Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Hemingway’s Silmarillion?

Hemingway’s Paris notebooksMy apologies for more than three weeks of dead air here at Lingwë. The culprit was a half-day presentation I gave on Tolkien, Gothic, Old Norse, and Old English at Texas A&M University at Commerce a couple weeks ago (first, the preparation for it kept me away; then, catching up on the rest of my to-do list). But an opinion piece I recently read — the latest chapter in an ongoing debate — prompts my return today.

As long-time readers will know, I’m a big fan of Ernest Hemingway. For example, I began (but haven’t managed to finish) a series of posts on Hemingway’s short stories. In the July 19 issue of the New York Times, A.E. Hotchner, long-time friend and later biographer of Hemingway, writes about a new edition of Hemingway’s posthumous memoir, A Moveable Feast. As Hotchner describes it, this is:
a significantly changed edition of Ernest Hemingway’s masterpiece, “A Moveable Feast,” first published posthumously by Scribner in 1964. This new edition, also published by Scribner, has been extensively reworked by a grandson who doesn’t like what the original said about his grandmother, Hemingway’s second wife.

The grandson has removed several sections of the book’s final chapter and replaced them with other writing of Hemingway’s that the grandson feels paints his grandma in a more sympathetic light. Ten other chapters that roused the grandson’s displeasure have been relegated to an appendix, thereby, according to the grandson, creating “a truer representation of the book my grandfather intended to publish.”
Hotchner then recounts his own friendship with Hemingway and personal involvement with the book during the late 1950’s, and he dismisses any claims by Seán Hemingway — whom Hotchner will not even name (he is simply “a grandson” with an axe to grind) — that Mary Hemingway “cobbled the manuscript together from shards of an unfinished work”, or that she herself invented the final chapter. Hotchner asserts that Hemingway “certainly intended it for publication”, and says moreover that the book as published is in fact “essentially” what Hemingway left behind. And he seems to be in a position to know. It was, in fact, Hotchner who suggested the title, “A Moveable Feast” (Hemingway’s own erstwhile description of Paris, he says).

And Hotchner’s indignation goes further. “Someone who inherits an author’s copyright is not entitled to amend his work,” he says. “With this reworking as a precedent, what will Scribner do, for instance, if a descendant of F. Scott Fitzgerald demands the removal of the chapter in ‘A Moveable Feast’ about the size of Fitzgerald’s penis, or if Ford Madox Ford’s grandson wants to delete references to his ancestor’s body odor.”

I think this is a legitimate cause for concern, but it bears pointing out that Seán Hemingway obviously sees things differently. Clearly, there are two sides to the story here.

In his review of the new edition, Christopher Hitchens describes the edition’s additions: ten additional sketches, followed by a selection of “fragments”. While readers may be glad to have them, one can (and probably should) ask whether Hemingway wanted them to be published at all, or published as part of this book. A question like this is often unanswerable; however, in this case Hemingway himself wrote that “for reasons sufficient to the writer [i.e., himself], many places, people, observations and impressions have been left out of this book.” By what right are they inserted back into it by a later editor, even if related by blood? Ah, but are these really Hemingway’s words at all? Seán Hemingway contends that the author’s preface was a fabrication!

If we believe Hotchner, the book was finished by Hemingway himself, who gave Hotchner “the completed manuscript of the Paris book to give to Scribner’s president.” It was certainly not entirely complete — it evidently had no title as yet, for example — but Hotchner says it was essentially a finished work. Why then is there such debate, why do so many contend it was “cobbled” or “pasted together” by Mary Hemingway? I admit I am no expert on the provenance of the manuscript(s). I wonder, though, whether the typescript Hotchner transported to the offices of Charles Scribner’s Sons in New York survives. If so, one should be able to turn to it for Hemingway’s own vision of the work, no? And if that were so, I can’t see what the fuss is all about. The fact that there is such a fuss, then, suggests there probably is no (surviving) typescript.

What troubles me more than the addition of the new material — which, honestly, I would like to read — is the removal of much of the final chapter, supposedly (but definitely? can we be so sure?) invented by Mary Hemingway. The scholarly approach would be to search the Paris notebooks for this material, but even if it weren’t found, that wouldn’t rule out Hemingway’s having written it from scratch in the late 1950’s in Cuba. Was this final “wistful paean to Hadley Richardson” a “removeable” feast? Alas, the jury is apparently still out.

All of this naturally reminds one of analogous situations with other deceased authors, their posthumous publications, and their Estates. Comparison to Tolkien’s unfinished “Silmarillion”, edited and published by his son and literary executor, Christopher Tolkien, is perhaps natural — though there are some major differences.

For one, Christopher Tolkien was much closer to his father than Seán Hemingway could be to Ernest — for the very obvious reason that Seán Hemingway was born after his grandfather’s 1961 suicide. He never met the man. Christopher Tolkien was therefore in a far superior position to know his father’s wishes for his book than Seán Hemingway could have been. Also, the state of the respective authors’ manuscripts is not really comparable, from what I know. Too, there is nobody analogous to Hotchner in Tolkien’s milieu. And while for their final books both Tolkien and Hemingway drew at their end of their lives on raw material written many decades earlier, an important distinction is that Tolkien was writing and revising this material almost the entire time; whereas, Hemingway hadn’t even seen the Paris notebooks in thirty years! (And there are plenty of other differences as well.)

Nevertheless, the problems and decisions confronting the editor of any posthumous publication are often very similar. And for two such beloved authors as Tolkien and Hemingway, the stakes in “getting it right” are high. Here, Seán Hemingway discusses specific differences between the Paris notebooks and the first published edition of A Moveable Feast. If you’ve read Doug Kane’s Arda Reconstructed: The Creation of the Published Silmarillion, the rhetorical habiliments of Seán Hemingway’s argument may sound very familiar — from “snippets of text” to the “intentional and carefully conceived narrative device” to the “order of the chapters” to judgments that “this kind of editorial decision [...] seems completely unwarranted”. Any one of these phrases could have equally come from Kane. And Doug, if you’re reading, I don’t mean that to sound condescending or dismissive. You’re in good company. :)

So, was A Moveable Feast Hemingway’s “Silmarillion”, a work he sketched out, even substantially, but never quite completely finished? And Seán Hemingway and Christopher Tolkien, both scholars in their own right (Classics and Old Norse, respectively), quite independent of their work on their relatives’ unfinished books — how much common experience do they share? Both have champions as well as critics. In the case of A Moveable Feast, much (to me) depends on this finished typescript to which A.E. Hotchner refers. On the other side of the Atlantic, there is certainly no such thing — a single complete manuscript with genuine author/ity — for The Silmarillion.

For what it’s worth, if I have to render a personal judgment, I find myself siding with Seán Hemingway (and Christopher Tolkien, mutatis mutandis). He can, after all, present evidence on the basis of extant documents as to the nature and extent of changes made to the final book. What he cannot do, it seems to me, is answer whether there might have been intermediate steps, now lost, in which those changes came into being by Hemingway’s own hand. (As such, “restored edition” is perhaps a misnomer.) Likewise, many claims of editorial intercession on Christopher Tolkien’s part may be answered in the very same words. Hotchner’s claims, on the other hand, require documentary evidence which I am not sure exists. If it did, the debate would be, would have been, easily resolved, and yet it rages on. Unless Hotchner can demonstrate, rather than merely assert, that the final chapter, the author’s preface, and other textual “discrepancies” (from the point of view of the Paris notebooks) came indeed from Ernest Hemingway and not from Mary or Scribner’s editor(s), then his accusations must be treated as opinion, not fact.


  1. Gary Schmidt8/05/2009 4:58 PM

    Very interesting comparison, Jase. Who else would think of making a link between Sean Hemingway and CRRT? ;) Tangentially, I'm also reminded of that article on James Joyce's grandson Stephen that I sent you long ago.

  2. Thanks, Gary. And you may not believe it, but I had that very Joyce article in the back of my mind also, as one of those “analogous situations” we naturally remember. Thanks for sharing the link with everyone.

  3. Hey, Jason, so is that bit about Hemingway and the napkin and the six-word short story true, or just apocryphal?

  4. Hi Alex. That tale certainly has gotten around, hasn’t it? And the six-word story is indeed heartbreaking. But I don’t have any reason to believe it actually happened. As much as the story is repeated, nobody has ever offered much in the way of concrete details to back it up. Not when it was written, with whom Hemingway shared it, etc. I have never encountered the story in any of the serious biographical works on Hemingway either (e.g., by Carlos Baker). It seems to be completely apocryphal. I wonder whether it might have gotten its start from something Ford Madox Ford wrote in his memoirs: “I did not read more than six words of his before I decided to publish everything he [Hemingway] sent me” in the Transatlantic Review (emphasis added). actually has an article on this, and offers a couple different possibilities. But to sum up: I doubt very much it’s true.