Rewriting Hemingway

Last week, news broke of a new release of Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 debut novel The Sun Also Rises. The new edition “restores” the original first chapter of the novel, replacing the iconic opening scenes setting up the protagonist, Robert Cohn, with an introduction to the female lead, the fiery Brett Ashley. Hemingway fans are practically drooling over the chance to see “new” material from the author, who committed suicide in 1961. He’s one of my personal favorite authors, but something about the publishing of these previously discarded pages feels wrong.

If Hemingway deleted his original chapter, it was with good reason. That’s how writing works. You may keep a word, a phrase, a sentence or a dozen pages right up to the end as a placeholder, or simply because your subconscious hasn’t figured out how to improve upon it. The replacement comes to you either in a flash of inspiration or after slow and methodical revision.

I suspect that’s what Papa was up to when he threw out his original opening line, “This is a novel about a lady” and substituted the more nuanced “Richard Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton.” See the difference? The first line sets up the romantic interest that does drive much of the story, but the second line gives us so much more. It gives us the sense that this character is past his peak. He was once a champion, but no more. Later, that line will resonate with the themes of disillusionment, detachment and malaise that characterizes this cast of characters and reflects the post-WWI disenchantment of his generation. That’s a hook written by someone who has had time to mull over his story.

Much of the excitement over this new edition is the opportunity to see the writer at work, in the midst of developing one of those rare Great American Novels. There is value in opening up the creative process, but it could also undermine our appreciation for the finished work. Would we be so in awe of Shakespeare’s dramatic talent if we discovered his crude, rough outline of Hamlet’s “To Be Or Not To Be” soliloquy?

I think most writers, myself included, would be mortified if their first drafts were made available to the public. The early drafts are where we privately struggle with the plot and characters. Those pages are never meant to be read. They are the sandbox of clumsy ideas and half-baked prose, which is carefully shaped into a final form that is ready for the limelight.

When we posthumously publish unfinished works or early drafts of classic books, are we doing the writers a disservice by lifting the curtain on their solitary process? Should we be dragging deleted words out of dusty desks and hard drives? Or should writers take it upon themselves to destroy anything that might one day expose their plot holes and tangents to the world? What do you think?

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Jonny Eberle is a writer in Tacoma, WA. You can comment below, share this story with your friends or follow him on Twitter. If you’re feeling especially daring, you can do all three.

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