Hemingway Knocked Wallace Stevens into a Puddle and Bragged About It

I first heard of the fist-fight between Ernest Hemingway and Wallace Stevens in KWLS co-founder Lynn Kaufelt’s book, Key West Writers and Their Houses. It didn’t ring quite true, somehow, and yet the story’s skeleton alone begged frequent repetition. Hemingway, man of action and hard drinking, fan of violence in so many forms, and Stevens, cerebral, executive, ironic: each gave as much to American writing in the 1930s as any. That they both spent considerable time that decade in tiny Key West was improbable enough. That they actually came to blows over their no-doubt-innumerable differences was gravy, perhaps a fiction but, with apologies to Wallace, a supremely pleasurable one.

It turns out the story is true. Let’s let Hem tell it:

February, 1936
     “Nice Mr. Stevens. This year he came again pleasant like the cholera and first I knew of it my nice sister Ura 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 just said, I learned later, ‘By God I wish I had that Hemingway here now I’d knock him out with a single punch.’

     “So who should show up but poor old Papa and Mr. Stevens swung that same fabled punch but fertunatly missed and I knocked all of him down several times and gave him a good beating. Only trouble was that first three times put him down I still had my glasses on. Then took them off at the insistence of the judge who wanted to see a good clean fight without glasses in it and after I took them off Mr. Stevens hit me flush on the jaw with his Sunday punch bam like that. And this is very funny. Broke his hand in two places. Didn’t harm my jaw at all and so put him down again and then fixed him good so he was in his room for five days with a nurse and Dr. working on him. But you mustn’t tell this to anybody.”

The story is confirmed by Stevens’s biographer Joan Richardson, who reports that Stevens returned home to his wife and daughter in Hartford that March with a still-puffy eye and broken hand, and that Stevens himself told versions of the story throughout his life. It’s Hemingway’s, though, that survives:

     “Anyway last night Mr. Stevens comes over to make up and we are made up. But on mature reflection I don’t know anybody needed to be hit worse than Mr. S. 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. … 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.”

Hemingway implies elsewhere a familiarity with Stevens’s poetry, and in a way his characterization of Stevens is not as unkind as it may seem. After all, Stevens was in his late fifties when the fight took place, Hemingway his thirties. Would Stevens, the author of such poems as “Poetry is a Destructive Force,” “Men Made out of Words,” and “The Good Man Has No Shape,” have objected to a characterization of himself as a “mirror fighter” practicing “lethal punches in the bathroom?” I think he’d rather chuckle at the shape of this image, see in it a metaphor for his work, and collect enjoyment life-long from this most unlikely of modernist battles.

Hemingway’s story is from a letter to Sara Murphy, printed in Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters 1917-1961, ed. Carlos Baker.

17 thoughts on “Hemingway Knocked Wallace Stevens into a Puddle and Bragged About It

  1. Paul Kamen says:

    That first hand account of the fisticuff on Wadell St. is not to be missed. That has to be the Daddy of literary connections!
    The whole site is spectacular in its breadth and depth. I think it is a treasure trove for anyone who cares about American literature and poetry (not to mention the Key West connections), and puts the Seminar squarely on the literary map.
    I wish I had time to read it all(and some of the books too!).
    How do you do it?

  2. deb goldman says:

    time. yes that’s the challenge.
    loved reading this tho it hurt me as i guess if i had to choose i choose for wallace and i hate to think of his broken hand and cant even imagine this beautifully cerebral guy ever engaging in fisticuffs, but there now i must off and hope to see you, arlo, tonight. d

  3. Peter Thompson says:

    That is a great story, and it seems, what’s missing from modern lit. What do we have now? Dave Eggers throwing eggs at cars, hiding like a little child behind a hedge? Then you had Kerouac, on TV with William F. Buckley, basically punching himself in the face with all that liquor and to quote Podhertz “typing.” Papa would’ve knocked them out. Gelhorn could take Eggers for God’s sake.

    • Tanner Kemp says:

      Comparisons are odious. Read the Dharma Bums and the poem The Snow Man. The end goal is essentially the same… Lucretian or Buddha… who cares

  4. Excellent! Great story and what a letter writer! I can just picture Mr. Stevens flexing his muscles in front of the mirror. Thanks for tracking me down and passing this story on!

  5. beverly kessler says:

    i loved this story! typical hemingway. although i have always admired mr. stevens, i can just see in my minds eye him going down in the puddle. so, “how do you like it now, gentlemen??

  6. Virginia Lee says:

    Seems you’ve gotten a head start on your ’13 “Writers on Writers” seminar, albeit if you go with a literal take. Surely there must be a couple more dueling men of letters who’ve come to fisticuffs over the years. At least this gives you some time to dig ’em up.

    But–what really was the reason(s) for these repeated Wallace vs. Hemingway spats? Cockfight bets? A woman? Fish tales?

  7. thom wright says:

    Writers will strike for the jaw of another writer only when they feel said same is writing too much like they themself do or better and when the other writer’s work is so different from their own they have no myoptics through which to judge and they are frustrated in their unknowing. I personally have witnessed other artists do the same in similar situation. Musicians tend to drift off.

  8. Lamont Palmer says:

    Outside Of A Bar

    Two languages met in combative air.
    Two temperaments on a parking lot,

    hot and moist: two myths, thrown to the
    ages. Poet against novelist: embittered

    by form and the murkiness of reefs,
    which hover behind cantankerous blows.

    Booze, blues and its emptiness narrows
    the gap between two stunning avenues

    of thought. Two drives: ego to ego,
    and only the moon can be critical,

    as lunar urgings grow in lunacy,
    the template of an image, fixated

    by stand-offs; by the air and anger,
    by elite curses quieted by sunset.

    It was a long way from the Canoe Room
    or any patrician New England place,

    to this backcountry, this seaside connection,
    like muscular sentences, taut and hard.

    Florida: figuring hotly into two lives;
    basking within notions of each one,

    each one a tall and solid volcano,
    driven by ashfall of meaning, of feeling,

    but never like this, errant impulses
    from depths which collide: stanza and phrase.

    So the fight buoyed the machine of thought.
    Fists of the boxer, fists of the aesthete:

    Wallace, Ernest (Jake and Crispin too) speaking
    to us, then perhaps, to themselves,

    about myriad forms of wounds; the wounds
    of life, of sailing, of erstwhile wars,

    now stand like men who are mere inventions,
    yet stand anyway – an odd gigantism.

    Where the rain gathers, it’s a dirty
    shiny home for a massive head,

    and for a large red man who likes to read.
    Two thinkers: drunken by scotch and snark,

    Dismissing, out of hand, protective jambeaux
    for the active legs of one, sluggish legs of another,

    have ended at the point it all began,
    icons at podiums of each other’s eyes.

    Lamont Palmer

  9. Stuart Kaufmann says:

    After reading the IDEA OF ORDER AT KEY WEST I can almost understand why Hemingway would be put off at a character like Stevens, a different kind of literary man, and attempt to beat at him. It is a long, frustrating distance between reality and perception, and while both men attempted to cross that chasm, they both succeeded at doing so. I am a fan of both writers, for different reasons and different approaches, but there seems to be a separate but unequal feel to all that, epecially in modern letters, and I guess it all started with that knock about.

  10. Brian Huot says:

    Hemingway was 20 years younger. So, a 37 year old man beat up a 57 year old man. Hemingway was always a bully.

    • Hemingway did not throw first punch: Stevens did.
      Also: Stevens was larger than Hemingway.
      And [by the way] I am an admirer of
      both great writers but if had to
      choose?: Wallace Stevens.

  11. Ron Levao says:

    How quickly the body takes over. SK rightly notes the distance between reality and perception, but a straight right has a way of closing gaps very quickly. “Everyone has a plan until he gets hit,” I think M. Tyson said that, the punching epistemologist.

  12. Joseph James says:

    Hemingway’s impulsivity would seem to cause him trouble and yet it works in his favor. Poor Stevens. As my old English instructor Kaufmann used to say, “Stein was the butchest woman, and Hemingway the butchest man.”

  13. Tad Tuleja says:

    Golly gee, fellow Lit Fans. Seems like a lot of to-do about two guys proving that they still belong in knee pants. If they weren’t both charter members of the Great Writers club, would anybody give a shit about this juvenile fracas?

  14. If you squint you can see a bit of Ford Maddox Ford in Stevens.. maybe that was part of the punching appeal..

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