Southern Wisconsin’s connection to Ernest Hemingway
40 years ago, Monroe native Larry W. Phillips had an idea that resulted in sharing a copyright with Hemingway’s widow.
Most people who tune in to the three-part, six-hour Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary, “Hemingway,” airing April 5-7 on PBS, probably know about the iconic author’s northern Michigan connection.
Ernest Hemingway was born and raised in Oak Park, Illinois, outside Chicago, and the family spent summers on Michigan’s Walloon Lake, near Petoskey. Some of his most famous stories, including “Big Two-Hearted River,” are set there.
But southern Wisconsin?
That connection comes in the person of Monroe native Larry W. Phillips who, 40 years ago, had an idea that resulted in Phillips sharing a copyright with Mary Welsh Hemingway, Hemingway’s widow.
These decades later, Phillips is still cashing semi-annual royalty checks from that collaboration.
Phillips is a writer, editor, poker player and basketball fan. He wrote a poker book — “Zen and the Art of Poker” — and in 2015 collaborated with his Monroe pal, Tom Mitchell, on a book celebrating the city’s stirring high school basketball title: “Never a Doubt: The Story of the 1965 Monroe Cheesemakers State Championship Basketball Team.”
In the early 1980s, Phillips was working on something and looking to include a quote he remembered from Hemingway, in which the author mused on the craft of writing.
Phillips couldn’t recall the quote exactly and went searching.
“I would have bet $500 the quote was in whatever book I thought it was in,” Phillips says. “I think it may have been ‘A Moveable Feast.’”
Phillips paged through Hemingway’s posthumous book about his time in 1920s Paris. While Phillips didn’t find the quote, he began highlighting other passages in the book that pertained to writing. Then he picked up another Hemingway title and did the same.
“Pretty soon,” Phillips says, “I was six books deep and I had all this writing stuff marked off.”
At which point, Phillips says, “A light bulb came on in my head. I thought, ‘I could put these together and send them to Scribner.’”
Scribner was Hemingway’s longtime New York City publisher.
Phillips remembers thinking: “They’re not going to say the writing isn’t good enough.”
He combed through other material, including newspaper and magazine articles by and about the author, as well as a selection of Hemingway’s letters edited by Carlos Baker and published in 1981.
“I didn’t have a computer,” Phillips says. “I typed them all up on my Smith Corona, cut them into strips, put them in some kind of order, Xeroxed the strips on eight and a half by 11 sheets and mailed them off.”
Scribner loved the idea.
“But it was too long,” Phillips says. “Their marketing people said, ‘No one is going to buy a book on this subject the size of a dictionary.’”
While Phillips began paring it down and organizing it into chapters — “What to Write About,” “What to Leave Out,” “The Writer’s Life” — the publisher reached out to Hemingway’s heirs, his widow and three sons.
“They were all over the place in different parts of the world,” Phillips says. “It took a long time to round them up. They all had to sign the contract.”
Eventually, they did.
“Ernest Hemingway on Writing,” edited by Phillips, was published in 1984 and remains in print today, highly prized by Hemingway fans, aspiring authors and others who care about the difficult task of writing well.
Phillips has a newspaper clipping from the late 1980s in which the singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett tells the reporter the two books that he “carries with him at all times” are Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style” and “Ernest Hemingway on Writing.”
The late Nobel Prize-winning novelist and journalist Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote a 1981 New York Times piece crediting Hemingway with the most “useful piece of advice for writing” he’d found: Only quit for the day when you know where the story is going next.
“If you do that every day when you are writing a novel,” Hemingway noted in an October 1935 Esquire magazine column, “you will never be stuck.”
One of Phillips’ favorite Hemingway quotes is from “Death in the Afternoon,” when Hemingway writes about the difficulty and importance of putting down “what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced.”
Advance stories about this week’s PBS documentary tended to focus on Hemingway’s outsized, adventurous life, and what some detractors see as his hyper-masculine ethos.
But Pete Hamill wrote a fine small book called “Why Sinatra Matters” about that icon’s musical legacy; with Hemingway, it’s the writing.
“Deep down,” wrote publisher Charles Scribner Jr. in the “Ernest Hemingway on Writing” foreword, “I think he would have been grateful to Larry Phillips for collecting his views on writing in this useful and interesting way.”
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