Letters home reveal another side of Ernest Hemingway

Melissa Beattie-Moss
September 08, 2008

“All my life I’ve looked at words as though I were seeing them for the first time,” wrote Ernest Hemingway. That sense of linguistic newness and wonder, as well as the tightly-crafted precision of his prose style, made Hemingway one of the most iconic figures in 20th century American literature. His adventurous life—which began in upper-class Oak Park, Illinois in 1899 and ended by suicide in 1961—was as outsized as his fiction is lean, and included being wounded by mortar shells in World War I; narrowly escaping death during the Spanish Civil War; nearly dying of blood poisoning while on safari in Africa; and surviving two plane crashes.

Though the enduring image of the white bearded, barrel-chested “Papa” Hemingway is as a hard-drinking man’s man with a zeal for hunting, fishing, boxing and bullfighting, the author’s private correspondence shows lesser-known dimensions of a man whose life was lived on the public stage.

Penn State’s recent acquisition of the last significant known collection of Hemingway letters provides an especially intimate view of the man behind the mystique.

The collection of over one hundred unpublished letters, notes and telegrams—written primarily to his parents and favorite sister Madelaine (“Sunny”) Hemingway and postmarked from such places as Milan, Key West, Pamplona, Bimini, and Cuba—spans forty years of Hemingway’s life. Comments William Joyce, head of Penn State’s Special Collections Library, “The acquisition of family letters of Ernest Hemingway shows us a side of him that the public rarely saw—a devoted and dutiful son and an affectionate and attentive brother. It shows the multifaceted relationships he had with all his family members, and deepens and enriches our understanding of Hemingway’s family ties.”

Sandra Spanier, professor of English and general editor of the Hemingway Letters Project (a twelve-volume scholarly edition of the writer’s letters, to be published by Cambridge University Press) was instrumental in arranging the purchase of the collection and co-curating a recent exhibit of the letters, along with Sandra Stelts, curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts, and Verna Kale, doctoral candidate in English.

“Almost no one outside the family had seen these letters,” Spanier explains. “They were in possession of Madelaine’s son, Ernest Hemingway Mainland, in Petoskey, Michigan. He had sold a few pieces over the years, so I knew of the collection’s existence. I first visited him in the fall of 2004 to talk about the letters. On my next visit with Ernie, he brought out maybe a third of the letters, to give me a taste. I came back to Penn State and told our Dean of Libraries, Nancy Eaton and Bill Joyce, ‘There’s something really extraordinary here that you might be interested in seeing.’ In November of 2006, Bill and I went to Petoskey and spent a whole Sunday, side by side at a long table, just reading this amazing drama that unfolds, letter to letter.”

Although much has been made of Hemingway’s negative feelings towards his family (he didn’t attend his mother’s funeral, and permanently distanced himself from two of his five siblings), that is far from the complete story, says Spanier. “To be sure, the relationships were complicated and at times contentious. But despite the strains, the ties did bind.”

Hemingway on the beach with his child

“When I first read these letters,” she recalls, “I was quite struck by the strength of his relationship with his immediate family in the early years. In the later years, he did become estranged from his mother. His father committed suicide. He had very infrequent contact with all of his siblings. So to read the early letters, when they’re all pals, is very moving.”

Adds Spanier, “He describes in excited terms to his parents what it’s like to be in Kansas City at his first job as a cub reporter for the Kansas City Star. He thanks his mom for sending the great cake that everybody in the newsroom loved. When he lived in Paris, he describes the botanical garden in a letter home, knowing that his father will take a real interest in these naturalist observations. These are the sort of domestic, familial details that represent a side of Hemingway that has gotten lost.”

The University was particularly fortunate to acquire this collection, explains Spanier, since many of the letters were written to Hemingway’s favorite sister and family confidante, Madelaine, whom he nicknamed “Nunbones.” (It was typical of Hemingway, notes Spanier, to confer “a bewildering variety” of nicknames upon his friends and family.)

“There are some rather stunning letters in the collection,” she says, “such as one in which Hemingway writes ‘This is private and confidential,’ and goes on to tell his sister that he’s about to divorce his first wife, Hadley.” In another letter, he confides that he’s working on a book “that the folks will hate.” (Though Hemingway went on to win Pulitzer and Nobel prizes, his religious, Midwestern parents found the themes of his early work morbid and vulgar, and even returned copies of his books sent to them by his publisher.)

Sandra Spanier
M. Scott Johnson

Sandra Spanier

Hemingway’s Practical Side

Another aspect of Hemingway that emerges from these dispatches is his practical side, says Spanier. One letter addressed to Sunny includes “all kinds of instructions for getting the car ready for a long trip, down to what brand of motor oil to put in it. When we think of Hemingway, we think of the artist or the public figure. But you don’t think about somebody who has to change the oil in his car and knows exactly how to do it and what brand to buy.”

Hemingway was twenty-nine years old when his father died, and “the picture we get of him in letters from this time is of someone taking on a huge amount of responsibility and really becoming the head of the family,” explains Spanier. “You get the sense that he is expected to provide, and in many ways he would like to. For instance, Sunny was musical and in the mid-1930s wanted his help buying a harp. There are letters to her in which he keeps telling her that it’s the Depression and if he had $100 dollars, he’d love to give it to her, but he just doesn’t have it right now.” He probably was a little defensive, Spanier adds, because “his wife Pauline had a lot of money, relatively speaking. And they were taking a safari to Africa in the midst of the Great Depression.”

He wrote to Sunny, “I move around a lot and do plenty shooting and fishing but I make my living out of that and if don’t move about have nothing to write about.

Notes Sandra Stelts, “I particularly like one letter to his mother. She is a little miffed at all the instructions he is giving her about her finances. And Hemingway replies, “Praying for advice and guidance is an excellent thing but advice and guidance even though unprayed for when accompanied by cash can be an excellent thing too.’”

That must have been a very satisfying letter to write, Stelts adds. “His mother had been a dominant force in the family for a long time and was now in a more dependent situation. The letter shows his wit and sarcasm, as well as the role-reversal in the family.”

Some of the most intriguing letters in the collection, say the curators, are those containing fresh accounts of experiences the author would later transform into literature. “I go to the front tomorrow, ” the 18-year-old Hemingway wrote home on a postcard from Milan, dated June 9, 1918. Wounded seriously in a mortar explosion one month later, he was treated at the American Red Cross Hospital in Milan. (“P.S. Don’t worry, Pop,” ends one hospital-bed letter home.) These are among the experiences that helped shape his World War I novel, A Farewell to Arms.

The Hemingway letters have found a fitting home at Penn State, given the University’s long and distinguished tradition in American literary studies, dating back to Fred Lewis Pattee’s arrival on campus in 1894. Pattee—one of the first professors in the nation to hold the title of professor of American literature—helped establish American literature as a distinct and credible field of study in its own right, rather than a lesser branch of English literature. Penn State is noted for pioneering research in Hemingway studies as well. The late Philip Young, an Evan Pugh professor of English, authored the first book on Hemingway in 1952. In the late 1960s, he and the late Charles W. Mann, Jr.—the University’s chief of Rare Books and Special Collections for over 40 years—were the first people to catalog the Hemingway papers that Hemingway’s widow later donated to the Kennedy Library. In 1969, Penn State University Press published the landmark book by Mann and Young, The Hemingway Manuscripts: An Inventory.

When Spanier’s husband, Graham Spanier, interviewed for a beginning faculty position at Penn State in 1973, she learned that “the foremost Hemingway scholar, Philip Young, was here. That’s when I applied to graduate school and really got more professionally interested. At the time, I had no aspirations of being a full-time academic. I was a high school teacher. I did my Master’s degree in evenings and summers, and my very first course was taught by Charley Mann—a notorious boot camp course, English 501. I spent 60 hours in the library on the first assignment, tracking down answers to a list of 50 incredibly obscure questions. Looking back, there’s no doubt that it was very serendipitous for me to be here at that time.”

Spanier’s interest in Hemingway pre-dates her studies at Penn State. “I can actually pinpoint when it really began,” recalls Spanier. “We went to Key West for a friend’s wedding in 1972 and decided to go visit the Hemingway house. At that time, it wasn’t the cultivated tourist experience it is now. There were descendants of Hemingway’s famous six-toed cats roaming all over the place, including one sleeping on top of the stove, I remember. At that time, you could even take a cat home with you, if you wanted to! I was captivated by the whole ambiance of Key West and by Hemingway. I wasn’t a big Hemingway buff until that trip, but when we came back I started reading furiously.”

Spanier’s scholarship has led her to her current project—“a monumental thing,” as Sandra Stelts describes it. As general editor of Cambridge University’s Press planned release (over the next fifteen years) of a 12-volume scholarly edition of Hemingway’s letters, Spanier is directing an international team of scholars in editing, annotating, and introducing the letters. At the project’s headquarters at Penn State, she works closely with Associate Editor and Project Coordinator LaVerne Maginnis, graduate research assistants, and specially trained undergraduate interns. To date they have collected and transcribed more than 6.000 photocopied letters for the master archive. Notes Stelts, “This will be the definitive edition of Hemingway’s letters, so Sandy and her colleagues want to get everything right—all the references, all the names. It’s an unbelievably complicated task.” The Hemingway Letters Project is supported in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and has been designated a We, the People project, "a special recognition by the NEH for model projects that advance the study, teaching, and understanding of American history and culture." The first volume is expected to be published in 2009.

Continuing the tradition of mentoring within Penn State Hemingway studies, Spanier has served as an adviser to graduate student Verna Kale, who has been Spanier’s research assistant on the Letters Project and served as guest curator of the library’s Spring 2008 exhibit of Hemingway letters, called “Hemingway Writing Home: Letters To His Family 1917-1957.”

“I came to Penn State primarily because of the strong tradition of Hemingway studies here,” Kale explains. “I began with the same picture of Hemingway that a lot of people have—as this gun-toting, hard-drinking man. But working with the letters has shown me different sides of him. He was an extremely complicated person. He was very emotional. He was very funny. He also had a great respect for nature. And he had a strong work ethic, with Midwestern values that he kept his whole life.” Of working with Sandra Spanier, Kale says, “She’s a wonderful, supportive mentor. She encourages me to take on more than I thought I could. I’ve learned a lot from her about editing and research.”

Turning back to the letters themselves, Spanier’s voice is full of emotion as she says, “You have to cut through the stereotype of this swaggering, macho character and go to the work. That’s the touchstone. That’s what matters.” The candidness of his family letters, which “are not self-conscious and were certainly not written with posterity in mind,” reminds the public of the complex humanity behind the icon. Spanier’s favorite letters? Perhaps the ones from his early years, she says. “It’s just so poignant to me to be privy to the thoughts and experiences of this person who is on the brink of his whole life opening up and feels that magnitude.”

Sandra Spanier, Ph.D., is professor of English in the College of the Liberal Arts; sxs74@psu.edu.

Sandra Stelts is Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts in the Special Collections department of the University Libraries; sks5@psu.edu.

William L. Joyce is the Dorothy Foehr Huck Chair for Special Collections and head of Penn State’s Special Collections Library; wlj2@psulias.psu.edu.

Verna Kale is a doctoral candidate in English; verna.kale@gmail.com.

Last Updated September 08, 2008