Letters reveal Hemingway's lesser known facets

March 06, 2008

University Park, Pa. -- Penn State's newly acquired collection of novelist Ernest Hemingway's letters to his family reveals new facets and enriches our understanding of these primary personal relationships, according to Sandra Spanier, professor of English and general editor of the Hemingway Letters Project, an international effort to gather and publish his more than 6,000 letters.

For example, Hemingway confides in his kid sister, Sunny, also known as "Nunbones," about the book he's writing that he knows his upright, middle-class, Midwestern parents will hate. He writes about his impending divorce from his wife Hadley and the love affair with Pauline Pfeiffer, his second-wife-to-be, that precipitated the breakup. He is always eager for unvarnished family gossip in return. "Slip me the dirt in its totality," he tells Sunny. The news he gets from their parents is "as dry as official communiques of the reparation commission."

To his father, the doctor and founder of a local chapter of the Agassiz Club for nature study, Hemingway describes the fish he has caught, birds he has seen, the beech wood forests of the Spanish Pyrennes, the sore throats he can't shake. To his mother, the artist, who had given up a singing career to raise a family and gave music lessons in their Oak Park home, he expresses appreciation for a painting she sent and offers an honest assessment of the dim prospects of selling her work in Paris.

"Most surprising to some will be the extent to which these letters contradict the common image of Hemingway the solitary artist, adventurer, and tough guy, unencumbered by if not estranged from his family," Spanier said. "To be sure, the relationships were complicated and at times contentious. But despite the strains, the ties did bind. These letters show Hemingway's less familiar but no less honest faces: as loving husband, proud father, affectionate and devoted brother, and as caring and ever-dutiful son."

The letters also reveal Hemingway's lesser-known practical side. Writing home to Oak Park in September 1917 from the family farm in Michigan, near the cottage on Walloon Lake where they spent every summer, he reports to his father on the success of their potato and bean crops.

Following his father's suicide in 1928, the 29-year-old assumed the responsibilities of the head of the family. He set up a trust fund to provide for his mother and younger siblings, sent checks at regular intervals, provided financial support, and proffered strong doses of stern advice on real estate dealings, insurance, and automobile maintenance. And he expressed his frustration when his advice and instructions went unheeded. "It is beside the point to bring into this effort to give you economic stability any discussion of our Lord or our Heavenly Father," he writes to his mother in February 1930. "I am glad you are on such excellent terms with him. It is one of the important things of life and I congratulate you. However that is not what we are going into at present."

As a young apprentice finding his way in Paris among the expatriate writers and artists of the Left Bank, he writes home in February 1922, just months after his arrival, that he and his wife Hadley were having a wonderful time living in the oldest quarter of the city: "Paris is so very beautiful that it satisfies something in you that is always hungry in America." Gertrude Stein, "very large and nice," had come for dinner the night before and stayed until midnight; on Friday they were going to Ezra Pound's place for tea. Pound had invited Hemingway's contributions to a special issue of the Little Review.

The young Hemingway pursued his vocation as a writer independently, knowing full well that his work was likely to offend his parents' sensibilities. But he still cared what the folks back home thought of him. In a letter of Dec. 15, 1925, he thanks his father for having bought "In Our Time" and refers to clippings his mother had sent. He warns that his latest "funny book" ("Torrents of Spring") was one that people would love or hate "even more violently." But while naturally it was nice to have people like his work, he stood firm in his artistic integrity. "I know what I'm doing," he writes.

Invoking the love of hunting that he had learned from his father, he explained that "it is inside yourself that you have to judge and nothing anybody says outside can help you anymore than anybody can help you shoot when a partridge flies up. Either you hit them or you don't. Good instruction beforehand teaching you to shoot etc. is fine. But after a while it all depends on yourself and you have to be your own worst critic."

An exhibition at the Eberly Family Special Collections Library, 104 Paterno Library, presents a selection of the heretofore unseen letters, as well as photographs on loan from the personal collection of Ernest H. Mainland, from whom the University Libraries acquired the correspondence. The exhibition, "Hemingway Writing Home: Letters to His Family 1917-1957," runs March 6 through May 30, 2008, and was mounted by guest curators Sandra Spanier; Verna Kale, Ph.D. candidate in English; and Sandra Stelts, curator of rare books and manuscripts at the University Libraries.

For more information about the acquisition of the Hemingway correspondence, visit http://live.psu.edu/story/29210 online. To see a brief video about the correspondence, go to http://live.psu.edu/video/344 online, and for a collection of photos, visit http://live.psu.edu/stilllife/1603 online.

For more information on the Hemingway Letters Project, visit http://www.hemingwaysociety.org/#lettersproj.asp online.

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Last Updated November 18, 2010