Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


An Interview with the General Editor of The Letters of Ernest Hemingway

Professor Spanier is  general editor of Cambridge’s forthcoming The Letters of Ernest Hemingway, Vol 1 1907-1922 (to be published  in October, 2011). This is the first complete and authorized compilation; ultimately it will span a projected 16 volumes covering over 6000 letters from 250 sources. Each volume tells a unique story of a specific time in Hemingway’s life.

This first volume introduces us to the young Hemingway, growing up in Oak Park, Illinois, and summering in Michigan, where he later set his Nick Adams stories.  It chronicles his apprenticeship as a cub reporter on the Kansas City Star; his World War I service as an ambulance driver in Italy, where he was wounded and fell in love with his Red Cross nurse (experiences that inspired his 1929 novel, A Farewell to Arms); his marriage to Hadley Richardson and their move to Paris in late 1921; and the first flowering of his friendships with such Left Bank legends as Sylvia Beach, Gertrude Stein, and Ezra Pound.

CUP: Fifty years later, why is Hemingway still such an important figure in American literature?


SS: Hemingway revolutionized English prose style, and for that he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.  He used the American vernacular language and wrote prose so lean and beautiful that at times it approaches poetry.  He also was a sensitive and astute observer of his times, so that his published work—and his letters—are a narrative of the 20th century.

Hemingway is unique among literary figures in the magnitude of his popularity–even celebrity–outside academe, and this new book is sure to be of great interest as well to the legions of Hemingway readers and enthusiasts worldwide.  His appeal transcends politics and national borders.

CUP: You’ve spent the better part of the last decade collecting Hemingway’s correspondence which will be available for the general public for the first time this fall. What can we learn about Hemingway from these letters that we haven’t seen before?

SS: In contrast to the painstaking craftsmanship of his fiction, Hemingway’s letters are unguarded, spontaneous, informal, and very garrulous at times (in contrast to his lean, stripped-down published prose).   He once wrote to an editor, “The spelling and construction of my letters is careless rather than ignorant.”   He did not consider letters to be a serious form of writing and he said that if he took as much care with this letters as he did with his “real” writing, too much of his energy would go into the letters rather than into the writing that mattered.

He took a different tone with each of his correspondents, and his correspondence with each person has a unique flavor that reflects his unique relationship with that person.

What the letters show is that Hemingway was a far more complex, sensitive, and interesting individual than his sometimes one-dimensional public persona would suggest.   They show his sensitivity and vulnerability in love relationships.  The early letters show a genuine caring and affection for his parents and siblings and his desire to be a good son and brother.  They also show how serious he was from an early age about being a writer—they show a devotion to his craft.  He had an excellent high school education in Oak Park, Illinois, and he continued his education on the streets of Kansas City as a cub reporter, learning more there of value to the development of his writing than he likely would have by attending a university, as his family would have preferred.  They also show that he was  a very literary man who was an insatiable reader and loved language and word play.  His letters are sprinkled with allusions to Shakespeare, the Bible, and English poetry, and with phrases of Latin, Italian, French, and Spanish.  He also could be very funny.

CUP: What were some of the challenges you faced in assembling these letters?

SS: The first challenge was to find the letters.  Hemingway did not routinely keep carbon copies of them, so it required much detective work to locate the copies he sent to friends, family, and colleagues all over the world.  They are located in many different places—in public institutions and in private hands.

CUP: What was Hemingway’s handwriting like? Difficult to interpret?

SS: His handwriting is generally open and quite legible.  He had a few quirks, like using an “x” instead of a period sometimes, which is a carryover from his experience as a newspaper reporter.  Sometimes, when he was running out of paper, he would write up the sides of a page and upside down in the top margin.  He also typed many of his letters.  In his typewritten letters, he did not bother to erase mistakes, and his spacing is sometimes erratic.

CUP: Do you have a favorite letter?

SS: I especially like a letter he wrote to his mother on February 14, 1922.  He was a young man from the American Midwest, newly arrived in Paris.  He was very excited about the sights and experiences of the city (the art museums, the parks,  the food and wine) and about the literary people he was coming to know.  He wrote, “Paris is so very beautiful that it satisfies something in you that is always hungry in America.”   He also reported, “Gertrude Stein who wrote Three Lives and a number of other good things was here to dinner last night and stayed till mid-night. . . . She is about 55 I guess and very large and nice.  She is very keen about my poetry.”   He continued, “Friday we are going to tea at Ezra Pounds.  He has asked me to do an article on the present literary state of America.”

This letter is a good example of how these letters give an immediate eyewitness report of literary history as it was being made.  Through the letters we see the process of Hemingway becoming Hemingway.

The Letters of Ernest Hemingway will be on sale September 19th.

Photo: Pennsylvania State University

Sandra Spanier, professor of English at Pennsylvania State University, is the General Editor of the Hemingway Letters Project and serves on the board of the Hemingway Review. Spanier has worked with Martha Gellhorn (Hemingway’s third wife) to put into print her 1946 play, Love Goes to Press: A Comedy in Three Acts, co-authored with Virginia Cowles. She has spent the past nine years searching for Hemingway’s letters and assembling them into this exciting collection.

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