Papers offer clue to a softer side of macho Hemingway

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"Everything lovely, we go to the front tomorrow, we've been treated like kings." These words, on a postcard from a son to his father towards the end of the First World War, are at first glance striking mainly for their youthful insouciance amid what was then the bloodiest war in history.

But the son in question was Ernest Hemingway – and his words represent more than the bravado of the young Red Cross ambulance driver who, a month after they were written, on 9 June 1918, would be badly wounded on the Italian front. They are a precious fragment of the personal experiences that inspired his novel A Farewell to Arms. They are also a tiny piece in the mosaic of one of the most ambitious recent projects in American literary scholarship.

The card, in Hemingway's sprawling hand, is one of 100 items in a collection of letters, cards and telegrams previously belonging to his nephew Ernest Hemingway Mainland. Now they are at Pennsylvania State University, part of a six-year-old effort to produce a single scholarly edition of the author's correspondence.

The Hemingway Letters Project began in 2002. It will consist of 12 volumes grouping the 7,000 or more letters and cards he sent, most never published before. The Mainland collection is believed to be one of the last of any consequence that was still in private hands.

Hemingway – "EH" as he is known on the project – was a prodigious correspondent but only two volumes of letters, barely a tenth of his estimated output, have appeared. From them, however, emerges a much more nuanced and complex character than the macho figure of popular legend.

"Hemingway once said his letters were 'often libellous, always indiscreet and often obscene'," said Sandra Spanier, overall editor of the project. They were "private writings, unguarded and uncensored. They capture his emotions in the heat of the moment ... he could be vulnerable, tender, critical and self-critical, and he could be wickedly funny."

The writer explicitly stated that he never wanted his letters published – yet he saved copies, as well as drafts of his writings and miscellanea as trivial as receipts. Some letters, including one to the Red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy, were never sent. Others, to F Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and others, are part of America's 20th century literary memorabilia.

The treasure included trunkfuls of papers at the Ritz Hotel in Paris; at Sloppy Joe's Bar in Key West, patronised by Hemingway in the 1930s; and at Finca Vigia, his home in Cuba, where he lived from 1939 to 1960. Despite icy relations between Cuba and the US, his widow, Mary, was allowed to take material from Finca Vigia after his death in 1961, a few months after the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Six years ago, the two countries signed an unprecedented deal allowing Professor Spanier and other scholars access to the vast amount that remained – including thousands of personal documents and letters. These have been microfilmed and incorporated into the Letters Project.

The Mainland collection fills in more missing pieces. The 1918 postcard of Milan's cathedral was addressed to his father, Clarence Hemingway. A month later, days before his 19th birthday, he was wounded on the Italian front. He recovered in a hospital in Milan, where he fell in love with a nurse.

The card, along with other letters to the family, found its way to Hemingway's younger sister Madelaine, who passed them on to her son. "Keep sensible, don't get tragic and don't write silly things," Hemingway signed off in a 1930 letter to his mother.

Mr Mainland, who is 69, told the Associated Press he wanted to publish the letters himself, but was too old to wait for copyright to expire in 2011. Professor Spanier persuaded him to give them over. "The reality of me being able to publish these letters – it ain't going to happen," he said.