Learning from Papa: Editor Robert Trogdon on Collecting Hemingway’s Letters

Written by: Robert Trogdon


Working on The Letters of Ernest Hemingway for the past several years has been and continues to be a truly wonderful experience. Since my graduate school days I have loved working with primary documents—manuscripts, letters, etc.—that contain a writer’s initial conceptions of a work or his unmediated thoughts. And since Hemingway has been my favorite writer since I was a high school student and the focus of most of my research, the opportunity to become part of this project was too good to pass up. I would get to work with the largest collection of Hemingway letters ever assembled and be able to help edit them for a work that would be of use to scholars and students for years to come. And I also thought it would be easy. As I said, I had been reading Hemingway and works on him since I was in high school. I had worked on a letters collection as a graduate student. I figured that editing and annotating would be pieces of cake.

Very quickly I was disabused of this idea. Working on Hemingway’s letters was at first much more difficult than I had anticipated. First, we had to ensure the accuracy of our transcriptions of the correspondence. This meant travelling to the various places that held the actual documents as we could not rely solely on the photocopies provided to the project as certain details are obscured or hidden on copies. So between teaching at Kent State University, I made many trips to places such as the Kennedy Library, Princeton University, Yale University and Indiana University to correct our transcriptions.

But what was especially difficult was writing annotations. Direct references to things that happened in later Hemingway stories were fairly easy, such as the description of fishing in Horton Bay in his 18 and 27 July 1919 letter to Jim Gamble which he later uses in “The End of Something.” But other references were harder to nail down. The young Hemingway read a great deal and sprinkled a lot of quotations throughout his correspondence, as he did in his letter of 18 March 1916 to Emily Goetzmann. He was fond of alluding to Bible verses in his correspondence, especially to his family. Very early on he took to displaying his knowledge—quite often imperfect—of foreign languages which required me to know not only what the right form of a phrase was but how his thinking had led him to making a mistake, as in his 11 November 1918 letter to his sister Marcelline, who was learning Italian herself but not the “common or garden variety” which her brother spoke.

The letters Hemingway wrote from 1907 to 1922 are filled with very specific local details, especially of the geography and people of northern Michigan where he spent most of his time in 1919 and 1920. Hemingway alluded to historical events which while very significant at the time have escaped the notice of historians, such as the 18 May 1918 New York parade of Red Cross volunteers in which Hemingway took part. And I can say with some confidence that I now know more about baseball and boxing of the early part of the twentieth century than I thought I would ever know.

In the course of working on the annotations I received an education in research beyond anything that was ever expected of me in graduate school. And I discovered a Hemingway that I did not know existed. The letters showed me a Hemingway who was much closer to his family than he is typically portrayed in the standard biographies, but one who was not above displaying different aspects of his personality to different members of his family. For example, he writes his mother and father on 30 January 1918 to tell them how hard he is working on the Kansas City Star; the same day he tells his sister Marcelline how many types of wine he can distinguish by taste and how many shows he has seen in the local Kansas City theaters. He alludes very often to working for advertising firms in Chicago in 1920 and 1921, which heretofore has not been verified by any scholars. And the letters confirm that he returned to the front after his wounding in World War I for a brief period before, like his protagonist Frederic Henry, he came down with jaundice. One of the more pleasant discoveries for me was finding that Hemingway knew of the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald before the two men met in 1925, having read This Side of Paradise when it was published.

It was a great pleasure to see the hard work of myself and the other members of the editorial team come together in such a beautiful volume. And I would like to take this chance to thank all the assistance that the faculty, students and staff at Kent State University have provide to me to help with this project. It is my hope that it helps spark a new appreciation of both Hemingway and his work and that it proves to be a valuable resource for years to come.

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About the Author: Robert Trogdon

Robert Trogden is the co-editor of The Letters of Ernest Hemingway, Volume 1 (2011). Trogdon is Professor of English at Kent State University....

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