The Elaborate Pictogram Ernest Hemingway Received in the Hospital During WWI: Can You Decode Its Meaning?

Every­one who knows the work of Ernest Hem­ing­way knows A Farewell to Arms, and every­one who knows A Farewell to Arms knows that Hem­ing­way drew on his expe­ri­ence as a Red Cross ambu­lance dri­ver in Italy dur­ing World War I. Just a few months after ship­ping out, the eigh­teen-year-old writer-to-be — filled, he lat­er said, with “a great illu­sion of immor­tal­i­ty” — got caught by mor­tar fire while tak­ing choco­late and cig­a­rettes from the can­teen to the front line. Recov­er­ing from his wounds in a Milanese hos­pi­tal, he fell in love with an Amer­i­can nurse named Agnes Han­nah von Kurowsky, who would become the mod­el for Cather­ine Barkley in A Farewell to Arms.

Hem­ing­way wrote that nov­el years after Kurowsky had left him for an Ital­ian offi­cer, but when their prospects still looked good, they received this curi­ous let­ter, which at first glance looks like noth­ing more than a few pages of doo­dles. “We think it may be a rebus or anoth­er type of pic­togram that uses pic­tures to rep­re­sent words, parts of words, or phras­es,” wrote Jes­si­ca Green, an intern at the John F. Kennedy Pres­i­den­tial Library where it turned up, in 2012. “Can you help us solve this puz­zle?” Quite a few Hem­ing­way-enthu­si­ast com­menters duti­ful­ly got to their inter­pre­tive work below Green’s post, bring­ing to bear their knowl­edge of the writer’s life and work on these ani­mals, musi­cal notes, grin­ning faces, and mugs of beer, all strung togeth­er with log­ic sym­bols.

If you need a hint, you might start with the appar­ent fact that the let­ter came from three of Hem­ing­way’s ambu­lance-dri­ver bud­dies. “The let­ter is a cheer­ful nar­ra­tive of the three friends’ recent hijinks,” writes Slate’s Rebec­ca Onion. “In the salu­ta­tion, the writ­ers used a foam­ing mug of beer to rep­re­sent Hemingway’s name (he was often called ‘Hem­ing­stein’); clear­ly, these were men who shared Hemingway’s love for ine­bri­a­tion.” But even before they addressed good old Hem­ing­stein, they addressed Kurowsky — as, in the visu­al lan­guage invent­ed for their pur­pos­es, a fry­ing pan with an egg in it. “Ag sounds like egg,” explains the deci­pher­ment Green lat­er post­ed to the JFK Library’s blog.

Green goes on to break down the pic­to­graph­ic let­ter sec­tion by sec­tion, from Brum­my, Bill, and Jenks’ plans to take leave time and come to Milan, Brum­my’s unfor­tu­nate recent expe­ri­ence with “mixed drinks made from Asti Spuman­ti, Rum, Cognac, Marsala, and Rock Syrup,” Jenks’ dri­ving of the bed­bugs in his bed into that of anoth­er dri­ver, and the glo­ri­ous results of Bil­l’s trim­ming and wax­ing of his mus­tache, and more besides. To mod­ern read­ers, the let­ter offers not just a glimpse into the sen­si­bil­i­ties of Hem­ing­way’s social cir­cle but life on the Ital­ian front in 1918. And for Hem­ing­way him­self, receiv­ing such an amus­ing piece of cor­re­spon­dence dur­ing six long months of recu­per­a­tion in the hos­pi­tal must sure­ly have done some­thing to lift the spir­its, though what effect its dis­tinc­tive com­po­si­tion­al style may have had on his own writ­ing seem­ing­ly remains to be stud­ied.

Click here to read a decod­ing of this pic­togram from 1918.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ernest Hemingway’s Very First Pub­lished Sto­ries, Free as an eBook

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

Sev­en Tips From Ernest Hem­ing­way on How to Write Fic­tion

Hear Hem­ing­way Read Hem­ing­way, and Faulkn­er Read Faulkn­er (90 Min­utes of Clas­sic Audio)

Ernest Hemingway’s Favorite Ham­burg­er Recipe

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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