February 14, 2014

Never live with Ernest Hemingway


Hemingway Cuba CollectionOh, did you need to spit out that gum? Don’t worry, Ernest Hemingway has a wrapper you can borrow.

Hemingway was a notorious pack rat: an archivist’s dream and a roommate’s worst nightmare. Among the car insurance papers for his Plymouth station wagon, passport photos, bull fighting tickets and telegrams, you’ll also find puzzle pieces of his novels and stories.

There are also more significant items, like the secret files from his work as a war correspondent during the Battle of the Bulge, including daily recordings of the troops’ movements, and the telegram that informed him he won the Nobel Prize in 1954.

We may have mentioned last May that this collection was delivered to the JFK Library. This week, a collection of 2,000 items was released to the public through the Library. Jenny Phillips, who is Maxwell Perkins‘s granddaughter—who founded the Finca Vigia Foundation in 2004 to preserve Hemingway’s papers—was the one who negotiated with Cuba to bring these papers from Havana to the U.S.

“Because of the political situation between the two countries, the Cubans held on very fast to what they had there. I think this is an extraordinary, one-of-a-kind collaboration between the two countries,” Philips told Brett Zonker of the Associated Press.

There are some gems worth exploring. In one heartfelt telegram from 1940, writer Archibald MacLeish sends a big compliment for For Whom the Bell Tolls. “The word great had stopped meaning anything in this language until your book. You have given it all its meaning back. I’m proud to have shared any part of your sky.”

Another compliment via telegram, this one from Ingrid Bergman after Hemingway received the Nobel Prize: “THE SWEDES ARENT SO DUMB AFTER ALL.”

Other papers have less historic value, but still provide, uh, inspiration for readers. Papa’s favorite burger recipe has Eric Vilas-Boas of Esquire particularly excited, and Cheryl Lu-Lien Tran of The Paris Review offers ways to recreate the ingredients that are no longer available.

“He was meticulous in all ways, deeply involved in every detail of daily life,” said Sandra Spanier, an English professor at Pennsylvania State University and general editor of the Hemingway Letters Project. “While there’s no one single bombshell document, no long-lost novel to be discovered here, these new details add texture and nuance to our understanding of the man. Hemingway was an eyewitness to 20th century history. His work both reflected his times and, in a way, shaped his times.”

In related news, a new Hemingway app is available if you’re interested in cleaning up your prose. But Ian Crouch reports that many of Hemingway’s best paragraphs hardly pass muster by Hemingway’s standards, so take heart if the algorithm thinks you’re using too many adjectives.


Kirsten Reach is an editor at Melville House.