08/29/2012 09:52 am ET Updated Oct 29, 2012

Easy Reader: Hemingway's Unforgettable 'Farewell to Arms' With Original Ending and Alternates

On December 13, 1918, Ernest Hemingway -- hospitalized after being wounded in Italy as a Great War ambulance driver -- wrote about Agnes von Kurowsky, the nurse with whom he'd fallen in love, to his friend William B. Smith Jr. He confided, "Ag says we can have a wonderful time being poor together and having been poor alone for some years and always more or less happy I think it can be managed." Then 19, he also quoted the love of his life as saying, "Kid we're going to be partners. So if you are going to drink I am too. Just the same amount."

When, 10 years later and still obsessed with the earlier affair, Hemingway (b. July 21, 1899) got around to A Farewell to Arms -- what many consider the best novel of a celebrated career and indisputably a work of fictionalized autobiography -- von Kurowsky was transformed as Catherine Barkley to his Frederic Henry. Notably and unsurprisingly, neither of the characters in the story of passionate love, determination, loss and grace under pressure is substantially unlike the Hemingway and von Kurowsky as presented in Hemingway's letters.

Eighty-three years later, the novelist's long-time publishing house -- Scribner, where the great Maxwell Perkins was his editor -- has issued The Hemingway Library Edition (edited and introduced by Sean Hemingway, $27, 330 pp. Illustrations), but not simply as a memorial edition. Placed after the chillingly downbeat conclusion of the revered volume are book titles he passed over, 14 drafts of the author's tried-and-rejected chapter parts and 47 unused alternative versions of the famous and often praised final words.

Whether Hemingway would have appreciated grandson Sean and son Patrick, who contributes the foreword, indulging in this exercise can't be declared, but their industry represents a close look at the process by which a perfectionist writer -- or was he merely compulsive? -- works until satisfied with what he wants to say. Again and again in the drafts and especially in the examples of how the final sentence might have been shaped, Hemingway revises and revises, most often just rewording the same thoughts, the same vision of the star-crossed ending to which he's brought the enamored Henry and ever-realistic Barkley.

Anyone reading this book, either again or for the first time, now has the opportunity to decide whether the novel's closing paragraph is the right one. Without either quoting the last line or indicating what the others are -- that's up to book buyers to find out -- I'm convinced Hemingway actually tossed aside one particularly preferable coda. It's one that underlines the invasive despair on which Hemingway has been insisting throughout his tale but doesn't quite own up to as the book has stood these intervening years.

Does the situation take the edge off the American classic as it's been known?

Of course not.

It's no news to say that Hemingway was a superlative prose stylist. His writing -- undoubtedly influenced by Paris pal and American expatriate Gertrude Stein more than anyone else -- is so renowned that parodies instantly surfaced and in time instigated the now defunct International Imitation Hemingway Competition. But has the contest been suspended because fewer readers now turn to Hemingway? Maybe, and if so, all the more reason to pick up the new release.

As is well-documented, Hemingway favored the simple declarative sentence as the most powerful mode of direct expression, the adjective "good" as highest praise and the preposition "and." If, as some people believe, the word "and" is the most beautiful in the English language for the suggestion of positive connections it carries, then Hemingway is the tongue's most beautiful writer.

Interestingly, though nearly 40 examples of Hemingway's go at finishing the work are here, the novel's opening sentence receives no attention. Hemingway wrote: "In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains." It's perfect, lullingly beautiful in its simplicity. With seven short phrases and 26 one-syllable and two-syllable words, it establishes the intimate yet paradoxically detached mood that completely implies the way the rest of the story will play out.

Why various drafts of this intro to the heartening, heart-breaking story aren't joined to the versions of the ending is revealed in the first of the book's illustrations, a photograph of Hemingway's hand-written first page. Other than making a slight emendation, Hemingway changed nothing from the minute or minutes during which he composed it until it appeared in print.

Hemingway was nearing 30 when A Farewell to Arms was published, but he was fictionalizing a painful incident he'd suffered as a much younger man. The result is that the novel is a young man's recollection, and as such it's exceptional. In other words, it's good, and here it is in an edition that delves even deeper into that young man's sustaining romantic obsession.