Penn State Libraries acquire Ernest Hemingway correspondence

March 06, 2008

University Park, Pa. -- Penn State's University Libraries have acquired an important collection of Ernest Hemingway correspondence, the last sizeable and significant known collection of the famed novelist's letters still in private hands. Amassed by his sister Madelaine "Sunny" Hemingway Mainland and passed on to her son, Ernest Hemingway Mainland, the set includes more than 100 unpublished letters, telegrams, and notes from Hemingway to his family between 1917 and 1957.

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) was arguably the most famous American writer in history. The correspondence contains fresh accounts of experiences that he later transformed into fiction, and provides new insights into the course of his relationships with his parents, siblings, wives, and sons.

"This 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," said William L. Joyce, the Dorothy Foehr Huck Chair and head of Penn State's Special Collections Library. "The letters deepen our understanding and humanize this great American writer and display aspects of his personality previously underappreciated."

Posted from northern Michigan, Kansas City, Milan, Toronto, Paris, Pamplona, the village of Schruns in the Austrian Tyrol, Valencia, Montana, Key West, Bimini, Cuba, and Nairobi, Hemingway's letters not only chart his movements through his eventful life and career, but track the course of his relationships with his family.

The collection will be open to researchers and the public later this year, Joyce noted.

Meanwhile, an exhibition at the Special Collections Library, "Hemingway Writing Home: Letters to His Family 1917-1957," presents a selection of the heretofore unseen letters, as well as photographs on loan from the personal collection of Ernest H. Mainland. The exhibition, which runs March 6 through May 30, 2008, was mounted by guest curators Sandra Spanier, Penn State professor of English and general editor of the Hemingway Letters Project; Verna Kale, Ph.D. candidate in English; and Sandra Stelts, curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at the University Libraries.

"Penn State is a particularly fitting home for this important collection of letters," said Stelts. "The University has a long and distinguished tradition in American literature in general and Hemingway studies in particular.

"Most recently, the Hemingway Letters Project at Penn State, an international effort directed by Spanier as general editor and supported in part by the University Libraries, has been gathering and preparing his more than 6,000 letters for inclusion in a 12-volume scholarly edition to be published by Cambridge University Press. Volume I is scheduled to appear in 2009. The Hemingway Letters Project will eventually include the recent Penn State acquisition.

In an introductory essay for the University Libraries exhibition, Spanier observes that this most public of writers guarded his personal privacy, and in these letters to his family we see another side of Hemingway: "Ernie" to his parents; "Oinbones" or "Stein" (short for his nickname "Hemingstein") or "the Antique Brutality" (a variation on "Old Brute") to his favorite sister."

Depending on the day and hour and person addressed," writes Spanier, "Hemingway in his letters is loving, respectful, irreverent, playful, proud, funny, boastful, caustic, apologetic, conciliatory. He is sometimes petulant or self-pitying, often caring and tender."

While his published prose was honed and polished to gemlike smoothness and clarity (he claimed to have written the ending of "A Farewell to Arms" 39 times before he was satisfied), the letters to his family were spontaneous and informal. Fired off without fuss or correction, they capture the observations, events and moods of a particular day, written in a particular voice pitched to a particular recipient. They illustrate in immediate intensity the full range of Hemingway's experiences on the home front: the familial fondness, the friction, and the fractures.

Perhaps most intriguingly, the letters contain fresh and immediate reports of experiences that Hemingway would later transform into some of the most enduring works of American and world literature. "I go to the front tomorrow," the 18-year-old volunteer ambulance driver wrote home on a picture postcard from Milan, Italy, on June 9, 1918. A month later he would be wounded seriously in a mortar explosion and sent for treatment to the American Red Cross Hospital in Milan, experiences from which he drew his World War I novel, "A Farewell to Arms."

In July 1924, on his second trip to Spain, he described the annual Fiesta of San Fermin, featuring the running of the bulls through the streets of Pamplona, which he would immortalize in "The Sun Also Rises." "It is a purely Spanish festa [sic] high up in the capital of Navarre and there are practically no foreigners altho [sic] people come from all over Spain for it," he wrote to his mother. Today tens of thousands make the pilgrimage to Pamplona for the festival, drawn by the force of Hemingway's imagination.

Penn State's new accession strengthens the University Libraries' already strong holdings in American literature, noted Stelts.

"With the arrival of Fred Lewis Pattee in 1894, the University became one of the earliest centers for American literary studies," she said, "at the time a controversial departure from English literature. A pioneering scholar in American literary history, Pattee was one of the first in the nation to hold the title of professor of American literature, and the Pattee/Paterno Library honors his legacy."

The late Philip Young, an Evan Pugh professor at Penn State, was one of the earliest and most influential Hemingway scholars and the author of the first book on Hemingway in 1952. The late Charles W. Mann Jr., chief of rare books and special collections at the University Libraries for more than 40 years, also played a key role in Hemingway scholarship. In the late 1960s, at the invitation of the author's fourth wife and widow, Mary Hemingway, Young and Mann were the first to catalogue the Hemingway papers that she later would donate to the Kennedy Library. At the time, the papers, gathered from Paris, Key West, Idaho, and Cuba, were kept in a New York City bank vault and in shopping bags in her apartment closet. Young and Mann's landmark book, "The Hemingway Manuscripts: An Inventory," was published in 1969 by the Penn State University Press.

For more discussion of the contents of the Hemingway correspondence, visit online. To see a brief video about the correspondence, go to online, and for a collection of photos, visit online.

For more information about the correspondence or the exhibit, contact the Eberly Family Special Collections Library, 104 Paterno Library, 814-865-1793. The Special Collections Library Exhibition Hall is open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and through May 2 remains open until 6:30 p.m. on Fridays.

  • Ernest Hemingway

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Last Updated November 18, 2010