What began as an interesting side trip, the thing to do just because I was in Key West, has ignited into what I’ll call, for now, an insatiable interest in Ernest Hemingway.
It didn’t happen immediately. Or if it did, I didn’t notice. But the thing that was three weeks ago fuzzy has since grown sharp and clear; why looking through the lens of hindsight always helps, especially when far removed from whatever nouns and adjectives are under study.
Hemingway thought so. The pieces he created grew out of memories, out of real people and places he knew spiced up with questions of ‘what-if’, which he attempted to bring to life using everyday words.
“Actually if a writer needs a dictionary he should not write”, he wrote to Bernard Berenson, in a 1953 letter. “He should have read the dictionary at least three times from beginning to end and then have loaned it to someone who needs it.” (Selected Letters, p. 809)
No only do I sometimes need a dictionary. At times, I like a thesaurus too. And that I regard spell-check as a “must-do” may mean I’ve no business in writing. But… oh well… Here I am at home. Three weeks gone from Key West. So why not begin with a nod to Hemingway’s style by boiling that tiny two-day visit all the way down?
I’m glad I went to Key West. And did all the touristy things a tourist there ‘must do’, like sip margaritas and eat cheeseburgers in paradise at Jimmy Buffett’s place, and tour Harry Truman’s “the buck stops here” Little White House and of course, the beautiful two-story house at 907 Whitehead Street, renovated by Pauline Pfieffer, Hemingway’s second wife. But perhaps surprising of all, I’m glad we stumbled upon a wonderful renovated cinema managed by the local art society, where we took time to view one of this year’s Academy Award nominated films; Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is not, I think, a bad description of Old Town’s main drag of Duval Street.
Though Key West was grand in spite of its touristy tarnish, I feel no need to ever return. To put it all into a coconut nutshell, once a lifetime is quite enough, thank you. For there are so many other places in this big beautiful world I wish to see more. And because of my visit to “Hem’s” place, some of them just happen to be where Hemingway worked and lived and wrote about.
Oh-my-gosh did I ever leave Key West with a strong hankering for things Havana — late 1950s please — and of course, Hemingway owned a home just outside that he shared with wives #3 and #4 — and of course they have names — but in interest of boiling it all down, let me call them Martha and Mary. (As an aside, from what I’ve read, they seem very much like that Biblical pair whose names they bear, since Martha enjoyed her work best and Mary, if not at his feet, at least kept close to Hem’s side.) If not illegal for U.S. citizens, I would travel to Cuba in a heartbeat. And I would peek through those windows and doorways, yes I would, to see where Hemingway lived for twenty years, the place he left fully furnished with clothes still hanging in the closet and liquor lined up on the cocktail hour table and his beloved fishing yacht in the water because he never imagined he wouldn’t return.
And how I would love to go to Paris again but this time see Hemingway’s Paris and then on to Spain, not to run with the bulls but to walk where Hemingway walked, to see what he saw. And before that, to re-read his words all over again in The Sun Also Rises and to remember how in 1926, his way of a writing was the breaking of new ground. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
Yes, I’ve got the Hem bug bad. Looking back, my low-resistance was there from first unhesitating footsteps — why my husband and I had no more parked our car and suitcases before we were out the hotel door and standing before Hemingway’s brick wall. Ironic how what once was erected to keep out tourists now looks like a gateway drug to me. But that’s a story for another day. Or not.
In the meantime, I’ve plenty of arm-chair traveling to do since Michael Palin’s Hemingway Adventure just arrived in the mail. I’m keen to know what this once Monty Python star saw and wrote of his travels across Hemingway’s world map. But before I set off in that direction, can I ask whether you remember that opening bit in the film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, where horse hoofs were made by clopping together coconut shells?
When the solider says — “Are you suggesting coconuts migrate?” — I must confess, off screen, that mine do. The contents I earlier put into a coconut nutshell has migrated all over the map. But then, it’s hard to boil anything down about Hemingway, whether in a coconut nutshell. Or in a book. Or in television. Or in the movies. Or in a museum. That’s why there’s so much OUT THERE about Hemingway. Everyone wishes to take a jab at him. Because the man who wrote sparse prose didn’t live the same way — all those wives — all those travels and all those places he called home — well, they had a way of cluttering up his story line — making it difficult for anyone to put Hem in his place.
But boy hidy, it’s hard not to try.
What a fascinating trip you’ve made, Janell. And I can sense your excitement of visiting Hem’s place and going on a Hem binge. 😉 My closest to a Hemingway residence was my visit to his former home in Toronto, where Hadley gave birth to Bumby. I was reading The Paris Wife while there, and took some photos of the site, which now is an apartment complex with the name “The Hemingway”. If you’re interested, you can read my post here. Unlike you, I can go to Cuba. So maybe one day I just might do that and post some photos on my blog. 😉 Thanks for sharing your wonderful journey to Key West, Janell.
I remember your posts on Paula McClain’s “The Paris Wife: A Novel” and Ernest Hemingway’s “The Moveable Feast” very well. The first inspired me to purchase the book and the second confirmed an earlier purchase I had made — I bought EH’s book while In Iowa City two summers ago, not realizing then it was his memoir.
I’ve read both works now — as it happens, while in the Florida Keys. Like you, while traveling in Toronto and stopping by “The Hemingway”, I was mid-way through McClain’s novel when touring Ernest and Pauline’s Key West home. It’s funny now, but at the time I was carrying such Hadley-loyalty within me — sparked by McClain’s narrative — that I couldn’t fully enjoy the place Pauline had created for her and Ernest!
Knowing more about Hemingway’s marital and extra-marital affairs now, I wonder what McClain could “do” with Pauline’s story. She is such an interesting character — so human in her needs and desires and obvious in her conflictedness about wishing to be Hadley’s friend and Ernest’s wife simultaneously.
This coming July, taking the scenic route home from Iowa City, I hope to visit Pauline’s family home in Piggott, Arkansas, which is now the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum and Educational Center. I imagine I might encounter a more compassionate side to Pauline’s story with Ernest and Hadley there. Piggott’s a long way from the Cuba of my heart — and yes, go if you like and I’ll live vicariously through your photos and words — but it’s a mini-pilgrimage none the less — way off the beaten track, I can’t imagine many who “just happen” to be in Piggott without Hemingway on the mind!
Your enthusiasm and excitement are clear – and your sense of connection to Hemingway, too. At first I stumbled over the nickname, wondering who you were talking about. When I first read “Hem”, my first thought was of Hemi high performance engines – not quite what you had in mind. But, Wiki was my friend, and I learned that “Hem” was one of several nicknames.
Sometimes I think Hemingway’s rantings about plain and simple words were a part of an attempt to build his persona. A little literary jealousy may have played into it, too. He used to rail at Faulkner for his use of words, but I think it’s clear the good Faulkner did all right, using language in his own way.
As for Key West, I share your once-is-enough feeling. I will confess I’d be happy to return if I could be there only in the off-season, early in the morning, drinking Cuban coffee and eating pastries while the tourists still were sleeping it off. Otherwise? I can have a cheeseburger and listen to Buffett at home. 😉
Yes, we’ve “talked” of the joys of Cuban coffee before. But you’re right — Key West in the early morning — even in high season — was grand. It makes a good memory, streets and sidewalks bare but for a few strutting roosters doing their darned best to cockle-doodle-do tourists awake. I couldn’t help but snap a few photos of sleepy Key West — and the roosters too. But the entire time we were there, I kept wondering what Key West looked like, when it was the “sleepy fishing village’ Hemingway met.
That’s part of the appeal of Hem’s Cuba place. Like the old fifties cars that travel the streets of Havana, Finca Vigia is, I understand, freeze-framed too. And as I think on it, freezing frames is also what good writing can do — not still framed, but rather those that move with life across the eye, with words working like a series of movie frames to conjure within the reader’s mind a place, a time, an event, a person or a feeling.
I find Hemingway does this very well — though I can’t speak about Faulkner’s work, since I put aside the only book of his I attempted, half-way in. Thinking about that more, I suppose I’ve categorize Faulkner in the Key West category, as a once-in-a-life-time experience. But maybe I should keep an open mind with Faulkner since I once thought Hemingway would prove more than I could chew too. Would you believe I’ve kept a trio of Hemingway’s best known works unread on my shelves for thirty years thinking they’d be too difficult for me to understand. Guess this shows it’s always good to sample and to keep sampling, to push beyond biases and perceptions to the thing underneath and beyond.
So if you’d like to recommend the finest of Faulkner for my reading pleasure, I’ll give him another go.