A veritable treasure trove of papers, artifacts and photos linked to Ernest Hemingway is now accessible to scholars and the public for the first time. As the New York Times’ Robert K. Elder reports, the archive—part of the new Toby and Betty Bruce Collection at Penn State University Libraries—represents “the most significant cache of Hemingway materials uncovered in 60 years.”
Objects featured in the trove include Hemingway’s earliest known short story (written at age 10), hundreds of photographs, four unpublished short stories, manuscript ideas, letters, clothing and personal effects. The writer was a notorious “pack rat,” saving “everything from bullfighting tickets and bar bills to a list of rejected story titles written on a piece of cardboard,” says Sandra Spanier, a literary scholar at Penn State, in a statement.
“After Hemingway took his life, Mary—his fourth wife and widow—got a call from Sloppy Joe’s Bar saying, ‘Ernest left some things here in the ’30s—can you come get them?’ So she went down there in February 1962 and got her friends the Bruces to help her go through these mountains of paper,” Spanier tells the London Times’ Jacqui Goddard.
According to the collection catalog, Mary kept some of the items for herself but gave the rest to Otto “Toby” Bruce, Hemingway’s longtime friend, assistant and driver. Toby and his wife, Betty, eventually passed the trove on to their son, Benjamin “Dink” Bruce, who started cataloging it in collaboration with local historian Brewster Chamberlain and Spanier.
The New York Times first wrote about the collection in 2017, when Chamberlin and Spanier discovered the early short story in the Bruce family archives. At the time, Dink said he hoped to find a permanent home for the objects, which had rarely been exhibited to the public. After Dink died in 2020, his heirs worked with Spanier to bring the collection to Penn State.
“I did have a sense of responsibility to make this happen, both as someone who had incredible affection and respect for Dink and Brewster, but also as a scholar,” Spanier tells the New York Times. “This is a gold mine for a scholar.”
Among the items in the archive is a three-page document written by Hemingway at age 26, approximately 35 years before his suicide. As Spanier, who also serves as general editor of the Hemingway Letters Project, tells the London Times, the morbid meditation “is the earliest I know that he put anything of this nature down on paper.”
In the essay, the author offers his thoughts on the best ways to die, deeming falling off an ocean liner at night the ideal scenario, “unless you could arrange to die some way while asleep.” Hemingway adds, “That way there could be no doubt about the thing going through and it does not seem a nasty death.”
In a separate section of the essay, Hemingway, as quoted by the New York Times, muses, “For so many years I was afraid of death and it is very comfortable to be without that fear. Of course it may return again at any time.”
Another standout from the collection is a Hemingway short story about the writer’s contemporary and rival, F. Scott Fitzgerald. The work casts Fitzgerald as “Kid Fitz,” a fictionalized young boxer with “a strangulated hernia, a missing nose and two black eyes.”
Given the wealth of materials available, scholars studying the Bruce collection will likely be finding new insights into Hemingway’s life for years to come. Spanier, for her part, tells the New York Times that processing the items “has been just like an Easter egg hunt.”
In the statement, Verna Kale, a literary scholar at Penn State and an associate editor of the Hemingway Letters Project, says, “The collection will be especially valuable to Penn State students as a learning opportunity. This is another reason that it’s wonderful the collection has come to a research library intact rather than ending up in private hands.”
Kale adds, “Betty Bruce, as a former librarian, would have been pleased to know that the papers she and Toby saved ended up here.”