Unseen letters show Hemingway’s fight against celebrity and ‘bullshit publicity’

‘My private life being an open sewer, I am sometimes a little touchy,’ wrote the author

His prose matched his macho lifestyle, from wartime adventures to big-game hunting, boozing and bullfighting. But Ernest Hemingway was extremely sensitive about his private life, which he described as “an open sewer”, and repeatedly asked family and friends not to reveal details, according to previously unpublished correspondence.

In the fourth of 17 volumes of his letters, to be published by Cambridge University Press, Hemingway writes on one occasion: “If I’m to write at all, I have to keep my private life out of it.” Another letter records that he had forbidden one publisher “ever to use any personal publicity because I want the stuff to be judged as fiction”.

He was outraged by the biographical blurb on an edition of The Sun Also Rises, his masterpiece about a lost generation damaged by the first world war. He complained to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, insisting its publisher must “at once remove that biographical crap ie SHIT about me on the back wrapper”. He wanted them to know that “unless that material comes off all the wrappers immediately, and any reference to war service or my private life such as marriage etc removed, I will never publish another book with [them]”.

He continued: “It is no good my trying to keep my private life out of things and avoid bullshit publicity if it is then to be spread in mass production.” The publisher destroyed the offending jackets.

To his mother, Grace, Hemingway wrote: “If anyone ever wants to interview you about me please tell them that you know I dislike any personal publicity and have promised me not to even answer questions about me. Don’t ever give out anything.”

The eagerly awaited fourth volume of his letters begins as Hemingway makes final revisions to A Farewell to Arms, the 1929 novel that was to bring him international fame and became his first bestseller.

A letter to the English author Hugh Walpole shows him coping with the “responsibilities” of celebrity after its immediate success. Hemingway writes: “This book has been my first experience with getting letters from people who have read it. What are you supposed to do? I’ve answered them all – and have done nothing else. It’s a bloody business – takes 20 minutes or half-an-hour to thank them for writing… Do they become angry if you don’t answer?... Or do they get sullen and never buy another?”

Elsewhere, he described writing novels as “damned hard”. It was in a letter to his lawyer that he wrote: “My private life being an open sewer am sometimes a little touchy.”

Sandra Spanier, joint editor of the Cambridge edition, said: “On the one hand, you have a writer who cares very much about his public reception. He’s always asking how the sales are going. He loves good reviews. He courts celebrity to some extent. On the other hand, he does have this intense desire for privacy. He may have been a little sensitive about his divorce from his first wife Hadley and remarriage to Pauline.” She added that the letters reflect his objections to publishers exaggerating his first world war service, when he was an ambulance driver for the American Red Cross.


Dalya Alberge

The GuardianTramp

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