This brief account of a year spent hanging around with Ernest Hemingway is an unexpected literary discovery, one of no particular moment but quite considerable charm. It was discovered among the papers of Arnold Samuelson upon his death in 1981 by his daughter, Diane Darby, who correctly determined that it was more than mere Hemingway marginalia and that consequently it deserved publication. Its value is not that it adds anything of importance to our understanding of Hemingway, but that it allows us to see him through the eyes of someone who knew him before the "Papa" image had been inflated to monstrous proportions.
Samuelson went to visit Hemingway in the spring of 1934. He was 22 years old, a native of a North Dakota hamlet called White Earth. He had completed his studies in journalism at the University of Minnesota but had not graduated because he declined to pay the diploma fee -- an act characteristic of the iconoclasm that seems to have been central to his character. His visit to Hemingway was of a piece with that: He had read a story of Hemingway's, had decided that Hemingway could help him fulfill his own desire to be a writer, and promptly rode the rails to Key West in hopes of a fruitful conversation with him.
It turned out to be a lot more than that. Hemingway seems to have taken to the brash but innocent young man at once, or at least as soon as he realized that Samuelson had no ulterior motives in approaching him. Not merely did he chat with him about writing, he offered him a job; for the wage of a dollar a day, not to be sneezed at in those Depression years. Samuelson did various odd jobs around the Hemingway house and then did more of them aboard ship when Hemingway, his wife Pauline, their two sons and various cronies set off for Cuba aboard the writer's spanking-new boat, the Pilar.
Samuelson's real function seems to have been less that of handyman than of admiring companion. In her introduction Darby quotes Hemingway's younger brother, Leicester: "Ernest was never very content with life unless he had a spiritual kid brother nearby. He needed someone he could show off to as well as teach. He needed uncritical admiration. If the kid brother could show a little worshipful awe, that was a distinct aid in the relationship. I made a good kid brother when I was around but I couldn't be around regularly."
But Samuelson was around for a whole year, and he seems to have played the role exactly right. He was admiring but not obsequious, and he brought off the difficult balancing act of being part of the Hemingway family on the one hand, yet servant to it on the other. He was an inept fisherman whom Hemingway could therefore instruct -- his journal is crammed, to a point that may drive some readers to seasickness, with fishing expeditions -- and an apprentice writer to whom Hemingway could speak avuncularly about his craft. Most of what he had to say falls into the standard and rather pontifical Hemingway mold ("When you're still going good and you come to an interesting place and you know what's going to happen next, that's the time to stop"), but one paragraph stands out:
"Most writers keep on writing about their childhood until they're forty. They spend their youths concealing their love affairs and their old age revealing them. The best stuff you've got is from your farm life in North Dakota and your sister's murder. That's something nobody else can write and nobody can ever take it away from you, but you don't want to use it for a long time. Save your best stuff until you've learned how to handle it, because you can't write the same thing twice unless you rewrite it. Wait until you've learned how to become detached. In order to write tragedy you've got to be absolutely detached, no matter how much it hurts you. Tragedy is the peak of the art and that's the hardest thing there is to do. You never lose a story by not writing it."
That's sound advice, though it doesn't seem to have done Samuelson much good. Apart from selling a handful of magazine pieces, he never made it as a writer. But he did leave this manuscript, a posthumous achievement that is small but noteworthy. The Hemingway whom he gives us is a more attractive man than the "Papa" soon to emerge -- affected and self-conscious as ever, needless to say, but also generous and forthcoming. In tribute Samuelson writes: "He left me with that damned marvelous feeling you can have only once in a lifetime if you are a young man who wants to become a writer and you have just met the man you admire as the greatest writer alive and you know instinctively he is already your friend." Too often we lose sight of that side of Hemingway; we thus have Samuelson to thank for reminding us that it was there, and that it brought great pleasure to many people.