Ernest Hemingway on How New York Can Drive You to Suicide
By Maria Popova
From Jack Kerouac’s nightlife tour to Gay Talese’s obsessive observations to Frank O’Hara’s ode to its dirty streets, New York City has always had a way of mesmerizing famous writers into recording their unfiltered impressions of Gotham — especially so in their diaries and letters. Now comes a new addition from none other than Ernest Hemingway, who had spent the previous five years living in Paris: In The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Volume 2, 1923–1925 (public library) — the impressive sequel to the first volume, offering an unprecedented glimpse of Papa’s peak of self-discovery as a writer and a human being — Hemingway writes to his Parisian friends Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas The letter, dated October 11, 1923, appears to be his way of sorting out his own thoughts in deciding, once and for all, that he was no longer interested in living in North America’s urban epicenters.
Hemingway begins with a quick, excited, and irreverent report on his new baby boy born the day before (“I am informed he is very good looking but personally detect an extraordinary resemblance to the King of Spain.”), makes a playful riff on Stein’s famous 1922 poem “A Valentine to Sherwood Anderson” (“Got a Little Review with your Valentine for Sherwood. It is very fine and very mine couldn’t help writing that mean very fine and very Sherwood.”), and proceeds to deliver his verdict on New York — from a meditation on its cuisine to a critique of its architecture to a prescient remark on suicide four decades before his own.
Contrary to my remembrance the cuisine here is good. They are very fine with a young or fairly young Chicken. I have also found some good Chinese places. We have both been very homesick for Paris. I have understood for the first time how men can commit suicide simply because of too many things in business piling up ahead of them that they can’t get through. It is of only doubtful value to have discovered. In New York four days I could not locate Sherwood or anybody I wanted to see because of being too busy. Tried telephoning etc. New York looked very beautiful on the lower part around Broad and Wall streets where there is never any light gets down except streaks and the damnedest looking people. All the time I was there I never saw anybody even grin. There was a man drawing on the street in front of the stock exchange with yellow and red chalk and shouting “He sent his only begotten son to do this. He sent his only begotten son to die on the tree. He sent his only begotten son to hang there and die.” A big crowd standing around listening. Business men you know. Clerks, messenger boys. “Pretty tough on de boy.” Said a messenger boy absolutely seriously to another kid. Very fine. There are really some fine buildings. New ones. Not any with names that we’ve ever heard of. Funny shapes. Three hundred years from now people will come over from Europe and tour it in rubber neck wagons*. Dead and deserted like Egypt. It’ll be Cooks most popular tour.
Wouldn’t live in it for anything.
* Tourist buses — from “rubberneck,” slang for tourist or gawking onlooker
The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Volume 2, 1923–1925 is a treasure trove in its entirety. Complement it with other famous writers on New York, then revisit Hemingway on writing and the dangers of ego, his Nobel acceptance speech, and his irreverent letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald on heaven and hell.
Published October 7, 2013