Ernest Hemingway: A Publisher's Perspective
Ernest Hemingway was first published by Charles Scribner's Sons in 1926. He continued the relationship with Scribners for more than 35 years — under the guidance of three Charles Scribners--the last was Charles Scribner, Jr. [above]. Strong bonds of loyalty and friendship were formed during those years, and now a fourth Scribner, Charles Scribner III, offers the family's perspective on that great author.
When recently asked to write an introduction to a new leather-bound edition of the late Carlos Baker's now-classic biography of Ernest Hemingway (Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story, New York, Charles Scribner's Sons). I suddenly realized that 25 years have passed since its publication in the spring of 1969. I recall that celebrated moment with special clarity, for it happened to coincide with my acceptance to Princeton as a freshman in the fall — a blessed event that no expectant St. Paul’s Sixth Former ever forgets!
At its silver anniversary, Baker's book still remains the standard work on this extraordinary writer's life —unsurpassed by the spate of scholarly biographies, psycho-biographies, and pop biographies that have appeared (and disappeared) on bookstore shelves in the interim.
Carlos Baker was Professor of English at Princeton from 1938 until his retirement in 1977. As I mused about Professor Baker and his profound contributions to Hemingway scholarship and to generations of students alike it dawned on me that — better late than never — I can claim only fourth place in the succession of Charles Scribners involved in publishing Hemingway's works since he first appeared on our list in 1926, almost a half-century ago. The Charles who presided at that auspicious debut was my great-grandfather, whose own father, the first CS, had founded Scribners in 1846.
In 1932 my grandfather, yet another Charles , took over the helm and as Hemingway's contemporary proceeded to combine the roles of publisher and intimate friend to a degree perhaps unprecedented in American letters. When my grandfather died at the age of 62 in 1952, the distraught author wrote to my grandmother:
Now my dear and good friend is gone and there is no one to confide in nor trust nor make rough jokes with and I feel so terribly about Charlie being gone that I can't write anymore….
A week later he sent an equally heartfelt letter to my father, who was still on active duty in Washington as a naval lieutenant engaged in breaking enemy codes during the Korean war:
I won’t try to write to you how much he meant to me as a friend and as a publisher. He was the best and closest friend that I had and it seems impossible that I will never have another letter from him. It does not do any good to talk about it and there is nothing to say that makes it any easier. Since he had to die at least he has gotten it over with. If there is anything practical I can do please let me know. . . .
I will try and not worry you about finances nor about anything else. You don't have to write me letters nor have me on your mind in any way. I know what a terribly tough job you have now with Navy, Estate, and the House of Scribner to look after. They shouldn't do that to any human being. Please take it as easy as you can and feel free to call on me in any way that I can be of help….This is not a good letter, Charlie. But I still feel too sad to write a good one.
With typically Hemingwayesque precision, he then added this postscript: Am sorry I don't know your rank so address this as a civilian. EH
All Hemingway letters to my family are preserved in the Charles Scribner's Sons Archives at Firestone Library, Princeton University. They have recently been unsealed and made accessible to researchers with my consent. My father later commented in his book of essays. In the Web of Ideas: the Education of a Publisher (New York: Scribners, 1993), that he could "not imagine a kinder expression of condolence or a more delicate assurance of loyalty. And in the lovely phrase of Dickens, he was better than his word. For the next nine years of his life, he was as easy to work with as any author I have ever known."
Thrust into the presidency of Scribners at the ripe age of 30, Charles Scribner, Jr., was to be Hemingway's last publisher and personal editor. His relationship with our preeminent author was to prove no less fruitful (if more formal) than his father's had been.
After Hemingway's death in 1961, my father presided over the publication of the remaining works beginning with A Moveable Feast and including the unfinished novels Islands in the Stream (for which he coined the title) and The Garden of Eden. His own account of these experiences with and without Hemingway is recorded in fascinating detail in his memoir In the Company of Writers: A Life in Publishing (New York: Scribners, 1991). It seems only fitting that of the four Charleses he be the one to assess Hemingway's significance as a writer and a man.
The following text of a lecture he gave at the Princeton Club Library in New York in 1985 seems to me as sound and sensitive an appraisal as any I have read, and I therefore offer it in its full (and unedited) form to celebrate this 25th anniversary of the biography he both commissioned from Professor Baker and painstakingly edited without too many protests erupting from McCosh Hall at Princeton.
Ernest Hemingway: A Publisher's Assessment
(A lecture given by Charles Scribner, Jr. at the Princeton Club Library in New York in 1985.)
I am delighted to have the opportunity to share a few thoughts about the writings of Ernest Hemingway and the character of the man. These are not neglected topics. In fact, in the course of the past several decades a huge scholarly industry has grown up around the life and works of Hemingway and virtually all the possible fields of Hemingway studies have been painstakingly gleaned. There is a Hemingway Society and a Hemingway newsletter, and annual pilgrimages are made by enthusiasts to parts of the world featured in his books. Even a careless typo in a Hemingway book can become a subject for extended scholarly debate. Since I had the temerity to correct one of those passages I am painfully familiar with the passions that can be aroused. One is reminded of the prolonged iota subscript issue that rocked Christian theology for generations.
Given all this professional scholarship, I am reconciled to preserving my own amateur standing and accordingly have decided to confine myself here to remarks about Hemingway which may seem obvious. Obviousness does not deter me. In fact, I believe that in this and many other fields of study the obvious is nowadays neglected much too often.
One of the obvious facts about Hemingway is that virtually all his life, from the time he was a boy to the day he died, he thought of himself as a writer — nothing else. That image of himself created his ambition, directed his will, supplied his greatest satisfaction.
I think that from the start there was a kind of enchantment about his commitment to writing. Robert Louis Stevenson, in his autobiographical essay "The Lantern Bearers," describes the excitement he felt as a boy when he and his comrades would meet after dark, each of them carrying a bull's-eye lantern under his topcoat. All the lanterns were lit but kept covered for the greater part of the expedition. Then, at the end, they were uncovered and allowed to shine out full strength. But for those boys roaming the streets of Edinburgh, the bliss in the adventure lay in the knowledge that the lanterns were lit and burning brightly even in the dark under their topcoats.
Like all true artists, Hemingway carried from the start a bull's-eye lantern under his topcoat. Most of the time he kept it hidden from outsiders; he would talk about it tangentially, if at all. But it was there all the time, the most important thing in his life.
As early as his high school days he had come to think of himself as a writer. It was a reasonable pretension. Words came easily to him, and he had a natural sense of style for putting them together. One of the results of his years at the Oak Park and River Forest High School was to bring him to a realization of his talent. In his senior year he wrote lively reports for the weekly school paper and short stories for its literary magazine. That is not an unusual combination of genres for a schoolboy, but Hemingway never gave them up. Throughout his career he wrote stories and news reports.
The experience of seeing his work in print was as pleasing to him as it is to all writers, but in him it became an addiction. He was always on the lookout for material to use in a story: he was a magpie in that respect, industriously and almost by reflex action storing away in his memory colorful bits and pieces of life. His classmates had referred to him as "Our Ring Lardner," the highest compliment they could pay him, and at that time by no means inappropriate. When the time came for him to think about college, it could have been no great surprise to anyone that he chose instead a job as cub reporter on the Kansas City Star. He knew he had a bent for journalism and the job was in line with his ambition as a writer.
Hemingway's six-month stint on the Star has been described as an apprenticeship. Valuable in many ways, it provided him with material that he used for his later fiction. He learned how to dig out the facts of a story and he toiled to describe them simply and directly. He also learned to recognize a good story when he saw one. His image of himself as a writer had now developed into the reality of being a professional writer; status — and that particular status — was very important to him.
It is clear that as a writer Hemingway would develop still farther beyond the lessons he had learned in Kansas City. He would end up creating a style capable of representing events and truths that lie outside the scope of journalism, and to do that he had a certain amount of unlearning to do. His companions in journalism were impressed not only by his energy on the job but also by his interest in literature off the job. There was a bull's-eye lantern lighted under his coat.
Leaving the Star for wartime ambulance service in Italy interrupted writing, but the variety and vividness of the memories then stored up show that he was still seeing everything with the eye of the reporter. The first crisis in his writing career occurred when he got back home. With his desire to be a "real" writer, an important writer, keen as ever, the stories he wrote then were rejected over and over for a whole year.
It must be startling for readers familiar with Hemingway's later work to read his productions of that period. In their stilted language these stories seem utterly unlike what we know he had it in him to write. He was clearly spinning his wheels. In the straits he was in at the time, it was providential that he managed to obtain a free-lance assignment on the Toronto Star. Almost a chance event, this was one of the most fortunate opportunities that ever came his way. For a writer, there is no substitute for being published and read. The Star gave him an appreciative readership and kept him writing on a regular basis. Between February 1920 and December 1924, he wrote over 150 pieces for the Star, ranging from amusing sketches of everyday life close to home — medical fads, tips to campers, political satires, and the like — to firsthand observations as a foreign correspondent in post-war Europe.
This diversity of topics and styles raised his competence as a journalist to the top level of professionalism. It also gave him the opportunity to meet most of the literary masters who visited or lived in Paris in the twenties — Gertrude Stein, Scott Fitzgerald, Ford Madox Ford, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and Archibald MacLeish.
One of Hemingway's most deeply rooted traits was his horror of being an outsider, let alone an also-ran. Once he had met writers of stature, it was inevitable that he would try to match or exceed their accomplishments. For a young newspaperman this might have proven a sin of envy deserving to be punished by the gods. But the gods would have been wrong, for they had already bestowed on him more than enough talent to fulfill his ambition.
It was in this period that Hemingway tried a number of experiments in the craft of fiction. One of his declared aims was to learn to write "one true sentence.' The mini-stories that were privately published in the booklet in our time, were the first fruits of this effort.
By stripping off virtually the entire context of an event and leaving a starkly isolated image in a timeless present, Hemingway found that the impact of the words on the reader could be greatly enhanced. Yet it is difficult to measure the success of that new style by means of the events that occur in that first series of sketches, because the description of executions or horrors on the battlefield or in the hull ring are able by themselves to elicit strong visceral effects in the reader — regardless of style.
But Hemingway did not stop there. He went on to apply the stripping technique to the mental states of individuals and to the relations between two or more characters. The stories "Up in Michigan" and "Cross-Country Snow" are early examples of the "subtractive" technique. The same principle dictated the use of laconic, allusive dialogue. The sparseness of detail forces the reader to pay close attention to whatever information is provided. As a result, the reader's imagination plays an active role and the narrative thereby acquires the convincing force of something worked for and lived through.
Hemingway later used the technique to describe certain events of his boyhood for the clear purpose not so much of retelling as of reproducing the inner feeling of a character at a crucial moment in his life. To what extent Hemingway was influenced by Joyce's method of revealing similar "epiphanies" in Dubliners is difficult to establish. I believe that he was so influenced but such perceptions can of course be neither proved nor disproved.
The important element in Hemingway's writings derives from his constant concern to convey powerful psychological states: despair and hope, fear and courage, anger and resignation. Like Conrad, he was primarily concerned with the soul. The story may deal with the body, that is, exciting action and vivid sensations; but the ultimate goal is the transformation of character.
Several years ago, in discussing her husband with me, Mary Hemingway told me about his extraordinary ability to walk into a room full of strangers and instantly divine the multiple relations and attitudes within the group. It is that gift that was responsible for the psychological subtlety of his fiction, a quality that has been overlooked by many readers and critics who take at face value his reputation as a writer concerned primarily with external action
Let me conclude by telling about an incident that occurred at Scribners. I was a young man at the time, attempting to earn my spurs as a publisher. It was not long after our publication of The Old Man and the Sea when one of our college travelers discovered an embryonic version of the story that had been published in Esquire in 1936. For all I know, the man may have been told about this by one of the English professors he had called on. That young man is now a prominent literary agent — and what more can he desire from life? But it occurred to him that it would be an admirable thing to republish this inversion of The Old Man and the Sea together with the novella itself in a special college edition.
We thought it was a pretty good idea too, and proposed it to the author. But Hemingway — Hemingway the writer — did not think it was a good idea at all. Nor was he open to any such good ideas at any time thereafter. In the years that followed that episode, I often remembered Hemingway's fury at the suggestion. Why was he so put out? Until recently I ascribed this to his well-known resentment of scholars who ferreted out his sources or explored his life. In these matters, he was apt to express the combined disbelief and despair of a magician when someone in the audience keeps trying to explain his feats. Now I think 1 have a sharper understanding of that annoyance many years ago. For Hemingway his story had an outside and an inside. The outside might be the basis for a good yarn, and so it was in Esquire. But only the inside could be the basis for a work of literature.
--Charles Scribner, Jr.
Upon publication of The Old Man and the Sea in the fall of 1952, Hemingway inscribed in his publisher's copy of the novella: "Il faut (d’abord) durer." One must, first of all, endure. In a more comic vein he gave expression to the same idea in a letter written to my father on the eve of publication. Responding to a paternal report of how, at the age of 15 months, I had taken to pulling books out of bookcases, Hemingway commented: "What young Charlie is probably trying to do is get the dead wood out of publishing. Make a note of it for his biographers." Four decades later, it is clear that Hemingway has endured, and shall endure, as the towering figure of 20th century American literature. There is no dead wood to be found here.
--Charles Scribner III