The didactic momentum of the biography was such that we sometimes forgot that this was a writer who had in his time made the English language new, changed the rhythms of the way both his own and the next few generations would speak and write and think. The very grammar of a Hemingway sentence dictated, or was dictated by, a certain way of looking at the world, a way of looking but not joining, a way of moving through but not attaching, a kind of romantic individualism distinctly adapted to its time and source. If we bought into those sentences, we would see the troops marching along the road, but we would not necessarily march with them. We would report, but not join. We would make, as Nick Adams made in the Nick Adams stories and as Frederic Henry made in “A Farewell to Arms,” a separate peace: “In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more.”
So pervasive was the effect of this Hemingway diction that it became the voice not only of his admirers but even of those whose approach to the world was in no way grounded in romantic individualism. I recall being surprised, when I was teaching George Orwell in a class at Berkeley in 1975, by how much of Hemingway could be heard in his sentences. “The hills opposite us were grey and wrinkled like the skins of elephants,” Orwell had written in “Homage to Catalonia” in 1938. “The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white,” Hemingway had written in “Hills Like White Elephants” in 1927. “A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details,” Orwell had written in “Politics and the English Language” in 1946. “I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain,” Hemingway had written in “A Farewell to Arms” in 1929. “There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity.”
This was a man to whom words mattered. He worked at them, he understood them, he got inside them. When he was twenty-four years old and reading submissions to Ford Madox Ford’s transatlantic review he would sometimes try rewriting them, just for practice. His wish to be survived by only the words he determined fit for publication would have seemed clear enough. “I remember Ford telling me that a man should always write a letter thinking of how it would read to posterity,” he wrote to Arthur Mizener in 1950. “This made such a bad impression on me that I burned every letter in the flat including Ford’s.” In a letter dated May 20, 1958, addressed “To my Executors” and placed in his library safe at La Finca Vigia, he wrote, “It is my wish that none of the letters written by me during my lifetime shall be published. Accordingly, I hereby request and direct you not to publish or consent to the publication by others of any such letters.”
His widow and executor, Mary Welsh Hemingway, describing the burden of this restriction as one that “caused me continuous trouble, and disappointment to others,” eventually chose to violate it, publishing excerpts from certain letters in “How It Was” and granting permission to Carlos Baker to publish some six hundred others in his “Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters, 1917–1961.” “There can be no question about the wisdom and rightness of the decision,” Baker wrote, for the letters “will not only instruct and entertain the general reader but also provide serious students of literature with the documents necessary to the continuing investigation of the life and achievements of one of the giants of twentieth-century American fiction.”
The peculiarity of being a writer is that the entire enterprise involves the mortal humiliation of seeing one’s own words in print. The risk of publication is the grave fact of the life, and, even among writers less inclined than Hemingway to construe words as the manifest expression of personal honor, the notion that words one has not risked publishing should be open to “continuing investigation” by “serious students of literature” could not be calculated to kindle enthusiasm. “Nobody likes to be tailed,” Hemingway himself had in 1952 advised one such investigator, Charles A. Fenton of Yale, who on the evidence of the letters was tormenting Hemingway by sending him successive drafts of what would be “The Apprenticeship of Ernest Hemingway: The Early Years.” “You do not like to be tailed, investigated, queried about, by any amateur detective no matter how scholarly or how straight. You ought to be able to see that, Fenton.” A month later Hemingway tried again. “I think you ought to drop the entire project,” he wrote to Fenton, adding, “It is impossible to arrive at any truth without the co-operation of the person involved. That co-operation involves very nearly as much effort as for a man to write his autobiography.” A few months later, he was still trying:
In the first page or pages of your Mss. I found so many errors of fact that I could spend the rest of this winter re-writing and giving you the true gen and I would not be able to write anything of my own at all. . . . Another thing: You have located unsigned pieces by me through pay vouchers. But you do not know which pieces were changed or re-written by the copy desk and which were not. I know nothing worse for a writer than for his early writing which has been re-written and altered to be published without permission as his own.
Actually I know few things worse than for another writer to collect a fellow writer’s journalism which his fellow writer has elected not to preserve because it is worthless and publish it.
Mr. Fenton I feel very strongly about this. I have written you so before and I write you now again. Writing that I do not wish to publish, you have no right to publish. I would no more do a thing like that to you than I would cheat a man at cards or rifle his desk or wastebasket or read his personal letters.
It might seem safe to assume that a writer who commits suicide has been less than entirely engaged by the work he leaves unfinished, yet there appears to have been not much question about what would happen to the unfinished Hemingway manuscripts. These included not only “the Paris stuff” (as he called it), or “A Moveable Feast” (as Scribner’s called it), which Hemingway had in fact shown to Scribner’s in 1959 and then withdrawn for revision, but also the novels later published under the titles “Islands in the Stream” and “The Garden of Eden,” several Nick Adams stories, what Mrs. Hemingway called the “original treatment” of the bullfighting pieces published by Life before Hemingway’s death (this became “The Dangerous Summer”), and what she described as “his semi-fictional account of our African safari,” three selections from which she had published in Sports Illustrated in 1971 and 1972.
What followed was the systematic creation of a marketable product, a discrete body of work different in kind from, and in fact tending to obscure, the body of work published by Hemingway in his lifetime. So successful was the process of branding this product that in October, according to the House Home section of the New York Times, Thomasville Furniture Industries introduced an “Ernest Hemingway Collection” at the International Home Furnishings Market in High Point, North Carolina, offering “96 pieces of living, dining and bedroom furniture and accessories” in four themes, “Kenya,” “Key West,” “Havana,” and “Ketchum.” “We don’t have many heroes today,” Marla A. Metzner, the president of Fashion Licensing of America, told the Times. “We’re going back to the great icons of the century, as heroic brands.” Ms. Metzner, according to the Times, not only “created the Ernest Hemingway brand with Hemingway’s three sons, Jack, Gregory and Patrick,” but “also represents F. Scott Fitzgerald’s grandchildren, who have asked for a Fitzgerald brand.”
That this would be the logical outcome of posthumous marketing cannot have been entirely clear to Mary Welsh Hemingway. During Hemingway’s lifetime, she appears to have remained cool to the marketing impulses of A. E. Hotchner, whose thirteen-year correspondence with Hemingway gives the sense that he regarded the failing author not as the overextended and desperate figure the letters suggest but as an infinite resource, a mine to be worked, an element to be packaged into his various entertainment and publishing “projects.” The widow tried to stop the publication of Hotchner’s “Papa Hemingway,” and, although the correspondence makes clear that Hemingway himself had both trusted and relied heavily on its author, presented him in her own memoir mainly as a kind of personal assistant, a fetcher of manuscripts, an arranger of apartments, a Zelig apparition in crowd scenes: “When the Ile de France docked in the Hudson River at noon, March 27, we were elated to find Charlie Sweeny, my favorite general, awaiting us, together with Lillian Ross, Al Horowitz, Hotchner and some others.”
In this memoir, which is memorable mainly for the revelation of its author’s rather trying mixture of quite striking competence and strategic incompetence (she arrives in Paris on the day it is liberated and scores a room at the Ritz, but seems bewildered by the domestic problem of how to improve the lighting of the dining room at La Finca Vigia), Mary Welsh Hemingway shared her conviction, at which she appears to have arrived in the face of considerable contrary evidence, that her husband had “clearly” expected her to publish “some, if not all, of his work.” The guidelines she set for herself in this task were instructive: “Except for punctuation and the obviously overlooked ‘ands’ and ‘buts’ we would present his prose and poetry to readers as he wrote it, letting the gaps lie where they were.”