[30 August 2011]
Between third class train rides and afternoons at the racetrack, Ernest Hemingway filed “Living on $1,000 a Year in Paris” with an editor at the Toronto Daily Star in 1922. After a stint as a cub reporter at the Kansas City Star—where he was inevitably “forced to write a simple declarative sentence,” he later explained— the young writer was offered a job at the Canadian paper in 1920. Hemingway then took on a correspondent role at their Paris office and moved to France after marrying Elizabeth “Hadley” Richardson.
In less than 600 words, Hemingway tallies in “Living on $1,000 a Year in Paris” the considerable lengths to which he and his wife could go with the Canadian or American dollar in France’s capital city at the time. It’s due to “prices not having advanced in proportion to” the dollar’s “increased value.” Meals are compared to the “best restaurants in America” in his piece, and the lodging is “comfortable.” These are indeed the spare declarative sentiments of a dry newspaper report, and it’s a bit short for what appears to be a meaty collection of nonfiction at Byliner.com, where “Living on $1,000…” was submitted for perusal in early July of this year. Part social network, part digital publisher, Byliner launched in June. It connects readers to writers, but also to other readers, who are free to browse the hub’s digital archives for worthwhile narratives as well as submit links to stories not already collected at the site.
As of my writing this, Ernest Hemingway is among the most read authors at Byliner. Even if this particular piece of original reporting from him is a bit skimpy, “Living on $1,000 a Year in Paris” arguably demonstrates Hemingway’s acumen with observation at an early point in his career.
In the posthumously published A Moveable Feast, Hemingway wrote that in Paris back then you could forego buying new clothes and sometimes meals to live “very well on almost nothing.” This memoir of his life in France during the 1920s may or may not have been pieced together from notes left in a trunk beneath the Ritz Hotel. It’s rich with passages like this one, which details the first apartment he shared with Hadley in Paris:
Home in the rue Cardinal Lemoine was a two-room flat that had no hot water and no inside toilet facilities except an antiseptic container, not uncomfortable to anyone who was used to a Michigan outhouse. With a fine view and a good mattress and springs for a comfortable bed on the floor, and pictures we liked on the walls, it was a cheerful, gay flat.
Meals in the book are recounted with similarly palpable enthusiasm:
The beer was very cold and wonderful to drink. The pommes a l’huile were firm and marinated and the olive oil delicious. I ground the black pepper over the potatoes and moistened the bread in the olive oil. After the first heavy draft of beer I drank and ate very slowly. When the pommes a l’huile were gone I ordered another serving and a cervelas. This was a sausage like a heavy, wide frankfurter split in two and covered with a special mustard sauce.
Of Hemingway’s writing, William White suggested, “If the details were sometimes slighted, the picture as a whole—full of the emotional impact of the events on the people—was clear, lucid in full.” White selectively compiled the author’s articles and newspaper and magazine dispatches dated between 1920 and 1956 for a bestselling book called, incidentally, By-Line: Ernest Hemingway in 1967.
I’ve read a lot of Hemingway’s short stories, but have only just begun to work my way through By-Line, which includes his contributions to Esquire, Collier’s, and more. And save for what was required of me in high school English classes, I hadn’t really digested any of his stories until I picked up In Our Time at a used bookstore when I was an undergrad. In finally getting to Hemingway’s fluid magazine work, I can’t dispute that the years spent painting the scene in Parisian cafes and on tuna fishing boats in Spain sharpened his ability to carefully, confidently build a story.
Charles A. Fenton wrote in The Apprenticeship of Ernest Hemingway that while his subject wasn’t earning a lot of money for the Toronto Star Weekly pieces, “he had earned enough and written enough to legitimately think of himself as a writer.” Sample the bountifully detailed vignettes that the author fit into his newspaper schedule during the 1920s to absorb the effect that reporting had on him as a storyteller. The crisp opening sentences of In Our Time‘s “The Three-Day Blow”:
The rain stopped as Nick turned into the road that went up through the orchard. The fruit had been picked and the fall wind blew through the bare trees. Nick stopped and picked up a Wagner apple from beside the road, shiny in the brown grass from the rain. He put the apple in the pocket of his Mackinaw coat.
As far as mining Hemingway’s journalistic efforts for the dazzling creative phrases that would influence his fiction, one could do worse than to cite “American Bohemians in Paris a Weird Lot,” which appeared in the Toronto Star‘s weekend magazine supplement in 1922. It was nabbed for inclusion in 1962’s The Wild Years, and William White subsequently added it to the lot for By-Line, too. “American Bohemians…” boils over with searing criticism of the trendy American expatriate crowd at Cafe Rotonde. The author seizes upon the opportunity to spike his tone here, as it isn’t the platform that calls for the straight reporting he toiled over during the week:
For the first dose of Rotonde individuals you might observe a short, dumpy woman with newly blond hair cut Old Dutch Cleanser fashion, a face like a pink enameled ham and fat fingers that reach out of the long blue silk sleeves of a Chinese-looking smock.
In The Paris Review interview, Hemingway told George Plimpton that after a certain point, journalism “can be a daily self-destruction for a serious creative writer.” White touches on this in his introduction to By-Line. He discusses Hemingway’s sponge-like ability to soak up “matter for his short stories and novels,” but cites the author’s contention that newspaper writers work on deadline to “make stuff timely rather than permanent.” White points out that this better equipped Hemingway for his craft—not reporting, but fiction, where he could “always use his material to suit his imaginative purposes.”