Hemingway's Key West Tour
"He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees. The mountainside sloped gently where he lay; but below it was steep and he could see the dark of the oiled road and far down the pass he saw a mill beside the stream and the falling water of the dam, white in the summer light."
So begins my favorite Hemingway novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, as Robert Jordon surveys the bridge he was sent to destroy and the men he must kill to survive.
Monday, June 21, 1999, marked Ernest Hemingway's 100th birthday, providing an impetus to this commentary. As a novelist, I love his work but pity the man. His womanizing, his infidelity, his driven need for excesses and self-satisfaction are the distinguishing characteristics of a man I would not want as a friend, would not want to introduce to my wife, would not want my children to be influenced by.
But as a writer, especially in For Whom the Bell Tolls, thanks to Hemingway the writer, I can see, feel, hear and sense in my mind the complex world of a combat soldier fighting for a sense of honor, certainly a cause, but above all for those around him whom he has come to love -- Maria romantically -- the others in the band of guerillas as comrades to live and die, with and for. Hemingway, at his best, presents it all - the physical world, sensed by people who love and hate, who make mistakes and regret them, who wish for a chance to do things over but must watch the sun rise over a world of their own creation.
I have finally accepted, after reading and re-reading his works, Hemingway as the great author he was, his words living on in the thumbed volumes so often pulled from the shelf, despite the man.
If you want to admire Hemingway, go to one of his homes where fellow admirers have gathered icons from his past. The redemption in my tour of his Key West home spilled from the memories of his literary works the relics generated, And so the tour - Key West (click on the thumbnails for full-sized photos - all taken in the Hemingway Key West home):
The glass fish with the iridescent back of a trout first reminded me of those early outdoor short stories, Nick fishing and living alone in the wilderness, a voice of oneness with the wild, a realization that man is no better than the other creatures of God's earth. Then my mind flashed to Jake in The Sun Also Rises, a man struggling to live with his war wounds - to his mind and to his body. Far from the American mid-west, Hemingway takes us to the Spanish trout streams to explain life, but all too soon returns to the bull ring to explain death.
Many teachers of Hemingway in college courses focus on "...what are the motivations of the characters?" Perhaps there is some beneficial value to this exercise, but to analyze any literary work - in my view - focus should not be on what an imaginary character might be thinking, nor even what the author might have been thinking, but rather what the author wants the reader to think. After all, authors write to influence people. Perhaps there is an underlying base of the individual author's moral or ethical convictions in his or her writing, but an accomplished writer's overriding motivation should be to create a fictional world where moral and ethical decisions are made, for right or wrong, to create anxiety, tension, suspense, happiness, the full range of emotional responses for the reader. Hemingway was the master of creating emotional tension in the minds of his characters and allowing the reader to examine these dilemmas without the anguish of really living them.
Hemingway spoke through his characters about relationships, their frailties and their strengths. He described war and the violence and random death that visit the battlefield, searching out the weak and the innocent - perhaps even more than the strong and the guilty. He wrote military adventures that were romantic tragedies and African hunting adventures that were even more tragic.
...After sharing a battlefield meal of macaroni, cheese and stale wine in A Farewell to Arms, Passini, the ambulance driver fatally wounded by an artillery shell, cried out for help, but Lieutenant Henry couldn't move, his own legs shattered... Hemingway's war stories seem to always end in tragedy, from Jake's impotence in The Sun Also Rises to Henry's escape from execution and the death of his lover and their still-born son in A Farewell to Arms. In For Whom the Bell Tolls we all understood from the beginning that Robert Jordan had volunteered to fight on the side of a doomed foreign insurgency. Hemingway has us, the readers, convinced that Jordan truly believes in the war against the Fascist government, enough to die in battle, not to offer excuses when the going gets tough as we have recently seen happen in reality to at least one American volunteer in Afghanistan.
I came away from reading The Sun Also Rises imbued with hope, convinced that sacrifice was noble if friends and lovers were the beneficiaries, but was cruelly reminded in A Farewell to Arms that war in general was barbaric and always results in a loss of life that a civilized world should never accept. But alas, he reminds us, man falls short in the cold dawn. These invoked feelings make Hemingway's personal failures and irresponsibilities worth overlooking. Perhaps he was only flesh and blood like the rest of us.
Hemingway seemed to have been a man who sought fame and glory - as an ambulance driver, dabbling with the OSS in WWII - as an author hobnobbing with the great and famous. But, as in the man in "Hills Like White Elephants" suggests abortion rather than face life as a father and husband, Hemingway often wrote of shirking the greatest of duties and commitments. And that is how he apparently led his life, searching for a greater love, forsaking those who loved him.
Were these tragedies a foretelling of Hemingway's own life? Or a journal of what had already happened, at least in his mind? For a better understanding of depression, the effects of alcohol and the influence of other people, please take time to read Darkness Visible by William Styron. Not until I heard Styron personally explain the illness of depression did I realize the depths of Hemingway's affliction and the intensity of his despair.
I guess the photo of the cat lapping at the never-ending flow typifies Hemingway for me. The urn sits on top of a metal tray that Hemingway reputedly dragged home from Sloppy Joe's - one of his favorite Key West haunts - when the proprietors threw away the tray, originally used as a urinal, with the comment that "...he had pissed away so much of his money in the bar that he felt like he owned the urinal...." or words to that effect. His wife, Mary, had the tray disguised with an urn to make a fountain by the pool. Today, the meandering calico cats, each with a female movie star name and reputedly a descendant of Hemingway's original fifty calicos, ignore the curious and the reverent. The docents at the house have trained at least one cat to pose at the urn as each group of tourists approach. Hemingway's love of nature, drunkenness, and commercialized whimsy, all point to a life of adventure, frustrations and wonderful literature.
Hemingway, in his preface to Ernest Hemingway, The Short Stories, mentioned Key West as one of his favorite places to write. I wonder - would he be better, more prolific, or just more wordy with a modern computer to replace the Remington?