Hemingway’s Earliest Piece of Fiction Discovered

The phony travelogue describes a trip from his home in Illinois across the Atlantic to Ireland and Scotland

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In May, Hemingway scholars found a notebook written by a 10-year-old Ernest Hemingway describing a lovely trip through Ireland and Scotland, full of diary entries and letters sent to his parents from overseas. It’s a nice little memento of the author’s first overseas trip, except for the fact that Hemingway didn’t make it to Europe until much later in life. As Rob Crilly at The Telegraph reports, the 14-page “diary” is actually the first known piece of fiction written by the Nobel Prize-winning author.

Robert K. Elder at The New York Times reports that the notebook was found wrapped in a plastic freezer bag in an ammunition can held by the Bruce family in Key West. Hemingway, it turns out, had left boxes of his personal belongings and archives in a storeroom behind Sloppy Joe’s Bar, the author's “second home” in Key West. Betty and Telly Otto “Toby” Bruce were Hemingway’s close friends and sometime employees who took possession of the boxes. While Hemingway's fourth wife and widow, the foreign correspondent Mary Welsh, collected some of the documents in 1962 to put together his posthumous memoir A Moveable Feast, the Bruces retained the rest of Hemingway’s documents, which have passed down to their son Benjamin.

It’s only in the last 15 years that researchers have catalogued materials in the Bruce’s archive, which include letters, X-rays, cockfight tickets, photographs and a lock of the author’s hair. In May, historian Brewster Chamberlain and Hemingway scholar Sandra Spanier were looking through the archive looking for material for The Letters of Ernest Hemingway, a massive project expected to span 17 volumes. That’s when they realized the notebook, which also contains bit of poetry and notes on grammar, was not actually a travel diary but a work of fiction.

“He clearly had done his homework about the geography of this account. It is quite an intelligent piece of work but clearly he was making it up,” Spanier tells Crilly. “Hemingway later said that his method was to invent from experience and he often placed his characters in absolutely realistically described landscapes. I find it very interesting that at the age of 10 he is already checking his maps and finding these local landmarks. For a kid in Oak Park, Illinois, it is rather sophisticated and shows his interest in getting the details right.”

The diary, written in a spidery, childish scrawl that did not improve too much as the author aged, was written in September 1909. It describes his trip from Oak Park to New York City for a trip on the Mauretania, the sister ship of the Lusitania and at the time the fastest ship to cross the Atlantic. From there, he describes a tour of Blarney Castle, Ireland’s poverty and thatch-roofed cottages as well as a ghost story about a spirit that rebuilds the ruins of Ross Castle each year. “I thought this was really amazing; a real landmark piece of writing,” Spanier tells Elder. “It’s the first time we see Hemingway writing a sustained, imaginative narrative.”

The researchers do not know if it was a draft of a class assignment or just a lark. It’s possible it was composed as an entry for the St. Nicholas Magazine, a children’s publication with a monthly story competition that his sister Marcelline was known to enter.

Spanier tells Crilly that the story shows some of the crisp precision of Hemingway’s language, though of course his writing became more sophisticated as he aged. Emine Saner at The Guardian reports that Hemingway’s story is just one more bit of juvenilia from famous writers showing they had a spark of talent early on. Jane Austen, for instance, was composing stories featuring strong heroines at an early age and Virginia Woolf ran a “family magazine” with her siblings starting at the age of ten that presaged her later diaries.

Elder reports that Benjamin Bruce is considering selling the archive, not only to protect it from storms like Hurricane Irma that recently wrecked the Florida Keys, but so scholars have wider access to the materials.

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