Exhibition Delves Below Deceptively Simple Surface Of Hemingway's Prose
In 1938, Ernest Hemingway made a recording to promote the publication of The Fifth Column, his play about the Spanish Civil War written while he was covering the conflict for American newspapers in 1937.
"While I was writing the play, the Hotel Florida, where we lived and worked, was struck by more than 30 high-explosive shells," he said. "So if it is not a good play, perhaps that is what is the matter with it. If it is a good play, perhaps those 30 some shells helped write it."
It's classic Hemingway: simple declarative sentences about rising above the heat of battle in the face of death.
A new exhibit, 54 years after Hemingway's death, tells a different story. Declan Kiely, curator of "Ernest Hemingway: Between Two Wars" at New York's Morgan Library, says, "So much of his great writing is about failure. It's about weakness. It's about fear."
The first manuscript in the show — and perhaps the rarest — is four pages on Red Cross stationery handwritten in a Milan hospital in 1918 by a teenage Hemingway wounded during World War I. It's the writer's first story to feature his alter ego, Nick Adams. Here, he is a badly injured soldier who falls in love with a nurse, then takes his own life.
Kiely notes that it has many hallmarks of the Hemingway style, including pared-down dialogue, brief descriptions and an arresting first paragraph: "Nick lay in bed in hospital where from outside came the hysterical roar of the crowd walking through the streets."
The story has no title. It was never published and, until now, it's never been displayed.
But it contains the raw material for one of Hemingway's most celebrated novels, A Farewell to Arms. He wrote 47 different endings for the novel before settling on the one he liked.
"That is all there is to the story," reads one of the four endings on display at the Morgan Library. "Catherine died and you will die and I will die and that is all I can promise you."
"It doesn't get much bleaker than that," Kiely says.
Alongside the alternate endings are the first two pages of the first draft of A Farwell to Arms. Kiely notes the multiple revisions until the "absolutely beautiful, poetic, haunting beginning of the novel" starts to take shape for the very first time: "In the late summer of that year, we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and a plain to the mountains."
Hemingway worked hard to write prose that looked so simple, says Sandra Spanier, a Hemingway scholar at Penn State University and editor of the author's collected letters, being published in 17 volumes.
"I think that what's valuable about this exhibit is that we can see the inner workings, we kind of see behind the curtain the tapestry with all the knots and flaws showing — but see how he worked his way into, I think, perfection in certain cases," Spanier says.
The exhibit — which includes handwritten first drafts, outtakes, letters, notebooks and photos — lays out Hemingway's papers in chronological order: handwritten drafts of his early stories; the first two chapters he cut from his 1926 breakthrough novel, The Sun Also Rises; and the letter from F. Scott Fitzgerald convincing Hemingway the chapters had to go.
Hemingway saved everything and, miraculously, almost everything is intact, says curator Declan Kiely.
The papers survived multiple transatlantic voyages and the Cuban revolution in 1959. A month after Hemingway's death in 1961, Mary Hemingway — the author's fourth wife — returned to Cuba, packed up his belongings and shipped them to Tampa, Fla., via shrimp boat. They bounced between Tampa and New York, where they stayed until 1972, when they were donated to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston. They've been in storage there for four decades.
But Hemingway might not have been so thrilled about the show at the Morgan. He gave written instructions that his letters should never be published — his wife waited 20 years after his death before agreeing.
He never kept a journal, he put all his experiences into his stories and he didn't like to talk about himself, as he made clear in the brief acceptance speech he recorded when he won the 1954 Nobel Prize for Literature.
"I have spoken too long for a writer," he said. "A writer should write what he has to say and not speak it."
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