HEMINGWAY was something more than a natural writer. When nerveracked, sleepless or desperate, he took to writing letters for relief as another man might take Valium. He wrote strange and sometimes wonderful letters although they have nothing to do with the art of the charming letter. Since he knew he would order that they never be published, most of them come pouring out exuberantly, or furiously, or maliciously, or humorously, the stuff of his own wide gaudy wonderful world. We get, too, the part of his inner world he wants to reveal; he was always very canny about this. Since he had a searing power to make everything he wrote seem real, the letters are captivating because we can never be sure whether he is telling the truth, or whether he is being seduced by his imagination into believing the legends he created for himself. And so, after reading Carlos Baker's Selected Letters for some hours I suddenly remembered that afternoon in the middle '30s when I dropped into Scribners to have a drink with Max Perkins.
As soon as I entered the office Perkins said, "Sherwood Anderson was in here earlier and he was telling me that at that dinner you had with him last night you gave a splended defense of Hemingway's Catholicism." Seeing the astonished alarm in my face, since Hemingway's Catholicism had never been mentioned at the dinner, Perkins stood up and said hastily, "I know. Now don't get Sherwood wrong," and he explained that Anderson had a trick of the imagination that was often misunderstood. After such an evening, Anderson would find the event still flowing on after we parted, a daydream, and in this daydream he would hear himself saying things he had wanted to say, and get answers to questions; he would even hear the answers, and later on, the daydream would be remembered as part of the evening, having become just as real for him as anything that had actually happened.
Hemingway had a touch of Anderson in him and, as with the author of Winesburg, Ohio, that compulsion to create a new reality was not necessarily malicious or self-serving. In the end, of course, he called Anderson a slob and a liar. But, as with many artists, the truth was there was only when it satisfied his imagination. I mentioned Anderson not only to make this observation, but because he actually was a turning point in Hemingway's life. Before reading these letters, I wondered, how did the young unknown writer from Chicago manage to leap from there right into the open arms of Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Beach and Ezra Pound? Well, he had letters of introduction from Sherwood Anderson. But if all the Paris doors were opened for him by Anderson, he himself had something rich and strange to offer -- his personality. As Archibald MacLeish has noted, he has presence. You felt it when he was with you listening intently, or explaining something himself, then giving you the delightful excitement of sharing some acute secret awareness of all things. Of course, not all people got this impression. Edmund Wilson told me of his first encounter with Hemingway, an evening in New York with Scott Fitzgerald, and he had thought Hemingway was "just a little too slick."
The letters from these Paris days prefigure the pattern of relationships to follow in Key West and Cuba; a lot of love at first, then resentments turning sometimes to hate. He is all love for his wife Hadley as he writes adoring letters to Gertrude Stein and warm appreciative letters to Fitzgerald. He comes to love Erza Pound, and he tells how much he likes Bob McAlmon, his first publisher -- and then the dark brooding side of his nature begins to appear. Soon he is talking about his contempt for Ford Madox Ford, he comes to loath Ernest Walsh, the editor of This Quarter, and he soon hates Bob McAlmon for making up stories about him. Yet, at the same time he remained wonderfully generous and helpful to other writers, as I know; but having written Anderson, thanking him for being the one who gave the necessary push to open the publishing gate for him at Liveright, as soon as In Our Time appeared and some New York reviewers likened him to Anderson, he took off after his benefactor. He wrote The Torrents of Spring, heavily satirizing him. Then, as if he didn't know what he had done, he wrote Anderson, telling him that a thing that is really good cannot be hurt by satire. There it was again, that trait: the truth was there only when it satisfied his imagination. What a weird triumph for Anderson.
Those days in Paris were a mixed-up time for him. He had written The Sun Also Rises , and was on the edge of the great frame, but he was divorcing Hadley and writing with great emotion to Pauline Pfeiffer, soon to be his second wife. He wrote good love letters. The ones he wrote years later to Mary Welsh Hemingway are natural and good, too. But his father and mother, who had not like The Sun Also Rises, nor anything else he had written, were on his mind. His sister Marcelline, writing to me after reading my memoir, The Summer In Paris, said it was true Ernest was a mixture of the light and the dark, but she didn't think he had ever been fair to his family. Yes, he may have hated his mother, but the letter he writes to both his parents trying to explain The Sun Also Rises, has a genuine boyish concern and dignity.
When he moves to Key West and later to Cuba, becoming bigger and bigger as an international celebrity, the letters keep flowing to the old friends: the painters, Mike Strater and Waldo Peirce, Gertrude Stein, Archibald MacLeish, Ezra Pound, the beloved John Dos Passos, and a host of new friends who seem to come swarming around him, helping him struggle against the dark forces and those who might challenge his place in the sun. And there are all those letters to Max Perkins and Charles Scribner about the making of his books. They are fascinating. They are full of gossip, business details, the making of big deals, and full of mean back-bitting, too. He writes in high glee to Sara Murphy, explaining how he trashed that big lovely poet, Wallace Stevens. He is always threatening to punch out someone.
But the style of these letters is probably unique in literature. He may start off vilifying some enemy, but then, suddenly, he is out in his boat fishing and he soars off into vivid prose like a man driven to prove he was a lovely writer no matter what his state of mind. The vitality, the passion for writing, is amazing. But as time passed, this man who could be so gentle and generous, became murderous about other writers. He litters the literary beach with casualties. Sinclair Lewis he loathed because he got the Nobel Prize. The vilification he heaped on James Jones, in a letter to Charles Scribner, is simply shocking. At this time, he seems to be right off his rocker. What was going on in him? What was his secret despair? It's not in the letters. Everything else is, including of course Fitzgerald, who runs repetitiously through these pages as if Hemingway knew all his life would never be able to make up his mind how he felt about him.
As for the letters telling about his dashing military feats when he was a war correspondent in France, I can't be sure if it isn't all leg-pulling, or a love of storytelling -- yet he had such great wisdom about what was good and true in writing! One of these letters is very funny, unwittingly so. He wrote to Bernard Berenson, describing how the beribboned Andre Malraux had come to the Ritz after Hemingway and his friends had "liberated" it. These two men of high talent, both flamboyant adventurers, both always determined, as Ezra Pound has it in his poem -- "to do high deeds in Hungary to pass all men's believing" -- faced each other, bearing all their legends. Instantly, Hemingway hated Malraux. A fake, he tells Berenson. Malraux's legend was his own creation.
It's these versions that fascinate me: changing, shifting, full of contridictions. No one should care now, but the many versions he gives of his boxing bout with me in Paris, with Fitzgerald acting as timekeeper, are strangely revealing and perplexing (in the same way that one wonders why he made up the story that the great middleweight Harry Greb stuck his thumb in his own eye when it never happened). In an early letter to Perkins, Hemingway explains how he slipped and fell when Fitzgerald let the round go on too long. Some years later, writing to Fitzgerald's biographer Arthur Mizener, he gives another version; now he is full of wine and Fitzgerald lets the round go 13 minutes. A 13-minute round? incredible! And he wasn't on the floor at all! Is this plain lying? Or is the daydream now the real thing? Was he always shaping and reshaping reality to suit himself, to soothe himself, carrying on conversations or fights or jungle treks in the night he wished he'd had. I don't know, but if this was the case, how terrible it must have been for him at the end, having a nervous breakdown, with his wild imagination working away, seeking the right end to his story, his life.
The fact is, all the gossip and daily routine aside, all these letters help explain why he was a great storyteller, a great artist, a great actor, and the great Romantic of the period. As Edmund Wilson, whom he had so often reviled, wrote to me on the news of Hemingway's death, "After all, he was one of the pillars of our time."