Ernest Hemingway Creates a Reading List for a Young Writer (1934)

In the spring of 1934, a young man who want­ed to be a writer hitch­hiked to Flori­da to meet his idol, Ernest Hem­ing­way.

Arnold Samuel­son was an adven­tur­ous 22-year-old. He had been born in a sod house in North Dako­ta to Nor­we­gian immi­grant par­ents. He com­plet­ed his course­work in jour­nal­ism at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta, but refused to pay the $5 fee for a diplo­ma. After col­lege he want­ed to see the coun­try, so he packed his vio­lin in a knap­sack and thumbed rides out to Cal­i­for­nia. He sold a few sto­ries about his trav­els to the Sun­day Min­neapo­lis Tri­bune.

In April of ’34 Samuel­son was back in Min­neso­ta when he read a sto­ry by Hem­ing­way in Cos­mopoli­tan, called “One Trip Across.” The short sto­ry would lat­er become part of Hem­ing­way’s fourth nov­el, To Have and Have Not. Samuel­son was so impressed with the sto­ry that he decid­ed to trav­el 2,000 miles to meet Hem­ing­way and ask him for advice. “It seemed a damn fool thing to do,” Samuel­son would lat­er write, “but a twen­ty-two-year-old tramp dur­ing the Great Depres­sion did­n’t have to have much rea­son for what he did.”

And so, at the time of year when most hobos were trav­el­ing north, Samuel­son head­ed south. He hitched his way to Flori­da and then hopped a freight train from the main­land to Key West. Rid­ing on top of a box­car, Samuel­son could not see the rail­road tracks under­neath him–only miles and miles of water as the train left the main­land. “It was head­ed south over the long bridges between the keys and final­ly right out over the ocean,” writes Samuel­son. “It could­n’t hap­pen now–the tracks have been torn out–but it hap­pened then, almost as in a dream.”

When Samuel­son arrived in Key West he dis­cov­ered that times were espe­cial­ly hard there. Most of the cig­ar fac­to­ries had shut down and the fish­ing was poor. That night he went to sleep on the turtling dock, using his knap­sack as a pil­low. The ocean breeze kept the mos­qui­tos away. A few hours lat­er a cop woke him up and invit­ed him to sleep in the bull pen of the city jail. “I was under arrest every night and released every morn­ing to see if I could find my way out of town,” writes Samuel­son. After his first night in the mos­qui­to-infest­ed jail, he went look­ing for the town’s most famous res­i­dent.

When I knocked on the front door of Ernest Hem­ing­way’s house in Key West, he came out and stood square­ly in front of me, squin­ty with annoy­ance, wait­ing for me to speak. I had noth­ing to say. I could­n’t recall a word of my pre­pared speech. He was a big man, tall, nar­row-hipped, wide-shoul­dered, and he stood with his feet spread apart, his arms hang­ing at his sides. He was crouched for­ward slight­ly with his weight on his toes, in the instinc­tive poise of a fight­er ready to hit.

“What do you want?” said Hem­ing­way. After an awk­ward moment, Samuel­son explained that he had bummed his way from Min­neapo­lis just to see him. “I read your sto­ry ‘One Trip Across’ in Cos­mopoli­tan. I liked it so much I came down to have a talk with you.” Hem­ing­way seemed to relax. “Why the hell did­n’t you say you just want­ed to chew the fat? I thought you want­ed to vis­it.” Hem­ing­way told Samuel­son he was busy, but invit­ed him to come back at one-thir­ty the next after­noon.

After anoth­er night in jail, Samuel­son returned to the house and found Hem­ing­way sit­ting in the shade on the north porch, wear­ing kha­ki pants and bed­room slip­pers. He had a glass of whiskey and a copy of the New York Times. The two men began talk­ing. Sit­ting there on the porch, Samuel­son could sense that Hem­ing­way was keep­ing him at a safe dis­tance: “You were at his home but not in it. Almost like talk­ing to a man out on a street.” They began by talk­ing about the Cos­mopoli­tan sto­ry, and Samuel­son men­tioned his failed attempts at writ­ing fic­tion. Hem­ing­way offered some advice.

“The most impor­tant thing I’ve learned about writ­ing is nev­er write too much at a time,” Hem­ing­way said, tap­ping my arm with his fin­ger. “Nev­er pump your­self dry. Leave a lit­tle for the next day. The main thing is to know when to stop. Don’t wait till you’ve writ­ten your­self out. When you’re still going good and you come to an inter­est­ing place and you know what’s going to hap­pen next, that’s the time to stop. Then leave it alone and don’t think about it; let your sub­con­scious mind do the work. The next morn­ing, when you’ve had a good sleep and you’re feel­ing fresh, rewrite what you wrote the day before. When you come to the inter­est­ing place and you know what is going to hap­pen next, go on from there and stop at anoth­er high point of inter­est. That way, when you get through, your stuff is full of inter­est­ing places and when you write a nov­el you nev­er get stuck and you make it inter­est­ing as you go along.”

Hem­ing­way advised Samuel­son to avoid con­tem­po­rary writ­ers and com­pete only with the dead ones whose works have stood the test of time. “When you pass them up you know you’re going good.” He asked Samuel­son what writ­ers he liked. Samuel­son said he enjoyed Robert Louis Steven­son’s Kid­napped and Hen­ry David Thore­au’s Walden. “Ever read War and Peace?” Hem­ing­way asked. Samuel­son said he had not. “That’s a damned good book. You ought to read it. We’ll go up to my work­shop and I’ll make out a list you ought to read.”

His work­shop was over the garage in back of the house. I fol­lowed him up an out­side stair­way into his work­shop, a square room with a tile floor and shut­tered win­dows on three sides and long shelves of books below the win­dows to the floor. In one cor­ner was a big antique flat-topped desk and an antique chair with a high back. E.H. took the chair in the cor­ner and we sat fac­ing each oth­er across the desk. He found a pen and began writ­ing on a piece of paper and dur­ing the silence I was very ill at ease. I real­ized I was tak­ing up his time, and I wished I could enter­tain him with my hobo expe­ri­ences but thought they would be too dull and kept my mouth shut. I was there to take every­thing he would give and had noth­ing to return.

Hem­ing­way wrote down a list of two short sto­ries and 14 books and hand­ed it to Samuel­son. Most of the texts you can find in our col­lec­tion, 800 Free eBooks for iPad, Kin­dle & Oth­er Devices. If the texts don’t appear in our eBook col­lec­tion itself, you’ll find a link to the text direct­ly below.

  • The Blue Hotel” by Stephen Crane
  • The Open Boat” by Stephen Crane
  • Madame Bovary by Gus­tave Flaubert
  • Dublin­ers by James Joyce
  • The Red and the Black by Stend­hal
  • Of Human Bondage by Som­er­set Maugh­am
  • Anna Karen­i­na by Leo Tol­stoy
  • War and Peace by Leo Tol­stoy
  • Bud­den­brooks by Thomas Mann
  • Hail and Farewell by George Moore
  • The Broth­ers Kara­ma­zov by Fyo­dor Dos­toyevsky
  • The Oxford Book of Eng­lish Verse
  • The Enor­mous Room by E.E. Cum­mings
  • Wuther­ing Heights by Emi­ly Bronte
  • Far Away and Long Ago by W.H. Hud­son
  • The Amer­i­can by Hen­ry James

Hem­ing­way reached over to his shelf and picked up a col­lec­tion of sto­ries by Stephen Crane and gave it to Samuel­son. He also hand­ed him a copy of his own nov­el,  A Farewell to Arms. “I wish you’d send it back when you get through with it,” Hem­ing­way said of his own book. “It’s the only one I have of that edi­tion.” Samuel­son grate­ful­ly accept­ed the books and took them back to the jail that evening to read. “I did not feel like stay­ing there anoth­er night,” he writes, “and the next after­noon I fin­ished read­ing A Farewell to Arms, intend­ing to catch the first freight out to Mia­mi. At one o’clock, I brought the books back to Hem­ing­way’s house.” When he got there he was aston­ished by what Hem­ing­way said.

“There is some­thing I want to talk to you about. Let’s sit down,” he said thought­ful­ly. “After you left yes­ter­day, I was think­ing I’ll need some­body to sleep on board my boat. What are you plan­ning on now?”

“I haven’t any plans.”

“I’ve got a boat being shipped from New York. I’ll have to go up to Mia­mi Tues­day and run her down and then I’ll have to have some­one on board. There would­n’t be much work. If you want the job, you could keep her cleaned up in the morn­ings and still have time for your writ­ing.”

“That would be swell,” replied Samuel­son. And so began a year-long adven­ture as Hem­ing­way’s assis­tant. For a dol­lar a day, Samuel­son slept aboard the 38-foot cab­in cruis­er Pilar and kept it in good con­di­tion. When­ev­er Hem­ing­way went fish­ing or took the boat to Cuba, Samuel­son went along. He wrote about his experiences–including those quot­ed and para­phrased here–in a remark­able mem­oir, With Hem­ing­way: A Year in Key West and Cuba. Dur­ing the course of that year, Samuel­son and Hem­ing­way talked at length about writ­ing. Hem­ing­way pub­lished an account of their dis­cus­sions in a 1934 Esquire arti­cle called “Mono­logue to the Mae­stro: A High Seas Let­ter.” (Click here to open it as a PDF.) Hem­ing­way’s arti­cle with his advice to Samuel­son was one source for our Feb­ru­ary 19 post, “Sev­en Tips From Ernest Hem­ing­way on How to Write Fic­tion.”

When the work arrange­ment had been set­tled, Hem­ing­way drove the young man back to the jail to pick up his knap­sack and vio­lin. Samuel­son remem­bered his feel­ing of tri­umph at return­ing with the famous author to get his things. “The cops at the jail seemed to think noth­ing of it that I should move from their mos­qui­to cham­ber to the home of Ernest Hem­ing­way. They saw his Mod­el A road­ster out­side wait­ing for me. They saw me come out of it. They saw Ernest at the wheel wait­ing and they nev­er said a word.”

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post orig­i­nal­ly appeared on our site in May, 2013.

Relat­ed Con­tent

18 (Free) Books Ernest Hem­ing­way Wished He Could Read Again for the First Time

Sev­en Tips From Ernest Hem­ing­way on How to Write Fic­tion

Christo­pher Hitchens Cre­ates a Read­ing List for Eight-Year-Old Girl

Neil deGrasse Tyson Lists 8 (Free) Books Every Intel­li­gent Per­son Should Read

Ernest Hemingway’s Favorite Ham­burg­er Recipe

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