Ernest Hemingway's posthumously published book, "A Moveable Feast," which was labeled a non-fiction autobiography, but taken by many as fiction inspired by truth, rose quickly to the top of the bestseller list in May of 1964. It was a work, reflecting back on his years in Paris during the 1920s, that Hemingway supposedly started writing in 1957 after recovering some lost journals and sketches of his from the basement of the Ritz Hotel in Paris in November of the previous year. Earlier in his life, Hemingway had commented on the subject of memoir writing saying that "it is only when you can no longer believe in your own exploits that your write your own memoirs."1 After a troublesome time in Spain in 1956, and a cancelled trip to Africa, the emotional and physical state of Hemingway was such that he became unsure of his ability in fact felt inclined to write about a time in his life where he believed that he was a better writer.2
The book experienced wide success with advanced orders coming in by the tens of thousands, reported Publisher's Weekly. The large number of advanced orders, and the overall success of the book were due to many factors, making this a book categorized by many different bestseller traits. Published posthumously after a long, very successful career, the name Hemingway itself was enough to produce a bestseller, especially after the recent success of the novella, The Old Man and the Sea. Also the fact that this book was published posthumously may have added to its success in that readers felt as if they were getting new Hemingway material even after his death. The book was also highly publicized by Scribner's, one of the leading publishers, well in advance of its release. The fact that this book was marketed as a biography of Hemingway also may have attracted attention because it was widely known that Hemingway was a man who lived an adventurous life. This made readers eager to learn about the real Hemingway, and his adventures as a young writer in Paris, which was a subject that was appealing to the generation that grew up with Hemingway, because they saw the Paris of the 1920s as one of the cultural centers at the time for young aspiring writers, but also appealed to the young crowd of the 1960's because of it's themes of youth, and discovery. Hemingway was also able to appeal to a larger crowd than some because he was a part of a small group of literary novelists to experience bestseller success for their works. This meant that Hemingway could sell to the average reader, and also the scholar. These factors all combined to make this book a bestseller which is still in print today.
The Famous Author Bestseller
After the success of The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Old Man and the Sea, and others, Hemingway had established himself as one of America's best writers of the 20th century. Due to this constant success, Hemingway had garnered considerable respect from readers, and thus his name became a marketing tool that had unbelievable selling power. Readers seemed to be assured of something when they bought a Hemingway novel, in the same way that readers know what to expect when they pick up a Tom Clancy, or Danielle Steele novel. Whether it was the warfront in A Farewell to Arms, or big game hunting in Green Hills of Africa, readers of Hemingway knew that they were in for a story of bravery and adventure, or just a picture of a life that most of them had only dreamed of living. Hemingway had also achieved Nobel Laureate, and Pulitzer Prize winning status with the publication of A Moveable Feast's direct predecessor, The Old Man and the Sea. Although the book was criticized by many reviewers, that didn't stop people from buying the book in May of 1964, nor did it hamper the tens of thousands of copies in advance orders, a fact which can almost solely be attributed to the Hemingway name.
The Posthumous Novel Bestseller
The Fact that this book was published posthumously, and was his first novel released after his death, may have also led to its success. With the most recent novel, being The Old Man and the Sea, a Pulitzer and Nobel prize-winning work, Hemingway's final book he published while alive, and heralded as one of the greatest works of the 20th century, readers were eager to read the next novel by this author. The posthumous novel almost serves as a resurrection, bringing back a writer who had captivated audiences since the 1920s. The posthumous novel also has an almost untouchable element to it simply because the author is no longer living and thus is not able to be subjected to direct criticism. The book also presented a raw feeling because it was compiled from journals and writings of Hemingway from earlier in his life that he then began to compile, but failed to publish before his death. This gives the readers a feeling that they are reading something that Hemingway had not fully prepared for the public yet, and thus made it appear to be a more raw, and vulnerable piece of work than his other novels. Being published three years after his death, the book was close enough to his life that his success was still greatly present in the world of literature, but at the same time it's publication was far enough removed from his last novel, published in 1952, that readers were eager to read any novel that he had written after the great success of The Old Man and the Sea.
The Highly Publicized Bestseller
A Moveable Feast was published by Charles Scribner's Sons, one of the leaders in the Publishing world, and one that was responsible for publishing the works of many famous authors including some of Hemingway's good friends, and subjects of A Moveable Feast, like F. Scott Fitzgerald.3 Scribner's heavily promoted A Moveable Feast, running multiple page spreads in Publisher's Weekly, and other publications. They released the book amidst a time of great success for non-fiction in America, with books dealing with the subject of President Kennedy selling rampantly. Scribner's was eager to publish the book in 1960 when Hemingway approached them with the manuscript, knowing that with his name on the book it would be, at worst, a very moderately successful book. The book was in fact very "highly praised" by editors from Scribner's who were eager to publish the novel, and even serialize it.4 Much of the book's success came from the material published within the book itself, but some of it's success was due to the fact that this book, through early, full publication in Life Magazine, extensive advertisement in literary journals such as Publisher's Weekly, and other forms of mass advertisement, was a well marketed, and well timed, book on the part of Scribner's.
The Biography/ Memoirs Bestseller
A Moveable Feast was marketed by Scribner's as a biography, even though the preface written by Hemingway stated that the reader could regard the book as a work of fiction. This probably worked to the publisher's advantage because it was widely known that Hemingway led a life of African safaris, Spanish bullfights, and warfront rescues, and readers wanted to read about the life of this adventurous man, especially because it dealt with his early life and the beginning of his successful career. The biography also traditionally paints a more intimate picture of the author, which was something that readers were eager to discover about Hemingway. Although he wrote about being in Africa, and on the warfront, it was often assumed that Hemingway never really wrote about who he really was. Readers and colleagues of his hoped that with the release of this posthumous autobiography, many of the intimate details of his life, and his personality would be revealed. Whether or not that is achieved in the novel is a frequent point of discussion. Since the book was written only about a small portion of Hemingway's life, it could not ably portray who Hemingway, as a whole, was, but it did "represent the writer in a state of original grace,"5 said Peter Messent. This idyllic portrayal of the youthful writer was one that was lapped up by eager readers. Those who were contemporaries of Hemingway lived vicariously through him as they experienced an age of youthful artists in Paris that they had somehow missed while growing up, and those who were younger than him were attracted to the youthful themes of freedom, independence, and discovery that ran throughout the novel. By categorizing the book as a biography, Hemingway and Scribner's made it an entirely unique Hemingway novel that, regardless of the subject matter and just by it's category of biography alone, was separate from any of the preceding Hemingway novels. Due to this the book had immense selling power, as it became a staple for the avid Hemingway fan, and a change of pace for the general Hemingway reader.
The Wide Appeal/Literary Bestseller
Another reason for the immense success of this book lies in the fact that it appealed to a very broad spectrum of people. A Moveable Feast was able to appeal to the older contemporaries of Hemingway who had grown up in the 20s. It was this generation of people that was able to relate to the movement of young American authors to Paris in the early 20th century. This was the period that they had grown up in, and so this book gave them a sense of connection with a nostalgic past of youthful European independence that they had, or had wished to experience when growing up. The book was also appealing to the more youthful crowd of the 60s because it was written about a young writer who was of the same age. The book had themes of independence and freedom, portrayed by the youthful Hemingway, who moved to Paris to find his inspiration as a young writer. It also contained themes of discovery as Dr. Robert Lucid stated, "Hemingway's scene invokes the things that still matter to young people who are just starting out: the experience of new learning and the initiation that goes with it, along with the discovery of new community, new friends, new love and new loneliness."6 These were all themes and ideas that spoke to the youthful crowd of the 1960s. Aside from the age barriers, this novel was also unique in the fact that it was one of the few novels by an author who was a highly respected literary figure. This meant that scholars as well as those people who normally read bestsellers were likely candidates to purchase this book. Being a literary bestseller also gave this book an immensely longer shelf life because it meant that this book would be taught and discussed in the classroom, a much more unlikely fate for a Danielle Steele novel. It seems that as long as a book is being taught, discussed, and purchased by students and scholars, it will continue to be in print. A Moveable Feast's ability to appeal to a massive base of readers was one of the ultimate successes of the book.
A Moveable Feast was a success due to many factors. That is not to say that the book itself does not merit bestseller-like sales it achieved. Many critics agree that this was one of Hemingway's greatest books, but its success was undoubtedly aided by many factors. It was a novel that carried with it the name of one of the greatest American Authors of the 20th century, and was released after his death. It was marketed as an intimate portrait of a daring, yet private man, and was done so by an extremely successful publishing house. It was also a novel that communicated to a broad spectrum of people, young and old, intellectual readers and average readers alike. The book was bound to succeed, regardless of its quality, and did in fact succeed in the end because of a mixture of its literary quality, and many other, well calculated outside forces.
1 Burwell, Rose Marie "Hemingway The Postwar Years and the Posthumous Novels" p149
2 Burwell, Rose Marie "Hemingway The Postwar Years and the Posthumous Novels" p149
3 Tebbel, John. History of Book Publishing in the United States. Vol. II. 1975. New York: Bowker. p224
4 Burwell, Rose Marie "Hemingway The Postwar Years and the Posthumous Novels" p180.
5 Messent, Peter Ernest Hemingway
6 http://www.upenn.edu/almanac/v42/n31/read.html Dr. Robert F. Lucid