As an audience, no matter how closely readers analyze text, we never really discern the full process, and Ernest Hemingway himself knew this: “In truly good writing, no matter how many times you read it, you do not know how it is done… Each time you re-read, you see or learn something new.” Which is precisely why the newly restored edition of Hemingway’s memoir A Moveable Feast is worthwhile, not as a replacement, but as a second look at original source material.
Edited by Hemingway’s grandson Seán, the new edition has sparked debate and discussion, from a panel in the Kennedy Library Forums series to the op-ed page of The New York Times. Debating the merit of a literary classic’s restoration highlights a larger cultural conversation of how canonical literary texts and legacies are established and managed.
The legacy of this memoir has always been uncertain, as Hemingway wrote to his publisher shortly before his death and declared the manuscript incomplete. The original 1964 edition of A Moveable Feast was left with Scribner’s, and fourth wife and widow Mary Hemingway helped edit it after the author’s suicide. The 2009 edition, with added and reorganized material, “opens a fruitful dialogue about the writing process… it gives a window into the creative process because it’s not finished,” asserts Seán Hemingway. But in a scathing July 2009 New York Times op-ed piece, Hemingway friend and biographer A.E. Hotchner takes Seán Hemingway to task, claiming that he “paints his grandma [the author’s second wife] in a more sympathetic light.” Hotchner argues that “someone who inherits an author’s copyright is not entitled to amend his work.” But the new edition is still the author’s work in text, in spirit, and in tone. The essence of the new edition allows the reader more deeply into Hemingway’s creative method.
A common theme in the editorial discourse is a guessing game of what Hemingway himself would have wanted. The author’s intent is no longer knowable, and less relevant than the true soul of A Moveable Feast—its wrestling with how the places we go shape our interior landscape, and the manner of telling one’s story. Differences between the editions underscores this.
The new edition’s “Fragments” presents multiple drafts of the same text, so the emphasis is not on biography, or which final product the author himself would have preferred, or even whose editing is more relevant. The emphasis is on creation and on the evolution from idea to product. This progression is fascinating, considering that Ernest Hemingway suffered from memory damage (the result of electroshock treatment for depression) and reconstructed memory through old letters and notes.
The new edition’s end is more poignant, giving weight to the value of process as much as product. Hemingway writes: “But there are remises or storage places where you may leave or store certain things such as a locker trunk or duffel bag containing personal effects… this book contains material from the remises of my memory and of my heart. Even if the one has been tampered with and the other does not exist.” The survival of two editions, both brimming with heart and with memory, gives the reader the ultimate control over how to evaluate Hemingway’s final work.
Beyond the life and the memory is the text. The two texts existing side-by-side are significant pieces of literary history—a meaningful glimpse at the craft in practice. Columbia University literature professor Ann Douglas argues that the new edition “can’t become a sacred text… there can be no final text because there is not one.” The conversation need not be polemical. There is room for both in Hemingway’s capacious literary legacy.