There’s something so intimate about reading other people’s letters. I remember in high school one of my friends found someone’s folded up note, and I read it over and over again because I was so fascinated by their voice and the bluntness of what they’d written.
The New Criterion
has an interesting article up about The Letters of Ernest Hemingway 1926-1929
, edited by Rena Sanderson, Sandra Spanier, and Robert W. Trogdon. In “The master off duty
,” Bruce Bawer
One thing that needs to be said about these letters is that there’s a lot of conscious image-making going on in them. As one of his biographers, Jeffrey Meyers, has noted, Hemingway pursued a path of “scrupulous honesty in his fiction” but routinely felt compelled, in both his conversation and correspondence, “to distort and rewrite the story of his life.” Indeed, already in these documents dating to his late twenties, we find Hemingway recounting his experiences in a way calculated to make him come off as the same strong, stoic figure who, in succeeding decades, would take hold of imaginations around the world, thanks largely to splashy Life and Look photo spreads of the Nobel laureate on safari, at bullfights, and deep-sea fishing.
It reminded me a lot of Jack Kerouac, who both in his novels and his letters rewrote the story of his life. On message boards, people often ask what Kerouac biography they should read. It feels too presumptuous to recommend my own Kerouac biography, but I like to suggest people read Kerouac’s letters, edited by Ann Charters. Not only do they provide insight into his life, but they’re as engaging as his novels. Full of vigorous prose.
I’ve often wondered if writers correspond with the knowledge or hope that their letters might one day be collected and read by literary critics and obsessive fans and therefore take extra care in writing them? Or, was it that they were already writing to literary critics—their author friends, their agents, their publishers—and therefore trying to write in an entertaining, impressive style? Or perhaps, they are such great writers that even their letters come out with flair?
Not Hemingway. He didn’t labor over these things—to put it mildly. When he wrote to his parents and editors, his main objective was to get certain personal or professional obligations out of the way; his letters to such eminences as T. S. Eliot and James Joyce, in which he faked at least a touch of humility and deference, were chiefly a means of networking. Even when he’s sending off dispatches to such authentic amis as Ezra Pound, Archibald MacLeish, and Gerald and Sara Murphy, with whom he’s truly eager to stay in touch and swap literary news and gossip, he’s not out to amuse or scintillate; on the contrary, you can feel him winding down after a day of “real” writing.
Perhaps there’s encouragement in that. One doesn’t just “sit down at a typewriter and bleed,”
as Hemingway said. Nor did Kerouac simply write On the Road
in three weeks after seven years on the road, as discussed in Burning Furiously Beautiful
. Authors—even the very best ones—consider their audience, write, and rewrite.
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