Like so many trying-too-hard students of English literature who have been swept away by Papa since he came along, I’ve had my own Ernest Hemingway imitate-the-master moments. Which is to say, back in the late 1980s as an undergraduate at the University of Dundee, dressed in a pilfered pair of my grandfather’s old riding jodhpurs and pheromoned-out with youth and a newfound Western kind of freedom, I took a train across as much of Europe as I dared (not far—I barely made it out of England), and I wrote home (to my parents in Africa) of my (non) adventures in that deceptively. Simple. Way. Which seemed to me the trick of Hemingway. Luckily for me, my letters have not survived the subsequent upheaval of my parents’ restless lives. But luckily for us, almost all of Hemingway’s accounts of his early adventures seem to have survived the machinations of whatever befell his correspondents.
If you are a writer/reader born after Hemingway’s death (as I was), it’s hard to imagine literature pre-Hemingway. The way he wrote created an inevitable, critical punctuation mark in the way that we have told stories ever since, and he is what has made the jumpy, muscular, deceptively simple prose of writers like Junot Diaz and Chuck Klosterman possible. But everyone who has tried (and God knows they have) to truly emulate the man sounds only like a parody of him (or a contestant in the annual International Imitation Hemingway Competition), in part because Hemingway kept his true self in the front, back, and center of all he wrote so that there could never be an impostor. In other words, the man filled his own space so bravely, so loudly, so deeply that there was simply no room for anyone else to echo him.
Here is Hemingway at age (about) 8 to his father, Clarence, in the first volume of beautifully ordered letters just released by Cambridge University Press:
I saw a mother duck with seven little babies.
how big is my corn?
Ursula saw them first.
We went strawberry piking and got enough to make three short-cakes.
Once the reader has recovered from the clean, heart-shot wounds of those innocent words, all e. e. cummings in their direct ease (how much motion, and emotion, is implied by “Ursula saw them first”!), comes the knowledge that Hemingway’s very essential self would not change at all. He saw things as they were, and so he wrote a kind of shockingly simple truth. After all, this startlingly uncluttered acknowledgment of seven ducklings (observed by him as a child) is not so different from this artless observation of ethics taken from the first chapter of Death in the Afternoon (observed by him as a 25-year-old): “About morals, I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after.”
In 1928 Ernest’s father (recipient of that sweetest of simple letters re: the ducks and strawberries) died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, at the age of 57. In 1961 Ernest followed suit, at the age of 62. It’s an ache to read these early letters (this collection begins in 1907 and ends in 1922) and to know that their real end is not the fulfillment of all Hemingway’s globally celebrated literature, nor his bon-vivant embrace of appetite in Paris, where his soul seemed to have found a home (“We caught 10 trout in one day but I’m homesick for Paris,” he wrote to Gertrude Stein from Germany in 1922), nor yet his cozy sweetness with those he loved (“Please write a man,” he begs his friend Katherine Foster Smith. “Ain’t I your best friend? Or ain’t I? Who’s fonder of you than I am anyway?”), but the awful dead-end finality of his suicide.
And that is my own truth of Hemingway, gleaned from the rawness of reading his letters like this; the master appears here so unedited, so naked, so young. And it is apparent on some level that his own genius for observing the world will never transcend Hemingway’s panic to be seen. “No attempt will be made to write a trick letter in an effort to plunge you into such paroxysm of laughter that you will weakly push over to me the position advertised in Sunday’s Tribune,” he wrote disingenuously to the Chicago Daily Tribune in 1920 in answer to a notice, “ADVERTISING WRITER. EXPERIENCE NOT NECESSARY.”
Seen in this light, Hemingway’s conflict seems evident right from the start. He seems to have needed to go to extraordinary lengths to be fully realized, fully reflected. Here he is, age 19, celebrating his first experience of war (to a friend at the Kansas City Star from the Italian front in 1918): “Having a wonderful time!!! Had my baptism of fire my first day here when an entire munition plant exploded ... I go to the front tomorrow. Oh Boy!!! I’m glad I’m in it. They love us down here in the mountains.”
And in the end, that is it: that these letters—boisterous, exuberant, and insistent on a reply (see me! hear me! feel me! so many of them seem to implore)—only show more deeply how fearlessly—carelessly, even—Hemingway lived in order to be seen. What seems achingly absent from all his deeply mined adventuring (inimitably expressed as it is in both his books and his letters) is the deep, quiet acknowledgment of ever having arrived.
Perhaps that is why we remain so transfixed by the man’s words even as they’ve become the source of their own parody competition, and why they remain so deep inside us that we can’t imagine ourselves without him. Hemingway never gave his wings a place to rest, and neither—reading him—can we.