Recipients of the October 1929 issue of Scribners Magazine read the last of six installments of what may have been the literary sensation of the year: A Farewell to Arms. What they didn’t know was how relentlessly novelist Ernest Hemingway had labored to produce an ending that would satisfy him—and how advice from another author in the publishing house’s stable, F. Scott Fitzgerald, had widened the gap between these frenemies.
Hemingway faced a particularly stiff challenge with this novel: how to top the conclusion of his prior one. In all its bitterly resigned irony, the last line of The Sun Also Rises—“Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so?” —was so memorable that it led many readers to overlook the fact that nearly all the novel’s characters were in largely the same psychic place where they began.
Any other author might have simply resolved the Romeo-and-Juliet tale of Lt. Frederic Henry and nurse Catherine Barkley and let it go at that. Not Hemingway. Though he was fully capable of doing so, he wasn’t puffing himself up in his Nobel lecture in 1954, when he said that for a true writer, “each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment.” By his own philosophy of “the thing left out,” he had to write an ending that resonated with a meaning not apparent on the surface, so natural would it seem.
But there was another personal, less noble, reason for Hemingway’s desire for just the right conclusion: he’d be proving that he didn’t need the counsel of Fitzgerald, who had applied crucial tough love to the manuscript of The Sun Also Rises three years before. In this way, the younger, more competitive writer was about to treat his Lost Generation champion the same way he would Sherwood Anderson, Ezra Pound, Ford Madox Ford, and Gertrude Stein.
All five shared one characteristic in common: they had strongly influenced Hemingway when he was transitioning from an expatriate news correspondent trying to live cheaply in Paris to a writer who could make a profitable, full-time career out of fiction. He couldn’t abide any suggestion that he needed help, so he proceeded to trash them. It’s all too apparent that an “anxiety of influence” (a phrase coined by critic Harold Bloom in another context) animated Hemingway.
Fitzgerald’s mentoring may have been the most crucial to Hemingway; in fact, if critic and Princeton classmate Edmund Wilson was (in Fitzgerald’s phrase) his "intellectual conscience,” then the novelist performed this same function for Hemingway.
At the height of his creative power following completion of The Great Gatsby, he had alerted Scribners editor Maxwell Perkins to his friend’s great promise as a writer; then, after Hemingway had completed the manuscript of The Sun Also Rises, he had handwritten 10 pages of editing advice that shrewdly mixed praise with blunt criticism of the novel’s “condescending casualness.” Taking this wise counsel to eliminate the book’s snarkiest passages, Hemingway had created a style that would be much imitated, as well as a code of tight-lipped stoicism and strict adherence to ritual, whether fishing or writing.
Now, four years after the successful results of this mentoring relationship, the dynamics had shifted between the two men. Fitzgerald’s health, financial, and marital situation had all deteriorated, draining his energy and confidence so much that he was having trouble finishing his next novel. (Tender Is the Night would not appear until 1934.)
Hemingway was now a more volatile person than the young, hungry artist Fitzgerald had first known. His demonstrated creative and personal potency (a new wife and son to go along with a new novel) had given him only a surface confidence of a new master: his father’s suicide the prior year had roiled all kinds of emotions, and he had exhibited considerable stress toward second wife Pauline while struggling with the conclusion of A Farewell to Arms.
How much had he struggled? Hemingway later told biographer Carlos Baker that he had tried 39 different last pages. For once, the novelist wasn’t exaggerating: I have heard estimates as high 70 for this ending. Perhaps the most authoritative source on the novel was Hemingway’s grandson, Sean Hemingway, who, for while editing a new edition that appeared two years ago, counted 47.
Following an encounter with Fitzgerald in June 1929, Hemingway agreed to Scott’s suggestion that he review the manuscript for A Farewell to Arms. Biographer Michael Reynolds, in Hemingway:The 1930s, suggests that little if any good could have come from the move, because the May segment of the serialization had already been published.
But Hemingway had withheld the last page of the novel from the serialization at that point, saying that, after several days working on the last three paragraphs, they were “almost right.” But he must have sensed something wrong, because he spent yet another month revising it. Perhaps, at some level, he thought something Fitzgerald wrote might spark an idea—even if he was still not willing to acknowledge any from his onetime mentor.
At this point, Fitzgerald sent back a critique that, in length and acuity, approaches the one he delivered for The Sun Also Rises. This time, he may have made a grave mistake: entering not so much Hemingway’s creative consciousness, but the psychosexual morass from which Catherine Barkley sprang.
Frederic Henry’s lover, Hemingway biographers now know, essentially was derived from American nurse Agnes von Kurowsky, who treated the future novelist after he had been wounded as a Red Cross volunteer on the Italian front in WWI. After an eight-month relationship that appears to have been marked by mild flirtation on her side and intense infatuation on his, she ended matters with a “Dear John” letter that pointed out that she was seven years older while implying his own relative immaturity.
Did Fitzgerald know this backstory? Hard to tell. But he did point out, in a roundabout way, something that critics have underscored about the book: Catherine’s infantilizing manner of speaking to “my boy.”
"You're seeing him [Frederic Henry, the novel's narrator] in a sophisticated way as now you see yourself then," Fitzgerald writes, "but you're still seeing her [Catherine] as you did in l9l7 thru nineteen yr. old eyes. In consequence, unless you make her a bit fatuous occasionally, the contrast jars-either the writer is a simple fellow or she's Eleanora Duse disguised as a Red Cross nurse.”
Very likely, Fitzgerald sensed that his friend had become unusually sensitive about his work, because he confessed his fear that "Our poor old friendship probably won't survive this but there you are..." That wasn’t the only cause of their soon-to-be strained relationship, but it was surely a contributing factor.
Fitzgerald’s sense that he had probably gone too far (for Hemingway, anyway) in his comments proved correct; although “Papa” never sent a direct written response, at the bottom of the final page of Fitzgerald's comments he had written, "Kiss my ass."
Still, Hemingway did not dismiss out of hand one suggestion: transfer an earlier paragraph to the conclusion. Perhaps this was because Fitzgerald observed that it came from “one of the most beautiful pages in English literature.” Many—including me—have agreed with that evaluation, but you be the judge, Faithful Reader:
You learn a few things as you go along and one of them is that the world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. Those that it does not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.
Scholarly analysis of the manuscript for A Farewell to Arms shows that Hemingway did, indeed, try it out, but it didn’t work. Or, to put it more accurately, Hemingway thought it didn’t work.
If there is a phrase that describes how Hemingway produced some of the most influential fiction of the last century, it lies in the title of Scott Donaldson’s biography of him: By Force of Will. The truth of that was proven on this occasion, when Hemingway set out, in a manner that might have pleased those artists of obsessiveness Gustave Flaubert and Henry James, to refine his raw materials.
It wasn’t pretty in the early going. Readers of the finished novel are undoubtedly glad Hemingway didn’t go with Ending #1, the “Nada Ending”: “That is all there is to the story. Catherine died and you will die and I will die and that is all I can promise you.” No. 7, the “Live Baby Ending,” is only somewhat better: “There is no end except death and birth is the only beginning.”
The one that Hemingway settled on, in which Frederic goes into the hospital room to see his wife for the last time, is considerably more satisfactory:
"You can't come in now," one of the nurses said.
"Yes I can," I said.
"You can't come in yet."
"You get out," I said. "The other one too."
But after I had got them out and shut the door and turned off the light it wasn't any good. It was like saying good-by to a statue. After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.
Writing instructors would say that this adheres to the old rule, “Show, don’t tell.” Frederic’s rage and grief are all too apparent in his response to the warnings by the officious nurse (who is nothing like his beloved Catherine). The passage is also the fulfillment of the first chapter, in which the rain becomes symbolic of death.
At the same time, the terse ending evokes emptiness. And no wonder: While all the protagonists of Hemingway’s novels are proud losers, none loses more than Frederic Henry: whatever few ideals he brought into the war; his position as an ambulance driver, through his desertion; the circle of friends he gave up to secure a “separate peace” for himself and Catherine in Switzerland; the couple’s baby; and Catherine herself, in childbirth. Like the ants on a log he remembers toward the end—like the European prewar civilization—they fall victim to fate.
Four weeks after publication, sales of A Farewell to Arms reached 33,000 copies; a month later, they surpassed 50,000. Moreover, due in no small part to a conclusion that evoked the absurdity of fate, the novel had been acclaimed as a definitive statement of The Lost Generation.
Eleven years later, Hemingway would send Fitzgerald an inscribed copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls, but the senior writer--by now fighting to stay above water financially, as a Hollywood screenwriter--did not have a chance to review the manuscript beforehand. Too much had transpired since then-, anyway-notably, Hemingway trashing Fitzgerald's attitude toward the rich in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro"--for the two to resume any of their old intimacy
Beginning in the 1940s, after Fitzgerald's death, as critics began to raise their estimation of The Great Gatsby, Hemingway, with all his competitive ferocity, felt newly aggrieved at this potential challenger to his position as the major American novelist of their time. Papa could have simply produced work that would have laid such anxiety to rest, but he could no longer do so.
As I recounted in a prior post on The Old Man and the Sea, while his ambition remained intact, declining mental and physical health precluded Hemingway from the intense concentration that had allowed him to finish A Farewell to Arms satisfactorily. That is partly why so many manuscripts (A Movable Feast, Islands in the Stream, Garden of Eden, True at First Light) remained unpublished at the time of his suicide in 1961.