Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A Love Letter to a First Wife

I've written before about my love of Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast so when I read about the restored edition culled from his original manuscripts in the Hemingway Room at the JFK Library here in Boston, I couldn't wait to read it. A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition features a Preface by Hemingway's son Patrick (by his second wife, Pauline) and an Introduction by Sean Hemingway, his grandson, son of his son Jack by his first wife, Hadley. For a genuine Hemingway fan this is a tremendous treat.
Ernest and Hadley, Wife #1

Both the Preface and the Introduction point out differences in the original version and the restored one and some of them are quite interesting. As every writer knows it often takes several rewrites to get a sentence to convey the concept that you wish it to. Hemingway was no different than any other writer and the nuance of certain passages is better illuminated by the inclusion of passages he wrote and re-wrote and re-wrote until he got the meaning that he wanted. This is particularly true in his passages about F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Restored Edition paints Fitzgerald in a far more compassionate and appreciative light than the earlier one did.

In the Introduction there is also a discussion of the end of Hemingway's first marriage and the way in which he described his second wife Pauline coming in to his life. When I read this the first time I was upset by the seeming brazenness with which Pauline is depicted as throwing herself at him albeit he was only too willing to catch her. In the new Introduction we are told that Hemingway never really intended the book to end the way it did – that the depiction of Pauline as the seductress and Hadley as the wronged wife was more an effect created by Mary Welsh Hemingway, the fourth wife, who edited the book. But regardless of how the final chapters were arranged, the words remain virtually the same. Hemingway still says that he wished he had died before he loved anyone else.
Ernest and Pauline, Wife #2

What struck me with this reading, though it was always there, was that this book was written thirty years after Hemingway's marriage to Hadley ended. He was on his fourth marriage at the time and was looking back on his youth. When you read the book all the passages about Hadley are so beautifully written and describe her in such loving terms that she comes across as an adored and worthy wife, completely devoted to her young husband, who in no way deserved to be so cruelly betrayed by both her husband and her best friend. Though the Introduction assures us that Hemingway viewed his second marriage as a new beginning, the four-times married man looks back and sees this lovely, sweet, supportive wife whom he seems to admire tremendously. He speaks openly – painfully – of his remorse in leaving her for someone else. He calls her the heroine of the tale and says he is happy that she met and married someone far more deserving and worthy than he was.
Ernest & Martha, Wife #3

I cannot help but wonder what the subsequent wives felt about this book. Well, Pauline, Wife #2 was dead when he wrote it. Martha, Wife #3, was the one who left him, and Mary, Wife #4, was with him when he wrote it and acted as editor for the original version.

The book is just marvelous and no matter how many times I read it I just fall in love all over again. My favorite story is still the one about the opium-addicted poet Dunning who Hemingway is put in charge of by Ezra Pound. That dry, droll Hemingway humor that I adore is never more evident than in that story. And I'll never forget the chapter in which Scott Fitzgerald asks Hemingway to have a look and reassure him that he is... um … adequately endowed (because Zelda said he wasn't) and Hemingway's solution to his distress is to take him to the Louvre to look at classical nudes. But through it all I wonder about the remorse he talks about so poignantly at the end – the remorse that he had loved someone as much as he loved Hadley and yet wronged her as he did.
Ernest & Mary, Wife #4

A Moveable Feast is many things and, perhaps most of all, it is a love-letter to the woman with whom he shared his earliest years and struggles and disappointments. Hadley went on to live a good and happy life (she palled around with Julia Childs in Paris during her years there) with her second husband. But reading this new version of Hemingway's masterpiece I cannot help but wonder what she must have felt reading it. I wonder if – had he stayed with her – he ever would have written it at all.

Thanks for reading.


  1. Thank you for posting this. A Moveable Feast is one of my favorite books, too. I would not have understood the reason for this new edition had I not read your post.
    Now I'm eager to read it and will do so with more understanding thanks to you.

  2. I love this book and the more I read it, the more I love it. I'd love to know what you think after you read it.


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