The Best He Could Do

True at First Light

by Ernest Hemingway, edited with an introduction by Patrick Hemingway
Scribner, 319 pp., $26.00

We do not have great writers,” I said. “Something happens to our good writers at a certain age. I can explain but it is quite long and may bore you.”

Please explain,” he said. “This is what I enjoy. This is the best part of life. The life of the mind. This is not killing kudu.”

Green Hills of Africa (1935)

The conversation held in the bush country of Kenya between Ernest Hemingway and a stranded Austrian named Kandisky is the only well-remembered part of Green Hills of Africa. It is otherwise given over to the hunting of various beasts, especially the fleet though luckless kudu, a sport for which the reader comes to share Kandisky’s puzzled distaste.

Kandisky, who had read Hemingway’s early poetry in the Querschnitt, implores him to tell how America destroys its writers.

We destroy them in many ways. First, economically. They make money. It is only by hazard that a writer makes money although good books always make money eventually. Then our writers when they have made some money increase their standard of living and they are caught. They have to write to keep up their establishments, their wives, and so on, and they write slop. It is slop not on purpose but because it is hurried. Because they write when there is nothing to say or no water in the well. Because they are ambitious.

Hemingway saw no need to inform either Kandisky or the reader that he himself had been moved up into a different world of money. The safari had been underwritten by a $25,000 check from his wife Pauline’s generous uncle, who had also bought them, as a honeymoon gift, their handsome and spacious house in Key West. Some day soon, he would be associating his first wife, Hadley, with Paris and a benign poverty and, as Kandisky would say, the life of the mind, and the arduous and hard-purchased acquisition of a style. Pauline would then represent rich people and ease and artistic peril.

Instead, he tells Kandisky of the kind of writing that can be done. “How far prose can be carried if any one is serious enough and has luck. There is a fourth and fifth dimension that can be gotten” by a writer and “nothing else matters. It is more important than anything he can do.” But you are speaking of poetry, Kandisky objects, and is answered: “It is a prose that has never been written. But it can be written, without tricks and without cheating. With nothing that will go bad afterwards.” It is a prose, he says, much more difficult than poetry, which would have earned a wry smile from Pound and a sphinxlike one from Stein. Theirs was the Paris-based world of American writers in which Hemingway came into possession of his strength as a writer, and which he would come in the end to look backward to as to a lost Garden of Eden.

Every young writer is entitled …

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Letters

Pretty to Think So December 16, 1999