You can learn a few things about Kansas City by reading Ernest Hemingway’s letters.
A gargantuan project to publish more than 6,000 pieces of correspondence by the most famous of 20th century American writers has now delivered its third volume.
Volume 1, published four years ago, included 30 letters that Hemingway wrote to his family in 1917-18 when he spent six and a half months as a reporter, just out of high school, at The Kansas City Star.
The second volume in the series, all published by the Cambridge University Press, presented Hemingway’s letters of the early 1920s. This was the period when he was toiling in Paris as a journalist, publishing his first admirable works of short fiction and inventing Jake Barnes, the onetime Kansas City reporter who serves as a central character of Hemingway’s star-making novel “The Sun Also Rises.”
Now comes Volume 3 of the letters, which covers the years 1926-29 and sprawls over more than 600 pages. The book covers important personal and professional dramas, including divorce, another marriage, his father’s suicide, writing, publishing, traveling and details, many never before published, of all the experiences that went into creation of a literary giant, who had not yet turned 30.
In addition to all that, in 1928, Hemingway returned to Kansas City for the first time since his newspaper apprenticeship a decade earlier.
The experience cropped up in his memory from time to time. In 1927, Hemingway’s second collection of short fiction, “Men Without Women,” appeared, including a Kansas City-based story, “A Pursuit Race,” about a strung-out bicycle race promoter.
And in the spring of 1927, he responded to a letter from Hugh Walpole, a British novelist who had written to Hemingway after giving a lecture in Kansas City: “It was funny to get your letter from the Muehlbach [sic] hotel in Kansas City where I used to sleep in the bath tub of the press room when it was too late to go home after working Saturday nights on the Star.” (Hemingway was a notoriously sloppy speller at times and the letters in the book and quoted here appear without corrections of spelling, grammar or punctuation.)
By 1928 Hemingway was planning to attend the Republican National Convention in Kansas City, though early in the year there were questions whether it could be held here. According to the volume’s editors, it seems — get this — some party officials expressed concern that Kansas City’s convention hall and hotel accommodations were inadequate. They threatened to move the convention to Cleveland — yes, Cleveland — though Kansas City Republicans talked the party out of that.
At the time, Hemingway’s second wife, Pauline, was pregnant. The Hemingways chose to have their child delivered by a Kansas City doctor rather than one in her family’s hometown in Piggott, Ark. “Am delayed by impending child birth probably to take place at Kansas City or some such great obstetrical center,” he wrote to his editor Maxwell Perkins in late May.
The “delay” referred to Hemingway’s current writing project, the World War I novel he eventually titled “A Farewell to Arms.” A week later he tells Perkins: “The next jump is to Kansas City — Then after the baby is born and the book done I will take a couple of fly rods and go out to Idaho for 2 or 3 weeks.”
The Hemingways arrived in Kansas City by the second week of June. Over the years, while researching Hemingway’s Kansas City history, I’ve tried to find something, anything, that he might have written about the Republican convention. Other than a passing reference in a later book and a hint that Hemingway might have done a radio show while here, the search came up empty. Now, while reading these newly published letters, I know why. To a friend, the opinionated but somewhat apolitical Hemingway wrote: “The convention was too [expletive] to write about.”
In the same letter, to the painter Waldo Peirce, Hemingway added some small talk about Kansas City: “This is a nice town with some good guys. Simple as hell everybody with lots of money doing all the things the English do without english accents and no bloody snobbery.” The high-brow English-style things included the polo matches he watched at the Kansas City Country Club, a block away from where he and Mrs. Hemingway were staying in a cousin’s Mission Hills mansion.
We learn from another letter that Hemingway attended horse races in Kansas City “and won 158 dollars in 2 days on $15 capital--Lost all but 18 of the profit on last day of meeting--Didnt cash a ticket-- Punk races but damned exciting on a little track.” One of the scholars annotating these editions, under the guidance of general editor Sandra Spanier of Penn State University, concluded that Hemingway “probably attended races at the Riverside Jockey Club,” which had opened that year.
There’s a brief gap in Hemingway’s letter writing in late June. Pauline’s pregnancy was difficult and after an 18-hour labor their boy, Patrick, was delivered by cesarean section at Research Hospital on June 28. Hemingway waited until July 4 to sit down and pen a note to his parents about the baby -- “He is very big strong and healthy. He is too big in fact as he nearly killed his mother.”
That real pregnancy and childbirth resonates in the background of one of the great books of American literature. “A Farewell to Arms,” of course, ends with a tragic childbirth scene in a hospital in Switzerland.
“Am on page 486 in spite of cesaerians, no wine, no fishing since Key West,” he told a friend as he continued to churn through his novel. Hemingway did take a fishing break out West, spending about two months in Sheridan, Wyo., and vicinity. He apparently finished a first draft of the novel before passing through Kansas City and Piggott and thinking about spending the winter in Key West, Fla., where the Hemingways eventually lived for nearly a decade.
Patrick Hemingway, born in Kansas City during that obstetrical drama, remains Hemingway’s last living son and serves as the patriarch of the writer’s legacy. In her introduction to this volume of letters, Spanier writes that he likened his father’s collected letters to the great 18th century diarist of London, Samuel Pepys. “My feeling was that ... they are a unique record because he was a writer and also a newspaper person, as well,” he told Spanier. “And he was involved in so much of it, so that his letters are a portrait of the first half of the twentieth century.”
The collected letters are expected to roll through at least 17 volumes in the coming years. As I wrote in a review of the second volume, the project gets us closer to Hemingway’s life than any work of biography or criticism has in the last six decades or so. (Disclosure: I’ve had a small role contributing to the annotations and have long been acquainted with the project editors through my involvement in the Ernest Hemingway Society and Foundation.)
Hemingway’s diaristic account of Kansas City — he would return for another childbirth in 1931 — remains merely a tiny slice of his globe-trotting life and his voluminous letters and published works. But the tidbits add up and the Hemingway story would be incomplete without them.