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Scholars hunting down Papa Hemingway’s letters

By Dan Lewerenz, The Associated Press
Friday May 03, 2002

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Ernest Hemingway is among the most well-studied American authors, but hundreds of thousands of his own words have never been examined or published. 

Now, scholars are embarking on a literary treasure hunt to collect, edit and annotate thousands of his letters, including many that he never sent. 

It won’t be the first examination of Hemingway’s letters, which the author once described as “often libelous, always indiscreet and often obscene.” Two decades ago, biographer Carlos Baker published a volume containing about 600 letters. Selected letters have been the source of some scholarly work, but those are thought to represent barely one-tenth of Hemingway’s correspondence. 

“Some biographical critics have been searching Hemingway’s fiction and works of poetry for years, looking for the man,” said Joseph DeFalco, professor emeritus of English at Marquette University. 

“But the letters can give us the man behind the art considerably better than trying to find him through a fictional character. There are plenty of biographies and biographical articles, but the best biography comes out of the letters.” 

Penn State University professor Sandra Spanier, in cooperation with the Ernest Hemingway Foundation and the author’s family, is coordinating the project. 

Scholars estimate there may be 8,000 to 10,000 letters in libraries and private collections around the world. Although some, such as the collection at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, have been available to scholars for some time, new collections are constantly being found. 

“We really don’t know what’s in private hands and small collections. A big part of this project is finding those letters,” said Spanier, an associate professor of English and women’s studies at Penn State. 

Spanier will coordinate a team of scholars from around the world, first in locating letters, then readying them for publication. The project is expected to take several years, producing as many as a dozen volumes for scholars and a collection of selected letters of interest to the general public. 

“I envy her the treasure hunt,” said James Plath, professor of English at Illinois Wesleyan University and co-author of “Remembering Ernest Hemingway.” 

“I do not envy her for what I’m sure will seem to her like coal mining, because she’s going to be working in the dark without a canary. But there are some treasures to be found.” 

Plath said the letters could be invaluable to literary scholars seeking real-life analogs for characters and situations in Hemingway’s fiction. 

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“The list of people who knew him and are still alive is becoming a short list,” Plath said. “The letters are a way to revive relationships — they’re there like a psychic thumbprint to show moods, to show inclinations. They’re there for people to draw connections between the works and the private life.” 

They could be even more valuable to future biographers, who will find everything from clues about Hemingway’s mental illness — he committed suicide in 1961 — to tender correspondence with his children. 

Spanier said Hemingway wrote many letters in the heat of a moment, then kept them when he thought better of sending them. 

In one letter, illustrative of the public image Hemingway created for himself, the writer invited Sen. Joseph McCarthy to come to Cuba and fight. But others completely contradict the notion of machismo so often associated with Hemingway, the Nobel Prize-winning author of such books as “The Sun Also Rises” and “The Old Man and the Sea.” 

“Some of the letters are very tender, very loving, very supportive of the efforts of the women in his life, which contradicts some of the images we have of him as the ultimate male chauvinist,” Spanier said. 

“A lot of people love him to the point of hero worship or absolutely despise him to the point that they think he shouldn’t be read and it’s a disgrace to be associated with him,” she said. “I think a lot of people will be surprised that he’s a much more contradictory character than either his biggest fans or his biggest detractors would know.” 



Penn State University: 

The Hemingway Foundation: