In her introduction to “The Letters of Ernest Hemingway, Volume Two: 1923-1925,” editor Sandra Spanier writes that since she began the Cambridge University Press project to publish all of Hemingway’s known letters (the series is expected to run to 17 volumes), she’s learned it’s “almost impossible to overestimate the public interest in Hemingway.”
That said, weighing in at more than 500 pages and extensively annotated, this isn’t a book for the Hemingway newcomer. But those who’ve read his works, and maybe a biography or two, will find here the raw material behind the self-fashioned myth. In these years in Paris, Hemingway became Hemingway: He wrote and sold his first books, made his first trip to Pamplona, met F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and drafted “The Sun Also Rises.”
Everything you’d expect from a reading of “A Moveable Feast” can be found: Hemingway’s love for his first wife, Hadley; his enthusiasm for boxing and bullfighting; letters to Sylvia Beach, Sherwood Anderson and pretty much every other personality of the Lost Generation; his first letters to Fitzgerald and to editor Maxwell Perkins, and his last to Gertrude Stein. Hemingway’s fondness for coining nicknames and words is evident in his letters to Bill Smith, a friend from summers in Michigan, and his playful, ribald correspondence with Ezra Pound is a delight that foreshadows their lifelong friendship.
But it’s the daily details that make this volume indispensable to the serious Hemingway fan. The volume’s 242 letters, about two-thirds previously unpublished, provide as complete an account of Hemingway’s life during the Paris years as one could ask for. They range from increasingly worried letters to the St. Louis banker who was mismanaging Hadley’s trust fund, to reports of illness, hangovers and sleepless nights while Bumby is teething, to Hemingway’s pride in Hadley’s talent for billiards.
The young Hemingway is confident in his opinions, his talent and his prejudices. The letters display his generosity (to the consumptive poet Ernest Walsh and others) and his pettiness: his hatred for Ford Madox Ford, his resentment of his early literary benefactor Sherwood Anderson. By the end of this volume, the letters contain hints of darkness to come: excessive drinking and the lifelong grudges that led him to spend half of “A Moveable Feast” savaging old friends. Pauline Pfeiffer, his soon-to-be second wife, appears. In one of his last letters of 1925, Hemingway writes to Bill Smith that Pauline will be joining him and Hadley for 10 days at Christmas: “She is a swell girl. Her and Hash [Hadley] and I are together all the time.” And so begins the end of Paris — a time that Hemingway would always to some extent remember as his best years.
St. Paul writer John Reimringer’s first novel, “Vestments,” was a Publishers Weekly best book of 2010.