The Hemingway legacy is long and wide, and the myths and fantasies that have grown around him are endless and often irrepressible. The bull-fighting warrior lover. The heroic soldier. The six-toed cats. Sometimes you don’t even know where to begin when the subject turns to some debatable piece of Hemingway lore.
Recently I had a brief correspondence with the author of a story about Hemingway’s experiences in Montana and the vicinity of Yellowstone Park. I liked her story, and she stuck to the known facts and her own experience in the natural world that Hemingway had discovered in the West. In our email exchange, she proved her skeptical skills as a reporter and writer by questioning why the Hemingway Society website presented an historical item with a dubious provenance.
The new website design features rotating quotations from Hemingway toward the bottom of the homepage. One in the rotation shares this piece of writing wisdom: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” The attribution of this little gem to Hemingway has been debated for years.
I recalled a recent discussion of the very thing on the Hemingway list-serve, and dove into one of my sprawling inboxes to recover the discussion. Sure enough, the topic came up in July, and discussion ensued about the great sportswriter Red Smith, whose name is most often associated with a similar observation.
Steven P. Gietscher, a Hemingway and baseball scholar at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri, offered this explanation:
The line about bleeding and writing is sometimes attributed to Smith although, like many quotations of this ilk, its origins are truly obscure. Walter Winchell, himself no mean journalist, wrote this in 1949: “Red Smith was asked if turning out a daily column wasn’t quite a chore. “Why, no,” dead-panned Smith. “You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.” Yet there is evidence that Paul Gallico, another sportswriter, used much the same language in 1946.
Hemingway was a fan of Red Smith’s, Gietcher writes, implying that he was well aware of Smith’s observation.
Gietscher also provided what appears to be a definitive discussion of the issue, an essay on a website called the quoteinvestigaor.com: http://quoteinvestigator.com/2011/09/14/writing-bleed/.
The author of the piece and operator of the website, Garson O’Toole does a commendable, footnoted job of tracing the notion of writing and bleeding in literary culture, stretching from mid-nineteenth-century sources through Smith, Gallico, and into the late twentieth century.
The pertinent conclusion comes here:
The earliest citations to the famous literary figures Thomas Wolfe and Ernest Hemingway occurred many years after their deaths. No supporting evidence was given, and the basic saying was already in circulation. Thus, there is no substantive evidence connecting the saying [to] Wolfe and Hemingway.