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Enda O’Doherty writes
: Dalya Alberge, writing in last Sunday’s Observer (March 29th), informs us of a testy letter sent by Ernest Hemingway in 1932 to his English publisher, Jonathan Cape, in which the American writer complained of Cape’s censorship of some “Anglo-Saxon” language in his soon-to-be-published book on bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon.

“All pleasure I had about the book coming out in England,” Hemingway wrote on November 19th, “was effectively and completely removed by your letter of November 3rd. Don’t you understand that if any excisions or changes have to be made it is I who will make them if the book is not to be bollixed up? I thought we had gone into that once.”

Then he got pompous, and a little verbose. Perhaps drink – a powerful enabler of pomposity – had been taken.

If you want to publish any more books of mine, and it is quite all right if you do not, it is necessary to understand this very clearly. You are not my vicar. If the Pope is the vicar of Christ it is because Our Lord is not here upon earth to make his own decisions. I am not Christ (oddly enough) and as long as I am here upon earth will make my own bloody decisions as to what I write and what I do not write …
If you say a book will be suppressed if it contains certain words and you do not care to publish it for that reason that is your affair. If I find the words are not important and can conceivably change them without loss of sense, meaning or effect I will change them or leave a blank. I will be damned if I have any vicar pruning my books to please the circulating libraries.

Hemingway’s letter is among many previously unpublished ones that will appear in the fifth volume of The Letters of Ernest Hemingway, to be published by Cambridge University Press later this spring.

Professor Sandra Spanier, general editor of the Hemingway Letters Project and co-editor of each volume, told The Observer that where the American edition of Death in the Afternoon reads ‘go f—k yourselves’, Cape’s English edition reads, ‘go hang yourselves’. Elsewhere Cape replaced ‘f—k’ with ‘blast’.” One wonders what was wrong with “blimey”.

The Observer story reminds me of another one I read some years ago about Hemingway’s relationship with Maxwell “Max” Perkins, a brilliant book editor at the New York publisher Scribner’s. Perkins had previously edited F Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe, the latter a once highly regarded writer who perhaps still features occasionally on university reading lists. Wolfe apparently suffered from the opposite of writer’s block and Perkins’s job was to cut reams of verbiage from his manuscripts and make them publishable, and perhaps even readable. Well, the general view is that Perkins succeeded to a considerable extent – at the cost no doubt of a hell of a lot of shouting ‑ in talking Wolfe down from his rather counter-productive artistic high horse. The current Penguin edition of his Of Time and the River is after all only 1,040 pages, having been painfully hacked out of the multi-volume epic The October Fair that Wolfe had originally handed up, which was about the length of Proust’s À la Recherche de Temps Perdu.

Like Jonathan Cape, Perkins apparently also had some notable confrontations with Hemingway over obscenity, though he had also championed him from early days against more hidebound, conservative members of the firm, whose opposition had been largely silenced after the huge commercial success of A Farewell to Arms (1929). The story is told (which of course does not mean it is necessarily true) that he brought the writer into his Fifth Avenue office and told him quite plainly that there were certain words in his manuscript that Scribner’s would in no circumstances publish. And what words would they be, Hemingway wanted to know. Perkins, not wishing to be forced to speak the particular word, wrote it down on the first piece of paper that came to hand, which happened to be his one-leaf-per-day desk calendar. The word was the most common four-letter one – let us be equally coy the one beginning with “f”.

Having come to terms over how this unacceptable word would be rendered in print by Scribner’s, the two went out for a good lunch, over which they spent a long, and one hopes enjoyable, time. In their absence the boss, Charles Scribner himself, wandered into Perkins’s office wishing to consult him on some matter. Surprised at not finding him there, he had a quick glance at the desk calendar to see if there was any clue as to where he might be. Some hours later, when he heard Perkins finally returning, Scribner walked back to his office and, leaning over him at his desk, whispered confidentially to his most cherished editor, who was no longer such a young man: “Wouldn’t you like to take the rest of the day off, Max? You must be exhausted.”

1/4/2020

Images: Hemingway at work; Scribner's on Fifty Avenue, New York