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Book review: The Letters of Ernest Hemingway Volume Two: 1923-1925


It would be hard to find a more crucial three-year period in a writer’s life than that experienced by Ernest Hemingway between January 1923 and December 1925. It was in 1922 that, with his first wife Hadley, he first made his way to Paris after his formative experiences during the First World War, all detailed in the opening volume of this series.

But here, we see the emergence of Hemingway the professional writer: as an editor on The Transatlantic Review; taking valuable advice from Gertrude Stein before the first notes of discord between them; beginning work on his second novel The Sun Also Rises which would bring him fame and fortune; and the intrusion of Pauline Pfeiffer, who would become his second wife, ousting Hadley. He would also become a father for the first time.

His letters to Ezra Pound stand out, though; as with everyone who corresponded with Pound, Hemingway also altered his voice to reflect the poet’s more idiosyncratic style, but there’s a surprising amount of reflexivity generally in much of his correspondence – he would espouse occasional anti-Semitic views to fit in with Pound, and with old friends, “males” such as Bill Smith, there’s a lot of disparaging talk about “fairies” (“But the Royal Road to quick Literary success is through the entrance to the colon. Gaw it disgusts a male”).

To his parents, he exhibits a respectful and gentle, occasionally reproachful, tone; to the magazine editor Ernest Walsh, an often masculine but literary confiding to someone he regards as an equal in the business.

It all means that Hemingway emerges as a man who wants to fit in and be liked more than anything else; to be all things to all comers. Which in turn suggests a surprising lack of confidence, something that can even afflict his writing: “I am writing some damn good stories,” he writes to Pound in March 1924. “I wish you were here to tell me so, so I would believe it.”

But if this sensitive and often unsure Hemingway is a less familiar one, so is the humour which emerges more than we might expect – his exasperation with Ford Madox Ford, for instance, over their joint editing of The Transatlantic Review, and his take on Ford’s great endeavour, what would eventually become Parade’s End, is funny and perceptive.

He can also be kind to writers of lesser genius and offer advice, and he even apologises to the composer George Antheil about a “crack’” he has made about his music. When his father asks why he hasn’t sent him copies of his new work, he says, rather plaintively, “You or Mother sent back the In Our Time books. That looked as though you did not want to see any.” And the edition’s notes, which are excellent throughout, inform us that his sister, Marcelline, “recalled that her parents had been ‘shocked and horrified’ by the book and that her father had returned to the publisher ‘all six’ of the copies he had ordered”.

Hemingway ends up almost pleading with his father: “So when you see anything of mine that you don’t like remember that I’m sincere in doing it and that I’m working toward something....”

The anti-Semitic and homophobic bombast present in some other letters is reduced here by the simple hopefulness of a son seeking his parents’ approval and understanding. It is not the least of Hemingway’s many contradictions.