An image of Hemingway: racy, readable and affectionate; Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters 1917-1961. Edited by Carlos Baker. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. $27.50.

Some of the best recent books about important American writers have been collections of their letters (like Flannery O'Conner's "The Habit of Being" and John Steinbeck's "East of Eden Letters"). It seems that that peculiar blend of energy, forthrightness, and insouciance which characterizes American prose at its best is especially suitable to direct personal expression. And it's especially visible in this stunning self-portrayal (editor Baker calls it "an autobiography in letters") of one of America's greatest and most complicated writers.

Hemingway himself dismissed the letters as "play" (though he wrote thousands, and obviously took pains to make them racy and readable). His window, Mary Welsh Hemingway, has only gradually -- and partially -- agreed to release to the world "Papa's" unpublished manuscripts. So, it was up to Carlos Baker, author of the definitive Hemingway biography as well as a respected study of the work, to assemble what amounts to a reasonably coherent life story (though there are some annoying elisions, and a number of cryptically brief, scarcely helpful "Notes"); most important, what Baker has given us is an image of Hemingway through all his ages and stages.

The first Hemingway who emerges here is the brash, iconoclastic young newspaper reporter and war lover, flexing his writing muscles and trying out moves; filling his letters with deliberate misspellings and bad grammar and worse jokeS. The last is the sick and exhausted man, old beyond his years, who lectured and patronized his devoted comrades, and wrote just weeks before he took his life these words of encouragement to the dying child of close friends: "Am feeling fine and very cheerful about things in general and hope to see you all soon."

Both the bravado and the genuine bravery were lasting Hemingway qualities -- as we see in his correspondence from the 1920s: analyzing the emotions combat produces in a soldier, all the powerful sensory appeal of bullfighting and boxing; exchanging writerly gossip ("Gertrude Stein and me are just like brothers") with the likes of Pound, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, and Sherwood Anderson; working -- always working -- and surer all the time of the good work he knew he was producing (he said of his first major publication "In Our Time": "My book will be praised by highbrows and can be read by lowbrows. There is no writing in it that anybody with a high-school education cannot read").

A different note is struck in the affectionate, deferential letters Hemingway regularly wrote to his father -- and a different one still in the pronouncements he began to issue when he became established as both writer and public personality. He "held court," in effect "from the Hemingway battle-stations and drinking-stations all over the world: Italy, Key West, Cuba, Africa. He boasted of the beauty of his wives and the developing manliness of his sons and the rapturous attentiveness of his admirers.

And yet, beneath the surface posturing, Hemingway always knew himself ("I can't be a sportsman and write a novel at the same time," he confessed; his partisanship with glorious military causes never extended to ideology -- and he stayed away from all the "isms" which labored to enlist him). He was an incisive judge of his own best writing, and of literary principles in general (this book would be worth having alone for Hemingway's opinions on the appropriate and justifiable uses of "offensive" language in fiction).

In the final years, we see him grimly holding on -- proudly documenting his struggles with diet and exercise, cautiously fencing with scholars who wanted permission to write about him, counting on new works (such as "The Old Man and the Sea") to revive his failing reputation. Even his Nobel Prize (1954) didn't seem to bring him the satisfaction we feel it ought to have.

So, it is finally a sad story. But it's also one redeemed by new evidence of Hemingway's sensitivity and generosity (his continuing affection for the undependable, self-destructive F. Scott Fitzgerald may be his best feature); his irreverent humor; his seriousness and even studiousness as both writer and reader (there's nothing patronizing about Hemingway's respect for Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Turgenev).

He was, perhaps, the quintessential self-made man among all our writers. Those who want to know the Hemingway story in its entirety will have to master this most welcome book: It is a publication of enormous significance both for the study of Hemingway himself and for our understanding of modern American literature.

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