For the last three months, I have worked as an undergraduate intern for the Hemingway Letters Project, which is an ideal internship experience for a senior-year English major at Penn State. Some of my duties have included updating our archives, searching auction catalogs and sale listings for new Hemingway letters, compiling and formatting bibliographies, and checking files for consistency and completeness, among many other tasks.
A few weeks ago my supervisor, the Associate Editor of the Letters Project, Verna Kale, noticed that a quotation at the bottom of the Hemingway Society website homepage was a saying that has often been attributed to Hemingway, but that cannot be documented as something he actually ever said or wrote: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Steve Paul wrote a blog post on the Hemingway Society webpage about the quote back in 2016, and with that post, the Society owned up to the error while allowing it to persist on the website, as a sort of conversation piece. But Hemingway Review editor Suzanne del Gizzo and webmaster Cecil Ponder felt it was finally time to correct the error, and I was given that task.
In his essay “A Meme-able Feast: Teaching Modernist Citationality and Hemingway Iconography through the Internet’s Most Infectious Replicator” in the book Hemingway in the Digital Age: Reflections on Teaching, Reading, and Understanding (Laura Godfrey, ed. 2019), Kirk Curnutt writes about misattributed Ernest Hemingway quotes. Curnutt suggests a few reasons why so many quotes are falsely attributed to Hemingway. Perhaps, the most mundane and sinister is that separating the quote from its original source makes it seem as though the quote can be applied to life in general. Not citing the original source “decontextualizes” the quote and can put a positive-thinking spin on it. Other reasons for the rampant misattributions include the hope to popularize the words of a lesser-known person by associating them with someone more famous, and the (perhaps) misguided desire on the part of social media meme-creators to embrace Pound’s exhortation to “MAKE IT NEW” by massing together bits of inaccurate information. Curnutt playfully imagines this trend as “reinventing literary expression experimentation.” Curnutt also mentions one particularly strange origin for quotations incorrectly attributed to Hemingway. In the early 1960s, Playboy magazine purchased a compendium of quotes from a dubious entity called the Wisdom Foundation. Although the Foundation claimed the quotations were all taken from late 1950s interviews with Hemingway, it appears that the quotations were either manufactured or knowingly misattributed. Playboy, as Curnutt points out, got sold a “bill of goods” (41).
So how did an apocryphal Hemingway quote end up on the Hemingway Society’s website? The banner at the bottom of the site pulls automatically from a database of “quotable quotes,” which is why double-checking that the quotes from the database are correct is important. Before replacing the old quote with new ones, Dr. Kale gave me the task of authenticating a list of 22 possible quotes using the resources available to me through the Penn State University Libraries and the Hemingway Letters Project, which include primary, secondary, and archival sources. Out of the 22 possible quotes, I found that only 11 were actually attributable to Hemingway. The other half were either not by him, or it was not possible to authenticate them. Even some of the authentic quotations had various transcription errors, which I corrected. I wasn’t too surprised to see that the sources for the misattributed quotes were websites such as Goodreads, Brainyquote, Quotefancy, iHeartIntelligence, and Pinterest. The authentic quotes came from more reliable sources, such as a novel or short story by Hemingway or a book or article about Hemingway.
Now the quotes on the Hemingway Society webpage should be accurate. If you have additional suggestions, please submit your favorite quotes using the contact form here on the site– and don’t forget to cite your source when you do so! Be wary of Brainyquote and Pinterest when searching…