From Papa in Heaven

Russell Davies

  • Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters 1917-1961 edited by Carlos Baker
    Granada, 948 pp, £15.00, April 1981, ISBN 0 246 11576 9

To POSTERITY, location unspecified (over Key West? Rancho El Paradiso?)

Dear Pos:

How the hell are you? A stupid damned question as you will be rolling along pretty much as always, my reliable friend. You will be surprised to get a letter from me but not half as surprised as Papa is to be writing a letter. I have not written a letter in twenty years. But I guess not many of my friends have been looking to receive mail from me. You know I never had much trust in the mails, or pleasure from them, although I lived by them all those years. And it was many years Pos, you old putana, as you know. I put myself in isolation – decades of negotiations with editors, publishers, lawyers etc. Many of them were my friends but I guess I did not care to spend too much time with them on their territory. Anyhow I never could open up a real partnership with any of them after Max Perkins died. Charlie Scribner maybe. But he died too. I had to get out before the sons of bitches all died.

The shooting up here most days would be louzy (spelling? I never could spell worth a damn) even if I had a gun. The duck do not get up high enough to reach us here. Very little of anything flying up here except spy planes. What drives me bughouse though is when the flights of angels come over to sing thee (i.e. me) to thy (i.e. my) rest. They come over in big coveys and so long as one of the bigger bastards does not blot out the sun completely you have a sky-full that an English Duke could not buy him-self. I could shoot a record percentage up here with a crut of an English antique 12 bore shotgun let alone the Griffin and Howe Springfield I had them send me back in Key West 1931. And I would not need the telescopic sight as we all have that here anyway.

Did you read my letters? Carlos Baker has put them out, a Selection he calls it. On page 867 you will see where it says ‘Carlos Baker really baffles me.’ Well that is understateing it, Pos. A man must really hate you to put out a Life like he did, then follow it up 12 years later with a heap of Selected junk from your private mail. Of course he must love you too because you are his meal ticket and you are giveing him his liveing. Well I did not know I was giveing anybody a liveing when I wrote this stuff. Nor do you write letters to be put in books. All my life I wrote stuff to be consciously put in books and that made it book-stuff. The stuff in letters is letter-stuff. It is to be judged by the person opening the letter, not a committee of shitfaced college students and disciples of Revd. Eliot (who in my life I tended to call him Elliot he tells me. He is here but don’t worry he is out of earshot. I unfortunately am out of buckshot.) But letters always did give Papa the vomits, Pos. In 1929 I wrote my sister in school, saying ‘Plenty of times people who write the best write the very worst letters. It’s almost a rule.’ And I stand by that Pos, you old barracuda, as god is my witless. Besides, Baker knows nothing about the fight game. In his notes he has invented a character called Steve Ketehell who I guess he thinks fought Jack Johnson, but we know that was Stanley Ketchell, if not Ketchel, don’t we Pos? The poor sap was knocked out by Johnson and murdered in 1910 before I had the chance to teach him to see it coming. We have some swell fights up here. Guys who god knows how they got in here (pardon the vernacular) go nuts with the boredom and hang one on somebody. But I am being very restrained. I am waiting for Norman Mailer who is a glass-jawed punk with no defence.

I fell over a cloud yesterday and busted my arm in two places. Doc said it was the worst double fracture he had seen since the 16th century. Busted the humerus clean off at the end and the whole elbow swole up like Faulkner’s head. Not much pain. He drilled the bones and tied them with harpstrings. Last time it happened to Papa like this was in Billings Montana (1930) when they used kangaroo tendons to lash the bones. You get used to it. Don’t mention this accident to anybody, Pos. It will start all the professors off on that ‘Hemingstein was a clumsy drunk who couldn’t hit a typewriter unless it hit him first’ kind of shit. I hate that stuff. The reason I got (get) injured so much is that I was doing things these profile-writers and archivists only dreamed about, not just in war but hunting, fishing, shooting, whoring, drinking, fathering kids, being a friend to F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce etc. The only way they noticed I injured myself was because I could not spell hemmorage and still cannot. But it is very easy to injure yourself up here. Everybody is drunk all the time – it is the thing to be, like snotty in England – and your balance goes all to hell. You can fall upwards through a skylight here. It is like being on board Pilar and not knowing if the sea is hanging over the ceiling. Do you know how to mix an Ambrosia? It is all they have here but it is the good stuff. I will write and give you the true gen on this.

Rereading these letters of mine I can see where the Professors are going to attack me. They will go for me on the Jewish thing. I have a lot of references to Jews, ‘the smart Jews like Ben Hecht ... It ... does not make one love the Jews any better ... Asch hit him out of kike gratitude ... I’m all for keeping out of the manuals of the Semites as long as possible’: that kind of noise. But this was conventional then, Pos, you remember. It was the conventional sneer. Especially if a man was writing to Ezra Pound. I repudiated all this in later life. Hell, I even called my own son Gregory ‘Jew’ when he began to do arithmetic too young (he was a mathematical genius at age four). It was all jocular. You will note my friendship with Bernard Berenson who was a Jew and very old. In 1955 I wrote him about Ezra ‘who can so disgust me sometimes with his anti-semitism and childish fascism that I cannot write to him’. When Edmund Wilson wanted to republish some early letters of mine I made him change ‘Jews’ to ‘New York people’ in the text. What more can a man do? At the same time I supported Ezra’s release from the nuthouse, for impeccable reasons, and gifted him with plenty money when he came out. In many ways it was a balanced life. Jokes like ‘David son of Joshua Son of Isaac son of Abraham O’Neil is in town and kiking everybody with big promises’ (to Ezra in 24) don’t have anything to do with it. I wrote terrific letters to bigots like Cardinal Spellman and Joe McCarthy and only regret I probably did not send them (can’t remember and Baker don’t know).

Gertrude Stein was surely Jewish too. She was a fine woman and a friend until she got the menopause, when she got patriotic about homosexuality. You could not be any good if you were not that way, and you could not be that way without being very good. I think that’s it. I seem to have written some version of this to everybody at some time or other and don’t see why I should spare you. Joyce has got me spooked though. I would be grateful, Pos, if you do not draw attention to the place where I write to Ezra (1924 again, I must have been in bad shape) that ‘In all other arts the more meazly and shitty the guy, i.e. Joyce, the greater the success in his art.’ I would prefer my later opinion should stand, the one I expressed to Berenson in 1952, that Joyce ‘was the best companion and finest friend I ever had’. That gets it better I think. Also the long 1953 letter to Berenson where I say, ‘you always had a good time with Joyce because he was never conceited with his equals.’ That is the kind of quote makes me feel good just to read it after all these years. I turned round on Wilson a little too, but he had criticised my stuff. Bunny Wilson was too cold for me, a puppeteer and card-sharp and not a fighter. But by the end he was one of the few good old drinkers left so you will find I treated him friendly.

One thing they cannot bitch about, Pos, you old tarpon (some of them still think a tarpon is something the ladies have) is the amount of true gen I gave, factually and in figures. Look at page 500 for a typical letter. (There are no typical letters in this book because it is a damn fine book but you know what I mean.) In three paragraphs I have given Max Perkins my writing average for previous 17 days (500 a day incl. Saturdays and Sundays), my condition (hung over), weight (198 ‘due to terrific tennis’), and put in a request for $1500 on behalf a guy who wanted to buy a motor truck together with details of how he will save 4% by doing it. Reporting was simply in my blood. I see Carlos Baker has dug up some screeds I wrote at age nine – he puts them in his own Introduction to stop it dyeing a lingering death – and in the first one, Pos, I am already saying ‘I got six clams in the river and some weat six feet tall.’ The spelling may be out but the facts are there. Nobody can teach you this.

You know what made me laugh? The fight with Wallace Stevens. Baker’s Life of Me did not say much about this because Baker did not know but there was a letter I wrote to Sara Murphy that gives the dope: ‘Mr Stevens ... was just issuing from the door haveing just said, I learned later, “By God I wish I had that Hemingway here now I’d knock him out with a single punch.” So who should show up but poor old Papa and Mr Stevens swung that same fabled punch but fertunately missed and I knocked all of him down several times and gave him a good beating. Only trouble was that first three times put him down I still had my glasses on. Then took them off at the insistence of the judge who wanted to see a good clean fight without glasses in it and after I took them off Mr Stevens hit me flush on the jaw with his Sunday punch bam like that. And this is very funny. Broke his hand in two places. Didn’t harm my jaw at all and so put him down again and then fixed him good so he was in his room for five days with a nurse and Dr working on him. But you mustn’t tell this to anybody.’ Well it is all out now, Pos. Baker in his pissy Life said ‘Stevens was a complete novice in boxing, besides being twenty years Hemingway’s senior’ but having seen sense he does not give currency to this irrelevant junk a second time. As I say in the letter, ‘for statistics sake Mr Stevens is 6 feet 2 weighs 225 lbs,’ and when something that size is swinging at you you do not ask if he has had lessons or is a fairy-footed poet or an insurance agent. You must give him your best punch and see how he likes it. Mr Stevens was not Jewish I believe.

I am not saying there is nothing in this book I wish I haven’t have written (grammar?). There is plenty I do not remember writing but most writers are lonely and drunk a lot of the time. I no longer remember what made me write about James Jones, ‘I hope he kills himself as soon as it does not damage his or your sales’ (this was to Charlie Scribner). ‘If you give him a literary tea you might ask him to drain a bucket of snot and then suck the puss out of a dead nigger’s ear’ (this is page 721). You write this kind of stuff when you are angry. I liked the real soldiers only and thought Jones was a phony soldier. I explained it all to Charlie in the next letter. Where I said, ‘In the meantime I wish him no luck at all and hope he goes out and hangs himself as soon as plausible.’ So I was probably still angry. I’m told Jones died in 1977 so I guess he will show up here sooner or later. How big was he?

They will have a lot of fun deciding why I always wrote ‘Haveing’ and ‘Giveing’ and stuff but never wrote ‘Writeing’. I wish I knew myself. It certainly comes of being educated in bars by rummy sub-Editors from Kansas City. But it resulted in giveing me a fine title for A Moveable Feast which the customer always looks at twice because it looks a little zonky. Nesspah?

Pos, this is turning into the kind of letter I used to write Max Perkins but in his case the length was justified by business purposes. I don’t give a damn now whether my stuff sells or not tho it obviously will in the absence of anything to beat it. They now have most of the dirt on me and have not buried me yet. They also have to give me the credit for not selling out to Hollywood – not while it mattered – but just sticking to the typewriter like the good old hermit crab I have always been. Scott sends his regards. He is OK though too heavy on the Ambrosia. I still have to work hard to keep the bastard smiling. Do you remember the fantasy of heaven I wrote him in 1925? ‘To me heaven would be a big bull ring with me holding two barrera seats and a trout stream outside that no one else was allowed to fish in and two lovely houses in the town; one where I would have my wife and children and be monogamous and love them truly and well and the other where I would have my nine beautiful mistresses on 9 different floors and one house would be fitted up with special copies of the Dial printed on soft tissue and kept in the toilets on every floor and in the other house we would use the American Mercury and the New Republic. Then there would be a fine church like in Pamplona where I could go and be confessed on the way from one house to the other ...’ Well I don’t have to tell you, Pos you old estreptococo, Heaven is not like that. What I described was Earth.

So long and buona fortuna to you and all the other little Posterities working out there below. If you can taste me in the Bloody Mary it’s too damn weak.

Yrs always,

Ernie

Stein

Wemedge

Yogi Liveright

Bear Mountain

Ernest M. Shit

I think that’s the best of my Collected Signatures.

Haveing heard abt the Baseball Strike I think I have heard everything.

E.H.