Book Review: The Only Thing That Counts: The Ernest Hemingway-Maxwell Perkins Correspondence

The Only Thing That Counts – ed. Matthew J. Broccoli (University of Southern Carolina Press, 1996)

After re-reading A Moveable Feast in January, I thought it was finally time to read this collection of letters between Ernest Hemingway and his editor Maxwell Perkins.

The letters – and their relationship – begin in 1925 when Perkins, an editor at Scribners, writes to Hemingway in Paris. F. Scott Fitzgerald has informed him that Hemingway is a promising new writer. So begins a friendship and working relationship that lasts until Perkins’ death in 1947. The letters go back and forth between New York and Paris, Key West, Kansas, Havana…wherever Hemingway happened to be. They follow Hemingway’s expanding career and outlast his first three marriages. They frequently discuss Fitzgerald and their mutual concern for him. Perkins occasionally visited Hemingway in Key West and the men fished and hunted together. Their relationship was respectful and trusting though the letters also document their disagreements and their sometimes opposing perspectives.

The letters do get repetitive and don’t, in general, make for a gripping read. There is a lot of back and forth about money. Each new publication seems to involve a discussion as to what words they can get away with in print. While it is fascinating to see how language and social norms have changed, these conversations seem to go on and on. Hemingway displays an almost constant confidence in his own writing and seems to believe that the only reason his books don’t sell as well as they might is because the publisher isn’t advertising enough.

Max if I ever sound rude in a letter please forgive it. I am naturally a rude bastard and the only way know not to be is always to be formally polite. You stopped me doing that when you asked me to un-mister you. So please remember that when I am loud mouthed, bitter, rude, son of a bitching and mistrustful I am really very reasonable and have great confidence and absolute trust in you.

Ernest Hemingway, letter to Max Perkins, April 1931

Reading A Moveable Feast I felt moved and saddened by Hemingway’s life. Reading his letters, I was reminded that I admire his writing but not so much his personality. He’s grumpy and arrogant and demanding and often dismissive of those who work hard to bring his books to fruition. He quick to pick fights and hold grudges. This collection of letters is probably of more interest to the Hemingway scholar than the casual Hemingway reader but it is a reminder of the flawed human behind some great works of 20th century literature.

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