The Letters of Ernest Hemingway, Volume One: 1907–1922 covers the years of the future writer’s childhood, his schooldays, beginnings as a journalist first on the Kansas City Star and then the Toronto Star, and of course his adventure on the Italian front. Hemingway arrived in Europe to work with the American Red Cross Service in June 1918, and was posted to Fossalta, on the Piave river just north of Venice, the scene of intense fighting. On the night of July 8, having volunteered for the “rolling canteen” which delivered provisions to Italian soldiers holding off the Austro-Hungarian offensive, he was blown up by a trench mortar shell. He sustained more than 200 wounds to his legs and spent the next five months either in hospital or in recovery. He fell in love with his nurse, seven years his senior, who affected to be in love with him, while being attached to an older man at home, whom she called “Daddy” (Hemingway was “Kid”), at the same time welcoming the overtures of an aristocratic Italian officer closer to base. The shell-shocked happy patient wrote in fits of rapture to his sisters and friends about Agnes von Kurowsky, who has become a central figure in the legend. But it seems as though his love for her was as flimsy as hers for him. In December 1918 he was planning marriage; in March 1919 he received her “Dear Ernie” letter and was broken-hearted; by the middle of April he was “now a free man”, having “burnt it out with a course of booze and other women and now it’s gone”. She was, however, to aid his recovery in another way. Nurse von Kurowsky – who in spite of her name was American, and was soon to be jilted in turn by her Italian heir – was transposed to the “dream” world of fiction, as Catherine Barkley in Hemingway’s second novel, A Farewell to Arms, which ends with her death in childbirth.
more from James Campbell at the TLS here.