March 17, 2018

A Farewell to Arms, Scott, Agnes

On this day in 1929 Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms was published. Hemingway took his title from a 16th century poem by George Peele, in which Peele expresses regret to Queen Elizabeth I that he is too old to bear arms for her. The 'arms' in question for Frederic Henry, Hemingway's hero, were those he and some half-million Italian soldiers gladly dropped in the retreat from Caporetto in the autumn of 1917; and those of nurse Catherine Barkley, who dies so suddenly at the end that no farewell is possible:
    "You can't come in now," one of the nurses said.
    "Yes I can," I said.
    "You can't come in yet."
    "You get out," I said. "The other one too."
    But after I had got them out and shut the door and turned off the light it wasn't any good. It was like saying good-by to a statue. After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.
The biographers report that these concluding lines, some of the most famous in Lost Generation literature, did not come easily. When Hemingway sent off the story for serialization in Scribner's Magazine that spring he kept back the last page, saying that after ten days working on the final three paragraphs they were "almost right." They would take another month, and hasten another farewell: in the interim, F. Scott Fitzgerald asked to read the manuscript, and sent Hemingway nine pages of suggested revisions, with a note saying, "Our poor old friendship probably won't survive this but there you are..."; at the bottom of the final page of Fitzgerald's comments Hemingway wrote, "Kiss my ass."

Hemingway called A Farewell to Arms, "my Romeo and Juliet novel," and based it on his own experiences as an eighteen-year-old Red Cross volunteer on the north Italian front, where he was injured by shrapnel and machine gun fire, and then attended by American nurse, Agnes von Kurowsky. Her diary entries for the period of their eight-month relationship are cool, though many of her letters are not. In her final, Dear John letter -- actually it begins, "Ernie, dear boy" -- von Kurowsky cites her older age and Hemingway behaving like a spoiled child as reasons for the break-up, before dropping the bombshell: "Then -- & believe me when I say this is sudden for me, too -- I expect to be married soon. And I hope & pray that after you have thought things out, you'll be able to forgive me & start a wonderful career & show what a man you really are."

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