January 22: In a letter written from Paris on this day in 1929, Ernest Hemingway told his Scribner’s editor, Max Perkins, that he had finished A Farewell to Arms. The date is regarded as central to Hemingway’s reputation as a painstaking craftsman. Over the next five months, until he posted his final “new and much better ending” to New York, Hemingway reworked the last paragraphs of the novel repeatedly — upwards of forty times, depending on the scholarly tally. Common to “The Religious Ending,” “The Live-Baby Ending,” “The Morning-After Ending,” “The Funeral Ending,” and all the others is the death of Catherine Barkley; what varies are the details and the tone, “The Nada Ending” providing perhaps the baldest and bleakest of farewells: “That is all there is to the story. Catherine died and you will die and I will die and that is all I can promise you.” In the end, Hemingway settled for descriptive detail over sermonizing, the last lines now some of the most famous in Lost Gen literature:
But after I got them to leave 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 ending of A Farewell to Arms is also central to Hemingway’s relationship to F. Scott Fitzgerald, or to its collapse. As he had done with The Sun Also Rises, Fitzgerald sent a detailed list of suggested revisions, among them an argument for ending the novel with an earlier paragraph from “one of the most beautiful pages in English literature”:
You learn a few things as you go along and one of them is that the world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. Those that it does not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.
“The Fitzgerald Ending” is also known as “The ‘Kiss My Ass’ Ending,” this being Hemingway’s annotation in the margin of Fitzgerald’s letter.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.