Hemingway — on the Famous Author trap

Sunday, November 1, 2015
F: 5:35 a.m. EST. So, Papa, as you know, I am reading volume three of your collected letters, which goes from 1926 into 1929, just the time we are discussing. It gives a curiously stereoscopic effect. Do you want to continue where we left off, or move in some other direction?
EH: We’re still moving toward one explanation, though it may not always be obvious. No matter how we approach it, we’ll get there. Let’s talk a little about Life as Famous Author before we talk about Life As One of the Guys.
It wasn’t long until I published A Farewell to Arms, and that book solidified my name in letters. Two best sellers in a row (if you discount the book of short stories [Men Without Women] that separated the novels – and even the book of stories was a best seller) and critical applause meant a couple of things. It meant I could count on a continual stream of income as long as I continued to write. Hadley had the royalties to the first book, but I had whatever would follow, and it was substantial. Not only am I counting the book royalties, but the magazine markets my fame opened up to me. I told the Mice [Arnold Samuelson] one time, I could make the magazine racket work for me because I could make the big magazines pay enough for a story to pay me for the stories they wouldn’t take. That way, I could write just what I wanted, with no economic pressure to tempt me to start whoring (which is what I thought Scott [Fitzgerald] was doing). Most writers would not have that luxury, and I knew how much it was worth. Remember, it was only a few years before that I couldn’t sell anything to any American magazine for any amount. But I had changed all that. Now I was in the driver’s seat, and they knew it and I knew it. A story by Hemingway might sell more copies of any single issue, but the prospect of stories by Hemingway on a continuing basis was a lure like [having] Scott in the SEP. [The Saturday Evening Post was one of the largest, perhaps the largest, family magazine of the time.]
F: And then there was your deal with Esquire.

EH: Yes. That’s a little ahead of the story, but that was the best single magazine deal I ever made. I wouldn’t ever have had Pilar without it, for one thing. And it kept my name in front of a segment of the public that still had money enough to buy books in the middle of the great depression. But that’s a little later. In the immediate aftermath of A Farewell to Arms, I was Famous Author and among my peers I was Established Author. In other words, the people who knew writing knew I could write, and the reading public liked what it is I wrote, and they were willing to pay to do it. That was Success in a big way, and I was only 30.
F: You had worked hard and I’m sure from your point of view it had taken long enough, but really, from the time you came home from the war wanting to write but writing only imitative stuff designed to sell to SEP or similar markets, to the time you were famous at age 30 was only eleven years. You went from zero to sixty in about half a second.
EH: If you will use two clocks at once, you will get the sense of it as I lived it. Keep your 0-to-60 analogy, but look at it from my point of view, remembering how it really feels to live a life. Wherever you are in life, it’s always at the end of a chain of days and years and you never see the days and years still to come. A teenage kid can be obnoxious because to the kid, he has been learning and growing and waiting for years and he’s still being treated as if he didn’t know anything, where to the grownups around him, he’s a kid who doesn’t have any idea how much he hasn’t yet experienced, how much he has to learn before he can even begin to be mature.
So from my point of view, it was a long slog against worrying obstacles.
1919-1921 – two years trying just to avoid losing ground.
1921-1923 – meeting important influences, soaking up ideas, practicing practical effects while writing news features but still nowhere.
1924-1926 – putting together the first stories and collections – still unable to sell anything to American magazines.
1926. First novel, and success, although disrupted by the earthquake in my life. [The divorce.]
After 1926 I was more confident, but if you go back over that list and remove the dates, you will see a highly compressed version of a lot of time sweating bullets.
F: “Highly compressed” describes your life in general.
EH: Yes it does. So when I became famous and secure, or as secure as anybody ever gets in a highly insecure field, to others it looked like it happened quickly and probably to some it looked effortless, but to me it was unrelenting hard slogging in the face of external obstacles and an internal voice that wondered if I was full of it to think I could ever overcome the odds. The internal time it took to succeed bore no relation to the external time it took. If you keep that in mind, you will understand some of my reactions later. What looks like me rewriting my [life] story is partly that but partly saying it the way I experienced it.
So – to keep our eyes on the ball – at about the time I returned to live in the US, I returned as Author, and soon as Famous Author. Let me tell you, that could have been disastrous. If I had moved to New York, say, I could have established myself as a regular in some literary circle or other, and gotten used to people treating me as Famous Author, and spent the day listening to the sound of my own voice, and in about ten minutes beginning the process of divorcing myself not only from life in America but from life in general, from Life. It happened to plenty of guys. When the nest gets too comfortable, it gets harder to leave it, and if you never leave the nest, what happens to your wings? I have talked about how new authors could get sucked into the economic trap – spending too much so that they had to write slop in order to get published on a regular basis to get enough money to keep spending too much, like Scott – but the other trap, the Famous Author trap, was just as dangerous, whether you did or didn’t have control of your finances.
I knew enough not to get stuck in that trap. I was born knowing it. Look at anything I wrote for the [Toronto] Star while I was in Europe, or any observations I made on the literary crowd in letters to my friends, and you will see that I was never blinded by the glory of being Famous Author. I wanted success and achievement, and I would sacrifice almost anything for a chance to get it, but I did not confuse success with recognition nor achievement with the ability to sell what I wrote.
F: I think that is as important a sentence as you have ever given me, Papa, and I wish you would spell it out even if you think it’s unnecessary or tedious.
EH: Why don’t you do it, instead?
F: And you correct it if necessary, all right. You just decoupled attributes that people often confuse, and I would hate for people to miss it, it says so much about you and your internal as opposed to external career.
Success v. recognition
Achievement v. reward
EH: Do you need to say any more than that?
F: I think we do, actually. Success and achievement are purely internal conditions; recognition and reward are external.
EH: But now think of what you have just said in connection with what we have said earlier about internal and external.
F: Huh! Got me. I wasn’t thinking in those terms.
EH: So if you do, how do you see it?
F: Well – you tell me.
EH: To put it into your accustomed terms, you magnetize yourself into a desired future by what you are and what you want – the second manifesting the first, of course. What you want obviously stems from what you are. But the future you magnetize yourself into may look the same as a future someone else magnetizes into from a different set of principles and priorities.
F: Okay, I get it now. In other words, you and Fitzgerald both became phenomenal successes in terms of your appeal to a guaranteed public; you both made plenty of money, and you were both master craftsmen, though in different ways. But your pole star was succeeding by making yourself into a master craftsman who could write only what he believed and still make people pay him well to do it. Fitzgerald’s pole star was to be a recognized success, make plenty of money, and write as well as those two goals would allow.
EH: That’s a good summary. So if you looked at us from outside, Scott and I were much alike. When you looked at it from the inside, the differences kept looking larger and larger, and although it looked to me, at the time, like the fault of Zelda and boozing and his whoring for the magazines and the movies, in actual fact he was on course. His course led him to hit an iceberg, but so did mine, a little later. You can’t judge a life by how it ends up, because we all end up dead.
And there’s your hour.
F: Hard to believe. This went by so quickly, it doesn’t seem like ten pages, but I see it is. I don’t particularly want to stop.
EH: You will when you remember you have to type this up. We can continue about Famous Author v. One of the boys next time.
F: Okay. Fascinating as usual. Next time.

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