(Host) A new collection of letters and photos offers fresh insight into the life and work of Ernest Hemingway.
And the author’s family says that Hemingway’s biographical arc could continue to evolve, thanks to this collection, which has been acquired by Middlebury College.
VPR’s Neal Charnoff visited Middlebury, and has this report.
(Charnoff) Ernest Hemingway himself seemed to understand that an artist’s work is best interpreted and judged by future generations.
He said as much in a speech accepting the Nobel Prize in 1954.
(Hemingway) "Things may not be immediately discernable in what a man writes and in this sometimes, he is fortunate. But eventually they are quite clear, and by these, and the degree of alchemy that he possesses, he will endure, or be forgotten."
(Charnoff) Despite periods in and out of critical favor, Hemingway has endured through his short stories and novels. Many of those books, such as The Old Man and the Sea and The Sun Also Rises, are still taught in high schools and on college campuses.
Now, Middlebury College has acquired the Ernest Hemingway and Hemingway Family Collection, an archive of over 1500 letters, photos and journals dating from the mid-19th century to Hemingway’s death in 1961.
There is also a unique version of the first two chapters of The Sun Also Rises , which Hemingway excised at the urging of his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald.
The collection was given to the college by Hemingway’s nieces, Anne and Hillary.
Hemingway says for the first time, students and biographers will have access to material that places her uncle within the context of his family.
(Hemingway) "My point is to get this material out so that the everyday scholar and the Hemingway reader, aficionado, the person who wants to study Ernest Hemingway can have access to it, and I think Middlebury lends itself very well to that."
(Charnoff) Hemingway says there is much that researchers could discover from the archives.
One example comes from photos taken of her uncle and an elderly boat captain in Cuba.
While Ernest Hemingway had publicly acknowledged his inspirations for The Old Man and the Sea, Hillary says readers may not be aware of the physical model for the title character.
(Hemingway) "If you see the photographs, he is the just the spitting image of what you should say Santiago should be for Old Man and the Sea."
(Charnoff) Hillary Hemingway lives in Coral Gables, Florida. She says she was inspired to catalog and relocate the material following her home’s near-miss with Hurricane Charlie in 2004.
The connection to Middlebury College is her husband Jeff, who is a member of the class of 1975.
Tim Spears is Dean of the College, and teaches a course on Ernest Hemingway.
Spears says that having the archives housed in one facility will be a great boon to Hemingway researchers. Spears hopes that students and scholars will be able to make their own conclusions about the connections between this material and Hemingway’s writing.
(Spears) "The great value of this kind of archival research is that it turns you into a detective, and you come to understand that material don’t necessarily speak for themselves, you have to actually impose some order on them and interpret them and so forth."
(Charnoff) For Tim Spears, many of the letter and photos confirm his belief that Ernest Hemingway was, at heart, a Midwesterner. Spears thinks there is a side of Hemingway that scholars have overlooked in favor of the hard-drinking, world-traveling stereotype.
(Spears) "Hemingway drew from these experiences as a child, throughout his writing, I mean it was probably the richest reservoir for his work. For me, it was really interesting to take a look at the photographs in this collection of Ernest Hemingway holding up a fish, Ernest Hemingway haying the field. I think it presents a side of Hemingway which is absolutely vital to understanding the genesis of a lot of his work."
(Charnoff) Andrew Wentink is the Middlebury Special Collections and Archives Curator.
(Wetink) "We have over 700 images, photographs, many of which are original snapshots, these are the family snapshots dating from the turn of the century and you see Hemingway from a young child through his late adolescence in the context of his family in Oak Park and Michigan and its very exciting to see Hemingway’s family like we would see any of our families, but out of this family came Ernest Hemingway."
(Charnoff) In the Middlebury College library, Tim Spears and Andrew Wentink leaf through the archives.
(Spears) "Here’s another good one, Ernest holding a gun, a toy gun."
(Wentink) "And this may very well be the toy gun that is referred to as the most treasured gift he received from his grandfather, Anson Hemingway, who was a civil war vet."
(Spears) "I think he’s written about that. There’s also a lot of photographs here that are group picture, some are posed. I’m looking at a picture now where there are probably ten kids sitting in the water, with their backs up against a canoe. This is called, Some Hemingway cousins, Marseline in boat, Ernest, Franklin, Virginia, Adelaide, Ursula, Jane, Isabel and Margaret at Walloon Lake . So you really get the sense that this is kind of a compound extended family landscape, and of course if you read Hemingway short stories, this kind of world is described in those short stories which is one the things I think that makes this collection so interesting for students who are wanting to make connections between the real life of the Hemingway family and the fiction."
(Charnoff) Spears and Wentink agree that there is a sensory thrill to being able to see and touch archival materials, as opposed to just viewing letters through microfiche.
(Spears) "Its an amazing experience I think for some students to come in to read a letter that’s written in the 1860’s, and see attached to it a piece of human hair. The letter I’m referring to is in a folder called Letters From Anson’s Brother, Will Tyler and Sister Jejemima, 1860 to 1867 , so presumably Anson’s sister sent him this piece of her hair, so he would remember her."
(Charnoff) Tim Spears says that there are lessons to be learned from this kind of archival research.
(Spears) "Having students take a look at this material is really important because they come to understand that the received wisdom about a particular writer or figure is not necessarily the only way of understanding him."
(Charnoff) According to Hemingway’s niece Hillary, the family letters offer the possibility of new answers to old questions.
For example, Hemingway points to a misperception about the Hemingway family curse , referring to the fact that Ernest, his father and his brother all committed suicide.
Hemingway says that all three suffered from Type 2 diabetes, and that it wasn’t until recently that a scientific link was made between diabetes and depression.
Hemingway feels that the depression combined with the physical deterioration caused by the disease led to the suicides. She says biographers will now be able to find clues to prove this link in the letters between Clarence Hemingway and his sons.
(Hillary) "Well I think people need to go out there and use the material, use the letters, see where people are talking about this thing, and if you know what you’re looking for, you can find evidence throughout all of their letters talking about the diabetes problem, I think they could make a strong case for saying that diabetes is the cause of the Hemingway curse."
(Charnoff) Curator Andrew Wentink says that the Hemingway Collection will be ready for research within the next six weeks, with the first public exhibition likely early next year.
For VPR News, I’m Neal Charnoff.