- Papa’s Early Screeds
Things really get going about a hundred pages into the first volume of Cambridge University Press’s projected seventeen volumes of the complete letters of Ernest Hemingway. It is May 1918, and the character we have come to know, the exuberant and eager eighteen-year-old from Oak Park, Illinois, is heading off to the Italian front in World War I as a member of the American Red Cross Ambulance Service, serving the Italian Army. For the first time in the narrative of Hemingway’s life that these letters chart, tension enters the story. The readers know more than the young Hemingway does about what will happen to him in just two months, and the naïve, giddy breeziness that color his letters becomes a cruel irony, one that might have been repeated a million times over by similar young men across the world. As he writes to a colleague from the Kansas City Star in early June: “I go to the front tomorrow. Oh Boy!!! I’m glad I’m in it,” an eagerness to enter the war that sounds like a boy’s joy over an impending trip to the amusement park. As with much of Hemingway’s WWI experience, the hellacious responsibility of adulthood and the incredible fearlessness of a soldier are comingled with the unmistakable innocence of childhood. As Hemingway would recall during the WWII, “I was an awful dope when I went to the last war. I can remember just thinking that we were the home team and the Austrians were the visiting team.” Hemingway is simply too young and too inexperienced to know what he is in for; readers, on the other hand, are reading with the knowledge of WWI and the impossible scope of its carnage. Most readers of this volume will also be aware that Hemingway was seriously wounded on July 8, 1918, just a week or so after he reported to the Red Cross headquarters in Schio, a small town in northern Italy. Carlos Baker’s groundbreaking 1969 biography refers to the Hemingway of this time as having “boyish exuberance” that “seemed boundless.” Indeed, even in photographs after the near-death experience, a convalescing Hemingway is always smiling: on too-large crutches, when hobbling with a cane, in a wheelchair, or in traction in a Milan hospital bed.
Although virtually any scholar of American literature is familiar with Hemingway’s long and magnificent August 1918 letter home to his parents—“when there is a direct hit your pals get spattered all over you”—this volume includes ten letters that were written in between his wounding and the writing of that letter. Of those ten, five are published here for the first time. In a never-before-published cable to his family of 16 July he writes, “Wounded in legs by trench mortar; not serious; will receive valor medal; will walk in about ten days,” a prediction that turned out to be overly optimistic.
This volume is a model of exemplary scholarship, with all information scrupulously and at times obsessively noted and contextualized. The editors, Sandra Spanier (also the General Editor) and Robert W. Trogdon, have provided an impeccable range of descriptions to each of Hemingway’s arcane references: foreign words (or Hemingway’s version of them) and cities; Hemingway’s associates, friends, and family members; his Red Cross service; his Kansas City Star journalism experiences. The back matter includes a thirty-page catalogue of letters, including the recipient, in a chronological list; the volume also provides brief biographies of more than fifty of Hemingway’s correspondents.
Central to the challenge of the colossal task of assembly that Spanier and her team have undertaken is the sheer impossibility of the survival of all or even most of Hemingway’s letters from a century ago. As the editors themselves acknowledge, letters to the two principal love interests from this period—Agnes Von Kurowsky and Hadley Richardson—are underrepresented. Von Kurowsky, the American nurse with whom Hemingway fell in love...