The thrill of a lifetime: Bringing out Hemingway’s last major work
|A lifelong scholar of the great author, Robert Lewis served as president of the Ernest Hemingway Socienty from 1987 to 1992.
It is tempting to write that Robert Lewis has come full circle, from his doctoral days studying Ernest Hemingway to his most recent post-retirement project, the editing of Papa’s last major work, published in September as Under Kilimanjaro.
It would seem a Hollywood ending to the career of one of the world’s true Hemingway scholars, for a man known internationally for his scholarship and for his years as a board member and president of the Ernest Hemingway Foundation, and who earned UND’s highest faculty award, a Chester Fritz Distinguished Professorship, long before he retired in 2001.
But this might suggest that Lewis, also widely known in academic circles as the scrupulous editor of UND’s prestigious North Dakota Quarterly, is somehow at the end of his career. And that’s just not true.
It is true that he and his co-editor, Robert Fleming of the University of New Mexico, had the thrill of a lifetime working on the novel.
Like most academic research projects, it started with a proposal. The manuscript, begun as a series of shorter works, was written in 1955-56. Hemingway and his wife spent several months on safari in 1952-53, and the manuscript, with Hemingway providing the first-person point of view narration, reads like a memoir. In fact, Lewis resists calling the work a novel; he says “fictional memoir” is more accurate. “In the letters that he wrote, [Hemingway] never called it a novel,” Lewis said.
Hemingway kept the manuscript in a bank vault in Havana, Cuba, and he always considered “the African book” his family’s insurance policy, something they could publish when he was gone — which he was, just a few years after completing the writing.
Fast-forward a decade or so. The Ernest Hemingway Foundation has title to the manuscript, and it wants to publish, to share with the world, this last major work of one of the most influential of American writers. Parts of it have been published before. Sports Illustrated had published excerpts under the title “The African Journal.” And Lewis, then head of the Ernest Hemingway Foundation, had negotiated in 1980 with Hemingway’s son, Patrick, to allow publication of a significant portion as True at First Light. But the Foundation had always reserved the right to publish the full manuscript. And that time had now come.
But who to do the work? The Foundation sought proposals. Lewis asked fellow Hemingway scholar Fleming to be his associate editor, and they submitted what became the winning proposal.
What to call “the African book?”
It came to Lewis not in a dream, a conscious one at any rate, but first thing in the morning, a time when inspiration comes to so many writers.
It had been a puzzlement: What should they call this massive tome, Ernest Hemingway’s last major unpublished work? They had pored over some 850 pages, some handwritten by Papa, some typed by Papa. And all the while, they had been referring to it as “the African book,” as Hemingway himself had, but merely as a temporary reference. Typically, Papa didn’t give his works titles until they were ready for the press.
But they needed a better title than that. The publisher said, “You and Bob (Fleming, Lewis’ associate editor) put your heads together and come up with something.” So they did. They each proposed titles, but nothing really clicked.
“One morning I woke and thought ‘Under Kilimanjaro,’” said Lewis. The characters are camped at the base of Kilimanjaro, and the name ties into another famous Hemingway work, The Snows of Kilimanjaro. And the mountain is central to the book, a sacred place; its western summit is called “the House of God” by the Masai.
There was a minor complication: The action takes place in Kenya, but Kilimanjaro is actually in Tanzania, very near the border. That created some fun when it came to copyrighting the story. But the name prevailed.
“The more I thought about it, the more comfortable I was with it,” said Lewis. “I think Hemingway, may he rest in peace, would have liked it.”
It is hard to imagine a better choice. Not only did Lewis have a lifetime of studying Hemingway, but he was already familiar with the work, having first read it in 1980.
“The first time I read the manuscript, I just fell in love with it. It’s a great story,” he recalled.
Lewis said the work mixes actual events with fictional elements to give more depth to the characters and narrative. “The book is based on the safari, but not every incident that occurs in the book occurred during the safari, as shown in accounts by his wife Mary in her autobiography, How It Was, and Hemingway’s son Patrick, who edited the abridged version, True at First Light.”
Lewis says there is a “nice function in the African book in contextualizing his life.” In contrast to the macho image that is popularly associated with Hemingway’s works, Under Kilimanjaro offers a lighter, humorous, pastoral story.
But it wasn’t a polished story. “Normally, he would have gone over it and over it and then sent it to Scribner’s (his publisher),” said Lewis. That wasn’t the case this time.
There may be several reasons for that, says Lewis.
First, Hemingway hadn’t initially planned to write a full-blown work. “When he got back to Cuba, he started what he thought were going to be a couple of short stories, but when he got rolling on it, it evolved into something more,” Lewis said.
Second, he didn’t need the money or the fame. In 1954, Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, cementing his reputation and fortune.
And third, Hemingway was pulled away from his work by Hollywood, which was filming The Old Man and the Sea. Hemingway was hired as a technical advisor, and was supposed to catch a marlin on camera, which was to be filmed in such a way that it looked like Spencer Tracy’s character hooked it. But there were complications in filming the scene, which meant trips to new locations and finally to a Hollywood-constructed model ocean. The result was loss of time for Hemingway, and a finished, but unedited, manuscript.
The editing process
Lewis has made something of a name for himself as an editor. Usually, when he runs into editing problems, he has a simple recourse: call or e-mail the author. This time, though, there was a problem: the author was dead.
Ironically, Lewis once did try to contact Hemingway. He had begun his scholarly studies of Hemingway while pursuing his doctorate at the University of Illinois. He made his “first and only attempt to communicate with Hemingway” in 1961: He mailed a letter to the author on Thursday, June 29; Papa committed suicide on Sunday, July 2.
Not having the author available made editing “the African book” more difficult.
“You couldn’t say for sure that it was finished because he might have come back and said, ‘This loose end needs to be tied up,’” Lewis explained.
Lewis, Fleming, and Joanna Hildebrand Craig, Kent State University Press acquisitions editor, agreed that they needed guidelines as they pursued the editing of Hemingway’s manuscript.
“We adopted the principles of the editors who finished Melville’s Billy Budd, published after his death,” Lewis said.
The basic principle: try to adhere to what you believe the author intended, but make whatever editorial changes you need to make for the sake of consistency and accuracy in grammar, punctuation, and historical and geographical facts.
Lewis and Fleming pored over some 850 pages, some handwritten by Hemingway, much of it typed, much of it with interlinear notes, trying to shape up Papa’s last major unpublished work.
It was time-consuming and exacting work.
“He was a notoriously poor speller. He would say that he expected the people he worked with to catch that,” said Lewis. “He was a great multi-linguist. But he was not only great, but sloppy. He sort of would spell things as he heard them, phonetically.” In the book Hemingway used some French, some Italian, a lot of Spanish and Swahili, and some occasional words from other languages.
So Lewis spent a considerable amount of time in UND’s Chester Fritz Library trying to track down the spellings and meanings of words in Swahili. He finally got connected to a doctoral student at another institution who spoke Swahili, and that helped move the process along.
It helped to have two Hemingway scholars working on the project.
“My associate would see something I hadn’t seen, and I’d see something he hadn’t seen,” said Lewis. “We only addressed what we could see needed to be addressed.”
For example, Hemingway sometimes wrote “feel bad,” sometimes “feel badly.” “We changed the ‘badly’s’ to ‘bad’s.’”
When in doubt, they left the copy alone. Whenever possible, they included Papa’s edits. “At one point, he had an independent clause and then changed it to a dependent clause — so we left it as he had changed it.”
But Lewis and Fleming were confronted with other editing challenges. “We do have an appendix on textual problems, thirty that we thought the reader should be aware of,” Lewis said.
A problem in writing “fictional memoir” is the tendency to forget to change the names of characters based on real-life people.
The Sun Also Rises is another example of essentially fictional memoir, Lewis said. In the rewriting process for that work, Hemingway discovered that he needed to come up with new names for the characters. His first draft used real names.
Lewis and Fleming went through Hemingway’s letters, looking for a “smoking gun” about the manuscript, but they found little beyond lines such as “I wrote 2,000 words yesterday.” Hemingway was “very obsessive about documenting his writing production.”
Hemingway, incidentally, made writing a priority. “He was up most mornings before dawn, before the rest of the household was awake to distract him, and he was banging away,” Lewis observed.