Writing About Ernest Hemingway

My family knows to buy me Hemingway books for my birthday. If there is no new Hemingway book, I get socks!

This fall, however, there are three new books about Hemingway, and two of them have come my way. The Letters of Ernest Hemingway, Volume I: 1907-1922 and Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961 by Paul Hendrickson. It was published by Knopf last month.

And Hemingway’s Boat is a wonder of a book!

Let me confess that Paul Hendrickson and I share something of a history, though we have never met. Both of us attended Saint Louis University as undergraduates, and both of us came under the magical spell of Dr. Albert Montesi, SLU’s famous creative writing teacher.

Paul came to SLU years after I attended college and did not join the Peace Corps. He went onto become a staff writer at The Washington Post where he also wrote books, one being The Living and the Dead: Robert McNamara. In 1998 he started to teach creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania, and he is still at it. These are lucky undergraduates.

And Paul is still writing wonderful books.

Now I know a lot about Hemingway in Paris and Key West and Africa, but Hendrickson in this book has taught me a lot more, and taught me through wonderful prose and tense narrations — one great story after the other — telling tales about Hemingway and all the characters who peopled his life.

hemingways-boatThis book got a fine review from Arthur Phillips in the NYTIMES on Sunday, and the reviewer went out of his way to write about how Hendrickson found all these minor characters in Hemingway’s life who at one time meant something to Ernie, and details how briefly knowing Hemingway would mean so much to them for the rest of their lives.

As Hemingway and his prose age (like all of us!) the stories about him get better, and Hendrickson, who certainly can teach those students at UPenn something about telling stories, has written one fine book himself. Ernie wrote “A Clean, Well Lighted Place.” And Paul Hendrickson has written a “A Fine, Well Told Biography.”

This is a book to buy and keep (even if it isn’t your birthday). But Christmas is coming . . . drop a few hints.


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  • Dear John Coyne: This is a little bit more public than I’d like, but I don’t have your personal email, so this is just a semi-embarrassed thank you for the column. One of my students here at Penn has put me on this Google “alert” thing connecting my name to “Ernest Hemingway” and/or “Hemingway’s Boat,” and otherwise I might not have seen your generous remarks. Thank you. I’d return the compliment and say that some long-ago young people in Ethiopia, in and around and before and after the time of a young President’s staggering death in Dallas, have to still be resonating in some sense what you taught them as a Volunteer. Best to you, and in memory of our old mentor, Al.

  • John, As you already know, I too am a big fan of Ernie. Why else would I write a book titled Hunting Hemingway’s Trout and stick Ernie in there as a character and a kind of mythic force? I read the letters decades ago and was surprised to see that they have been only recently published in their entirety. I was not going to get the boat book but now that you have made it sound worthwhile, I probably will buy a copy. To know an author well is to have a friend for life, and Ernie has been a close friend for many years (along with hundreds of other favorite authors). I’ve taught him, spoken at the Hemingway Society, written essays on his short fiction, woven him into my books multiple times. My single favorite piece of his is “A Clean Well-lighted Place.” I’ve fished the Big Two-Hearted, which is actually the Fox. Anyway, I’m glad we share this pleasure. Cheers. Lauri Anderson

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