Every reader of True at First Light, which Ernest Hemingway’s heirs and publishers report is the last of his posthumous works, should be reminded of John Updike’s comments on the publication of Islands in the Stream (1970). In words that apply to each of the works that have been issued in Hemingway’s name since his death, Updike wrote:
This book consists of material that the author during his lifetime did not see fit to publish; therefore it should not be held against him. That parts of it are good is entirely to his credit; that other parts are puerile and, in a pained way, aimless testifies to the odds against which Hemingway, in the last two decades of his life, brought anything to completion. It is, I think, to the discredit of his publishers that no introduction offers to describe from what stage of Hemingway’s tormented later career Islands in the Stream was salvaged, or to estimate what its completed design might have been, or to confess what editorial choices were exercised in the preparation of this manuscript. Rather, a gallant wreck of a novel is paraded as the real thing, as if the public are such fools as to imagine a great writer’s ghost is handing down books intact from Heaven.
The odds to which Updike refers are now well known: Hemingway’s last years can only be described as a tragedy. A lifetime of hard drinking, courting physical danger, ricocheting between periods of mania and depression, and coping with the frenzy of renown had begun to affect him by the mid-1940’s. The wounds, concussions, and broken bones had all taken their toll. Then, when he was returning in January, 1954, from the six-month stay in Africa that True at First Light recounts, two plane crashes and a brush fire within a single week left him with two spinal disks cracked and impacted, his liver and one kidney ruptured, a dislocated right arm and shoulder, a concussion and a cracked skull that leaked cerebral fluid for several days, and first-degree burns on his face, arms, legs, chest, and back. Physically and mentally debilitated, he returned to his home in Cuba but would never be the same. The prescriptions and self- medications that he took to treat the aftereffects of all this, together with his increasing consumption of alcohol, eventually led in 1960 to a mental breakdown and paranoid delusions. As a result, he was hospitalized at the Mayo Clinic—where he was given electroshock treatments that affected him like a series of new concussions, leaving his memory weak but his delusions intact. On July 2, 1961, he committed suicide in his Ketchum, Idaho, home.
In the weeks and months that followed, his widow Mary discovered that he had left fifty pounds of unpublished manuscripts—thousands of pages, hundreds of thousands of words. As executor of his estate, she was left with the responsibility of sorting this all out and determining what, if anything, from this cache of manuscripts deserved to be published. Ultimately, she (and, later, his sons) determined that every one of the works that he left behind deserved to be published—the letters that he had specifically directed them not to print, the stories he had chosen not to publish or collect, and each of the long works that he had been unable to shape into a finished form that satisfied him.
There are still no introductions that respond to Updike’s questions for any of the books that have been published since Hemingway’s death. However, thanks to Hemingway biographers such as Carlos Baker and Michael Reynolds, and to Rose Marie Burwell’s comprehensive examination of the postwar manuscripts and the books eventually drawn from them in her indispensable Hemingway: The Postwar Years and the Posthumous Novels (1996), people do know much more about how the posthumously published books evolved.
Hemingway returned to Cuba after the Allied victory in Europe intent on writing an epic about World War II. He failed; but between 1945 and 1961 he never stopped writing. The last two books that he published, each of which grew out of longer works that he had begun in the 1940’s, included one of his worst and one of his most highly praised. Across the River and into the Trees (1950), the remains of his original plan to write a novel about World War II, was variously described by reviewers as a parody, a travesty, an embarrassment, trash, and worse. Hemingway was clearly finished, many of them said. The Old Man and the Sea, which appeared two years later, surprised even the naysayers and was generally hailed as a small masterpiece.
In the last nine years of his life he published no more books, but he worked compulsively on five different projects: a novel set in the south of France during the 1920’s (published in 1986 as The Garden of Eden); another novel, consisting of four major...
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