The Hemingway Files, H.K. Bush’s first novel, (Blank Slate Press, St. Louis, MO. ISBN 978-1-943075-32-4, paper $15.95) is a fascinating take on the question of “What happened to Hemingway’s purloined valise?”, the valise in question being the one Ernest Hemingway’s wife Hadley had packed with all of his early stories and their carbons in order to bring it to him in Switzerland where they were planning on vacationing. The Hemingway Files joins Hemingway’s Suitcase, by MacDonald Harris, The Hemingway Hoax, by Joe Haldeman, The Hemingway Thief, by Shaun Cooper, The Hemingway Caper: A Joe Barley Mystery, by Eric Wright and, quite likely, a large assortment of others. The trope has been the point of entry for any number of writers – Cambridge University Press ran a contest back in 2013 challenging writers to come up with an opening line from a “lost Hemingway story,” and generated nearly fifty entries from around the world, to say nothing of small industry that seems to be turning out innumerable biographies, memoirs, and critical assessments of Hemingway himself of, by, and about nearly everyone who ever came in contact with him.
Yet The Hemingway Files is an intriguing novel, and this reviewer is left wishing that it had been differently titled, as the novel is about so much more than just the incidental discovery of what happened to Hemingway’s earliest attempts at short fiction. Indeed, it is about the question of what literature means to the 21st Century world, and what Literature means to us as living, breathing, sensate, and literate individuals and our place in that world.
That a wealthy Japanese Professor of American Literature, now retired from Kobe University, should have an abiding appreciation for American Literature, indeed, for Literature from his homeland and England as well as the U.S., is not quite as surprising as it seems to the narrator, one visiting Professor at Kobe University named Jack Springs, whose experiences in Japan took place in the 1990s. What is surprising, however, is that retired Professor, “Sensei” to Jack throughout the book, had used his fabulous family resources to establish connections with numerous figures from the Modern period, most notably, Ezra Pound, following his release from Saint Elizabeth’s Mental Hospital in Washington, D.C. following World War II. From Pound, Sensei gains corroboration of the correctness of his theory regarding the fate of those early Hemingway stories which Hadley had packed away in the valise in order to deliver them to her husband.
There are innumerable plot threads which are introduced along the way, threads which have more to do with Jack’s teaching experiences and the people he meets who are incidental to the “Hemingway Files” of the title, and it might have been a much larger novel and given us a more complete picture of the protagonist had these been more fully incorporated, but the framing device settled on by the author – the story of Jack’s Japanese sojourn – is told in manuscript form by Jack, who, back in the States and with a tenured position at a college in the northwest, has developed prostate cancer which has spread throughout his body, limiting the time he has to tell his story to his own former professor of literature back in Indiana, and it is up to that professor, Martin Dean, to resolve the question of what to do with the remainder of what Springs has salvaged from the earthquake-ravaged ruins of Sensei’s house, including autograph correspondence between Samuel Clemens and Joe Twichell, letters by Longfellow, Crane, and Cather, and “hand-written manuscripts by Jack London, Herman Melville, Katherine Ann Porter, Eudora Welty, Richard Wright, and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps. Files written in Japanese, many by Mishima. Unpublished tales by Washington Irving and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Unpublished pamphlets by a young journalist named Walter Whitman. An entire file folder of original pamphlets by Harriett Beecher Stowe, another containing newspaper articles by Mark Twain from The Virginia City Enterprise.” And the list of photographs and first editions and numerous other ephemera. A first edition of Leaves of Grass which had been owned by Ezra Pound, and in which Pound inscribed a haiku of his own, for instance.
You get the idea. This book, naturally, will cause any Professor or Teacher of Literature to start drooling like Pavlov’s dogs Bierka or Chyorny which appear to have survived only in the pages of this book.
Although the author himself (his personal blog can be found at halbush.com) is an erudite and much published scholar and Professor of English at St. Louis University, a former Fulbright Scholar in Freiburg, Germany, and who was a Senior Fellow at Waseda Institute for Advanced Study in Tokyo, the book, his first novel, reads in places as though his publishers demanded he cut the manuscript down, and this is a shame, for it was a pleasure to read this book; when you read it, take your time with it, as it will be over all too quickly.
Jamie Brown, author of Sakura (Best Book of Verse 2013 Delaware Press Association), Constructing Fiction,Conventional Heresies, and Freeholder, publishes books from The Broadkill River Press and chapbooks from The Broadkill Press. He is a poet, author (fiction-and-nonfiction), an award-winning playwright, critic, and teacher (George Washington University, Georgetown University, the Smithsonian, University of Delaware), and former Poetry Critic for The Washington Times.