Scribner is releasing a new edition of A Farewell to Arms next week, with the addition of Hemingway’s 39 endings - one of which, reads, “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.” Far more dramatic than the actual ending where he leaves the hospital in the rain, the end.
I wrote my college senior thesis on this book, and other Hemingway short stories. Which is fairly unrelated to anything functional in the modern career world, unless you’re an editor of said books. But still. I took other classes like statistics, and world history and American Government and plant biology (where I died a slow photosynthetic death every single time) but when I took music and lit courses, that’s when I wanted to stay among the living. Not that World History wasn’t fascinating in its own right, but the presentation was lacking.
In life after college, most things can be tangibly learned on your feet, if you’re moderately capable of picking up hand signals and common sense. Unless you’re in the medical field, how many people work in a field they’ve studied at university? And how much of what we learned there in the classroom is relevant? Doctors learn what cancer cells look like in medical school. But they learn what cancer on someone’s face looks like on the job. They learn the skills to “fix” but they acquire the meaning far later. We learn “the right words” on the job. On the spot.
When you’re sitting at the DMV, or having blood drawn, or grocery shopping or forcing yourself to attend some social function that society or your office or your neighborhood expects of you, and your mind goes white with unending boredom, you intrinsically think of your to-do list—which involves picking up dog food, dry cleaning and getting the tires rotated. You’re probably not waxing what Chris Hitchens thought of the Iranian Revolution or how de Kooning deconstructed women in his paintings, or computing complex calculus variables. Doubtful you’re debating the efficacy of the nuclear program, or whether Mexico’s drug problem will improve under new leadership. I don’t know what I think about in those situations. Sometimes I sing songs in my head like Smokey Robinson’s More Love or Let the Sunshine In from Hair. Of course, I role play that I’m Jeanie. Or I think about what my life would be like if I had kids young, or was better at math. The point is I’m always thinking of plausible different endings. I’m not thinking of what I learned in school. And I think about how I don’t want to waste time on the trite, the insubstantial, or the irrelevant.
Tim Krieder wrote a popular editorial last weekend in the New York Times called “The Busy Trap,” where he audaciously states, “Every morning my in-box was full of e-mails asking me to do things I did not want to do or presenting me with problems that I now had to solve.” He argues that people are busy for the sake of sounding important and giving structure to their lives, but how much of what that busyness consists of is meaningful? What is the fear of being a little alone, a little free, or having the option to think about what you want, where you stand, and how you feel about it all? Of editing out, and finding time to throw in some meaning and passion and soul.
Back to Hemingway and his editorial process, and yes, this somehow correlates.
I identify with Hemingway’s dark side, and his observant pen. I do the same with scores of other writers, artists and composers like Degas, Klee, Debussy, Picasso, Ravel, Grieg, Chopin and Bach. How they saw the world is how I want to see it -all full of light and dark and infinite color and tone. Every chord, every brush stroke, every sentence sheds meaning and context on some vast knowledge that has been prior understood. And it all could’ve ended differently. Hemingway was never satisfied, but he lived a full life. He drove an ambulance during WWI through Italy and Slovenia, he was a journalist during the second World War, and he wrote some of the most famous novels of the 20th century. He traveled the world, ate well, lived with anger and passion and war and several wives. Clearly he had a lot of sex, and ate a lot of rich foods, and had a lot of powerful friends toward the end. He ran with the bulls and drank beers with the Swiss locals, and fished in the rivers of Montana and Idaho and befriended many other talented artists of his time. Mostly he was a fine editor. And isn’t that what we have to do all our lives - weed out the bad, and edit the good to make it better? The great writers thought so, despite hundreds of ideas and thoughts and images and outcomes swimming around in their heads.
You choose one ending in the end, but you still think of all the other possibilities…