In his essay, “The Finest Life You Ever Saw” in the October 13th New York Review of Books, Salter reviews Paul Hendrickson’s recent book, Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961. Part of the book is about Hemingway’s cabin cruiser, Pilar, that he used to fish for marlin off the coast of Cuba and, as some have claimed, hunt down German submarines during World War II. It is also a carefully research personal biography of Hemingway’s life and writing in Havana between 1934 and 1961.
Salter also writes with a sense of reverence about Hemingway's style, the writing that made him great, the one that so many have tried but failed to imitate, only to appear as a parody. Hemingway’s spare writing style is easy to mimic and many have tried. There is even an annual International Imitation Hemingway competition that has been held for over thirty years.
Salter describes Hemingway’s distinctive voice by commenting “…he had his poetic gift and also the intense desire to give to the reader the full and true feeling of what happened, to make the reader feel it had happened to him. He pared things down. He left out all that could be readily understood or taken for granted and the rest he delivered with savage exactness.”
Here’s an example from the start of Hemingway’s short story In Another Country.
“In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more. It was cold in the fall in Milan and the dark came very early. Then the electric lights came on, and it was pleasant along the streets looking in the windows. There was much game hanging outside the shops, and the snow powdered in the fur of the foxes and the wind blew their tails. The deer hung stiff and heavy and empty, and small birds blew in the wind and the wind turned their feathers. It was a cold fall and the wind came down from the mountains.”
Salter writes about the thousands of letters, estimated between six or seven thousand that Hemingway wrote to his many friends, long letters and quotes from a few. I marvel at this number and think of other writers who wrote just as many letters, if not more, in their lifetime.
Voltaire is said to have written about 15,000 letters in his 83-year life, other writers were dedicated letter writers--Bellow, T.S. Eliot, Henry James, etc. I think how few letters are written today, not just by well-known writers but each of us. The loss to historians in the future who want to know about the eminent is incalculable. The loss to those of us who want to review our earlier correspondence is just as great. I speak from personal experience here.
Salter concludes his review with a statement made about Hemingway by the wife of the journalist George Seldes: “Forgive him anything, he writes like an angel.”