OPINION: In Search of an Ernest Hemingway Letter

Photo by Alvaro Serrano

June 16, 2021, Submitted by James E. Haviland

I have often wondered what happened to the Ernest Hemingway letter I “discovered” 50 years ago in the Hingham High School Library. A recent phone call to Hingham Public Library reference librarians Abby Bird McLean and Michael Achille gave me some answers. Here’s the story.

After five years at South Junior High, I joined the English Department at Hingham High in 1970.  Before assigning a book report on Hemingway, I checked out the collection. While looking through “For Whom the Bell Tolls, I found a hand written letter bearing the signature of the famed novelist. It was written from Hong Kong in 1941 where he and  third wife, journalist Pauline Gellhorn, were reporting on the Sino Japanese War. Improbably enough, the glamorous couple had also been contacted by the US Treasury department to do part- time spying. The marriage ended in 1946. As the only woman covering D Day and the Liberation of Dachau, she had become more famous than he.

The note was addressed to a young girl at Hingham High who had written the author to inquire about the novel. Hemingway replied in a short, gracious note. It lay between the pages of the novel for the next thirty years. Was interest in Hemingway low then - or did it relate only to this novel?

After finding the letter, I showed it to Miss Barbara Glidden, then head librarian at the high school. She determined that the letter deserved a larger venue. With that in mind we visited the public library and presented it to head librarian Walter Dziura. He assured us the letter would be displayed. That never happened. It lay hidden in a file cabinet at the public library for the next forty years.

In 2010 library trustees held an auction find raiser. Included was the Hemingway letter. On reading a Hingham Journal article, I met with then Head Librarian Dennis Corcoran. He showed me the letter and indeed it was the letter I had “discovered”. It was then sold to the highest bidder for $800.

I do not know if that buyer still has the letter. But I believe its rightful place should be in the Hemingway Collection of the John Fitzgerald Kennedy library. At his death, wife number four, his widow Mary Welsh Hemingway asked Jacqueline Kennedy to include his works at the JFK library. Mrs. Kennedy agreed. The letter has cultural and literary value because it reveals a more humane side of the world traveled bon vivant macho man who chose to terminate in 1962 using what Stephen King calls “The Hemingway Solution”.

If the letter is still in Hingham, I hope its owner will donate it to the Hemingway Collection at the JFK library. Doing so would give the letter a public venue and honor the wishes of the late Barbara Glidden - a half century later.

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