Lyrical Inventions
A Review of H.K. Bush’s The Hemingway Files
Edward Uehling

While he was away on sabbatical last fall, my friend Mark Schwehn sent one copy of a novel to three of his friends back home. A sealed envelope bore the warning to open it only after completing the book; the enclosed letter instructed the reader to pass it along to the next person on the list so that we could have a good discussion when he returned. After my turn, I passed it on as instructed and also recommended it to another friend. That friend was so taken with the story that he bought a copy for his brother, three more copies for friends, as well as one for their local library. It is rare and wonderful when a book generates such a sense of community.

The novel, The Hemingway Files, is the first novel by H. K. Bush, who presses into service very real literary figures to interact with an array of fictional characters. It begins with a message for the reader from (the fictional) Professor Martin Dean at Indiana University Bloomington. Dean explains that he has received four packages and letters from a favorite former student, Jack Springs (also fictional), with instructions to open them in order. Jack had completed his bachelor’s degree at IU, and afterward went on to receive a Ph.D. in American literature at Yale and a three-year post-doctoral position in Kobe, Japan. There he comes under the influence of a renowned scholar of American literature, Professor Goto, who becomes his mentor or “sensei.”

In a separate letter to Dean, Jack’s father writes of his son’s untimely death from cancer at the age of forty-four and acknowledges that he does not know the contents of the parcels.

Our literary mystery begins with a signed first edition of The Old Man and the Sea and Jack’s self-conscious description of his farewell “letter to the world,” to borrow “sister Emily” [Dickinson’s] terms. Jack and Dean are well matched in literary tastes and, slightly less obviously, religious sensibilities. The story proper is Jack’s letter to Martin Dean, and Dean’s italicized commentary at the end of each chapter is crucial to our listening in on the “words, words, words” between life-long friends.

The epistolary framework of the novel contributes skillfully to its tone and meaning. The reader can well imagine a young scholar who, facing death, wants to find the right audience and setting to tell the truth about his adventure. And as one writer/reader to another, Jack carefully frames his tale in the opening pages. For instance, he quotes (the real) war correspondent Michael Herr, author of Dispatches: “The problem was that you didn’t always know what you were seeing until later, maybe years later, that a lot of it never made sense at all; it just stayed stored there in your eyes” (18).

When Jack discovers that he has only months to live, the oncologist says, “Consider this summer to be your gift. What do you want to do with it?” He realizes that setting things right will require help, which is why he calls on Dean. He concludes his appeal with the first of many quotes from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “A friend may well be reckoned the masterpiece of nature” (24).

Martin Dean accepts the challenge of being that friend, editor, and critic with this caution for us as well as himself: “The lyrical inventions of the great artists can indeed set us free, but if we’re not deliberate in our careful use and stewardship of them, their narcotic effects can imprison us as well” (26). (I’m roughly a contemporary of Dean, so I’m familiar with The Scholar Adventurers, a wonderful book by Richard Altick that charmed English graduate students of my time. As we toiled—pre-computer—at assigned bibliographic searches in the bowels of the library, we’d occasionally conjure Altick’s representation of academic life as an exotic search for lost or unknown literary manuscripts. Dean would have had similar experiences to mine, which were designed to instill in us a reverence for primary texts.)

Bush, a professor of English at St. Louis University who has spent time as a senior fellow at Waseda Institute in Tokyo, draws from his personal experience of Japan to give readers nuanced understanding of the cultural conflicts that arise in the relationships Jack develops with Professor Goto and Mika, Goto’s beautiful niece. Their early discussions of Japanese art and American literature are thrilling to Jack. And although he is keenly attuned to nuances of denotation and connotation, as well as the great divide between their academic and financial circumstances, Jack naivete is notable. For instance, as he records his first impressions of Mika: “[She] glided effortlessly into the room with another hot pot of tea...She did not look me in the eye, but she was fully there, fragrant as cut flowers in her splendid garment” (62). We notice, as Goto does, that Jack is smitten; only we are amused.

The great strength of the novel develops through the literary discussions between Jack and Goto and then the subsequent commentary by Martin Dean for us, his readers. As we listen to Goto, we learn he has broken from the easier, modern path of industrial wealth that his father and brother have followed. Goto is hardly poor, and his extravagant collection of first edition books and previously undiscovered letters represents a traditional, even old-fashioned, path, as well as a source of power. Although the title of the novel refers both to some lost Hemingway stories and Goto’s meetings with Ezra Pound and Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley, the most important influences on Goto, Jack, and eventually Martin Dean are Emerson and Melville and, finally, Walt Whitman.

Jack and Goto share an interest in literary letters. When Jack researches Goto’s dissertation from the mid-1950’s, “Transcendental Friendship in Emerson’s Essays, Letters, and Life,” he is fascinated with “the idea that a friendship might become transcendental, somehow revelatory of the nature of God, or the Oversoul, and that such a friendship might be partly inspired by the writing of letters” (90). Thinking of this statement and Emerson’s earlier depiction of friendship led me to recall Asher Brown Durand’s famous Hudson River painting “Kindred Spirits.” It is not difficult to imagine Dean coming to such a moment when he realizes how he has been drawn into Jack’s narrative: “In effect, Jack’s story was destined to become wedded to my own story and would change my life in ways I could never have foreseen. An uncanny result, one that Jack had perhaps planned all along” (123-24).

Game on. And what a game it is. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot; the novel’s careful narration allows us to experience twists and turns as they occur. But some information may be helpful. First, Jack has been assigned a guide from within the English Department, Miyamoto, who is sullen and somewhat threatening. We eventually discover that he was once a confidant of Goto and assisted him in small projects. He also has designs on Mika. It takes Jack a long time to understand the danger that Miyamoto represents to him. Jack enjoys the company of other new faculty, and he likes his students, although he is generally disappointed in their level of seriousness and preparation. His travels in Japan are interesting, as are his friendships—particularly that with Jim, an American friend who has temporarily joined a Buddhist monastery outside Kyoto.

But the heart of the novel is in the developing relationship between Jack and Goto and, at last, Dean’s and our understanding of that relationship. A brief reference to Goto’s letter from Ezra Pound exemplifies the complexity of feelings. Goto reveals documents to Jack in a carefully determined order; when he hands over the Pound letter, we sense a complicated shift in this friendship, which is now of two years duration. Jack reads the letter, “flabbergasted,” and asks Goto when he expected to make the letter available to scholars.

‘It is not something we need to hurry.... Every year that I withhold my secret, its value doubles, I should say!’ He enjoyed his little treasure now, laughing as a child might with a new toy.

‘Of course it is already unique, and thus almost impossible to appraise. What you hold in your hand may in fact be one of the most valuable single sheets of paper in American literary collecting. And you are only the fifth person to know of its existence—at least, to my knowledge. This should be a matter of some small enjoyment for you” (209).

Goto sends Jack on a luxurious vacation to Paris under the guise of courier duty (authenticating and sneaking through customs a collection of letters between Mark Twain and Joseph Twichell). When Jack expresses concern over the ethics of this transaction, Goto is so furious that they do not see each other until a year later, on the day of the famous earthquake. In his commentary at the end of this chapter, Dean observes,

“It was shocking, to say the least, to realize Jack had been caught up doing the legwork for a man whose substantial literary collection had been accumulated by, perhaps, questionable means. And the recognition that an old academic, not unlike myself, can be revealed suddenly to contain twisted and even menacing traits of monomania and conceit was more than a little disconcerting. I was shocked, that is, but also entranced by a sort of self-revelation. For Goto’s journey was one on which but for the grace of God, each of us might embark, if and when we become obsessed by the delights of this or that passing shadow” (238).


On January 17, 1995, Jack is awakened in his apartment by violently moving furniture, books, and appliances. Quickly he rushes to the badly damaged home of his sensei, Goto, where he finds him pinned beneath a ceiling beam. It will be their last lesson, and before Jack escapes with an unbelievable inherited library, they will once again read from Emerson to reclaim their friendship as “a spiritual gift.” The lesson ends with Jack responding to his friend’s request that he read Whitman’s poem “The Sleepers.”

After the earthquake, Jack Springs returns to a position in an American university, where he teaches for fifteen years before the cancer appears. From Jack, Martin Dean will receive a final letter of inheritance that moves him to travel to Japan and a Buddhist monastery, symbolically enough, on Independence Day.

Whether readers are academicians or not, they will find the ending of the novel deeply engaging on the ideas of friendship and spiritual wholeness. The level of understanding Bush aims for is impressive, perhaps even inspirational. You won’t want to miss it.



Edward Uehling is professor emeritus of English at Valparaiso University.

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