A very moveable feast

The reason for A.E. Hotchner’s op-ed in the Times yesterday was news to me, though maybe not to you:

BOOKSTORES are getting shipments of a significantly changed edition of Ernest Hemingway’s masterpiece, “A Moveable Feast,” first published posthumously by Scribner in 1964. This new edition, also published by Scribner, has been extensively reworked by a grandson who doesn’t like what the original said about his grandmother, Hemingway’s second wife.

The grandson has removed several sections of the book’s final chapter and replaced them with other writing of Hemingway’s that the grandson feels paints his grandma in a more sympathetic light. Ten other chapters that roused the grandson’s displeasure have been relegated to an appendix, thereby, according to the grandson, creating “a truer representation of the book my grandfather intended to publish.”

What now? At first glance, and based on the story Hotchner tells about personal conversations with Hemingway regarding A Moveable Feast, this is pretty disturbing. And of course, it’s all about that other topic that just keeps on coming up for me, copyright and intellectual property:

As an author, I am concerned by Scribner’s involvement in this “restored edition.” With this reworking as a precedent, what will Scribner do, for instance, if a descendant of F. Scott Fitzgerald demands the removal of the chapter in “A Moveable Feast” about the size of Fitzgerald’s penis, or if Ford Madox Ford’s grandson wants to delete references to his ancestor’s body odor.

All publishers, Scribner included, are guardians of the books that authors entrust to them. Someone who inherits an author’s copyright is not entitled to amend his work. There is always the possibility that the inheritor could write his own book offering his own corrections.

Ernest was very protective of the words he wrote, words that gave the literary world a new style of writing. Surely he has the right to have these words protected against frivolous incursion, like this reworked volume that should be called “A Moveable Book.” I hope the Authors Guild is paying attention.

From the Ottawa Citizen:

As to whether this edition is really necessary, opinions vary. Charles Scribner III, whose father edited the original along with Mary, thinks not. In a letter to the New York Times, he wrote, “Both Mary and my father knew the author intimately; his grandson, the new editor, did not. I am sure that the new edition will be of passing interest to scholars and students, but there is no doubt in my mind that Hemingway would not approve of the deconstruction of his classic. As for the marital revisionism, both Mary and my father knew — and any reader of Hemingway’s letters can discover for himself — that later in life Hemingway felt closest to his first wife, Hadley Richardson, and regretted leaving her. The original edition is most faithful to the author’s perspective as he approached his end.”

It’s funny that one of Mark Helprin’s main arguments in the EconTalk interview was that he should be able to pass on his copyrights to his descendants. Here, if it turns out that Scribner is the only publisher (because of copyright) and the new “restored edition” is the only one they keep printing, copyright ends up being the means by which we lose the original—and specifically because of a descendant.

Of course, the whole thing was published posthumously anyway, and that’s a big part of the point. Such fraught territory.

3 comments to A very moveable feast

  • There’s something troubling here, no? I mean, sure, we can’t know what changes Hemingway might have made but that the original might go out of print is a little disconcerting. And it seems unlikely that the grandson knows what Hemingway would and wouldn’t have published… It seems so very odd that a descendant can just randomly decide to edit an established book, even if it’s a posthumously published book anyways. My head is still spinning.

  • nicole

    Yeah, I mean, I am definitely troubled, but then I feel bad for being troubled, because Hemingway obviously didn’t shepherd the first version 100% through to completion either. It just all becomes about, who do you believe? I’m inclined to believe Hotchner and Scribner, but I don’t personally have a great basis for that.

    And of course, in a sort of similar case, I am thrilled that Dmitri Nabokov decided to publish the forthcoming Original of Laura against his father’s wishes. But he’s not touching it at all, just publishing it. I am much more comfortable with that, but should I be, really?

  • Oooh this is bad. You can’t have people coming along after the event and altering the publication, no matter what the grounds! Montaigne changed his essays a lot over his lifetime, and some current publications of them will bring all the different editions together with cunning (if occasionally confusing) textual markers. Publishers can do that if they wish, but this unrepentant censorship sets a dangerous precedent for relatives to kick up a fuss whenever they don’t appreciate the way a family has been represented. Not good!