The typewriter rested on top of a bookcase at chest height. The writer came to it in the early morning. Standing, he read the previous day’s work. He had stopped at a place in the story where he knew what would come next. Then he began again. Between every two words, he inserted extra space so each word would stand out and he could better judge its rightness. He was an obsessively methodical writer who took pains to deliver through his prose a precise mood, certain emotions he wanted his reader to feel exactly as he had felt them.
This is the image of Ernest Hemingway that has stayed with me since my earliest encounters with his writings and his life of glamour and machismo. Without re-reading everything, I cannot tell you where I got it. But I can tell you that an October visit to New York City where I caught “the first ever major museum exhibit” devoted to Hemingway’s work has given me a fresh idea of just how methodical a writer he was, and it has nothing to do with standing at a bookcase and inserting gaps between the words.
“Ernest Hemingway: Between Two Wars,” which opened in September at the Morgan Library and Museum and continues through January 31 before moving on to Boston, ought to be seen by every writer who has yet to acquire the habit of self-editing and self-revising. Besides letters from and to Hemingway, notebooks, magazine articles he authored, photographs spanning four decades, first editions of his books, passports, bullfight tickets, dog tags, and other papers, including the first Hemingway byline — in addition to all this, the exhibit notably gives us selected manuscript pages for a number of Hemingway stories and novels, showing multiple drafts of some works. These show a tremendous number of cross-outs, insertions, word changes, re-orderings, and large sections discarded altogether. You cannot avoid the sense of a writer striving with utmost care to create a certain effect and no other.
Unfortunately, the Morgan does not permit photographs to be taken of the exhibit materials. Its Website, however, offers several photographs from the show as well as an image of the first page of the manuscript (literally a manuscript, written in longhand) of A Farewell to Arms, his second novel. The famous opening of that book is classic Hemingway, a meticulously drawn, deceptively simple scene-setter that anchors the reader in a time and place with hints of the action and themes that lie ahead. But naturally the writer did not come to it right off. The manuscript shows him heading into a number of blind alleys before correcting himself, editing and revising as much as he’s generating.
Hemingway did not like being critiqued but trusted the criticisms of a select few, who included — for a time, at least — F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose The Great Gatsby was published the month before he met Hemingway in Paris in 1925. The following year, Fitzgerald read a carbon of the second draft of Hemingway’s first novel, The Sun Also Rises, numbering 130,000 words. As we learn here, Fitzgerald highly praised it but also suggested a number of cuts, especially the early chapters. As a result, Hemingway dropped the first 15 pages and trimmed the novel overall to 90,000 words, a 30 percent reduction.
The short Hemingway-Fitzgerald friendship was fraught with tensions, most of it on Hemingway’s side. The exhibit gives us a choice example of how ungracious he could be. It comes in an undelivered response to yet another Fitzgerald critique, this one of A Farewell to Arms. Once again, Fitzgerald expressed great admiration for his friend’s book but also delivered pointed yet constructive criticisms. (And once again Hemingway took Fitzgerald’s advice, to the book’s benefit. But he struggled with the ending, rewriting it almost 50 times until he had gotten it “just right”; the exhibit contains some of the revised endings.) Fitzgerald’s comments appear in a long hand-written penciled letter. Below his signature, written with dark pencil in a neat hand, Hemingway adds tersely, “Kiss my ass./E.H.”
That Hemingway wrote in longhand and in pencil was a big surprise for me. Not just his short stories, but the early novels in their entirety also appeared at first in pencil. Penciled manuscripts were a deliberate part of his writing strategy.
“If you write with a pencil you get three different sights at [the story] to see if the reader is getting what you want him to,” he wrote in a 1935 magazine article. The first “sight” comes when the author reads the completed manuscript. The second reading is of the typescript based on changes made to the first, and the final read-through is of the printer’s proofs. “Writing it first in pencil gives you one-third more chance to improve it. … It also keeps it fluid longer so that you can better it easier.”
Another surprise was how early his talent flowered. Hemingway’s first published story, “The Judgment of Manitou,” appeared in The Tabula, his high school’s literary magazine. He was 16. Here is the opening sentence: “Dick Hayward buttoned the collar of his mackinaw up about his ears, took down his rifle from the deer horns above the fireplace of the cabin and pulled on his heavy fur mittens.”
The Morgan gives us only the first page of this story, but we learn there will be a premeditated murder and a suicide. As one of Hemingway’s biographers wrote, he “had already begun to work toward the grammar of violence and death that marked his later work.”
The exhibit covers Hemingway’s work and life up until a few years after the Second World War. Following its showing at the Morgan, it will move to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, which owns most of these Hemingway materials.
Peter Porco, a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, has taught writing at UAA. “The Lady Is a Trucker,” his readers play, was performed in July as part of Cyrano’s Theatre Company’s theatrical celebration of the Anchorage Centennial.