November 10, 2015
Burn This Letter: The Correspondence of Ernest Hemingway
by Taylor Sperry
Before his death in July of 1961, Ernest Hemingway wrote a letter to the executors of his estate saying, “It is my wish that none of the letters written by me during my lifetime shall be published. Accordingly, I hereby request and direct you not to publish, or consent to the publication, of any such letters.”
In October, Cambridge University Press published the third of what will eventually be a seven-volume collection of Hemingway’s correspondence.
This sort of thing is not unusual and is very much in the interest of posterity. As Roxana Robinson pointed out in The New Yorker, “Restricted material is a glowing cache of treasure: scholars will seek it out. They will find a way to read the work; then they will find a way to publish it.”
Earlier this year, we reported on the fate of Franz Kafka’s papers: he burned about 90% of it himself and asked his friend Max Brod to destroy the rest. Brod declined, and as a result, we have The Trial and Amerika. Willa Cather and Georgia O’Keeffe didn’t want their letters published either, but they’re all available—either in published collections, or for free online.
One of the more surprising things about Hemingway’s letters is not that they were published against his will (and so comprehensively), but that they reveal a much more generous Hemingway than we meet in his interviews. In a letter to his ex-wife, Hadley Richardson, he says she’s “the best and truest and loveliest person that I have ever known.” In one to F. Scott Fitzgerald, he offers some tough love on Tender Is the Night. But in his interviews, Hemingway was notoriously prickly.
We’re about to publish a collection of conversations with Hemingway as part of our Last Interview series, and in one of the best moments in his conversation with The Paris Review’s George Plimpton, Hemingway bristles: “I see I am getting away from the question, but the question was not very interesting,” and later, “The fact that I am interrupting serious work to answer these questions proves that I am so stupid that I should be penalized severely.”
The Cambridge Edition of the Letters of Ernest Hemingway was published on October 14; Ernest Hemingway: The Last Interview and Other Conversations will be available from Melville House this December.
Taylor Sperry is a former Melville House editor.