Today in fiction
On Sept. 27, Harry Roth's mother dies.
-- "Are You Alone on Purpose?" (1994)
by Nancy Werlin
From "The Book of Fictional Days"
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Today in literary history
On this day in 1929, Ernest Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms" was published. Hemingway took his title from a 16th century poem by George Peele, in which Peele expresses regret to Queen Elizabeth I that he is too old to bear arms for her. The "arms" in question for Hemingway's hero, Frederic Henry, were those that he and some half-million Italian soldiers gladly dropped in the retreat from Caporetto in the autumn of 1917 and those of nurse Catherine Barkley, who dies so suddenly at the end that no farewell is possible:
"'You can't come in now,' one of the nurses said.
'Yes I can,' I said.
'You can't come in yet.'
'You get out,' I said. 'The other one too.'
But after I had got them out and shut the door and turned off the light it wasn't any good. It was like saying good-by to a statue. After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain."
The biographers report that these concluding lines, some of the most famous in Lost Generation literature, did not come easy. When Hemingway sent off the story for serialization in Scribner's Magazine that spring, he kept back the last page, saying that after 10 days working on the last three paragraphs they were "almost right." They took another month, and hastened another farewell: In the interim, F. Scott Fitzgerald had asked to read the manuscript and sent Hemingway nine pages of suggested revisions, with a note saying, "Our poor old friendship probably won't survive this but there you are ..." At the bottom of the final page of Fitzgerald's comments, Hemingway wrote, "Kiss my ass."
"A Farewell to Arms," which Hemingway called "my Romeo and Juliet novel," was based on his own experiences as an 18-year-old Red Cross volunteer on the north Italian front, where he was injured by shrapnel and machine-gun fire and then attended by American nurse Agnes von Kurowsky. Her diary entries for the period of their eight-month relationship are cool, though many of her letters are not. In her final, Dear John letter -- it actually begins, "Ernie, dear boy, ..." -- von Kurowsky cites her older age and Hemingway's behaving like a spoiled child as reasons for the breakup, and then drops the bombshell: "Then -- & believe me when I say this is sudden for me, too -- I expect to be married soon. And I hope & pray that after you have thought things out, you'll be able to forgive me & start a wonderful career & show what a man you really are."
-- Steve King
To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.