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A Moveable Feast | Context


Creation of A Moveable Feast

In 1928 Hemingway stored two suitcases at the Ritz Hotel in Paris. Almost 30 years later, in 1956, the hotel staff asked Hemingway to take the suitcases back. Inside them, he noticed, were notebooks full of fiction and notes for his novel The Sun Also Rises as well as old clothes and newspaper articles from the years he lived in Paris: 1921–26.

Seeing remnants of those early years—the years that jump-started his writing career and introduced him to lifelong colleagues—Hemingway decided it was finally time to compile a memoir-like book about that time in his life. Although he had the idea as early as 1933 after Gertrude Stein had written a similar memoir called The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), Hemingway believed writers should wait to write memoirs until "you can no longer believe in your own exploits." His working title for the book was The Paris Sketches.

At age 61 Hemingway wrote a slightly fictionalized version of his 20-something self as the protagonist, a young man learning to live as a writer in Paris in the 1920s. His famous "rat-trap memory" and his notes from the time period provide a faithful likeness of the city and its residents. He notes, however, in the "Fragments" section of the restored and enlarged edition that "this book is fiction," or a fictionalized autobiography. He claims he "left out much and changed and eliminated."

He never finished the book before taking his life. His 1961 suicide cut short the revisions on his draft. Hemingway's publisher released the collection, now titled A Moveable Feast, posthumously in 1964. A remark Hemingway made about Paris as "a moveable feast," a city that stays with its residents even after they leave, inspired the new title. The book features photographs of Hemingway; his first wife, Hadley; and other Parisians; as well as photographs of Hemingway's handwritten work. Hemingway's fourth wife, Mary Hemingway, and Scribner's editor Harry Brague made significant edits to the manuscript, revising both the order and the content of the pieces.

Then in 2009 Seán Hemingway, the grandson of Hemingway and his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, edited a restored edition of the book. His goal was to produce a version closer to what Hemingway intended to publish and to present his grandmother Pfeiffer more sympathetically than Mary Hemingway had presented her husband's former wife. The result became as The New York Times writer Motoko Rich describes "a multigenerational custody battle over how to cast the larger-than-life author's stormy romantic history."

The new edition includes several new stories and anecdotes called "Additional Paris Sketches," including a story called "The Pilot Fish and the Rich." In this story Hemingway takes responsibility for his first divorce and marriage to his second wife, saying, "I accepted all the blame for it myself and live for the remorse."

American Writers in 1920s' Paris: The Lost Generation

A Moveable Feast is a book about more than Hemingway. It is a snapshot of a particularly evocative time in Paris right after World War I, when expatriate artists flocked to the city, where they could live and write very cheaply. Hemingway lived and worked alongside other famous American writers, many of whom he features in the book.

World War I, called the "Great War" at the time, shocked and permanently changed many people who lived through it, whether they fought or stayed at home. Hemingway, disqualified from military service, volunteered as an ambulance driver. The war changed European political alliances and led to unprecedented destruction, including a death toll of around 8.5 million soldiers, not counting the wounded who survived. More sophisticated weaponry on both sides meant more battle deaths than in previous wars. The world was hurtling quickly into the 20th century, and nothing seemed the same ever again. After the war, old morals and ways of life seemed irrelevant to many.

There were writers who had either reported on the war or served on the front lines and couldn't follow President Warren G. Harding's cheerful advice to "return to normalcy." Many gathered in Paris, a city that had long been a haven for intellectuals, artists, and nonconformists in various walks of life. Paris was also receptive—culturally and morally—to writing that crossed boundaries by challenging "established" behaviors. Sexual mores were looser, concepts of gender more fluid (for example, the writer Gertrude Stein wore utilitarian clothing often associated with masculinity), and indulgent lifestyles encouraged. Writers and artists frequented cafés where they worked, talked, ate, and drank. On the other hand, the United States, in the midst of the antialcohol Prohibition era, was less welcoming and offered little opportunity for the type of Parisian conviviality Hemingway and others described.

A crop of these American writers found refuge in the more permissive and sophisticated Paris. These expatriates included A Moveable Feast's core cast of characters—Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott Fitzgerald—along with other writers such as American poet E.E. Cummings, American poet Archibald MacLeish, American novelist John Dos Passos, American poet Hart Crane, American writer Sherwood Anderson, and American-born poet T.S. Eliot, who moved to London. They mingled with European writers such as James Joyce, English writer Ford Madox Ford, and Belgian writer Georges Simenon. Their work expresses a sense of alienation from both the past and sometimes from American culture itself.

The origin of the term "Lost Generation" is explained in the sketch "Une Génération Perdue" (French for "A Lost Generation"). Stein overhears a garage supervisor accusing his young employee, a World War I veteran who did not fix Stein's car properly, of being in a "lost generation" and decides the phrase applies to "all of you young people who served in the war." She refers to the generation's habit of heavy drinking and perceived lack of a moral code. The phrase came to describe the group of American writers working in 1920s' Paris and defines works particular to that place and time. The writers, and many of their characters, share certain characteristics: seeking pleasure, rejecting traditional morality, searching for meaning through creativity, and feeling deeply affected and transformed by the war.

Key Lost-Generation books discussed in A Moveable Feast include Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises (in which he uses Stein's "lost generation" quotation as an epigraph), F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1922), and Gertrude Stein's The Making of Americans (1925).

Locations in Hemingway's Paris

The book provides a geographic guide to Hemingway's many Paris haunts. The river Seine separates Paris into two main sections: the Left Bank and the Right Bank. Historically, the smaller Left Bank has been more affordable, more of a home for artists, and the area in which Hemingway spent most of his time. The city is further divided into 20 numbered areas called arrondissements municipaux (administrative districts). Each area had a distinct atmosphere and character known to the artists. And many of the streets, or "rues," have famous names as well, as do certain smaller areas within the arrondissements.

Central locations in A Moveable Feast include:

  • Place de la Contrescarpe: the neighborhood where Hemingway lived in the early 1920s. At the time this neighborhood was for the working class; it was inexpensive and a good home for "outsiders."
  • Rue Mouffetard: the "wonderful crowded market street" that led into the Place de la Contrescarpe.
  • 74 rue Cardinal Lemoine: the address of the Hemingways' first small apartment in the Place de la Contrescarpe neighborhood.
  • Boulevard Montparnasse: an artsy, picturesque area on the Left Bank in the 14th arrondissement in the southern part of Paris where many American expatriate writers lived and worked.
  • 27 rue de Fleurus: Gertrude Stein's apartment, an essential meeting place for Paris writers and artists.
  • 12 rue de l'Odéon: Sylvia Beach's bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, another hot spot for the Paris literati. French novelist André Chamson said Shakespeare and Company did "more to link England, the United States, Ireland, and France than four great ambassadors combined."
  • 39 rue Descartes: the hotel room Hemingway rented as a workspace, described as "the hotel where [tragic poet Paul] Verlaine had died."
  • 113 rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs: the Hemingways' second apartment, where they moved with young son Jack (nicknamed "Bumby") in 1924. The apartment was located over a sawmill.
  • Jardin du Luxembourg: the "Luxembourg Gardens," a famous large park where Hemingway would walk to distract himself from hunger and visit the museum on the grounds.
  • Closerie des Lilas: one of Hemingway's favorite cafés to work in, near the Luxembourg Gardens and the apartment on 113 rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs. Hemingway frequently refers to this café as "the Lilas."

Reception, Revival, and Legacy: A Celebration of Paris

A Moveable Feast provides a personal, intimate picture of Hemingway as he saw his younger self, and Hemingway fans have welcomed this final addition to his work. Parisian readers in particular have embraced Hemingway's loving portrait of their city, the title of the book's French version being Paris est une fête (Paris Is a Celebration). Hemingway described and lovingly embraced many of Paris's unique attributes, such as its "café culture" and intellectual vibrancy.

Years later, after the November 2015 terrorist attacks on Paris, A Moveable Feast surged in popularity and was sold out of many Parisian bookstores. Mourners left copies of the book with other tributes to the attack victims. The French title, Paris est une fête, began to trend on social media. As the city united after the tragedy, Hemingway's tribute became meaningful again, especially because Hemingway, not a native Parisian, showed how visitors and residents from around the world have discovered their artistic and cultural centers in Paris.

The book is also a vision of Hemingway's nostalgia toward the end of his life. As he grew older, he could put his youth and early career in perspective. As he became more depressed and distraught, his memoirs showed him looking back on simple pleasures he experienced as a young man. In the section "Nada y Pues Nada" (loosely translated as "nothing and then nothing") Hemingway says the book recalls a time "when Hadley and I believed we were invulnerable." He came to painfully realize that they were not.

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