Will the real Moveable Feast please stand up?

February 20, 2010 at 4:39 pm 3 comments

moveable feast restored cover  A Moveable Feast cover

Any literary work that is published posthumously, unless it was left behind with explicit and unassailable directives from the author regarding its publication,  is destined to be regarded with some doubt, if not outright controversy, about authorial intent.

So it is with A Moveable Feast.

First published in 1964, three years after Ernest Hemingway’s death, this beautiful and poignant literary memoir, written by a middle-aged and sadly despondent Hemingway about his early days in Paris, has always dwelt in the unavoidable shadows and uncertainties surrounding any work published posthumously.

The 1964 edition, which was edited by Mary Hemingway, Hemingway’s widow, with the help of Scribner’s editors,  though subject to some criticism by scholars through the years, has been widely regarded as a classic literary memoir. Indeed, A Moveable Feast is also widely regarded as some of the best work Hemingway produced in his later years.

Last year Scribner’s brought out, with great fanfare, a new “restored” edition of this classic edited by Sean Hemingway, a grandson of the writer, with the dubious (and impossible-to-prove) claim that the book was being published “for the first time as Ernest Hemingway intended.”

Impossible to prove, but not impossible to hazard an informed guess about the validity of such a claim. And for people who care about literature, who are sensitive to literary nuance, and who have read both works, there is plenty of reason to believe that the 1964 edition edited by Mary Hemingway  is far closer to what Hemingway intended his work to be than the 2009 edition clumsily and inconclusively slapped together by Sean Hemingway (whose professional expertise is in art history, not literature).

Certainly the 1964 edition is a vastly superior literary work–whole, complete and coherent in shape and theme, brilliantly well organized, with hardly a false note.

The main contribution of the new edition is the value that any manuscript material brings to literary scholars and serious students of literature. It is indeed interesting for people with a deep interest in Hemingway and his work to be able to read some of the chapters that were excised–either by Mary Hemingway or by Hemingway himself. (Therein lies some of the controversy.)

But there is no comparison between the two editions as literary works and in that sense I find it hard to see what is so controversial, except the title of the new edition.

Suppose it had been called, as one reviewer has suggested, A Moveable Feast: The Remixed Edition.  Such a title would make it clear what the new edition is: a collection of not very well organized, assorted draft material, including various versions of the same chapters, and a dizzying number of versions of the same paragraph, all of which Hemingway had kept as he worked on his memoir,  leaving some of the most difficult editorial decisions undecided, for a day he would never live to see.

Or suppose that Sean Hemingway (or more likely someone else) had worked far longer and harder on this edition, annotating it in such a way that it would be much more helpful to readers interested in examining the editorial process behind this literary masterpiece. Intelligent, careful, authoritative annotation would have made it a much more valuable contribution to the literary world as well. (As it stands now there is very little explanation accompanying the raw draft material.)

If the newly published material had been presented in this way, no one who just wanted to read the story of Hemingway’s early years in Paris would find themselves lost and confused toward the end of the book, trying to figure out what all those extra chapters are about. Such readers would not experience the annoyance of trying to read an edition in which the difficult editorial decisions that writers and editors must make prior to publishing literary works have simply not been made.

Casual readers would know that they should just read the 1964 edition, the one that was so lovingly and skillfully put together by the author’s widow in the years shortly after his death, the one that by all accounts (including Sean Hemingway’s) was nearly ready for publication before Hemingway died. And readers who wanted to know more would know that there was also a scholarly edition that includes a good deal of interesting auxiliary material providing insight into some of the back story of Hemingway’s life in Paris in the early years; and the way he struggled with deciding how to tell the story (and how much of it he wanted to tell), many years later.

The restored edition is valuable both for the light it sheds on Hemingway’s state of mind in the months prior to his death, and on his view of those earlier halcyon years. It also offers an interesting glimpse into the artistic process by showing how one of the greatest writers of the 20th century struggled with editorial decisions, keeping some paragraphs and chapters, rejecting others, rewriting and rewriting and rewriting key passages, as he attempted to complete his final draft.

Part of the problem with the new edition, I believe, is that the agenda behind it is a sad, personal one. At least part–probably a very large part–of the impetus for introducing this misguided attempt at “restoring” a work that was much more whole and had much more integrity before it was “restored” came from the wounded feelings of Patrick Hemingway, son of Hemingway’s second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, who felt (rightly) that his mother, whose affair with Hemingway led to the failure of his  first marriage, did not come off looking very good in the book.

But no matter how much compassion one can feel for a son in such a situation, it really doesn’t justify destroying a literary classic and replacing it with an incoherent, inconclusive, disorganized jumble of draft material. And then calling that a “restored” edition.

It wouldn’t have been necessary to do so either, in order to improve Pauline Pfeiffer’s reputation, or to show that Hemingway was more willing to take his share of responsibility for the breakup of his first marriage than it seems in a cursory reading of the 1964 edition.  All that is needed for that is a very careful and close reading between the lines.

One of the most interesting things about the commentary that has been made about the Pauline Pfeiffer part of this controversy is how little agreement there is about the effect the changes in the new edition have on her reputation. (The same is true of the way F. Scott Fitzgerald is depicted in the two versions.) Some readers think Pfeiffer (and/or Fitzgerald) come off looking better in the restored edition. Some, including this reader, do not.

For myself, I think (along with most commentators, and according to Hemingway himself, as revealed in notes published in the restored edition) that A Moveable Feast is really Hadley’s book. (Hemingway refers to her as its “heroine.”)  The fact that Pauline Pfeiffer was “the other woman” who brought an end to the first marriage Hemingway is paying tribute to in A Moveable Feast puts her probably quite unavoidably in a rather negative light at least in this volume.

Another interesting thing that has come out in all the controversy is that Hemingway had thought about writing another book, about “the second part of Paris,” the part he shared with Pauline, not Hadley. “The second part of Paris was wonderful although it started tragically enough,” he wrote. “That part, the part with Pauline, I have not eliminated but have saved for the start of another book.”

I think it would have been both more respectful, and more effective in achieving their aims, if Pauline’s heirs had chosen to celebrate and publicize Hemingway’s love for his second wife in some other way than tampering with the 1964 version of  A Moveable Feast.

Instead, Sean Hemingway and Scribner’s have presented the public with the confusing choice between buying an unannotated edition of assorted draft material of the book; or buying an earlier edition, now seemingly discredited by the publisher (because it is not “restored”). (They’re also trying to have it both ways by now having two books to sell instead of just one.)

But the 1964 edition is an exquisitely crafted literary work that is  highly faithful to the author’s intentions, and is also a much-beloved classic. It’s almost as if the original offense has been recommitted: the heirs of Pauline Pfeiffer wreaking havoc on the “Hadley book” instead of finding some other way to rescue Pfeiffer’s standing in history.  Wouldn’t it have been better, and more interesting, to publish a separate work–an essay, or another book?–about “the second part of Paris,” the book Hemingway never had the chance to write?

Hemingway had told his first wife that one day he would “try to recapture those wonderful days for both of [them],” and in A Moveable Feast he did just that.

It is a beautiful work, a love letter to Paris, to youth and innocence, to Hadley and to their young son, and it lives because Hemingway’s fourth wife took great pains to make sure that that story was told.

My advice is to read the 1964 edition (the latest version of which was published by Touchstone (Simon and Schuster)  in 1996, and is still in print, with a black and white cover. (ISBN: 9780684824994).

A Moveable Feast cover

Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor and teacher of writing and literature based in Silver Spring, Maryland.  She teaches literature courses in Paris for the Education Abroad program at Queens College, CUNY, and she also teaches literature classes at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C. 

NOTE ADDED April 2013: This controversy is even deeper and more complex than one might think at first glance (and, I must admit, deeper and more complex than I described it above in the first year after the new edition was published). While I still stand behind most of what I said above, careful rereadings of both editions of the book in the years since have caused me to wonder about just how heavy a hand Mary Hemingway did have in editing A Moveable Feast, and why she made some of the editorial decisions she did. It is indeed fascinating to compare the two editions side by side, line by line. While much of the text is the same in both editions, there are interesting differences.

I would like to reiterate and strengthen one of the points I made above. Namely, that it would be extremely helpful to readers who wish to examine the two editions carefully if Simon & Schuster were to annotate both editions of A Moveable Feast, indicating where the differences in the texts are and, where possible, providing explanatory notes.

Readers who wish to more fully explore the mystery of the creation of A Moveable Feast may be interested in reading Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast: The Making of Myth by Jacqueline Tavernier-Courbin (Northeastern University Press, 1991). And there is a rather interesting panel discussion of the restored edition taped at the Kennedy Library in the fall of 2009, with Sean Hemingway, Diane Johnson, and Adam Gopnik,  here: http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/289184-1 (Though this viewer thinks that the conversation would have been even more interesting if a Hemingway scholar had been invited to join the panel 😦 .)

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Entry filed under: About Paris, About Writers and their Work. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

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