Hemingway on truth and lying

Saturday, April 24, 2021

The Hemingway list that I subscribe to cited a letter from Hemingway to Malcolm Cowley in 1948:

[Look, Malcolm, if you want to do me a favour only put in about Italy what I wrote you. That I was wounded on such and such a day…that I had such and such decorations…and leave out everything else… As you must know from A Farewell to Arms (an entirely made-up novel) and from “In Another Country” and “A Way You’ll Never Be” (two un-invented stories) Italy and that part means more to me than I can ever write. I was in very bad trouble there and if you write anything about it somebody will start digging around and I will, eventually, be in bad trouble again… If this doesn’t make sense do it anyway and I will leave you a letter in case should ever die and will give you the dope on the unfortunate things there which are not covered by any statute of limitations… In the first war, I now see, I was hurt very badly; in the body, mind and spirit and also morally… The true gen is I was hurt bad all the way through and I was really spooked at the end.]

So I thought I’d ask

Papa, what is that all about? I think I know some of it, but what can you tell us? What about the statute of limitations? And what about your hurt, which I think I understand best, but maybe don’t understand nearly as well as I think I do.

You and I will have to do this very slowly – the way I wrote, not the way you write – because it is a charged subject for you. You have to express what is supposed to be Hemingway, and what if you get it all wrong and it turns out you were making it up all along?

The old problem, yes, but of course magnified because you are world-famous. But how will going slower help?

Watch, and feel.


I was hurt very badly “in the body, mind and spirit and also morally.” What does this say to you?

I think it means that all layers of you were shocked. Your body was riddled and terrified, if a body can be terrified (and I suspect that it can be). Your mind was instantly blown out of the idea that you were invincible and immortal in the sense you had had. Your spirit was perhaps disheartened that your natural reactions were that of a normal boy and not that of a fictional hero. And I think I know what you mean by having been hurt badly morally.

Say it.

You began pretending. I don’t mean in the making-up-stories way; I imagine you had done that from your earliest days. But now you began rewriting what you had done, what you had been, how you had reacted.

So we come out where we began in 2007, with you asking about why I spun so many self-aggrandizing tales when, on the other hand, I valued integrity so highly.

Seems like we keep coming back to it, always at another level of insight. So what do you want to add?

Before, I stressed how I made up stories to show what I wished had happened, to show the inner me that hadn’t gotten expressed in my exterior life. I wanted to be a hero; I wanted to be in the Army; I wanted to be a true veteran. You know all that. I gave you that because you began by thinking I was merely lying to make myself look better. But now we can let the balance settle a bit, because I was lying, too. What I said earlier – about making my outer life express what I had wanted to happen – was true, but it is also true that I was just lying, and in that war, in the aftermath of that terrible moment, I learned to lie and to lie for its effects, for its benefits, and not just for the sake of enjoying the fantasy.

You still did that, as a story-teller [enjoying the fantasy], I get it. But you’re saying, there are lies, and lies.

Yes. The lie that a child tells, about stopping runaway horses and saving lives, is not intended to be profited from. It is fantasy even if it is also self-aggrandizement. It is a form of creative play. The lies I told in the night in Europe in World War II were entertainment for me and for the men I was with, and they were a sort of substitution for the writing my life there was preventing me from doing. Again, creative play, and the difference, I repeat, is that they weren’t told for me to profit from. The lies I told in Italy, and after Italy, were different.

Well, we went into that a few years ago. It was a kid trying to be taken for what he wished he really was.

It was that, but it was more. If it had been only that, it would have been harmless, and in fact, to the degree that it was only that, it was harmless. But it was more.

I am trying to go slowly.

You already know that from the time my stories – my self-aggrandizing stories – got into the papers [in 1919 on his return from Europe], I was in a trap. The fact that nobody sprang the trap didn’t matter. (Well, if somebody had sprung the trap, it would have mattered! But that isn’t what I mean.) The trap was inside me.

I have the vaguest sense of a split now.

I continued to believe in integrity, in truth, in telling life as it really was rather than as people lied about it. Yet what was I doing?

Is that what we see in the lying stories you tried to sell to The Saturday Evening Post?

Yes. I couldn’t like to their standards, but that’s what I was trying to do. I was trying to lie to order, in a way that would sell. That willingness to lie in order to succeed came out of my Italian experience.

Thank God you outgrew it. Or – not “outgrew,” How did you get out of it?

One true sentence. Why do you think I found writing so hard, when stories came to me so easily? From the time I got to Europe after the war, I determined I was not going to write lies. It meant I had to ride herd over every sentence, to watch, to be sure.

You couldn’t trust yourself, in a way.

Let’s say I had learned that I was not uniquely virtuous in a lying world. If I was going to write true, I had to watch closely. And let me tell you, the process of watching yourself every moment to be sure some untruthfulness does not creep in unobserved is difficult.

I always took your difficulty to be stylistic, to being sure you were excising superfluous words, say.

I am giving you another criterion, not eliminating the others.

I see. So style, content and – intent, shall we say? Authenticity?


Honesty. Well, of all things in your work, honesty is the one thing I take for granted.

It didn’t come for free.

No, I can see that, as you mention it.

Now, I don’t mean to imply that the moral damage I suffered in Italy was confined to my being willing to write anything in order get “success.”

No, you didn’t say that, I get it.

But it might be inferred, and that isn’t my meaning. I was still only a teen-ager, now an injured one. You might say a crippled one, though the damage to the knee wasn’t on the order of a missing arm. Now I had learned to fear.

Ah, I get it! Instead of being the golden boy born under a lucky star, maybe you were just human after all, and maybe you could fail.

Maybe there was no path for me, that’s right. Maybe I would have to make my own way and therefore maybe I couldn’t afford to live as I had expected to live. Maybe I would have to make my own chances by bending the truth.

Or by working for that cooperative after the war even though you pretty quickly picked up on the fact that it was shady.

That was more a case of keeping my eyes half-closed because I needed the job. But a form of lying, yes.

Misrepresenting yourself to so many people, even to Sylvia Beach in Europe when you met her.

Yes. It’s all of a patch. And now do you understand why my writing had to be pure?

It was your anchor. But even there –

Journalism that assumes a persona is not necessarily lying; it is closer to the kind of imaginative story-telling we were talking about. It is innocent. What is deadly is lying.

You came pretty close to lying by omission in Spain [in 1937-38, reporting on the Spanish Civil War]. You knew the war was lost. Or in China [in 1941], when you knew so many things you didn’t report lest they cause trouble for the cause.

The difference between lies – even lies of omission – is always the motive. A lie of omission lest you dishearten good people is no sin. It may not even be a lie, because you never know. The lie that is a sin, and that has its effect on you, is the lie told for the purpose of getting you something: prestige, or money, or opportunities, or anything.

Okay, I see all that. Tell me, what did you hint at in your letter, citing “no statute of limitations.”

There is no statute of limitations on lying. That’s all. It isn’t like I was smuggling or stealing or something. And it isn’t like I wasn’t there, or didn’t do what I was said to do. Even if my derring-do was exaggerated, that wouldn’t reflect on me. I hadn’t been the one claiming it. But what was on me was all those lies about the arditi and my Army career and all that.

Is that truly all you meant?

You are welcome to go looking for currency violations.

Well, but you know what I mean.

I do. There is no statute of limitations on lying.

I don’t want to beat this to death, but “I was in very bad trouble there and if you write anything about it somebody will start digging around and I will, eventually, be in bad trouble again.” That just sounds like it refers to something more tangible than lying.

If you will think it through, what kind of external trouble could I have been in, in 1918, that would again threaten me in 1948?

Well, when you put it that way –

Lying and the consequences of lying. That’s what it was about, for the reasons we discussed.

Okay. Thanks for all this.


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