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Fast Moves with A Moveable Feast

08/26/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

One of Ernest Hemingway's grandchildren, Seán Hemingway, who works as an associate curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art has decided to take a hatchet to a work of art. The mutilated product will be placed on public exhibit next month.

Of course A Moveable Feast is a literary work rather than a painting or sculpture, so maybe Seán doesn't know what he is doing. Until recently he has contented himself with ego trips getting his name on cut and paste anthologies of minor Hemingway writings. Now, according to an account in the New York Times, Seán has decided to take on a wholesale hack job of perhaps Hemingway's best regarded later work to put out his amateur night-mare notion of a "restored edition."

Supposedly, as reported as fact by an all too credulous Times reporter, Motoko Rich, Hemingway's last wife Mary cobbled A Moveable Feast "together from shards of the unfinished manuscript he left behind. She created a final chapter that dealt with the dissolution of Hemingway's first marriage and the beginning of his relationship with Pauline [Seán's grandmother], building some of it from parts of the book he had indicated he did not want included."

This occasioned Seán's "removing part of that final chapter from the main body of the book and placing it in an appendix, adding back passages from Hemingway's manuscript that Seán believes paint his grandmother in a more sympathetic light." Additionally the "restored edition" "is made up of the 19 chapters that Hemingway wanted to include, in the order he had placed them. The remaining 10 chapters are moved into a section called 'Additional Paris Sketches.'"

Not so fast. If the credulous Times reporter had actually paid as much attention to Mary Hemingway's careful May 10, 1964 account of "The Making of the Book" in her own newspaper as she did to the blather of this self-promoting grandson she might have written a very different story.

If nothing else, "Miss Mary" was a first class reporter. How in the same paragraph can the Times reporter quote Mary Hemingway as saying: "Hemingway 'must have considered the book finished'" and then go on and state as fact: "Most notably, Mary inserted that final chapter about the end of Hemingway's first marriage?" Take a look at a paragraph from Mary Hemingway's article.

"...I went over the book and gave it the same hard-headed editing I would have done if I had been copying from Ernest's original typing and hand script as I used to do in Cuba. Working toward lucidity I put in or removed commas, checked spelling, sometimes but rarely cut out repetitious words or phrases which I felt sure were accidental rather than intentional or for phonetic or poetic effect. With Harry Brague, Ernest's editor at Scribner's, I made a few further cuts when we went over the manuscript together, and we switched about a couple of the chapters for continuity's sake. No one added any word to the book.[emphasis added]"

As Hemingway acolyte A. E. Hotchner pointed out in a passionate op-ed in the New York Times "Don't Touch A Moveable Feast," "the manuscript was not left in shards but was ready for publication... What I read on the plane coming back from Cuba [from an editing trip in 1957] was essentially what was published. There was no extra chapter created by Mary."

And Mary Hemingway backs that up in her article which carries a detailed account of why from her experience with her husband's writing for many years she thought it was a finished manuscript: "After Ernest died I found the typescript of A Moveable Feast in a blue box in his room in our house in Ketchum, Idaho, together with his dated draft of his preface and a list of titles, a check mark against this title as well as several others. Making a list of titles and choosing one were the final chores Ernest performed for a book. He must have considered the book finished except for the editing which even the most meticulous manuscripts require."

Hotchner has his direct experience and I have my own. I was trying to get a memoir out of a brilliant cantankerous retired general named C. T."Buck" Lanham, while head editor at a publishing house back in the 1970s. Buck had been one of the very few men Hemingway had admired. He had been commanding officer of the infantry regiment Hemingway followed through France after the Normandy Invasion.

They became quite close friends, and Buck's stories about the realities and illusions of the Hemingway myth looked like it had the makings of a best seller to me. There was a lovely story of Hemingway and Lanham arriving at the Ritz on a lightning trip to liberated Paris in 1944 where Hemingway had arranged to have "The Kraut" (aka Marlene Dietrich) in Buck's bed at the Ritz as a birthday present.

One of Hemingway's worst novels -- Across the River and Through the Trees -- had a principal character named "Colonel Cantwell" loosely based on Buck. Talking about the disappointing works of Hemingway's last years one day Buck said: "He thought they were pretty bad himself, which was why he thought The Old Man and the Sea got over-praised, but there was one he told me he loved while he was working on it: the return to his youth in A Moveable Feast. He was just finishing it when he died. And he made sure he finally could publicly acknowledge how badly he had treated his first wife Hadley."

At the same time I met Hadley Hemingway, as we were publishing Alice Sokoloff's Hadley: The First Mrs. Hemingway. For some reason Hadley and I were talking about the awful row at Scribner's years ago caused by their attempts to get Hemingway to pull a nasty reference to F. Scott Fitzgerald from The Snows of Kilimanjaro (ironically, Fitzgerald was another Scribner's author who had introduced Hemingway to Scribner's) and Hadley volunteered: "He certainly was generous to me in A Moveable Feast. He always said one day he would try to recapture those wonderful days for both of us. And I saw in it again, for the first time in years, the sweet young man I had married."

So what is going on here? Mary Hemingway clearly didn't "insert" that final chapter the Times reporter called " ...a wistful paen to Hadley..." that Sean is so eager to drop part of into an "appendix." It is no "appendix"... it is clearly a key part of the artistic culmination of the book itself. If anything she may have already shortened it.

While no work that has not been seen through the printer by the author right until publication can ever be regarded as a definitive "final" work to a scholar, all the literary evidence available shows A Moveable Feast is as close to a final publishable artistic work as it could be under the circumstances. The most likely reason for Sean's "restoration" is shown in his 81-year-old Uncle Patrick's statement to the New York Times: "I thought the original edition was just terrible about my mother."

He is right. It is. Particularly in that haunting last chapter. In his final years Hemingway was as tough on himself about his dumping Hadley, a woman eight years his senior whose small trust fund income had been their primary support as he was on Patrick's mother Pauline Pfeiffer, a much richer woman a mere four years older, who had struck up an acquaintance with Hadley in Paris to get to him.

If anything, a credible critic, Gary Brenner carefully reviewed Mary's edits to the manuscript and pointed out that Mary apparently had cut out a lot of Hemingway's lengthy apology to Hadley that had appeared in every edition of the manuscript until the one that was published. Brenner suggests that Mary was jealous of the importance Hemingway was giving to his first wife. Ironically, Seán seems to share that attitude in cutting still more of what was left crediting Hadley, but this time in favor of Pauline.

One of the fringe benefits of marrying Pauline is still sitting in Key West where Pauline's Depression-era $20,000 swimming pool has Hemingway's "last cent" one penny contribution pressed into its cement and shown to tourists. Hanging around "living well" with Gerald and Sara Murphy on the Riviera had had its influence on young Hemingway while he was quarreling about definitions of the rich with Fitzgerald. Hadley did not fit in. Chic Vogue reporter Pauline did.

But Hemingway's travels and Pauline's understandable desire to spend time with their two sons, Patrick and Gregory slowly pulled them apart until after 10 years of marriage, Hemingway was off to cover the Spanish Civil War with a convenient affair with his next wife, journalist Martha Gellhorn. already in place. And Pauline threw her support to the Fascists in Spain and a good divorce lawyer.

She died suddenly in 1951 at a friend's house in Hollywood after a heated telephone argument with Hemingway about their youngest son Gregory's latest run in with the law. Hemingway never forgave Gregory for what he felt was his responsibility for his mother's death and Gregory never forgave his father for his behavior towards him in his later years. He wrote a confused but interesting book about it: Papa: A Personal Memoir.

Gregory had a miserable life, suffering from bi-polar disorder, drug abuse, sexual confusion, and acute alcoholism. He also had four wives and eight children. According to the AP report in October 2001 "Gregory Hemingway, the youngest son of macho novelist Ernest Hemingway, died a transsexual by the name of Gloria in a cell at a women's jail, authorities said." The subsequent battle over his multi-million dollar estate by "Gloria's" husband/wife, whose status for a survivor claim was not recognized in Florida, was a classic.

And Gregory is Seán's father.

Since so far there is no literary justification for the hack job Seán has made of a literary masterpiece, it looks like payback time. The returning Stuarts after their Restoration in 1670 dug up Oliver Cromwell's body, the man they saw as the author of their misfortune, and hung it in chains. As a representative of the Pfeiffer-Hemingway clan, Seán has elected to dig up the literary corpus of his grandfather's work and rearrange it to suit his puerile personal fancies.

Unfortunately publishing has changed in the past forty years into a place where that kind of thing can happen. Forty years ago, Mary Hemingway worked with Charles Scribner, Jr, Harry Brague, Carlos Baker and others in the landmarked Scribner's Building on Fifth Avenue and carefully did her best over the years to put together the last Hemingway manuscripts for publication.

They had a lot of information, often confusing, direct from Hemingway about his intentions, his fears, and his concerns. They had no other agenda than to do what they could to carry out his wishes. In A Moveable Feast, they succeeded admirably in publishing a work that at least those who knew Hemingway overwhelmingly supported as reflecting his thought and writing at the time.

There is nothing untoward in a revisiting of a published text that upon careful scholarly examination may be improved by an examination of manuscript variants or discovered fragments. I have been involved in publishing revised versions of Twain with the University of California and Melville with the Newberry Library and Northwestern. But that an accident of birth should give an amateur like Seán Hemingway the ability to access and change a major author's copyrighted work in an act of literary vandalism is outrageous and a story in itself.

To a former publisher like me, it is just as outrageous for the rump of once great publishing house of Scribner's, which has been swallowed up into Simon and Schuster, to conspire with him to do so. Like a once great oil field, Scribner's today is largely a name that covers dozens of stripper wells that bob patiently away extracting the last royalties from the backlist while copyrights last. The "restored" version of A Moveable Feast goes right up there with "New Coke" as a bad conception than may well hurt the base business and the imprint seriously.

Seán's older sister Lorian wrote a Pulitzer-nominated A Walk on Water which courageously dealt with her relationship with her and Seán's father, Gregory. If an original work is too much to hope for from Seán, he might at least find a useful exercise for his editorial inclinations. He really should get rid of that cutesy accent over his first name.