Although it seems tame by today’s standards, Ernest Hemingway’s novel about love and loss during World War I created quite a stir when it came out in 1929. Critics hounded Hemingway for writing about retreating armies, corpse-strewn battlefields and other inglorious realities of war, and for featuring a young soldier who deserts and runs off with a recently widowed nurse. Morality quibbles have fallen aside with time (well, mostly), and nowadays A Farewell to Arms stands as a classic antiwar novel. Here, we look at the story behind the story, and the controversy it kicked up nearly 100 years ago.
1. THE TITLE COMES FROM A 16TH CENTURY POEM.
George Peele’s poem channels a knight’s lament at being too old to bear arms for his queen (Queen Elizabeth I, in this case). Hemingway’s title is an ironic reference, then, since his protagonist, Frederic, shirks his duty as a deserter.
2. HEMINGWAY DREW UPON HIS OWN EXPERIENCES DURING WWI...
In 1918, Hemingway left Kansas City for the European front. Like Frederic, he served as an ambulance driver in Italy, and was injured in a mortar attack along the Austrian border after just a month of service. He spent six months convalescing at a hospital in Milan. For a year or so after the war, Hemingway pecked away at an autobiographical novel, tentatively titled Along with Youth, but eventually gave it up. He also published two stories—one about his bouts with insomnia titled “Now I Lay Me,” and another called “In Another Country”—that scholars now believe laid the groundwork for A Farewell to Arms.
3. ...INCLUDING FALLING IN LOVE WITH A NURSE NAMED AGNES.
While in the hospital in Milan, the 19-year-old Hemingway fell in love with Agnes von Kurowsky, a Red Cross nurse who was seven years older than him. The two planned to marry in America after Hemingway recovered, but shortly after returning home he received a letter in which she told him she was engaged to an Italian officer. Their relationship is the basis for the classic (ahem) Sandra Bullock-Chris O’Donnell film, In Love and War.
4. BUT MUCH OF IT COMES FROM GOOD-OLD-FASHIONED RESEARCH.
Many readers assume that Hemingway’s detailed description of the Italian retreat from Caporetto, and of places like Gorizia and Pava, came from personal experience. But because he’d spent most of his time in Italy confined to a hospital bed, the former Kansas City Star reporter engaged in methodical research, including interviews. Scholars note that he’s accurate down to the finest detail.
5. BACH INSPIRED HEMINGWAY’S WRITING.
Hemingway’s frequent use of the conjunction “and” came by way of the famous composer. Years after the publication of A Farewell to Arms, he wrote that he used the word for its rhythmic quality, as a “conscious imitation of the way Mr. Johann Sebastian Bach used a note in music when he was emitting counterpoint.”
6. HE WROTE WHILE ON THE ROAD, FROM PARIS TO PIGGOTT, ARKANSAS.
During the 15 months it took him to write and revise A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway spent time in Paris, Kansas City, Wyoming and at his wife Pauline’s family home in Piggott, Ark. He looked over proofs in Key West and corrected galleys of the book while in Spain.
7. HE REVISED THE ENDING NEARLY 50 TIMES.
Hemingway was a consummate editor, revising the previous day’s work every morning before beginning anything new. But even by his standards, the number of times he wrote and re-wrote the ending of A Farewell to Arms is extreme. There’s a new edition that includes all of the alternate endings, compiled by Hemingway’s grandson Seán. They include one in which Catherine and the baby both live, and one that might be even more depressing than the one that made the cut: “Catherine died and you will die and I will die and that is all I can promise you.”
8. HEMINGWAY’S EDITOR READ THE MANUSCRIPT ON A FISHING TRIP WITH HIM.
Hemingway’s longtime editor Maxwell Perkins traveled down to Key West in January 1929 to fish for tarpon and discuss the writer’s almost-finished novel. The New York-based Perkins was not an outdoorsman, and wrote to F. Scott Fitzgerald that “I might leave a leg with a shark, or do worse.” He later reported having a fine time and was enthusiastic about A Farewell to Arms. Upon returning to New York, he secured $16,000 from Scribner’s to serialize the novel—the most the magazine had ever paid for a serialized work.
9. HE REJECTED EDITS FROM F. SCOTT FITZGERALD.
Hemingway sent a draft of A Farewell to Arms to Fitzgerald, but when the Great Gatsby author wrote back with 10 pages of notes, Hemingway responded, "Kiss my ass." This was typical of the sarcastic, contentious relationship the two enjoyed. In a 1927 letter, Fitzgerald poked fun at Hemingway’s dashing, hard-living lifestyle, asking him, “Just before you pass out next time think of me.”
10. THE ORIGINAL MANUSCRIPT WAS CENSORED.
Hemingway wanted to faithfully reproduce the way soldiers talked in wartime. But colorful language like “son of a bitch,” “Jesus Christ,” and “whorehound,” Perkins knew, wouldn’t go over well with Scribner’s mainstream audience. Hemingway didn’t want the words taken out, so Perkins inserted dashes in place of the offending language. Scribner’s editor Robert Bridges ended up deleting many of the words altogether. Even with these changes, readers canceled their subscriptions and railed against the novel’s “vile language.” Frustrated by the whole ordeal, Hemingway re-inserted the words by hand in a few copies, one of which he gave to James Joyce.
11. IT WAS BANNED IN BOSTON...
Police chief Michael H. Crowley ordered that the Scribner’s issue be banned from bookstands throughout the city, citing the book’s “salacious” love affair between Frederic and Catherine. In a letter to readers, Scribner’s stood behind its decision to publish, calling Crowley’s actions “improper” and defending Hemingway’s work as “distinctly moral.”
12. ... AND IN ITALY.
Hemingway had a feeling his portrayal of the Italian retreat from Caporetto wouldn’t go over too well with that country’s officials. He even wrote a disclaimer that appeared with the second installment in Scribner’s emphasizing it was a work of fiction. Nevertheless, Italy banned A Farewell to Arms until 1948, and officials were also able to influence the 1932 film version.
13. ONE REVIEWER CALLED IT “VENEREAL FICTION.”
“The obvious purpose of the story,” the critic, cited in Scott Donaldson’s New Essays on A Farewell to Arms, wrote, “is to offer a vicarious satisfaction to those who are either too jaded or too timid to get the satisfaction in a normal way through natural experiences.” Talk about an early 20th-century burn.