Ernest Hemingway: Between Two Wars is the first museum exhibition devoted to one of the most celebrated writers of the twentieth century. His direct, spare style influenced successive generations of authors around the world. And tens of millions would read his books and never forget the stories and characters in such masterpieces as The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Old Man and the Sea. Organized in partnership with Boston’s John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, the exhibition explores the most dynamic period of Hemingway’s creative life, from 1918 to the aftermath of World War II, and his recurrent theme of confronting the fullness of life—and the finality of death—with grace and courage. New York City Monthly was honored to speak recently with Declan Kiely, the Morgan’s curator of literary and historical manuscripts, about this first-of-its-kind exhibit…
How would you describe the Morgan Library to people unfamiliar with it?
I would describe it as a treasure house of the written word. It’s a collection extensively of works on paper spanning pretty much the entirety of human history.
We feel like most people have heard of Ernest Hemingway but are unfamiliar with just how accomplished he really was or his specific works. What about him made him so engrained in our society?
I think it’s his life and his lifestyle that made the deepest impression on public consciousness. The Old Man and the Sea–which is I think inarguably his most famous novel–when that was first published it was published in Life Magazine in its entirety and that was pretty unheard of in those days. It had his photograph on the cover, a very famous and iconic image and I think that was the thing that sealed Hemingway’s image as a writer, more a man of action than a man of words. Even though his enduring fame rests on his output as a writer, it was really his life as a hunter, fisherman, drinker, boxer and all around man about town that really sealed itself in the public mind.
How did you compile the artifacts and images that are on display? What was that process like and what were the challenges?
What you basically do to curate an exhibition like this is try to turn yourself into a Hemingway expert. I had really only read The Old Man and the Sea as a schoolboy but I honestly never read anymore Hemingway until 2012 when I proposed that we do this exhibition, so I started off by reading things like A Moveable Feast and The Sun Also Rises and read my way through the novels and started reading the letters and the biographies and that’s how you do it.
What are the highlights of this exhibit?
When I do exhibitions like this, obviously I have a general audience in mind, and I want to show them things that reveal the writer’s craft. All the writers I know love hearing about other writers work and sort of getting behind and getting a glimpse of their papers. At its simplest, this exhibition I think is of interest because it allows the public for the first time to see an author’s papers that they just simply wouldn’t otherwise get to see. The collection at the JFK Library is really open to scholars. These manuscripts that you see in the [Morgan Library] exhibition are material that really has never been seen before. It’s never been exhibited, and it’s only been seen by the self-selected few if you will–by the scholars that have taken the trouble to go there.
Are the items in this exhibit displayed in any particular order that viewers should be aware of when exploring?
I’ve organized it geographically–the thing that impresses me very much about Hemmingway is the way in which he was able to write on the move. So, you see these notebooks that he used to write the first draft of The Sun Also Rises and on the covers he’s written where he is when he’s writing it and how long he spent writing that particular section of the novel. I’ve arranged the exhibition where you go basically from Oak Park [Illinois] where he’s born and grows up to the first World War, so to Milan, and then Paris, and then Key West and Havana, and then the second World War, and then the last section of the exhibition is sort of a coda in a way that tries to wrap things up. I feel like you can [also] dive into the exhibition wherever you want, because wherever you look you’ll see Hemingway’s letters, you’ll see Hemingway’s manuscripts, and if you’re interested in his working methods, and that’s essentially what this exhibition is about, you’ll see that in every part of the exhibition.