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October 21, 2017

The Hemingway Puzzle

On this day in 1926 Ernest Hemingway ended his contract with his first publisher, Boni & Liveright; this enabled him to sign with Scribners a week later, and so complete the double-deal he had orchestrated by means of his satiric novella, The Torrents of Spring. While the novella is little-read now, scholars regard it and the double-dealing as an early peek into the puzzle of Hemingway's personality.

Hemingway's first book, the story collection In Our Time, had been published by Boni Liveright the previous autumn, under a contract that granted them an option on his next three books. Hemingway was a rising star with the finished first draft of The Sun Also Rises in his pocket, along with tempting offers from other publishers -- Scribners, Knopf and Harcourt, Brace. His only way around Horace Liveright was to get him to reject his next manuscript. Hemingway's solution was to submit The Torrents of Spring, a ninety-page satire which he knocked off in eleven days. This aimed at a variety of targets, but chief among them was Sherwood Anderson and the writing style of the "Chicago School" -- in Hemingway's view, representative of the worst in puffed-up, lyrical romanticism. Anderson was a leading author for Boni & Liveright, and Hemingway knew that they wouldn't dare publish his slap at him, though his letter accompanying the manuscript played it straight: "The only reason I can conceive that you might not want to publish it would be for fear of offending Sherwood. I do not think that anybody with any stuff can be hurt by satire...." Horace Liveright's return letter was as hoped, expressing his belief that the book was unpublishable and "a bitter, and I might say almost vicious caricature of Sherwood Anderson."

Anderson had been a friend and mentor to Hemingway, a guest at his wedding, and writer of a generous dust-jacket blurb for In Our Time and of letters of introduction allowing Hemingway entry to the Parisian literary scene. Although F. Scott Fitzgerald had urged Hemingway on, John Dos Passos told him that the book was "heartless" and unfunny, and Gertrude Stein was outraged. Eventually, Hemingway would trash all of them too. Hemingway's wife, Hadley, thought the idea "detestable," but she too was being double-dealed at this stage, and by summer would also be dumped.

As parody, The Torrents of Spring sometimes comes all too close to those made of Hemingway:
    Yogi was worried. There was something on his mind. It was spring, there was no doubt of that now, and he did not want a woman. He had worried about it a lot lately. There was no question about it. He couldn't explain it to himself. . . .
This, say Hemingway's defenders, is the point: he is making fun not just of Anderson but of himself, and the literary game in general. The tale is sprinkled with asides and allusions which suggest this. The following "Author's Note," as an example, seems to poke fun at all Lost Generation, Moveable Feast, Great Writer/Reader poses:
    I wrote the foregoing chapter in two hours directly on the typewriter, and then went out to lunch with John Dos Passos, who I consider a very forceful writer. . . . we lunched on rollmops, sole meuniere, civet de lievre a la cocotte, marmelade de pommes, and washed it all down, as we used to say (eh, reader?) with a bottle of Montrachet 1919 with the sole, and a bottle of Hospice de Beaune 1919 apiece with the jugged hare.
The other view of Hemingway is that he is both men: The Big Two-Fisted Writer who jabs away with self-parody even as he body-blows with his own seriousness and self-importance. The last line of Torrents of Spring, in this scenario, is rope-a-dope: "I will just say a simple farewell and God-speed, reader, and leave you now to your own devices."

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