Hemingway on his postwar books

Friday, July 22, 2011

Papa, why did you conceive of the land, sea, air book? The scope was way too big to be accomplished. As you recognize, you didn’t have time enough to learn air warfare let alone air realities in the first place. But was Across The River the land book, and Islands the part of the sea book?

You’re confusing yourself a bit. Yes, Across The River was my land war book, and maybe I could have done better to leave out the love story — though I don’t see how I could have, and to have Cantwell fall in a less impossible love wouldn’t have fit in either. But the indirect description of the aftereffects of battle and warfare was as well done as I could. If it was a bridge too far for my critics, I can’t help that. In time the book will rise or sink, and it won’t have much to do with the judgment of the critics of 1950.

Islands In The Stream is a different case. I intended to begin in the prewar years, describe the transition into war, and show the war at sea, unknown as it was. The chapters I couldn’t figure out how to include — Roger going west while watching the war in Spain — would have been part of that transition. But I couldn’t figure out, finally, what to do. I could’ve sent Roger off to fight in Spain and maybe get killed, but, what was there to say that I haven’t already said? And how could I split the focus between Thomas Hudson and Roger?

There were minor discrepancies in your account of Havana in the “Cuba” section. The boy and the kitten, for one thing. He was set too young for the first Christmas of the war.

I was still adjusting everything. That could have been fixed in a few words.

Oh, I know. But it shows me it was still a work in progress.

Ideally here’s how it would have gone. A prewar section, culminating in Thomas Hudson losing the boys. A transition from peace to war section, probably putting Roger at the center of it but coming back to Tom. A section on the onset of the war, maybe Roger mostly but not entirely. The war as it went on — Cuba, then the chase. I thought about putting in a chapter introducing the men and the venture, to go before “Cuba” and explain it better, but hadn’t decided.

Somehow it seemed too much death, to kill Roger in Spain and then Tom in Cuban waters. There was plenty of death all around in the war, but it would have been adding up too much: Roger, the three boys, Thomas.

I should’ve had a section, too, on Tom hearing about young Tom’s death — and to do that, I would’ve had to have the air section that I couldn’t write without faking, or I would’ve had to set it up in some way that didn’t repeat the peacetime section, and didn’t repeat his reaction to the death of the first two boys. Couldn’t come up with a formula, and put it off too long.

How about a word for those who assume that if you weren’t publishing you weren’t writing, and if you weren’t writing you wasting your life?

How you answer that depends on how you read where the question is coming from. If they’re sincerely interested, you just say that a writer has to live in order to write, and some things can’t be put off beyond a certain point. Our African safari, for instance. Yes it ended badly but it had been good until then, and every year that went by would have been one more reason why I wasn’t likely to ever get back to Africa. So even though the crashes cost me my health and my youth (what was left of it) and thus probably some good writing that I’d no longer be able to do, how could I know ahead of time that was going to happen?

And, you know, writing is one thing, publishing is another. If you don’t need the money and you don’t need to protect your career, publishing is more trouble than it’s worth sometimes. I thought I’d have another 10 or 15 years of productive time, and I could put the manuscripts in the bank. There wasn’t any hurry about it.

Did I owe it to anybody to keep on publishing? If Charlie was gone and Max was gone and I had all the money I needed and I’d made my reputation by 30 years’ worth of work — why should I have to write anything, for anybody? Some critics seem to think an author owes them something new every so often. It doesn’t occur to them, an author’s work is a gift, and it’s up to him whether he wants to do the work to present it or not.


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