Sunday, March 05, 2006

Stevens v. Hemingway

Now that we've moved onto Wallace Stevens, let me be the first to mention the fist fight he and Ernest Hemingway got into in the Florida Keys in 1936. Staid, insurance man, poet Wallace Stevens? Yes that one, but very very drunk. I'd heard about this some years ago, but had trouble finding evidence that it really occurred. According to this web site, Hemingway mentions it in a letter and it turns up in a book of Hugh Kenner essays:

Here's a story Hemingway wrote in a 1936 letter, recounting, of all things, a "Wallace Stevens evening." Stevens having come to Key West "sort of pleasant like the cholera."

It starts with "my nice sister ... crying" over Mr. Stevens "telling her forcefully what a sap I was, no man, etc." [...]

Next, out in the rainy street, our hero "met Mr. Stevens who was just issuing from the door haveing just said, I learned later, 'By God I wish I had that Hemingway here now I'd knock him out with a single punch.'" This is hardly the Stevens we know, but Hemingway was not following his own counsel against putting real people into stories. The Mr. Stevens of the story next "swung that same fabled punch but fertunatly missed and I knocked all of him down several times and gave him a good beating." The location of Stevens's fall was "a large puddle of water."

Someone then requested that Hem take off his glasses, desiring "a good clean fight without glasses in it." Next "Mr. Stevens hit me flush on the jaw with his Sunday punch bam like that. And this is very funny. Broke his hand in two places. Didn't harm my jaw at all and so put him down again and then fixed him good so he was in his room for five days with a nurse and Dr. working on him."

Finally, "I have promised not to tell anybody and the official story is that Mr. Stevens fell down a stairs."

That's the story. It omits the shabby detail that Stevens was 56, Hemingway 36.

I so wish I could have heard just what Stevens said about Hemingway to have started that. In any case, this is, I think, a prime modernist moment.

1 comment:

rodney k said...

O man! Never heard this one before! Sounds plausible though--Stevens used to go on these manly fishing trip-type vacations with his business buddies to Florida and places like that in part to get away from his loveless marriage. I think a lot of drinking was involved on these outings.

Another reason Hemingway might have won (besides the excellent reasons that he was twenty years younger than Stevens and that he's the one telling the story!): he used to box with Ezra Pound in Paris in the early 1920s. There was a famous-for-five-minutes band in the '90s called Better Than Ezra, who took their name from Hemingway's journal entry about one of their matches. Maybe the Stevens story is part of a favorite Hemingway genre: "Famous Modernists I Beat Up." :)

Thanks for this, Will!