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Letters about Hemingway uncover the unfortunate story of Marjorie Bump

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library

In high school English classes, students are often tasked with trudging through the classics. At West Bloomfield High School, in Jennifer Tianen’s class, they’re getting a different view of one author in the literary canon.

These students have been transcribing the letters of Marjorie Bump, a Petoskey woman who was friends with Ernest Hemingway when he lived at his boyhood summer home of Windemere. She was also a character in his Nick Adams stories, particularly The End of Something, where Hemingway’s self insert character, Adams, ends up with a broken heart.

The heartbreak is self-inflicted; Adams initiated the breakup with the fictionalized Marjorie, but this did not leave the real Bump immune from backlash. While it’s a bit fuzzy whether Bump and Hemingway were ever an actual couple, Tianen notes that it likely wasn’t anything intense. However, Hemingway biographers did a great deal of damage to her reputation.

“Biographers said things about Marge without even knowing her, without ever contacting her, calling her this ‘well built waitress,’” Tianen said. “They took the name Bump and made certain assumptions about her figure, about her standing in the town. They decried her as being low-class.”

Bump, in real life and especially in the story, was a strong and smart woman. But after The End of Something sent gossip flying through the town, she ended up leaving Petoskey and moving to Florida. It took a long while for literary criticism of the piece to come around and take Bump’s side.

“There’s some literary criticism from Doctor Stoneback and Doctor Dyker, who are preeminent Hemingway scholars that rebut that vociferously and that has, I think, helped to turn the tide against a long, long history of scholarship that paints Marjorie as some sort of vixen or some sort of, you know, tramp,” Tianen said. “I welcome that and I welcome the opportunity to set the record straight on that, because a lot of that information is just plain incorrect.

Another source for Bump’s side of the story came through her letters. The letters themselves are not correspondence between Hemingway and Bump -- she burned all of those -- but between Bump and a bookseller about the writer years later. The letters help provide insight into Bump’s life and feelings about the notoriety that came with being a character in a Hemingway story.

Yael Mizrahi is one of the students transcribing these letters. In the one she worked on, Bump described seeing a documentary about Hemingway on television. Marjorie wrote about how the author described his parents in an unfair, and in Bumps’s opinion untrue, light.

“She seemed quite frustrated, she even said in my letter that she wants to erase all of Hemingway after 1920, so I think it depends which letters you look at,” Mizrahi said. “But in mine, for sure, she was not happy with the way that Hemingway was acting and she describes his personality as very know-it-all.”

One thing that stood out to Mizrahi while transcribing is the way Bump felt that “her voice was silenced.” Bump had also wanted to be a writer and use her own voice, but felt unable to due to the picture that had been painted of her.

While it may seem like just an interesting assignment to help students learn more about characterization, transcribing these letters has shown Mizrahi a different side of a rather well revered author.

“His writing is obviously very good, he’s an acclaimed writer, yeah, but in terms of his personality and how he viewed women, it definitely made me change the way I thought of Hemingway,” Mizrahi said. “And I think that it’s really important that we read these letters so that we have a different outlook on Hemingway and Marjorie Bump.”

Support for arts and culture coverage comes in part from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Olive Scott

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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