In 1958, two months before his 59th birthday and three years before he blew his skull open with a shotgun, Ernest Hemingway typed a letter to the people who would outlive him. He sealed it in an envelope labeled "Important/ To be opened in the case of my Death" and locked it in the safe of his home in Cuba. The letter read:
To my Executors: It is my wish that none of the letters written by me during my lifetime shall be published. Accordingly, I hereby request and direct you not to publish, or consent to the publication by others, of any such letters.
Two decades after his death, Mary Hemingway—his fourth and final wife, as well as his literary executor—decided to disregard the old man's wishes and allow the publication of some selected letters. This year, five decades after his death, a pack of Hemingway scholars are publishing as many Hemingway letters as they can lay their hands on—through inquiries to libraries and archivists, newspaper advertisements, etc.—in three volumes, the first of which has just been released.
Sandra Spanier, the lead editor of the collection, justifies publishing the letters in her introduction, arguing that Hemingway "did, in fact, consent during his lifetime to the publication of a few of his letters or extracts from them," including "letters to editors or columnists of various magazines and newspapers, answers to questionnaires, blurbs to promote the books of other writers, and the occasional commercial product endorsement." She also mentions that the Hemingway estate has endorsed the undertaking and that several Hemingway letters have already slipped into public view through various memoirs, bibliographies, and histories.
But still. Leafing through The Letters of Ernest Hemingway feels like breaking the lock on someone's diary.
The most surprising thing about the volume is the stylistic gap between the zingy, slangy, rough tone of Hemingway's early letters and the famously sleek austerity of his published prose. The Hemingway who wrote: "Man is not made for defeat. A man can be destroyed but not defeated" (The Old Man and the Sea) is also the Hemingway who wrote to his kid sister:
... since I started this I went into Peto with the Bird and the Madam and there piped Barge who informationed me that she had been screeded by you. Why and wherefore cannot you screed me? Also shot a plover for the madam's breakfast. Probably I'll be alleying toward chicago somewhere around the first of Tocober... Anyway Screed me and tell me all your troubles. 'Cause I love you. My Love to Nunbones.
He signs the letter "Ernie" with a drawing of a frothy-headed beer stein.
Hemingway's letters are garrulous, goofy, and decorated with linguistic curlicues. There's slang ("screed" for "letter" or "letter-writing," "menstrual" for "monthly," "seeds" for "money," "bum" for "travel"), nicknames (Doodiles, Yen, Issy, The Passionate Blight, Old Ivory, Pudge, Hash, Horney, Shittle), and lots of cross-lingual puns and phonetic spelling ("alleying," "nespaw," "the choich around the corner," "genuwind," "eggzact").
In one letter from 1916, he writes: "On pended gknees I peg your bardun vor the ladness of this legger. Bud a gombination of monthly examinachugs and Bad goldt are my eggscuse, or to quote 'them immortal lines,' the brooks are ruggig—also my gnose."
He writes about people he's fond of, including Gertrude Stein: "She is about 55 I guess and very large and nice. She is very keen about my poetry." He also writes about people he's not so fond of, including a letter to Ezra Pound just after T. S. Eliot won a $2,000 prize for The Waste Land: "I am glad to read Herr Eliot's adventure away from impeccability. If Herr Elliot would strangle his sick wife, bugger the brain specialist and rob the bank he might write an even better poem."
He details hunting and fishing expeditions in the US, how much groceries cost in Paris, boxing matches, and what it's like to plan for his first wedding. Most of the letters, especially the early ones, aren't very illuminating about Hemingway and his career. They are not—like Mark Twain's multivolume autobiography, which is undergoing its own serial publication at the moment—the document of a writer presenting himself to the public. They are, for the most part, just a guy "screeding" his friends and family.
But there's a curious change in their tone toward the center of the volume, while Hemingway is writing letters from a military hospital during WWI. He had been working for the Red Cross in Italy, where he requested to be moved closer to enemy lines, riding his bicycle to the trenches to deliver cigarettes, postcards, and chocolate to the soldiers. One night, while he was handing out chocolate, a trench shell exploded nearby. "There was an Italian between Ernest and the shell," a friend writes to Hemingway's parents in one of the volume's few letters by somebody else. "He was instantly killed while another, standing a few feet away, had both his legs blown off."
Hemingway picked up a third wounded soldier and carried him to a first-aid station, for which he won an Italian silver medal for bravery. Hemingway sustained 227 wounds to his legs and writes to his family from the hospital with the first hints of the austerity—the simple description of physical facts to communicate more baroque inner truths—that we'd come to hear from him:
There is a scar about 8 inches long in the bottom of my foot and a neat little puncture on top. Thats what copper jacketed bullets do when they 'key hole' in you. My knee is a beauty also. I'll never be able to wear kilts Pop. My left leg thigh and side looks like some old horse that has been branded and rebranded by about 50 owners.
Shells aren't bad except direct hits. You just take chances on the fragments of the bursts. But when there is a direct hit your pals get spattered all over you. Spattered is literal.
This tilt towards the Hemingway we'd come to know isn't complete. In another letter written from the hospital, he still asks his sister to "dip the quill and sling me a screed," but there is a small tremor separating the language of the prewar Hemingway and the postwar Hemingway. There are fewer of these passages: "There are a few awful mutts in the unit but the majority are a swell bunch and we are having le grand time." And more of these: "The hot rum punch and checker season has come in. It looks like a good winter."