This post is part of an ongoing series featuring items from the exhibition Open House 75: Houghton Staff Select, on display in the Edison and Newman Room from May 8 – August 19, 2017.
I’ve consistently been fascinated by traces left behind by producers, owners, and readers of books in the Houghton Library collections. Most famously illustrated and explained in Roger Stoddard’s Marks in Books, these page-filling scrawls of early modern students and inky fingerprints of printers bring to life many of our volumes, and support a growing number of scholars making this evidence central to their research.
Other researchers in the reading room come to Houghton to study the writing process of a particular author. They interrogate the letters and manuscripts left behind to come up with theories about how and why they wrote a particular work, or what they meant by this or that scribble.
Early in my time at Houghton, I came upon a particularly interesting example of an item that brings these two areas of interest together that has stuck with me over the intervening years.
Toward the end of Ernest Hemingway’s life, while living in Cuba, he wrote a number of letters to Harvey Breit, a book reviewer and critic in New York. The two met in 1950 and connected and corresponded about topics of mutual interest, such as boxing, bullfighting, and fishing. These letters coincide with a last burst of Hemingway’s creative energy which brought The Old Man and the Sea to life.
Despite not being the biggest fan of Hemingway, I find this one particular letter from August 27, 1951 [MS Am 1791 (26)], to be a fascinating glimpse into a writer’s creative process. At one point Hemingway writes “The main problem with literature around here is to be at your best at 0630 when it is still cool and break off before the sweat spots ruin the pencil writing (around 1100) This makes literature seem simple!” He also makes sure to highlight the physical evidence in the paper, circling and labeling a yellowed sweat mark above. I like to imagine the bearded, shirtless Hemingway in the early morning Cuban sun, struggling to bring his thoughts to paper before they are rinsed away by the sweat of his brow.
Perhaps literature is just that simple.
James Capobianco, Reference Librarian, contributed this post.