In the finest of his short stories, Ernest Hemingway maintained a flawless control of emotional tone, which was never the case in the novels he essayed, memorable though some of them are. Thus, the publication, at long last, of a comprehensive collection of the stories is a welcome event. At the same time, sad to say, the Finca Vigia Edition--inanely named for Hemingway’s longtime residence in Cuba, where he wrote not a word of the short fiction on which his reputation rests--also represents the latest episode in the irresponsible treatment of his literary legacy.
Three years after he committed suicide in 1961, Charles Scribner’s Sons brought out his memoir of Paris in the ‘20s, “A Moveable Feast.” It was a work, said his widow, Mary, in a prefatory note to the text, that “my husband finished” in 1960. But in fact he had not. The editorial tasks that Mary found necessary to carry out in order to ready the manuscript for publication included cutting and rearranging passages, mixing elements of various drafts, rearranging the order of the chapters, and choosing the title. Yet in her prefatory note she chose to conceal all of these activities, apparently because she feared that a confession of them would lessen the book’s appeal to the public, and Scribner’s went along with this deception.
“Islands in the Stream” was published in 1970. This time, Mary’s prefatory note admitted that “Charles Scribner Jr. and I . . . made some cuts in the manuscript, I feeling that Ernest would surely have made them himself.” Once again, however, the note was dishonest, for no acknowledgement was made of Hemingway’s refusal all through the 1950s to sanction the novel’s publication, in all probability because he despairingly recognized that the appearance of such a mediocre work would produce a critical outcry against it--and indeed this is precisely what happened. But Scribner’s and Mary both made money on the book and presumably laughed at the critics all the way to the bank.
The publisher’s note affixed to “The Garden of Eden” (1986) declares that “this novel was not in finished form at the time of the author’s death. In preparing the book for publication we have made some cuts in the manuscript and some routine copy-editing corrections.” The modesty of those statements is breathtaking. During thousands of hours of compulsive work on the book across the last decade and a half of his life, Hemingway spun fantasy after fantasy about sexual switching games and look-alike lovers. The result was a literary mess of appalling magnitude.
“In every significant respect the work is all the author’s,” the publisher’s note in “Eden” triumphantly concludes. But what is left unsaid is that without the drastic surgeries on the text performed behind the scenes by a professional writer and editor, Tom Jenks, only Hemingway scholars would have had the stamina to plow through the book--and “Eden” would not have become one of the leading best sellers of 1986.
The title page of the new Finca Vigia Edition of Hemingway’s stories does not give credit to anyone for having taken charge of editing the volume. Quite possibly, no one really did, for the book is quite mindlessly organized, especially as regards chronology. The two stories about the Caribbean tough guy, Harry Morgan, which Hemingway published, respectively, in 1934 nd 1936, before converting them to novelistic uses in “To Have and Have Not” (1937), are separated by more than half the length of the collection from his most famous stories of the 1930s, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” “Summer People,” a story composed in the mid-1920s, is similarly set apart from other stories of the same vintage.
But chronological chaos is not the only evidence that the book was assembled hastily and carelessly. In a brief, unsigned, introductory note, “The Last Good Country” is simplistically referred to as “this short story.” In fact, it represents an abortive attempt at a novel. Although an anonymous note informs us that “A Train Trip” is made up of the first four chapters of an unfinished novel, we are assured that “these scenes form a fine short story in the vein of ‘The Battler’ and ‘Fifty Grand.’ ” Neither in form nor in any other way is the flattering comparison warranted.
All told, the Finca Vigia Edition contains seven previously unpublished works of fiction. Without exception, they are literarily inconsequential, and only one has biographical value. In “The Strange Country,” a relatively late piece of work, Hemingway revealed, as he also would in “A Moveable Feast,” that he was still obsessed with his first wife’s loss of the typescripts and carbons of the unpublished stories he had written in 1922, his first year in Paris. She had lost them as she was setting out on a train to Lausanne to rejoin her husband. Upon arriving she tearfully confessed to him what had happened. Unwilling to believe it was true that she had lost everything he had written, Hemingway returned to their Paris apartment by himself. But as he would relate in “A Moveable Feast,” “It was true all right and I remember what I did in the night after I let myself into the flat and found it was true.”
In “The Strange Country” he spelled out what he did. “I . . . lay down on the bed and put a pillow between my legs and my arms around another pillow and lay there very quietly. . . . I knew everything I had ever written and everything that I had great confidence in was gone. I had rewritten them so many times and gotten them just how I wanted them and I knew I could not write them again because once I had them right I forgot them completely. . . . So I lay there without moving with the pillows for friends and I was in despair. I had never had despair before, true despair . . . and the bed cover was dusty too and I smelt the dust and lay there with my despair and the pillows were my only comfort.”
The stories he subsequently wrote had a like importance to this dedicated, tormented man, and they deserved a more scrupulous edition than they have received from the caretakers of his legacy.