Saturday History Lessons: That Time Wallace Stevens Punched Hemingway

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Truth be told I don’t like macho posturing in literary feuds — or rather, the only thing I like about it is the opportunity it provides me to practice the fine art of eye-rolling. Oh, and the particular thrill to the female camaraderie that can arise in the audience of these things when and where they amount to two guys having a pissing contest over effectively nothing. (Which is, er, often.)

Maybe what I’m saying is that I enjoy the macho posturing, but in, you know, a subversive way.

One example: in 1936, Stevens was in Key West visiting a business friend, as he often did in the 1930s. Evidently he and Hemingway had not been getting along. “He came again sort of pleasant like the cholera,” was the latter’s remark in a letter to Sara Murphy (a wealthy American who would later be immortalized by Fitzgerald as Tender is the Night‘s Nicole Diver),

and first I knew of it my nice sister Ura (Ursula) was coming into the house crying because she had been at a cocktail party at which Mr. Stevens had made her cry by telling her forcefully what a sap I was, no man, etc. So I said, this was a week ago, ”All right, that’s the third time we’ve had enough of Mr. Stevens.” So headed out into the rainy past twilight and met Mr. Stevens who was just issuing from the door haveing [sic] just said, I learned later, ”By God I wish I had that Hemingway here now I’d knock him out with a single punch.’

Stevens saw his moment, and swung at Hemingway. But he missed, and Hemingway struck back.

Some important bits of context: Stevens was 56 years old, and worked a day job as an insurance executive. He had the build you’d expect, solid but forgiving. Hemingway was twenty years younger, lean and sun-weathered from recent adventures in bull-fighting-and-African-safaris-and-Carribbean-sailing. When Stevens finally did land “his Sunday punch bam,”very late in the game, he broke his hand on Hemingway’s jaw. Nonetheless, they were of about the same height, but Hemingway tries to flip the disadvantage to his corner in his letter to Murphy:

Was very pleased last night to see how large Mr. Stevens was and am sure that if I had had a good look at him before it all started would not have felt up to hitting him. But can assure you that there is no one like Mr. Stevens to go down in a spectacular fashion especially into a large puddle of water in the street in front of your old waddel street home where all took place.

Hemingway makes half-hearted quasi-apologies for being such a gossip:

So I shouldn’t write you this but news being scarce your way and I know you really won’t tell anybody will you really absolutely seriously. Because otherwise I am a bastard to write it. He apologised to Ura very handsomely and has gone up to Pirates Cove to rest his face for another week before going north. I think he is really one of those mirror fighters who swells his muscles and practices lethal punches in the bathroom while he hates his betters. But maybe I am wrong.

But he tells her anyway, really absolutely seriously.

Stevens, for his part, wrote a postcard to his wife blaming his bad penmanship on a fall down a flight of stairs. That happens to be the same cover story Hemingway reports he and Stevens agreed on, after making up. Which I guess they did after Stevens had spent the five days recuperating in his room,”with a nurse and Dr. working on him,” Hemingway points out. One of Stevens’ biographers says he later told his own version of “That Time I Punched Hemingway” story in full to others. We might presume from that that his pride recovered.

I was telling this story to a friend who hates Hemingway once and he looked at me gravely and said, “We are all Wallace Stevens today.” At the time I sort of agreed but now I don’t know. Stevens is one of my favourite poets, but while I admit there are few of Hemingway’s books that have managed to enchant me on the level of personal taste, I do love A Moveable Feast. And if Stevens was indeed the aggressor then he was engaging in the exact sort of feather-puffing that I don’t usually have much time for — and which are, not too coincidentally, the parts of Hemingway I suffer through. After all, what does this insult mean, “no man”? Nothing I or anyone else should care to find out, I tell you what.

But you don’t have to take sides.

We are always saying, behind closed doors, that women are so terrible to each other. We tear each other down, we say. We fail to build each other up in the press, we commit the verboten “girl-on-girl crime.” The implicit assumption is that men don’t do this. That they don’t talk out of school or gossip or backbite, which virtually all of my reading in biographies of literary and cultural figures has taught me is absolutely one hundred percent not true. The truth is, the woman meeting my eyes across the crowd watching these fights, we’re smiling because we see the insecurity in this, the grasping, the vicious high-schoolity of it all. Because we recognize it, and it’s good to know that even the highest-on-high aren’t immune to it.


Michelle Dean has written for a variety of places, including The Awl, ELLE and Bitch. More from this author →