Ernest Hemingway

An earnest young man in his letters home

Updated: 2007-08-03T20:09:05Z

By BRIAN BURNES

The Kansas City Star

The Hemingways
Courtesy John Sanford
The Hemingways swimming in Michigan in 1916. Ernest (center) with his sister Marcelline (standing) and (left to right) their father, Clarence, holding Leicester; Carol; Ursula and Sunny.

Drinks purchased to get a story are by order of the boss called car fare.
--Ernest Hemingway, 1918

This story originally appeared in the June 27, 1999 edition of The Kansas City Star

To examine the letters written by a teen-aged Ernest Hemingway from Kansas City is to encounter pre-Jazz Age moxie committed to paper.

They are full of the breezy swagger that might be expected from any man of the world. In this case, however, the man was 18 and the drinks he described in a letter, dated March 14, 1918, were three Coca-Colas and one lemon phosphate.

Hemingway wrote many letters home during his 61/2-month apprenticeship in Kansas City in 1917 and 1918.

He wrote them on Kansas City Star stationery, plain newsroom copy paper or "miscellaneous report" forms from the Kansas City Police Department, which was part of his beat.

In his letters, Hemingway describes his Uncle Tyler and Aunt Arabell, at whose home he stayed during his initial days in Kansas City; his routine at The Star and the former morning Times, where he reported to work Oct. 18, 1917; his training with the Missouri National Guard; his infatuation with silent film star Mae Marsh; and ultimately his pursuit of an assignment with an overseas ambulance service.

Just four of Hemingway's early letters from Kansas City appeared in Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters, which was edited by Carlos Baker and published in 1981. A memorable one had the young journalist explaining to his mother that his work schedule prevented his going to church on Sunday mornings: "Don't worry or cry or fret about my not being a good Christian. I am just as much as ever and pray every night and believe just as hard so cheer up. Just because I'm a cheerful Christian ought not to bother you."

Other early Hemingway letters exist in library collections around the country. Some letters on deposit at the John F. Kennedy Library's Hemingway Collection in Boston include notes to his parents about his grueling work life here, his occasional "scoop," and his good behavior ("I haven't seen a girl in Kansas City yet," he tells his mother, "and that is a bad predicament ...").

In a letter to his father, he talks about meeting Grover Cleveland Alexander and the rest of the Chicago Cubs. He bought a few players the Cokes and they bought him the phosphate, "all of which goes on the expense account."

What's often palpable in his letters is the nascent author's unbridled energy.

That's especially true in the letters from Ernest to his older sister Marcelline. Those excerpted below appeared for the first time just this spring in a new edition of At the Hemingways, a memoir originally published by Marcelline Hemingway Sanford in 1961 and recently reissued by the University of Idaho Press. (Proceeds benefit the Ernest Hemingway Foundation in Oak Park, Ill., which is preserving the writer's birthplace.)

"I enjoyed most the obvious affection for his sister," said John E. Sanford, a son of Marcelline who helped prepare the new edition. "There is also a protective quality that I found endearing."

Although the excerpts of his letters to Marcelline presented here (and used by permission of John Sanford) have been edited for space, the idiosyncrasies of the young Hemingway's grammar and spelling have been retained:

  • Oct. 26, 1917: "And how is it at that most dear Oberlin huh? I also am working hard. Yesterday morning I had six yarns in the sheet and 1 on First Page. A veritable reporter the old Brute ... All cops love me like a brotherhood.

    "(...) At St. Josephine I was and have chance to work on St. Josephine Gazette. But the salary! Merci! Is is nought. A mere pittance! Here I receive 60 of them per month. A princely stipend."

  • Jan. 31, 1918: "Say kid this newspaper business is the life. Since being here I have met and talked with Gen. Wood, Lord Northcliffe, Jess Willard, V. Pres. Fairbanks, Capt. B. Baumber British Army, Gen. Capper of Kas. and any amount of others. Tis the life. Also I can distinguish chianti, catawba, malvasia, Dago Red, claret and several others sans the use of the eyes. (...) I can tell mayors to go to Hell and slap police commissioners on the Back! Yeah tis indeed the existence."

  • March 2, 1918: "Anyway Kid that was no idle Jest about the Great none other than that Mae Marsh, whom you and Sam glimpsed. If she would ever become Mrs. HemOOOOOOO---y joy would reign supreme. (...) Any way did I tell you that I was enlisted as an Ambulance driver for the American Ambulance service in Italy? Yes it is an fact. Mit me my love but say nought to the fambly. They might worry and I probably wont be called for some time. Any way it is a big relief to be enlisted in something. (...)"

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