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Ernest Hemingway: Between Two Wars | Exhibit Review
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Ernest Hemingway: Between Two Wars | Exhibit Review

Picture of Patricia Contino
Updated: 12 October 2016
Ernest Hemingway’s novels are required reading for nearly every high school student in the U.S. But who was Hemingway? What is the life story beyond his wonderfully written prose? New York City‘s Morgan Library and Museum’s exhibit, Ernest Hemingway: Between Two Wars, grapples with these questions.

For a writer who parsed language, there are volumes about Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961). From the 1926 publication of The Sun Also Rises, the Nobel Laureate’s life and work achieved a mythical macho status. Yet Papa Hemingway’s fast living outdoorsy persona cannot hide that the writing always came first. The Morgan Library & Museum’s Ernest Hemingway: Between Two Wars provides an excellent opportunity to reevaluate and appreciate him.

While the Morgan advertises that theirs as the ‘first ever major museum exhibition’ about Hemingway, there have been others. For his centennial, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery organized Picturing Hemingway: A Writer in His Time that was well worth a long weekend in Washington, D.C. Then, of course, his books are among those set aside in libraries, bookstores, and webpages for required reading lists and Banned Books Week. Regardless, the Morgan and the Ernest Hemingway Collection at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum assembled an exhibit that includes the hunting and/or hunted, women, and alcohol, but – as advertised – concentrates on the writer’s most creative period between the two World Wars.

How the Kennedy Library acquired the collection is itself a great story. ‘The Lost Generation’ can be found at such libraries as Yale (Gertrude Stein and Archibald MacLeish), Princeton (Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Charles Scribner’s Sons publishers, and Sylvia Beach), and the University of Buffalo (Sylvia Beach’s James Joyce Collection). Following Hemingway’s suicide in 1961, his widow Mary asked the Kennedy Administration for assistance getting her husband’s papers out of Cuba. The White House procured her visa, and Fidel Castro even provided transportation assistance. To honor the President and Mrs. Kennedy, the fourth Mrs. Hemingway donated the collection to the Library. There is a happy epilogue: the resumption of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba makes possible the restoration of Hemingway’s Finca Vigia estate outside of Havana.

During the time between the two wars, Hemingway had the guidance and friendship of longtime editor Maxwell Perkins (1884-1947). Among the letters on display is one from 1929 to Perkins with the author complaining, ‘…all I get out of this book is disappointment.’ The book is A Farewell to Arms, the exhibit’s centerpiece. Along with the letter to Perkins is another from F. Scott Fitzgerald. Despite praise and well-intentioned advice, Hemingway scribbled, “Kiss my ass” in the margin. Of the 47 drafted endings for Farewell, four are displayed. (His final choice is not bad: ‘After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.’) There is also a long list of potential titles and the revised galley proofs. Hemingway’s famously understated quote about ‘Getting the words right’ to complete the novel surmises his and every writer’s wish to matter.

There are early examples of Hemingway’s writing from high school. Eschewing college, he became a journalist and volunteered as an ambulance driver during World War I. While recuperating from a mortar attack, he wrote the outline for his first Nick Adams story on Red Cross Hospital stationery. After the war, he resumed his journalism career, which led him to Paris. There he would continue with nonfiction – but he, as A Movable Feast (posthumously published in 1964 and definitively revised by the Ernest Hemingway Library in 2009) attests – turned himself into a fiction writer with an original voice. The penmanship in his notebooks for Fiesta, the future The Sun Also Rises, is neat and controlled.

Other treasures include the first edition of Death in the Afternoon (1932) with its frontispiece illustration by Juan Gris (along with Hemingway’s tickets to a bullfight); a 1939 letter from John Steinbeck wishing him well; and his own required reading list for authors.

One of the final images in the exhibit is a photograph taken by Robert Capa of Hemingway climbing out of a boat. Head down, he is alone. The most prominent object is not the author or the spectacular scenery but the gun he is holding. The 1941 photo is eerily prophetic of how one of the most recognizable authors in American literature would end his life – and of the loneliness of even a celebrated writing life.

Ernest Hemingway: Between Two Wars is at The Morgan Library & Museum through January 31, 2016. The Morgan is located on 225 Madison Avenue at 36th Street. While there, be sure to visit J.P. Morgan’s 1906 Library Room.

The Morgan Library and Museum, 225 Madison Avenue, New York, NY, USA +1 212 685 0008

By Patricia Contino

Patricia Contino received her MFA from The New School Writing Program. She uses vacation time either at performances in other cities, The University of Iowa Writing Festival, or very long nights at the Metropolitan Opera. The lifelong NJ resident and fangirl is the administrator for Columbia University’s Masters of Bioethics Program.