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 …