A Moveable Feast | Study Guide

Ernest Hemingway

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A Moveable Feast | An Agent of Evil | Summary

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Summary

Before Ezra Pound leaves Paris, he gives Ernest Hemingway a bottle of opium, telling him to give it to poet Ralph Cheever Dunning "only when he needs it." Dunning is Pound's neighbor, and his illness has nearly killed him.

One Sunday, Pound's concierge tells Hemingway that Dunning is on the roof, refusing to come down. Hemingway decides the situation is "an emergency" and brings the opium, but when he arrives Dunning has come down from the roof. Hemingway knocks on Dunning's door to deliver the jar. An indignant Dunning throws the jar of opium back at Hemingway, then throws a milk bottle.

Pound and his friends are eventually able to help Dunning. Hemingway keeps the opium until he leaves his Paris apartment. Hemingway isn't sure what became of Dunning, but he remembers Pound's kindness to him and faith in him as a poet. Evan Shipman thinks Dunning's fate should remain a mystery. The world, says Shipman, needs more of "the completely unambitious writer." Hemingway mentions he wanted to include Shipman in the book because he hasn't seen anything written about Shipman in Paris.

Analysis

Despite the vitality of his life in Paris, Ernest Hemingway knows many writers who are ill or close to death. The hedonistic lifestyle the writers embrace comes with a dark side. American writer Ralph Cheever Dunning was an odd member of the Parisian literati. He wrote only a few poems, frequently on the subjects of terror and death. He generally kept to himself and was a known opium addict. Ford Madox Ford called Dunning a "living Buddha" because of his silent demeanor. Hemingway jokes about Dunning speaking in terza rima, or interlocking three-line poetic stanzas, an antique and difficult poetic device which form Dante's Divine Comedy, to appease a concerned Ezra Pound.

The anecdote is darkly comical; for instance, Evan Shipman's delight in the French phrase spoken by Pound's concierge and Dunning's inexplicable violence. But real sadness lies behind the story. Hemingway seems unsure of Dunning's mental state, wondering if Dunning threw the milk bottle at him because he disliked him or saw him as the police or "an agent of evil."

Both Shipman and Dunning care more about writing than publishing, in contrast to Hemingway and his associates like Gertrude Stein who are ambitious and want to climb the literary ladder. Shipman recognizes the "mystery" or intrigue behind the writer who rarely publishes and who works for love of the craft. Hemingway thinks writers should get their work out into the world. He writes about Shipman in part because Shipman hasn't done much advocating for himself.

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