A Moveable Feast

When asked in his 1958 Paris Review interview with George Plimpton about choosing titles, Hemingway said, “I make a list of titles after I’ve finished the story or the book — sometimes as many as one hundred. Then I start eliminating them, sometimes all of them.” Three years later he struggled with the list you see below—possible titles for a book about his early Pans days, a book which he said probably should not be published because of potential libel suits. Trying desperately to bung the manuscript to closure, he was working against great odds; to write memoirs a man must have his memory intact. In 1933 he had promised eventually to write “damned good memoirs” because he had “a rat-trap memory and the documents.” Now electroshock therapy at the Mayo Clinic for severe paranoia and black depression had left him unable to remember the names of certain streets and minor characters. It was the morning of April 18, 1961 in Ketchum. Idaho, and Ernest Hemingway had less than three months remaining to his life.

All his life he had made lists: lists of stories to write and books owned, lists of groceries and investments, inventories and title lists. Sometimes he got the title right the first time, as with Death in Afternoon. Titles might come from a song (“Up in Michigan”) or another author (“Fathers and Sons”). Sources he frequently checked were the King James Bible (To Have and Have Not) and collections of English verse and prose (Tor Whom the Bell Tolls). His title searches sometimes revealed his perspective on the story or book, but his final selection almost always rested on the title’s poetics and its potential impact on the browsing customer.

Sometimes he had to choose between two or more effective titles: for The Sun Also Rises he rejected The Lost Generation. When he finished his first war novel, his rich list included: A World to See; Patriot’s Progress: The Grand Tour: The World’s Room; Disorder and Early Sorrow; Death Once Dead; The Sentimental Education; Love in Italy; Love in War; In Another Country; A Late Wisdom; World Enough and Time; The Retreat from Italy; As Others Are. Some he crossed out; some he underlined, finally deciding on A Farewell to Arms.

Compared with earlier lists, the possible titles for his Paris memoirs seem repetitious and sad. Over and over again he reworked the same ideas: parts nobody knows, hunger, things as they were, true writing. “Three Mountains” referred both to the hills of Paris and Three Mountains Press which first published his In Our Time (1924). Having turned the words through every possible arrangement, he fell back on Proverbs;

As the bird by wandering, as the swallow by flying, so the curse causeless shall not come.

                                                                                                                                                                                                 [XXVI, 2.]

It is better to dwell in a corner of the housetop, than with a brawling woman.

[XXI, 9.]

To give subtilty to the simple, to the young man knowledge and discretion.

[I‚ 4.]

The hearing ear, and the seeing eye, the Lord hath made even both of them.

[XX, 12.]

After writing “ng”—no good— beside several titles, he settled for The Eye and the Ear, the writer’s gifts certainly but hardly poetic. At sixty-one Ernest Hemingway had lived his way into a corner, an old man in a dry month. His widow and his publisher would reject his choice and take the title from another of his unpublished manuscripts, calling his memoir A Moveable Feast.

The list that follows was attached to a letter addressed to Charles Scribner, but which was never sent. It was discovered by Mary Hemingway and sent to Scribners, where it recently turned up in a file. It is published here for the first time.


        — Michael Reynolds