The Old Man and his letters

New project plans to publish Hemingway's complete letters.

It turns out that Ernest Hemingway, in some ways our most celebrated antisentimentalist, was a pack rat.

"Just about every piece of paper he touched, he kept," says Sandra Spanier, an English professor at Penn State University. That includes not only letters, but receipts, newspaper clippings, napkins – from the trunkloads of papers he left behind at the Paris Ritz Hotel to the 200 pounds of paper found in his Cuban home by his widow, Mary.

Ms. Spanier has recently been placed at the head of a long-term project to publish Hemingway's complete letters. She says she's still at the "ground floor" of the undertaking – in other words, still busy with the "detective" work of accounting for all of Hemingway's correspondence.

To date, only 10 percent of Hemingway's roughly 8,000 to 10,000 letters have been published. Spanier, working with the Ernest Hemingway Foundation and an international group of scholars, has identified letters in at least two dozen US libraries. The biggest bundle is at the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library in Boston.

But, according to Spanier, an "untold" number rest in private collections and archives abroad.

Hemingway himself gave specific instructions to his executors, indicating that he didn't want his letters published. (For the sake of literary scholarship, his widow eventually overrode his request.) As a result, says Spanier, his letters are "very unguarded, very candid, very frank."

On the one hand, Hemingway's life is well documented in biographies. So, "for people who really know Hemingway deeply, the published letters won't be startling," explains the professor.

On the other hand, with iconic status came a media portrayal that, Spanier says, wasn't always true to the artist. To "those who have an image of Hemingway ... [as a] chest-thumping, macho hero," Spanier promises the unveiling of a "more nuanced individual."

For example, in his letters to family, Hemingway is "very caring and thoughtful to his sons and other children," says Spanier. His letters also reveal a "zest for life" that his tragic ending often obscures.

And to satisfy those with a penchant for A-lists: "a roster of [Hemingway's] correspondence reads like a who's who of 20th-century literature," says Spanier.

In all, she expects about a dozen volumes to emerge, each taking at least a couple years to complete. The Hemingway Letters Project at Penn State, as it's officially called, also plans to publish a single volume of letters geared toward the public.

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