Easy Reader: Ernest Hemingway Writes Good Letters Home and Elsewhere, 1907-22

Ernest Hemingway was the scribe everyone was reading when I grew up. Yes, after having gone through Sinclair Lewis, they were reading F. Scott Fitzgerald, too, and William Faulkner and John O'Hara -- with a brief detour to J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. But it was the uber-macho Hemingway whom the aspiring writers among the male readers labored to emulate.

Only dimly understanding that someone called Gertrude Stein had influence over his distinctive style, they -- we, I -- wanted to write those simple declarative sentences as effortlessly and as sparingly as he did. The objective was clean, well-lighted prose about everything that was "good" in life, unless it was, on the other hand, what Catherine Barkley in A Farewell to Arms labeled "a dirty trick."

Speaking of Catherine Barkley, how did she come to be such a compelling character in the author's thinly-disguised autobiographical fiction? Biographers have delved into it, but the young man's own version -- to which credence must be lent -- can be found in The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Volume 1 1907-1922, edited by Sandra Spanier and Robert W. Trogdon (Cambridge University Press, 516 pp, illustrations $40).

It's long been known the model for fatalistic nurse Barkley was Agnes von Kurowsky, but it's what Hemingway -- under her care after the World War I injury he suffered when driving a Red Cross ambulance -- wrote home about her that indicates he was so smitten it took him some time to understand his feelings weren't returned. Finally, he declares in a letter to ambulance-driver pal Coles Seeley Jr., "Everything off betwixt Ag and I. But it was a great life while it lasted."

Notice the puckish use of "betwixt" and the ungrammatical "Ag and I." The former is an example of Hemingway's penchant for perky locutions -- he's forever referring to this or that as "a peach of a _______" -- and the latter is an instance of his disregard for syntax in the epistles. (Later, he made a point of declaring he was not writing his letters for posterity).

Incidentally, he also enjoyed inserting into his notes a foreign-language word or two (primarily French and Italian) that he'd picked up in his brief but, as he presents it, gripping wartime tour and subsequent post-war return to Paris and other European spots, spas and bull runs. These locales, he makes quite clear, he preferred to life in the United States.

Besides drop-ins like "allez" for "visit" or "go" -- which are compulsively footnoted by editors Spanier and Trogdon as is so much else of what they've assiduously compiled -- he doesn't hesitate to include racial and religious slurs. Perhaps his usages merely reflect much more widely shared period attitudes, but it's still somewhat shocking to see him coin words (or had he heard them elsewhere and only absorbed them?) like "kiked" and "Jewine," for "Jewess." Some readers may assume the casual prejudice explains, at least in part, the bond forged between EH -- as he's identified throughout -- and Ezra Pound, one of his (surprise, surprise) boxing chums.

Boxing, needless to say, was only one of Hemingway's sporty pastimes. Even more frequently, he refers to the fishing and hunting he took up in his Illinois childhood. His innumerable mentions will have fans registering them as deep background for sequences in The Sun Also Rises and The Old Man and the Sea as well as, it's not pleasant to bring up, his 1961 suicide by shotgun to forehead.

It's small references like these to his favorite activities -- some, on second thought, maybe not so small -- that make letters written long before he became Papa Hemingway valuable reading for anyone who calls him- or herself a fan. Indeed, a large segment of the letters -- the first written when Hemingway, born July 21, 1899, was not quite 8 -- are juvenilia and could be the sentiments of any young whippersnapper to his parents and siblings. Yet, even as these accumulate, there are occasional hints at what would become the acclaimed Hemingway mode of between-hard-covers expression.

True enough, there are longeurs during these early years, but they're offset by Hemingway's reports to these same recipients and his widening circle of friends (more than 50 are addressed by volume's end) about his journalism, most importantly for the Kansas City Star. That he was such a map-hopping cub reporter may still be news to advocates who think of him only as the older and accomplished novelist/war correspondent.

Anyone picking up the book, however, will be excused for wanting to know about the Hemingway who helped found the lost generation. They'll get satisfaction when, after pining for foreign shores, the eager expat returns to them in 1921 and, armed with an introduction from Sherwood Anderson, immediately begins befriending the literary great and near-great. "Dear Miss Stein and Miss Tocraz," he writes to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas on June 11, 1922 when he hasn't yet learned to spell "Toklas" -- or heard it correctly.

That's when he and his (first) bride, the former Hadley Richardson -- the merry courtship is covered in letters, of course -- are living in Paris's fifth arrondissement at 74 Rue du Cardinal Lemoine. Hemingway's scribbles depict them basking in the kind of life with infant son Jack that might be the happiest in the man's ultimately unraveling years. It could be said that what the letters in this volume represent are -- World War I, notwithstanding -- a peach of a time.