Ernest Hemingway’s letters reveal feuds and friendships

Hemingway poses for a dust jacket photo by Lloyd Arnold for the first edition of "For Whom the Bell Tolls", at the Sun Valley Lodge, Idaho in late 1939. (Credit: Lloyd Arnold/Wikimedia Commons)

A new volume of Ernest Hemingway’s 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, which Hemingway wrote from the beginning of 1932 through May 1934, he discusses a wide range of topics—from hunting and fishing to family life and politics.

“…you can follow him almost day by day through both the mundane aspects of everyday life and also his big adventures.”

Sandra Spanier, professor of English at Penn State and general editor of the Hemingway Letters Project, says 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 says. “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.”

Hemingway’s harsh letters to Fitzgerald

The book—The Letters of Ernest Hemingway, 1932–1934 (Cambridge University Press, 2020). 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to locate, fully annotate, and publish the nearly 6,000 surviving letters written by Hemingway, most of them previously unpublished.

“Several years later, he wrote to their mutual editor, Maxwell Perkins, to say he had been way too hard on Fitzgerald…”

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 says 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 [sic] put in about the good parts. You know how good they are.” But while Hemingway offered harsh words, Spanier says 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 says. “So, it was a complicated relationship. They cared deeply about each other but had a hard time getting along, too.”

Feuding with Gertrude Stein

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.

“He wrote to a number of people just ranting about Gertrude Stein.”

“Hemingway was furious about this,” Spanier says. “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 says. “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 [sic] 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, says 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 says. “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.”

Source: Penn State