September 27: 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 that he is too old to bear arms for Queen Elizabeth. For Frederic Henry, Hemingway’s hero, the arms were those 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.
These concluding lines, some of the most famous in Lost Generation literature, did not come easily. When Hemingway sent off the story for serialization in Scribner’s Magazine that spring he kept back the last page, saying that after ten days working on the final three paragraphs they were “almost right.” The revisions would take another month, and hasten another farewell: in the interim, F. Scott Fitzgerald 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.”
After being injured by shrapnel and machine gun fire, Hemingway was attended by the American nurse, Agnes von Kurowsky, with whom he had an eight-month relationship. She ended it with a Dear John letter—actually it begins, “Ernie, dear boy”—which cites her older age and Hemingway behaving like a spoiled child as reasons for the break-up, 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.”
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.