of equal intelligence and sensibility capable of thinking that nothing in the world just now is so crucial as this endless report on himself. Then justifying this in words that make us enter into his mind, delight (finally) in his temperament, imaginatively share his fate. Reading these letters, for all his aberrations, is like reading Hemingway anywhere else; you respond to his special vibration, his particular gift for summoning up the feel of life in himself, his utter disdain for the “lifelessness” in other writers.

When that vibration, that special moment, the feel and thrust of life is not there everything becomes “shit.” So, as happens often in American life and literature, it is either life or death, the self up against the void, with hardly anything in between. It all has to be kept up at great strain, with unnatural force—a force that like all superior forms of vitality enlists admiration and imitation. When life cannot be kept up at the highest point, there is nothing to do but give up. In a flash of fire, with a shotgun right up against your forehead to blow away the whole cranial vault. Another supreme moment, no doubt. The absolute standard of something or other.

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