Biography Sideways

I was once lucky enough to interview Sandra Spanier about this project. It’s a massive undertaking. And literature is all the richer for it.


MICHAEL NORTH on two volumes of letters by modernist masters

and STEVEN G. KELLMAN on Hemingway’s Boat.

Ernest Hemingway in Kenya, 1953. LOOK Magazine Photograph
Public domain, part of collection given to The Library of Congress


Postal Modernism

Sandra Spanier and Robert W. Trogdon, eds.
The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Volume 1, 1907-1922

Cambridge University Press, September 2011. 516 pp.

George Craig et al, eds.
The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 2, 1941-1956

Cambridge University Press, September 2011. 886 pp.

Cambridge University Press has been advertising these two volumes of letters together, and, sure enough, Amazon reports that readers who bought one also tended to buy the other. There are a number of obvious reasons for linking the two writers, since they were both famous modernists, each one master of his own idiosyncratically spare prose style, his own particular way of not saying things. Hemingway and Beckett both received the Nobel Prize, fifteen years apart, and when Hemingway won in 1954, it was in the same general atmosphere of international existentialism that made Beckett famous that year, the year in which Waiting for Godot was published by Grove Press. The book that is generally considered to have put Hemingway over the top, The Old Man and the Sea, seemed to many international readers the same sort of bare existential drama that Beckett was just then putting on stage.

Still, readers who actually do buy these two volumes of letters together and read them more or less at the same time are likely to suffer from significant disorientation, for the two authors, although famously associated with the same literary circles in Paris, seem to have inhabited different planets. Some of this is due to the fact that publication of the first volume of Hemingway’s letters has coincided with the second volume of Beckett’s. Hemingway’s are the letters of a boy, who remains just as juvenile at the end of the volume when he has unaccountably become pals with Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound. Beckett’s letters come from the period in which he completes his most accomplished works, Godot and the trilogy of novels Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable. At this time he perfects the somber, despairingly negative, attitude toward fame and accomplishment he was to maintain for the rest of his life. Reading the two sets of letters together is therefore a bit like stopping an Andy Hardy movie to read a few pages of Civilization and Its Discontents.

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(Source: lareviewofbooks)