Literary Landings: 'Hemingway's early letters challenge myths'

Linda Patterson Miller, the 2011-12 Penn State laureate and professor of English at Penn State Abington, is sharing her thoughts and observations of her laureate experience as she journeys across the Commonwealth aiming to engage people in the beauty of the humanities, specifically early 20th-century American literature and art. “Literary Landings” is a travelogue scheduled to appear periodically during the fall 2011 and spring 2012 semesters on Penn State's communications platforms. In her entry “Hemingway’s Early Letters Challenge Shop-Worn Myths,” Miller reflects on Hemingway’s “epistolary art,” during the early years of his writing career.


Literary Landings with the Penn State laureate: Hemingway’s early letters challenge shop-worn myths and assumptions about his transformative art

By Linda Patterson Miller, 2011-12 Penn State laureate

The Hemingway Letters Project at Penn State, under the general editorship of Sandra Spanier, professor of English, has been gathering and transcribing all of Hemingway’s correspondence to be published in the multi-volume “The Letters of Ernest Hemingway” (Cambridge University Press). “The Letters of Ernest Hemingway Volume 1 (1907-1922)” came out this fall -- to spectacular reviews -- and it covers Hemingway’s Midwest upbringing through his introduction to Paris, the City of Light. During my talks this year as laureate I have been able to highlight some of these previously unpublished letters of the young Hemingway.

Interest in the Hemingway letters has been palpable and persistent in all my talks. This is due in part to the major role Penn State has played in bringing such a trove of Hemingway work to light. But it is also due to an interest in Hemingway as a writer of letters, which is not the way most people have met or come to know his work. That interest has led people to ask me about my view on Hemingway’s epistolary art. Rather than recast what I already wrote, I’ll steal from my own Foreword to “The Letters of Ernest Hemingway Volume 1.”

Hemingway did not become an established writer until after 1922 (he was still essentially unpublished except for his newspaper pieces), but his early letters reveal that he was very much aware of himself as a writer in the making. After working as a cub reporter at the Kansas City Star for six months, Hemingway wrote his father on April 16, 1918, to express his understanding that professional newspaper writing demanded immediacy and precision, along with endurance. He was “bushed! . . . mentally and physically,” he told his father, from months of “[h]aving to write a half column story with every name, address and initial verified and remembering to use good style, perfect style in fact, and get all the facts and in the correct order, make it have snap and wallop” and “see it all in your mind’s eye,” while “a boy snatches the pages from your machine as fast as you write them.”

Already Hemingway was learning to capture moments that flash to life on the page. A number of such flashpoints occur in his letters, particularly when he reflects on earlier times. Thus in a letter of May 20, 1921, to his sister Marcelline, Hemingway described his recent return from a “swell party” in Chicago with his Oak Park friend Issy Simmons on an evening when the spring air reminded him of his childhood: “It was a glorious night. We’d come out of some place where we’d been waltzing and into the outer air and it would be warm and almost tropical with a big moon over the tops of the houses. Kind of a warm softness in the air, same way it used to be when we were kids and we’d roller skate or play run sheep run with the Luckocks and Charlotte Bruce.”

As such recaptured moments intermingle with Hemingway’s day-to-day thoughts and encounters, his letters gauge the emotional compass of Hemingway’s coming of age as he confronted his rapidly changing world firsthand. They reveal as well Hemingway’s emerging and maturing style, including his eye for specific detail and his rejection (like that of his Modernist compatriots) of platitudes, pretense and the language of abstraction. As he would state in his Paris memoir, “A Moveable Feast,” he aimed to begin by writing “one true sentence, and then go on from there.”

To comment or to ask the laureate a question, contact Linda Miller at [email protected].

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