Sean Hemingway
Photo: Collette C. Hemingway
Seán Hemingway never knew his grandfather Ernest, but has gotten to know him by spending time with his original manuscripts. In 2004, after editing two collections of Ernest Hemingway's short-form writing, Seán took on the project of restoring A Moveable Feast, the great writer's memoir of his life in Paris during the 1920s, and worked on it during nights and weekends for five years while keeping his day job as curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. We spoke to him after he returned from an annual fieldwork trip to Crete with his family, and he explained the purpose of publishing a new edition, how his background in archaeology prepared him for the task, and why he (along with all of his cousins) chose to study anything but English literature.
O: How did this project to restore A Moveable Feast start?

Seán: I've edited two other books of my grandfather's writings—Hemingway on Hunting and Hemingway on War—so my Uncle Patrick suggested the project to me. He's overseen my grandfather's literary properties since Mary [Hemingway] died, and always knew that she had made some changes to the manuscript. He was curious to know if there was material about his mother, Pauline (my grandmother), that had been cut out.

O: Why did you decide to take it on?

Seán: At first, I didn't know whether there was really enough material to do a new edition. I'm a full-time curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Greek and Roman art, where all we have are bits and pieces of a culture, and I have a training in classics, which involves looking at fragments of manuscripts to draw conclusions. Here, we had pretty much all the material, and a book had been published. But the more I researched, the more it seemed that there was still new text to present, and I got excited.

O: What material did you have to work with?

Seán: Mary gave my grandfather's original manuscripts to the National Archives; they're held in the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, and they made a complete set of copies just for me. It was remarkable—he saved all of his manuscripts: first drafts written in his hand, a typed draft and often a second typed draft of most chapters. Then, there's actually a manuscript of nineteen chapters of the book all together, so it's clear the book was almost finished.

O: How different is this edition from the original 1964 publication?

Seán: If you read the two versions side by side, the first nineteen chapters are very similar. In general, Mary and the editor of the original version were very respectful of the text, except they changed the order of two of the chapters, and we changed them back. The complete manuscript didn't have a last chapter, so they created an ending out of additional pages Hemingway had written for the book, but didn't include.

O: What was it about the original edit of the book that made it seem less true to the writer's intention?

Seán: To me, the big issue is that it was presented as completed in 1960, but it wasn't finished then. So it's not that they did a bad job. What they did was present it as Ernest Hemingway's conclusion. I understand that, but the new edition doesn't have the ending since it wasn't in my grandfather's final manuscript.

O: What else did you change?

Seán: The most significant difference is they used first person instead of second person in many chapters, and that's an editorial change that I, if I had done it the first time around, wouldn't have made.

O: Why not?

Seán: Second person is more experimental, and it's more personal. It's like he's talking to himself, and by saying "you" all the time, the reader is part of the story too. I included a selection of manuscript pages in the new edition, and you can see on one page where he had changed "you" to "I" and then back to "you." So it's clearly something he thought about, decided on, and was consistent with.

O: How do you respond to the people who have disagreed with the decision to call this a restored edition?

Seán: A.E. Hotchner [Hemingway's long-time friend and biographer] and other writers suggest that I've re-edited to make my grandmother look good. [See: "Don't Touch A Moveable Feast" on] But I think anyone who really looks at this new edition will see that's not what is presented. Ours is a less edited, but more comprehensive edition. People who have read A Moveable Feast before will find it very interesting to see the changes, and think about his writing process and how the book came about.

O: What other discoveries did you make about his writing process?

Seán: I think of my grandfather's writing is so tight and carefully written. He wrote 10 chapters for the book at the end of his life, but he cut those chapters. It was fascinating to discover he wrote so much. We don't know whether he would have included some of that material, which is what Mary did. In the new edition, the parts he edited out are included in their entirety at the end as "Additional Character Sketches."

O: Didn't Hemingway himself place a lot of importance on the details a writer leaves out of a story?

Seán: He has this famous iceberg theory about writing, a belief that you can cut things. In a lot of cases that has been interpreted as permission to omit events or details, but in this case, there were stories he wrote and then cut.

O: In his fragments of introductions that you include at the end of the new edition, each starts with the idea that fiction should fold over on fact—and that this is a work of fiction. The book has always been considered memoir though. What is it?

Seán: It's a combination. Fiction because he was definitely concerned about libel and Gertrude Stein's partner attacking him—he was telling stories about famous people that hadn't been written about. And, in fiction, which is what he did most, he could capture the essence of a time period by embellishing or changing the facts slightly. It's really like any memoir in this way.

O: And what about the parts you knew to be true, based on stories you'd heard about your grandfather?

Seán: One part of the new material in "Additional Character Sketches" is a chapter called "Secret Pleasures." It's him as a young man growing his hair long, just having one suit and one pair of good shoes, and having to go to the barber. That's a stage so many of us have been through, and brought him down to earth for me. There's been so much written about The Legendary Ernest Hemingway that he's almost removed from humanity. Sections like that reveal him as a very sensitive and normal person.

Also, you can see he struggled writing the last chapter of the additional material. His health was failing, but he was working on this book because it was important to him. Passages about breaking up with my grandmother Pauline and the whole complicated situation that he had with two loves weren't included in the first edition at all, but he writes about that sincerely. It's another time you see him as a real man with all his faults.

O: Can you give examples of where he embellished or changed the facts?

Seán: In "Secret Pleasures," he says he and his wife Hadley had just had a baby. I was reading that chapter right after my wife and I adopted our daughter, and it didn't ring true to me that he would be so lovey-dovey with his wife. Does it work to insert more of the details here? [In this chapter, Hemingway recalls being playful with his wife and talking about cutting their hair together to the same length.] I mean you still love your partner when there's a baby, but it's a different thing.

I also found a reference to a letter where he talks about growing his hair the year before when he was going to Switzerland. So I think he wanted to tell the story about the hair and Switzerland in that chapter, but also wanted to talk about the baby to make the story sound better. If he hadn't, he would have had to introduce a new locale.

O: Did you learn anything about his process of writing memoir?

Seán: What amazed me is how well he was able to remember details. I write myself, and my first drafts are not nearly as descriptive as his were. I think what you can see from the manuscripts is that he wrote much of this when he was an old man looking back.

O: Do a lot of people in your family write?

Seán: My dad wrote a memoir, my uncle wrote a memoir, but in general everyone was much too intimidated to try to come and go in the same world. For my generation, it was too daunting to even consider English as a major.

O: What have you been reading this summer?

Seán: I was reading a book called Crescent and Star by Stephen Kinzer which is about Turkey, because I went on a trip to Turkey for the museum. Really, I like mysteries and lighter reading in the summer.

O: And what's your favorite Hemingway book?

Seán: A Moveable Feast has been the one, not surprisingly, that I've been reading and re-reading. That's what's so great about my grandfather's books. You can read them over and over again.

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