When Wallace Stevens punched Ernest Hemingway in the face


Let’s face it, if anyone ever deserved a punch in the jaw, then it was Papa Hemingway…

I had always believed that Wallace Stevens, poet and insurance company executive, led a life of exemplary dullness, all but devoid of incident. But then I came across a passing reference to the time he punched Ernest Hemingway on the jaw…

It happened in Key West, where Stevens was on a visit. ‘He came again sort of pleasant like the cholera,’ noted Hemingway, clearly no friend of the man from Hartford. ‘First I knew of it,’ writes Hem in a letter to Sara Murphy, a wealthy friend, ‘my nice sister Ura (Ursula) 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 [sic] just said, I learned later, ”By God I wish I had that Hemingway here now I’d knock him out with a single punch.’

Stevens, according to Hemingway, took a swing at him but missed, and Hem struck back. ‘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…’ Stevens, however, did manage to land what Hemingway calls his ‘Sunday punch’ on Hem’s jaw, breaking his hand in the process.


This unedifying incident ended with Stevens limping away to recuperate, telling his wife back home that he’d hurt himself falling down stairs. According to Hemingway, the poet apologised ‘very handsomely’ to Ursula, and the two men quickly made up. Note that at the time of the brawl Hemingway was a fit and muscular young man in his 30s and Stevens was a 56-year-old sedentary office worker. Stevens seems to have borne the younger man no ill will, however, and often told the tale of  ‘that time I punched Hemingway’.

Will I ever be able to read The Idea of Order at Key West again without getting an intrusive image of Stevens’ fist making contact with Hemingway’s deserving jaw?

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About Author Profile: Nige

Cravat-Wearer of the Year Nige, who, like Mr Kenneth Horne, prefers to remain anonymous, is a founder blogger of The Dabbler and has been a co-blogger on the Bryan Appleyard Thought Experiments blog. He is the sole blogger on Nigeness, and (for now) a wholly owned subsidiary of NigeCorp. His principal aim is to share various of life's pleasures.

6 thoughts on “When Wallace Stevens punched Ernest Hemingway in the face

  1. Brit
    June 9, 2015 at 11:42

    Who are the most punchable people in the literary world today, I wonder?

    I’m finding it hard to look past Will Self…

    • johngjobling@googlemail.com'
      June 10, 2015 at 09:23

      I will take your Will Self and throw in a Val McDermid, BBC Scotland’s in-house piffle monger on the subject of books wot people write.

  2. Worm
    June 9, 2015 at 13:54

    great story, shame he didn’t really connect

  3. guy.walker63@hotmail.co.uk'
    June 9, 2015 at 18:02

    But what was the cause of the animosity? Simple literary willy-waving, as some might have it?

  4. nigeandrew@gmail.com'
    June 10, 2015 at 09:22

    Andrew Motion!

  5. george.jansen55@gmail.com'
    June 11, 2015 at 22:56

    It is well known among brawlers that you should never strike anyone in the head with your hand, unless you don’t have anything harder to him with. I can understand Wallace Stevens not having heard of this rule.

    On another site I follow, somebody posted the link http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1950/05/13/how-do-you-like-it-now-gentlemen to what Evelyn Waugh described as “a gruesome and fascinating description of Mr Ernest Hemingway.” In Lillian Ross’s article, Hemingway talks a good deal about boxing (real by professional boxers, and his own figurative contests with e.g. Stendahl) but throws punches only at the air.

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