Who Was Ernest Hemingway?

1.

Ernest Hemingway wrote the first letter in this collection when he was twenty-three, the last when he was twenty-six. In these three years, living mostly in Paris, he fathered his first child, grew disenchanted with his first wife and took up with his second, quit his first job as a reporter, published his first three collections of stories and poems, wrote his first two novels, saw his first bullfight, and began transforming himself from a writer who conveyed inward experience in all its anxious detachment “so that…you actually experience the thing” into an aficionado who praised strength and bravery in “people that by their actual physical conduct gave you a real feeling of admiration.” He also began inviting that kind of admiration for himself. By the end of the book, the avant-garde disciple of Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound, collecting rejection slips from little magazines, was already remaking himself as Papa Hemingway, celebrated everywhere for plain-style toughness.

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Ernest Hemingway Collection/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, Boston
Ernest Hemingway and his son Jack, Schruns, Austria, 1925

This volume, the second of a planned seventeen in The Cambridge Edition of the Letters of Ernest Hemingway, includes almost 250 letters, three times the number from the same period printed in Hemingway’s Selected Letters 1917–1961, edited by Carlos Baker (1981). The newly published letters are bracingly energetic and readable, and they add depth and detail to the already vast biographical record of Hemingway’s early years. The editors’ extensive annotations explain historical and personal allusions, record the minutiae of Hemingway’s finances, and tell more than anyone needs to know about the many boxers and bullfighters he admired.

What makes the book revelatory is not its biographical detail but the spacious view it gives of Hemingway’s mind at work in his long, eager, and unguarded letters to boyhood friends. For the past fifty years, ever since his embittered older sister Marcelline reported that their mother had dressed the young Hemingway as a girl and had tried to raise the two of them as twins, and ever since his posthumous novel The Garden of Eden (1986) revealed his androgynous fantasies, the conventional reading of Hemingway explained him away as the product of sexual confusion and category-crossing. This turns out to be as simplifying and crude as the he-man image it supplanted. These letters make clear that both the he-man and the androgynous fantasist were surface expressions of a deeper wish that shaped Hemingway’s life and work, a driving impulse that ultimately had nothing to do with sex.

2.

Hemingway’s letters are copious with gossip and boasting that he often enlivens by invention. He assures a friend at one point, “Quite a lot of the above paragraph is true.” Except in a few authentic-sounding outbursts against his parents, almost everything he says about his emotional life seems false. His reports of perfect marital happiness with Hadley Richardson grow…


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