The Hemingway Puzzle

February 9: On this day in 1926 Ernest Hemingway ended his contract with his first publisher, Boni & Liveright; this enabled him to sign with Scribners a week later, and so complete the double-deal he had orchestrated by means of his satiric novella, The Torrents of Spring. While the novella is little-read now, scholars regard it and the double-dealing as an early peek into the puzzle of Hemingway's personality.

 

Hemingway's first book, the story collection In Our Time, had been published by Boni & Liveright the previous autumn, under a contract that granted them an option on his next three books. Hemingway was a rising star with the first draft of The Sun Also Rises in his pocket, and he was convinced that he could command an improved deal elsewhere. Given that his only way around Horace Liveright was to get him to reject his next manuscript, he submitted The Torrents of Spring, a ninety-page satire he had knocked off in eleven days. Chief among the book's targets was Sherwood Anderson who, in Hemingway's view, represented the worst in puffed-up romanticism. Anderson was a leading author for Boni & Liveright, and Hemingway was betting that they wouldn't dare publish his slap; Horace Liveright's response was as hoped, rejecting the book as "a bitter, and I might say almost vicious caricature of Sherwood Anderson."

 

As parody, The Torrents of Spring sometimes comes all too close to those made of Hemingway: "Yogi was worried. There was something on his mind. It was spring, there was no doubt of that now, and he did not want a woman. He had worried about it a lot lately…." Some say that this is the point: Hemingway is making fun not of any one writer but of the literary game in general, and of himself. The tale is sprinkled with asides which suggest this, but it more obviously attacks Anderson, a man who had written a generous dust-jacket blurb for In Our Time, and as Hemingway's mentor and friend (even a guest at his wedding) had also written letters of introduction allowing Hemingway entry to the Parisian literary scene. If trashing him was not "heartless" (John dos Passos) and "detestable" (Hemingway's wife, Hadley), it at least offers an early glimpse of Hemingway's puzzling duality -- The Big Two-Fisted Writer who can jab away in self-parody even as he body-blows with his own self-importance and self-promotion.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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