“Horney we’ve got to go on. We can’t ever go back to old things or try and get the old kick out of something or find things the way we remembered them. We have them as we remember them and they are very fine and wonderful and we have to go on and have other things because the old things are nowhere except in our minds now.”
– Ernest Hemingway, letter to William D. Horne, 17-18 July 1923, The Letters of Ernest Hemingway 1923-1925, Vol. 2
When I first read those lines, I thought you were simply trying in your inimitable style to soothe your old friend. Horne had served with you in the Red Cross in Italy during the First World War and was back home in the States struggling to hold onto a job.
But then I got to thinking, did you really believe what you were telling him? Your counsel seems so contradictory.
You often went back to old things, even when they weren’t very fine and wonderful, and you used them in your art.
A couple of years after you wrote that letter, you took your adventures with your friends in Pamplona during the bullfights and turned them into The Sun Also Rises.
You took your experiences of serving in the Red Cross in Italy and transformed them into A Farewell to Arms. You took several more memories and refashioned them into The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Over and over you made art out of memory.
Three wives later, near the end of your life, you were living in Cuba, writing a memoir (A Moveable Feast) about the very time in which you wrote that letter to Bill. It contained all the very fine and wonderful things about being in Paris in your youth, hungering for experience, your first wife Hadley, your friendships with writers and artists, and food and drink, and more food,
and more drink. It was as if you were trying to share all that with everyone, make it exist not just in your mind but on the page, too.
You didn’t know you were near the end of your life, did you? You were suffering from many illnesses (alcoholism, narcissism, and most probably bipolar disorder) and physical injuries from a plane crash years ago in Africa. You were undergoing electro-shock treatments at the Mayo Clinic. The treatments were messing with your memories.
One morning you woke up early, before your wife Mary, then you took a gun and shot yourself in the head inside the foyer of your home. Whatever old things that existed nowhere except in your mind, those things that were yet to be used in some new work of art, disappeared with your life.
You had spent your life taking the old things in your mind and preserving them on paper for all to read.
Thank you for not following your own advice to Horne.
Richard Hellinga lives in Michigan with his wife, two kids, a cat, and a dog. His novel, Chicago Time, was published in 2012. He can be found on Twitter @richhell and he used to blog often at honesterrors.com.