A Moveable Feast

When asked in his 1958 Paris Review interview with George Plimpton about choosing titles, Hemingway said, “I make a list of titles after I’ve finished the story or the book—sometimes as many as one hundred. Then I start eliminating them, sometimes all of them.” Three years later he struggled with the list you see below—possible titles for a book about his early Paris days, a book which he said probably should not be published because of potential libel suits. Trying desperately to bring the manuscript to closure, he was working against great odds; to write memoirs a man must have his memory intact. In 1933 he had promised eventually to write “damned good memoirs” because he had “a rat-trap memory and the documents.” Now electroshock therapy at the Mayo Clinic for severe paranoia and black depression had left him unable to remember the names of certain streets and minor characters. It was the morning of April 18, 1961 in Ketchum, Idaho, and Ernest Hemingway had less than three months remaining to his life.

All his life he had made lists: lists of stories to write and books owned, lists of groceries and investments, inventories and title lists. Sometimes he got the title right the first time, as with Death in Afternoon. Titles might come from a song (“Up in Michigan”) or another author (“Fathers and Sons”). Sources he frequently checked were the King James Bible (To Have and Have Not) and collections of English verse and prose (For Whom the Bell Tolls). His title searches sometimes revealed his perspective on the story or book, but his final selection almost always rested on the title’s poetics and its potential impact on the browsing customer.