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Ernest Hemingway

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Ernest Hemingway

Post  Mata Hari on Sun Nov 13, 2011 9:16 pm

A review of several books about Papa Hemingway.
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/13/books/review/arthur-phillips-on-new-books-about-ernest-hemingway.html?src=recg
This abiding interest in the man, as opposed to his books, has three causes: the undeniably adventurous and outsize details of his tragic life; his intentional cultivation of celebrity (and the resulting mountain of documentary records); and the fact that he wrote fiction so closely tied to the actual places, people and details of his life. We feel we know him because we have read his stories of protagonists very much like him doing things he actually did in places he really lived with characters very much like his family and friends.

This is unfortunate, though, because it kills — or at least weakens — the power of his fiction, limits how we think of it. We start to read it small, view it as merely well-pruned memoir. It becomes an illustration of his life (“Oh, that character’s really his first wife”), when of course the best of his fiction is unique because it is not just one man’s story. It is great art because of its range of possible meanings and effects. His finest fiction is vast, universal, open to interpretation, changeable and debatable, intentionally opaque, impersonal. It is ours, not his.

Three recent books in that tide of Hemingway iconography present different glimpses of him, and imply different relationships between his life and his art.

“The Letters of Ernest Hemingway,” covering the years 1907-22, is the first of more than a dozen planned volumes, collecting just about everything he ever wrote that was not meant for publication. And, to be clear, those of us who admire his fiction should take a moment to acknowledge that these letters were not intended for us. To his executors: “I hereby request and direct you not to publish, or consent to the publication by others, of any such letters.” We are snooping. If you love the artist’s work, if you respect what you think you know of the man, then you can honor his wishes and stop reading right here. On the other hand, Pauline, the second of his four wives, burned her share of the letters, and their son Patrick said of that decision: “At least she was logical. She didn’t want her correspondence to be immortalized. That was the way to deal with it.”

The existence of some of these documents (predating Hemingway’s fame) is close to a miracle, and “The Letters” is without question a spectacular scholarly achievement. Letters about boyhood fishing trips in Michigan that resemble his early Nick Adams stories; notes passed in class; brave and boastful letters home from the hospital in Italy after his wounding in World War I with descriptions of artillery that prefigure “A Farewell to Arms”; courtship letters to his first wife; gossipy letters from Paris describing the literary world he was discovering: these are extraordinary. From 1922, to Sherwood Anderson: “Gertrude Stein and me are just like brothers. . . . Joyce has a most goddamn wonderful book. . . . I’ve been teaching Pound to box with little success.” Sigh.

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Mata Hari

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