New Hemingway letters reveal friendships and feuds with other famous writers

Katie Bohn
June 18, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A world-famous author by the early 1930s, Ernest Hemingway was no stranger to the literary elite. A new volume of his letters reveals details about his friendships with fellow writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, as well as bitter feuds with former mentor Gertrude Stein and literary critic Max Eastman.

In the new book of letters, written by Hemingway from the beginning of 1932 through May 1934, he discusses a wide range of topics — from hunting and fishing to family life and politics. Sandra Spanier, Penn State Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of English and general editor of the Hemingway Letters Project, said the collection provides a richly textured view of Hemingway’s life during this period.

“It's a particularly interesting period because at this point, he's already world-famous after his success with 'A Farewell to Arms' in 1929,” Spanier said. “And now he's constantly trying to push the boundaries with his writing. The letters afford new insight into all the things he's writing about, and you can follow him almost day by day through both the mundane aspects of everyday life and also his big adventures.”

The book — "The Letters of Ernest Hemingway, 1932–1934" — was recently published by Cambridge University Press. It is the fifth volume of an expected 17 total in the Cambridge Edition of "The Letters of Ernest Hemingway," an initiative to locate, fully annotate, and publish the nearly 6,000 surviving letters written by Hemingway, most of them previously unpublished.

According to the researchers, one of Hemingway’s most famous friendships was with F. Scott Fitzgerald, perhaps best-known for his 1925 novel "The Great Gatsby." But Spanier said that Fitzgerald, contending with financial worries, his wife’s mental illness, and his own alcoholism, struggled for nearly nine years to write his next novel, a fact that frustrated Hemingway. And when Fitzgerald’s "Tender is the Night" was finally published in 1934, Hemingway didn’t mince words.

On May 28, 1934, Hemingway wrote a long letter to Fitzgerald critiquing the novel.

“Forget your personal tragedy,” Hemingway wrote. “ ... you especially have to be hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt use it — don’t cheat with it. Be as faithful to it as a scientist — but don’t think anything is of any importance because it happens to you or anyone belonging to you.”

In perhaps a show of remorse, Hemingway had scribbled on the envelope flap, “I didnt put in about the good parts. You know how good they are.” But while Hemingway offered harsh words, Spanier said he later changed his mind about the novel.

“Several years later, he wrote to their mutual editor, Maxwell Perkins, to say he had been way too hard on Fitzgerald and that when he reread 'Tender is the Night,' it was almost frightening how good it was,” Spanier said. “So, it was a complicated relationship. They cared deeply about each other but had a hard time getting along, too.”

Sandra Spanier

Sandra Spanier, Penn State Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of English, is the general editor of the Hemingway Letters Project.

IMAGE: Patrick Mansell

With such a strong personality, Hemingway wasn’t without additional feuds during this time period. One of the most notable was with his former mentor, the writer Gertrude Stein. In her 1933 book "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas," Stein described Hemingway as physically frail and accident-prone and claimed credit for teaching him to write.

“Hemingway was furious about this,” Spanier said. “He described in gory detail the injuries and accidents that he had, including how after a car crash, his broken arm had to be spliced back together with kangaroo tendons. He wrote to a number of people just ranting about Gertrude Stein. But it's clear that his feelings were hurt. He was angry and also feeling very betrayed by someone he had admired.”

One of the recipients of these rants was writer Ezra Pound, who received a letter from Hemingway dated July 22, 1933.

“If you want to be amused by some bullshit read G.Stein in August Atlantic Monthly,” Hemingway said. “I wrote The Sun Also Rises in six weeks [...] without sight nor sound of Miss S. nor for a long time after. […] Well gents it will be a big day when write my own bloddy memoirs because papa isn’t jealous of anyone (yet) and have a damned rat trap memory and nothing to prove.”

The volume also references a feud with the literary critic Max Eastman, who in a review of Hemingway’s nonfiction bullfighting book, "Death in the Afternoon," called it “Bull in the Afternoon.” Later, Hemingway would run into Eastman in the office of editor Max Perkins, who had to physically separate the two men after they came to blows.

Verna Kale, associate editor of "The Letters of Ernest Hemingway" and assistant research professor of English, said the volume also gives insight into the friendship between Hemingway and Jane Mason, a Havana socialite and patron of the arts. This is the first time these letters between Hemingway and Mason have been published.

“Jane is the third most frequent recipient of letters in this volume, so it was clearly an important friendship,” Kale said. “She has often been viewed as the prototype for two of Hemingway's iciest female characters. But this volume shows Jane to be warm, witty, intelligent, and artistic, and those sides of her clearly bring out similar qualities in Hemingway.”

For those interested in learning more, Spanier — along with volume co-editor Miriam B. Mandel and Penn State graduate research assistant Katie Warczak — will be presenting a webinar offered by the Hemingway Society on July 18. According to the researchers, the session is a chance to get a behind-the-scenes look at the volume and to ask questions in an interactive format.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated August 03, 2020