Penn State University professor Sandra Spanier has a job she never would have imagined 45 years ago when she was a student in Jerry Wadden’s English class at Des Moines’ Hoover High School.

Wadden was one of those teachers who could strike chords that reverberated throughout students’ lives. He did just that with Sandy Whipple – now professor Spanier – who went on to earn advanced degrees in English, teach at the college level and is now the general editor of the Hemingway Letters Project.

I asked her about the project last month when she was back for her 45th high school reunion.

“I always liked his work,” she said. “But I didn’t know much about him personally.” 

Spanier traces her role in the project back to the late 1970s, when she was looking for a subject for her Ph.D. dissertation. 

Her Penn State adviser, Philip Young, had written the first critical study of Hemingway in 1952.

“I wanted to do my dissertation on Hemingway, but Prof. Young wouldn’t let me,” Spanier said. “He said Hemingway had been done to death, and there was nothing new to say about him.” And there wasn’t, she added, because most of his letters were still private at that time.  

Young suggested that she study a lesser-known writer, and Spanier discovered Kay Boyle, a Hemingway contemporary who turned out to be a great subject. “She was everywhere history was happening during the 20th century” and wrote more than 40 books, Spanier said.

Boyle was in Paris at the same time as Hemingway during the 1920s but “was not particularly fond of him,” Spanier added.

Before Boyle died in 1992, she asked Spanier to compile a volume of her letters. 

Her work on Boyle’s letters caught the attention of the Hemingway Foundation, which asked her in 2002 to take the lead in sorting through 6,000 or so letters that resided in 70 or more libraries and private collections. 

The plan is to publish all 6,000 letters in chronological order in 17 volumes. The writer’s son, Patrick Hemingway, who is now 86, “wanted a scholarly, comprehensive collection of his father’s letters,” Spanier explained. 

She spent several years tracking down and copying letters. “We identified 1,900 different recipients,” she said. Then came the arduous task of placing each piece of correspondence in context. 

The first volume was published in 2011. It begins in 1907, when Hemingway was 8 years old, and runs through 1922. It includes his World War I service as a teenage ambulance driver in France and in Italy, where he was wounded.

A second volume, covering the early Paris years from 1923 to 1925, was published last October. 

Spanier said her job is “to make the letters accessible to readers.” Normally, books like “The Letters of Ernest Hemingway” are aimed at scholars and found only in libraries or on academic shelves. “But Hemingway is a unique case,” she said. “Interest in him transcends all boundaries.” So the Hemingway volumes are being sold in retail outlets.  

“I wanted this to be fun to read, because his letters are wonderful, very unguarded. Some are funny. Some are nasty. Sometimes, they’re very touching. They show sides of him that people don’t expect,” she said

“His macho character was just one facet,” she explained. He was also “a very doting father,” particularly with his firstborn son, Jack, who was nicknamed Bumby

“He’ll be writing to Gertrude Stein or Alice B. Toklas about something literary and then say how many teeth Bumby has,” Spanier said.

Readers will also be surprised at the breadth of Hemingway’s knowledge of opera and art and his love of Russian writers, she said. 

One who won’t be surprised is Wadden, the now-retired Hoover High English teacher. He always had high expectations for his students.