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Review: 'The Letters of Ernest Hemingway, Volume 1: 1907-1922' show a lively, many-sided Papa

During my interview with Ernest Hemingway's first wife, Hadley Richardson, at her home in Winter Haven in 1975, she told me, "Ernest had more sides to him than could be charted in a geometry book."

She added, "When Ernest confessed to me to being a braggart, I said, 'No, just full of joy.' " While seven biographies and numerous memoirs now exist of Ernest Hemingway, not one of them reveals the author's incomparable joie de vivre, or his many-sidedness, especially the intriguing gender contradictions at the heart of his work, as reliably or as completely as does The Letters of Ernest Hemingway, Volume I.

Encompassing Hemingway's youth in Michigan, his experience in World War I and his arrival in Paris, where he wrote his first important novel and stories, the 264 letters in this collection (most never before seen and never intended to be seen by the public) strike all the notes that will resonate as major themes in the epic life and epochal literature that lie ahead. Scott Berg's observation in Vanity Fair seems right on, that "these are "the truest sentences he ever wrote."

The letters range from notes he sent home as an 8-year-old boy on summer vacations; postcards he mailed stateside to friends while serving in World War I; and literary discussions with the likes of Sherwood Anderson, Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein; to private love letters for his future wife Hadley and his war nurse, Agnes von Kurowsky (who lived for many years in St. Petersburg). The unguarded and spontaneous nature of this correspondence shows an authentic Hemingway integrated in all his complex parts, before the world-famous author became more self-conscious of his literary image and inclined to mask the vulnerable, emotional, even feminine self that emerges in these letters.

Not that the masculine personae, the rugged, highly competitive outdoorsman we associate with Hemingway the soldier, hunter, fisherman and boxer, isn't everywhere present in these letters. There hardly seems a trout stream in northern Michigan that young Hemingway hasn't raved about, the same streams his first and most autobiographical literary hero will fish in the Nick Adams stories.

In just one letter, but echoed throughout the collection, the author boasts (especially to the difficult father he wants to impress) of setting the record for brook trout in a recent competition, of winning a tennis match that day and of just last week knocking out a local professional fighter in four rounds. In the commanding manner of his major protagonists, the budding writer takes pains to assure friends and family that he is all-knowing, never weak, uncertain or afraid of anything. "You want to now about this or that," he says, "just ask me." He predicts correctly that Jack Dempsey will beat Bill Brennan by a knockout for the world heavyweight title. As a cub reporter for the Kansas City Star, he tells his family he is given more critical assignments and writes better than men with years more experience.

Anticipating the boyish exuberance of Frederic Henry in A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway waxes passionately about his love of soldiering, marching off to World War I with conspicuous bravado. Though he protests unconvincingly that the real war heroes are all dead, he takes enormous pride in his personal red badge of courage, detailing his wounding and recuperation while serving with the American Red Cross in Italy, repeatedly reminding family and friends that he is more shot up and more "medaled" than "a lot of officers that have been in three and four years." Despite a leg that looks like "some old horse that has been branded and rebranded," he will still "hobble" off to war as long as there is a war to hobble to. "It is a great old world though and I have always had a good time."

Brash as young Hemingway may sound, it is life as a continuous, passionate adventure filled with physical challenge that jumps off every page of these letters. His omnipresent invitations to male friends to join him in the salubrious outdoors, camping, hiking, fishing, shooting, singing, drinking or just bumming together, accentuate the author's lifelong principle that work and play were indispensable parts of creativity.

To each and every friend he promises their experience together will be the best time of their lives, reminding them "there's so much of this world we haven't seen and it is just a little while that we're here any way . . . . And we'll discover every place we go . . . . And we'll live Bill! Come on Bill — Break away and we'll go and when we come back we'll write it. And it will be a classic."

Part of the amazement of these letters is how early the author's supreme confidence in himself bears out in what are indeed classics such as The End of Something, Big Two-Hearted River and In Another Country. He literally writes his youthful adventures into these stories, which like the letters evoke his delight in nature and joy in the pleasures of the physical world. Unmistakably, his journalistic experience before and after the war sharpens his gifts of observation and desire for perfection — economy of language, precise presentation of detail and insistence upon the exact phrase.

Most importantly, it is not the tough guy part of Hemingway that dominates these letters, the macho Hemingway of myth, but the more integrated, balanced, androgynous self that Hemingway resurrects in his posthumously published fiction, Islands in the Stream, The Garden of Eden and Under Kilimanjaro. If Hemingway boxes and plays tennis in the morning, or thrills at shooting quail or a wild cat in the afternoon, he is as likely to play bridge or attend an opera or go to the theater at night.

The "chronically unmarried" author's letters to male friends read more like love letters, seductive entreaties to join him communing under one full moon or another, longings he says make him so inarticulate, "I'd better quit."

"When I think that I might be there with you," he tells another friend, "curled up in front of the fire, honest I can't write about it." He tells another, "I miss you like hell an am lonely for the men." The author reacts like a jilted lover, hurt and resentful, when friends fail to return his ardor. One wonders if Hemingway had been this sympathetic to his four wives how much better those marriages might have gone.

Just as Linda Miller says in her foreword, "We see Hemingway in these early letters becoming Hemingway," it will be fascinating to see in the volumes to come if the author who invariably fashioned his fiction from the facts of his own experience is as forthcoming about those "secrets" he has to tell, Hemingway sitting in judgment of Hemingway, as are his late-life fictional counterparts.

Lawrence R. Broer is a professor emeritus of English at the University of South Florida. His most recent book is "Vonnegut and Hemingway: Writers at War."

The Letters of Ernest Hemingway, Volume 1: 1907-1922

Edited by Sandra Spanier and
Robert W. Trogdon

University Press, 431 pages, $40

Review: 'The Letters of Ernest Hemingway, Volume 1: 1907-1922' show a lively, many-sided Papa 08/18/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 22, 2012 10:09am]
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