In 1922, Hadley Hemingway gathered up all of her husband’s stories—the originals, the typescripts, as well as the carbons—and placed them neatly in manila folders. (Only two stories were not included: “My Old Man” was in the mail to Edward O’Brien, who was collecting it for Best Short Stories, and “Up in Michigan” was hidden in a drawer because Gertrude Stein had once criticized it as being inaccrochable.)
Hemingway was in Lausanne at the time, covering a peace conference for The Star, and Hadley was joining him by train. She wanted to surprise him with the chance to work on his stories through the winter. At the Gare de Lyon, a porter helped Hadley from the taxi to the train and in those short minutes the bag with his stories was stolen.
This devastating scene lends itself to a tizzy of speculation. Did the thief imagine he got hold of something valuable—a bag with money or jewellery hidden inside? What was the response when he found only pages—in a foreign language, no less? Did he toss them into a bin straightaway? Or throw them onto the platform in anger, where they were trampled by rushing passengers and blown about by moving trains? When he recognised there was no money, no jewellery, did he stash the bag somewhere, its contents unmolested, and return to the station to target other unsuspecting passengers? Did someone else find the bag? Wonder at the English writing? Take it away to show a friend who knew the language? Is it in an attic or cellar somewhere? Will we one day hear on the news that Hemingway’s lost stories have been recovered?
Once you start on this speculative journey, it’s easy to imagine all sorts of scenarios. I’ve often thought it would be wonderful to write a novel about a disillusioned woman who rents a farmhouse in rural France for a summer and finds the bag with Hemingway’s early work in the dusty corner of a wine cellar…Or a failed writer stumbles across the notebooks in an antique shop in Paris and passes them off as his own…Or the manuscripts are found and put up for auction, the eve of which they ‘disappear’ again, sparking a chase across several continents…The imagination takes over.
And I’m not alone. There have been many attempts to fictionalise this episode. The only problem is that the mystery of what happened to the missing stories is ultimately less interesting and less compelling than the stories themselves. Any fictional account of their recovery is destined to be unsatisfying. No matter how inventive the attempt, the stories are still lost.
After Hemingway’s suicide in 1961, the opposite situation existed. His widow (and fourth wife) Mary marched into the office of Hemingway’s publisher Charles Scribner, Jr. with a large shopping bag filled to bursting. The bag contained photocopies of all the unpublished work left by her husband: sketches, stories, fragments, and the autobiographical writing that would become his posthumous memoir, A Moveable Feast (1964). There were also the manuscripts of three major works, all of which were all later published: Islands in the Stream (1970); The Dangerous Summer (1985); and The Garden of Eden (1986).
The three novels, in addition to the memoir, were prepared for publication by Mary Hemingway and Charles Scribner, Jr., and this is the problem. In a note forwarding Islands in the Stream, Mary Hemingway states that “beyond the routine chores of correcting spelling and punctuation, we made some cuts in the manuscript I feel Ernest would surely have made himself. The book is all Ernest’s. We have added nothing to it.” Two-thirds of the original manuscript of The Garden of Eden was excluded in the published version, and many of the speeches attributed to one character in the manuscript were attributed to another in the final published work. Hemingway had worked on A Moveable Feast for many years and even prepared a final draft before he died. In her role as literary executor, Mary Hemingway undertook extensive editing. While avowing a hands-off approach, she changed the order of chapters “to preserve chronology”. She also added a chapter (“Birth of a New School”) that had been dropped by Hemingway; and, for reasons unknown (though we might be tempted to speculate), she deleted a lengthy apology to his first wife Hadley, even though the passage appeared in some form or other in every draft of the book.
In 1999, another book—True at First Light—appeared under the name of Ernest Hemingway (although it was edited heavily by his son Patrick). It is, in Hemingway’s words, a fictional memoir”, the fanciful record of an African safari during the winter of 1953-54. The trouble is it isn’t clear that Hemingway ever intended to publish it. He abandoned the manuscript after the first draft, and was well-known for saying and on one occasion writing, “The first draft of anything is shit.” It seems fairly likely, then, that he did not want it made public. To make matters worse, it was released during the 100th-anniversary month of his birth, which suggests a financial motive. (But here we speculate again.)
Many Hemingway readers feel these posthumous publications, while interesting, are essentially worthless. What was of true value was in the brimming bag Mary Hemingway dragged into Scribner’s office. Yet even these original manuscripts must be examined with caution. The temptation to speculate runs high. And without Hemingway, we can never know his ultimate intentions. In many ways, these final unfinished works are as ‘lost’ as those that vanished in the Gare de Lyon four decades earlier.