In August 1931, Ernest Hemingway penned a rather odd letter to his ex-wife Hadley Richardson Hemingway. (Ernest had left Hadley for their friend Pauline Pfeiffer, with whom Ernest had been having an affair.)
“Fine absinthe here!” Ernest wrote. “Go to Madrid tomorrow — Will make grand trip in car from Madrid to Segovia-Avila and over Mts. to Barco de Avila — When we were there before they killed a wolf right outside the gate — Bear paw nailed to church door — 12 storks nest on old castle.”
The reader must wonder if Pfeiffer, now his wife, knew that Ernest was reminiscing with Hadley, albeit in a puzzling manner.
This letter is among 429 items of correspondence (85 of which are previously unpublished) included in “The Letters of Ernest Hemingway Volume 4. 1929-1931,”edited by Sandra Spanier and Miriam B. Mandel. (And according to The Hemingway Society, Boise State Associate Professor Emeritus Rena Sanderson was an editor or associate editor for Volumes 2-4.)
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The latest volume covers 32 months of Hemingway’s life. It is during this timespan that Hemingway completed “A Farewell to Arms” (of which he struggled with 47 different endings), finalized the first draft of his book about bullfighting, “Death in the Afternoon,” and wrote two short stories (“Wine of Wyoming” and “The Sea Change”) in which Hemingway explores bisexuality.
Because Hemingway was a prolific letter writer, writing more than 3 million words of correspondence, the letters are secured from 250 sources in the United States and globally. In this volume, his editor at Scribner’s Max Perkins receives 87 missives (including letters discussing curse words in “A Farewell to Arms”); poet and friend Archibald MacLeish receives 23, and Hemingway wrote to his mother Grace Hall Hemingway 20 times over this period.
On Nov. 1, 1930, Hemingway mangled his right arm when he drove a car into a ditch in Billings, Mont., with John Dos Passos in the passenger seat. The compact fracture forced him to dictate letters to Pfeiffer, who transcribed them ornately. (The editors of this volume publish these letters, one designed in butterfly fashion.)
Hemingway fans and scholars eavesdrop on Hemingway as he supports F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Saw Gertrude Stein the other evening and she asked about you. She claims you are the one of all us guys with the most talent”; and urges Max Perkins to sign MacLeish: “You couldn’t get a better name, a better writer, or a better guy for your list. … Some poetry that he’s written all ready will be good a couple hundred years from now as it is.”
Moreover, there is a featured letter in which Hemingway, now his family’s paterfamilias, ensures that his mother is financially flush after her husband and Ernest’s father, Clarence, committed suicide in 1928. An impassioned letter to journalist Guy Hickock raising hell about Sinclair Lewis winning the Nobel Prize in Literature appears on page 426: “It certainly is a filthy business for them to give the Nobel prize to Mr. Lewis when they could have given it to Ezra or to the author of ‘Ulysses.’ Or is it that the Nobel prize is supposed to represent the best aspects of Swedish life in America, or anywhere, and that is why the give it to Lewis?”
Spanier and Mandel continue to reveal the inner Hemingway through epistles to the top writers of his generation, including memoirist Sylvia Beach (proprietor of Paris bookstore Shakespeare and Company), John Dos Passos, Ford Madox Ford, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Thornton Wilder and Owen Wister, author of “The Virginian.”
This is a vital book for any Hemingway scholar or casual fan because it displays his true feelings — good and bad — and highlights his ability to pen potent letters, which can be as mysterious as his prose.
Wayne Catan teaches English literature at Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix.
“The Letters of Ernest Hemingway Volume 4. 1929-1931,” edited by Sandra Spanier and Miriam B. Mandel; Cambridge University Press ($45)