Not everyone knows that Ernest Hemingway spent more than 20 years living in Cuba, at Finca Vigía on the edge of Havana. Now, a restoration center has opened on the property where Hemingway wrote The Old Man and the Sea, A Moveable Feast, and Islands in the Stream, with holdings that include manuscripts, letters, and photographs belonging to the writer. It’s been noted that the whole process would have been much easier if, ahem, someone hadn’t been tightening the U.S. trade embargo with Cuba again… But officials involved hope that projects like this one might eventually help foster better relations between the two countries.
Image credit: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
1.In Havana, Ernest Hemingway’s restless ghost lingers more palpably than in any of the other places in the world that can legitimately claim him: Paris, Madrid, Sun Valley, Key West. Havana was his principal home for more than three decades, and its physical aspect has changed very little since he left it, for the last time, in the spring of 1960.
I’ve been traveling to the city with some regularity since 1999, when I directed one of the first officially sanctioned programs for U.S. students in Cuba since the triumph of Fidel Castro’s 1959 Revolution. As an aspiring novelist, I’ve long been interested in Hemingway’s work, but I had no idea how prominently Havana figured in the author’s life — nor how prominently the author figured in the city’s defining iconography — until I began spending time there.
Well-preserved Hemingway locations abound in Havana. They include the Hotel Ambos Mundos, where the author lived throughout the ’30s in a room that is now a small museum; the Floridita, which serves overpriced “Hemingway daiquiris,” and contains a life-size bronze likeness of the writer with its elbow on the bar; the Bodeguita del Medio, which has Hemingway’s signature on the wall and claims to have been his favorite place for a mojito; and La Terraza, the restaurant overlooking the small harbor that was the point of departure and return for Santiago’s epic voyage in The Old Man and the Sea. These sites are not just tourist spots, though they certainly are that. They also serve as shrines and landmarks in the city’s defining mythology. The essence of this mythology is captured in the black-and-white photos taken in the months following the 1959 Revolution, later made into postcards. These feature images of Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos — and Ernest Hemingway.
To get a feel for the author’s Cuba years, let us begin with a single one: 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression. By the third week in July of that year, according to Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story, Carlos Baker’s comprehensive 1969 biography of the author, Hemingway had notched his 100th day of fishing in the waters north of Havana. He’d caught more than 50 marlin, including a 750-pounder he’d brought to hand within casting distance of the Morro, the white stone fortress presiding over the entrance to Havana Bay. The yacht he’d rented had been rammed so many times by swordfish that it was starting to leak, so he decided to buy himself a new one, a diesel-powered, 38-foot cruiser from Wheeler Shipyards in Brooklyn. He named it the Pilar, which was also his secret nickname for his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer — whose family money, as it happened, was financing the couple’s highly mobile lifestyle: a revolving calendar of stays in Havana, Madrid, Paris, New York, Key West, and the Serengeti.
Already a literary star on the strength of his first two novels, The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell to Arms (1929), Hemingway chose Havana as his base that summer because of its proximity to one of the planet’s best places to pursue big game fish. As he later wrote in Holiday magazine, he was drawn to the Gulfstream, that “great, deep blue river, three quarters of a mile to a mile deep and sixty to eighty miles across.” He was especially captivated by the marlin, which, from the flying bridge of the Pilar, looked “more like a huge submarine bird than a fish.”
The author had first visited Havana in April of 1928, for a brief stop on his steamer journey back from Europe at the end of those romantic Paris-based years he later portrayed so vividly in The Moveable Feast (1964). It proved to be a significant layover for Hemingway — and for Havana — because he discovered something about the place that made him want to return. The central ambition of Hemingway’s life was, as he wrote in Esquire in 1934, to create novels and stories “truer than if they had really happened,” and he was continually in search of gritty, colorful, and intense experience that would serve as fodder for this quest. Cuba, like Spain, was an ideal setting for this sort of experience, not only because of the excellent fishing, but also because it was a flashpoint for political upheaval. In April 1931, a general uprising in Spain had resulted in the fall of the Bourbon monarchy, marking the beginning of a new Republic, and in August 1933, a popular uprising in Havana overthrew the dictatorship of President Gerardo Machado. Hemingway, who had a lifelong distaste for authoritarian rule, joined in the celebration of both events, but the turmoil that followed in their wake would have enduring impacts on his creative life.
In the ’30s, according to Carlos Baker, Hemingway was feeling increasing career pressure as an author. The New York critics had savaged his most recent books, Death in the Afternoon (1932) and Winner Take Nothing (1933). He’d written enough stories about sport and animal dismemberment, they complained. Why didn’t he move on to something new? He wrote another novel, To Have and Have Not (1937), and it was a decent story — but decent wasn’t enough. A young novelist from California, John Steinbeck, was garnering critical attention and threatening to usurp Hemingway’s rightful place atop the pantheon of American writers. Hemingway needed a book as great as The Sun Also Rises or A Farewell to Arms — as great, more pressingly, as Of Mice and Men (1937) or The Grapes of Wrath (1939). He needed a masterpiece, and he was worried that he’d lost his ability to write one.
All these factors contributed to his decision, in 1936, to go cover the Spanish Civil War as a filmmaker and newspaper journalist. He joined a score of other international correspondents based in the Hotel Florida, in Madrid. He fell in love with a tall blonde writer and war correspondent named Martha Gellhorn, and naively allowed himself to become implicated in some unsavory intrigue with a ring of Soviet advisors to the Republican high command. It was an exhilarating time for Hemingway. He took every opportunity to observe the fighting, both at a distance and up close. The ground shook with daily barrages of Fascist artillery, reducing the Gran Vía to rubble, and he felt more alive than he had in years.
Eventually, the tragic war lurched toward its close. By the winter of 1939, with the triumph of Fascism looking inevitable, Hemingway decided it was time to get back to writing. He packed up his copious notes and booked his passage home to Havana, intending to work on a collection of three long stories or novellas. Instead, he was struck by a sudden inspiration for the story that would become his majestic novel of the Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). As the words began to pile up in his old fifth floor room at the Hotel Ambos Mundos, his excitement grew. He could feel it. This was the masterpiece he’d been hoping for.
In April of that year, he was joined by Martha Gellhorn, who was to become his third wife. Unwilling to live permanently in a hotel room, she located a down-at-the-mouth estate 15 miles from Old Havana called the Finca Vigía. Though the house was in need of work, it was favorably positioned on a hill washed by cool sea breezes, with distant views of the bone-white city and the glittering blue Straits of Florida beyond. In 1940, For Whom the Bell Tolls was published to critical and popular acclaim. His authorial confidence restored, Hemingway resumed the life of a migratory sportsman, with Martha as his companion and the newly renovated Finca Vigía as his long-term base.
Once the accolades died down, however, he sank into another valley of malaise. As he’d long been predicting, hostilities broke out in Europe. The fighting spread rapidly, and as of December 7, 1941, America too became involved. He’d written his masterpiece, sure, but now the entire world was consumed by war. He’d been a first-hand witness in two of the century’s defining military clashes. The idea of sitting this one out was unimaginable. Still, he wasn’t quite ready to abandon Cuba, or the good fishing, or his comfortable life at the Finca Vigía.
He was on good terms with top officials at the U.S. Embassy in Havana. With their approval, he put together a counterintelligence operation to address the infiltration of Cuba by Nazi spies. It was believed that the spies had found accessories among the many Cubans who supported the new Spanish dictator, Francisco Franco. The situation was seen as particularly dangerous because of the “wolf-pack” of German U-boats preying on Allied shipping throughout the Caribbean. Operations began in the summer of 1942, with the Finca as headquarters and a collection of fishermen, bartenders, prostitutes, gunrunners, exiled noblemen, Basque jai-alai players, and long-time drinking buddies forming the personnel of Hemingway’s counterspy ring.
But intelligence proved an unsatisfying pursuit. Yearning once again to experience the dangers of combat, he showed up at the embassy with an audacious proposal. He would staff the Pilar with a well-armed crew and patrol the island’s north coast, posing as a team of scientists gathering data for the American Museum of Natural History. Inevitably, his reasoning went, they would be stopped by a U-Boat, at which point they would wait for the Nazi boarding party to emerge. His machine-gunners would mow down the boarding party, and his retired Basque jai-alai players would lob short-fuse bombs down the sub’s conning tower. All he needed to make it work, he told the ambassador, was good radio equipment, arms and ammunition, and official permission.
Amazingly, the ambassador approved this far-fetched scheme. The Pilar was outfitted with a powerful radio, a set of .50-caliber Browning machine guns, grenades, bombs, and a variety of small arms. Martha suspected that it was all just a ruse to fill the Pilar’s tank with strictly rationed wartime gasoline so Hemingway could resume his fishing trips, and in reality the detachment of faux scientists never did encounter a U-boat. But the author’s experiences during that period gave him some terrific material for fiction. The novel that resulted, Islands in the Stream (1970) — unfinished in his lifetime and only published posthumously — contains portrayals of tropical seascapes that rank among the best passages of nature writing in fiction.
When Martha left to become a war correspondent in London, Hemingway remained in Havana, his drinking on the rise, and the Finca Vigía in a state of increasing disarray. The truth was, he was torn. A part of him felt strongly that he should be following Martha off to the war, but another part was deeply reluctant to leave the place that he’d come to consider home, his beloved cats, his friends, his record player, the long days out on the Pilar, and the mojitos and daiquiris at his Havana haunts. Still, when Collier’s offered him a job covering the Allied invasion of Europe, he managed to pull himself together. He placed the cats in good homes and shuttered the Finca Vigía for a long absence.
Like many other episodes in his colorful life, Hemingway’s experiences in World War II make for an interesting story, though that story is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that participating in yet another war seemed to give his spirit a fresh infusion, and he returned from Europe in May of 1945 with his fourth wife, Mary Welsh. Together they resumed the wandering life, alternating seasons in Havana and Sun Valley with frequent trips to Africa, Italy, and Spain. The Finca Vigía now had a staff of seven full-time servants and a well-stocked bar and kitchen. Houseguests included Hollywood luminaries such as Gary Cooper and Ava Gardner, whom he’d gotten to know in Sun Valley and from working on the movie versions of For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) and To Have and Have Not (1944).
In December of 1950, he finally got around to writing a story he’d long had in mind, about an old fisherman from the Cuban town of Cojímar. He knew the town well; it was where he kept the Pilar, and he was a frequent patron of an eating and drinking establishment called La Terraza, which overlooked the small harbor featured in The Old Man and the Sea (1952), the last major work of fiction published in Hemingway’s lifetime. It won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954, providing a fitting capstone to a great career.
Throughout the 1950’s, the author’s health was declining. Worse, he was losing confidence in himself as a writer. In 1953, on safari in Africa, he and Mary were involved in a disastrous double plane crash, and he received a head injury from which he never fully recovered. It’s also fair to assume that his health and mental acuity were adversely affected by long-term alcohol abuse. People who saw him in the latter part of the decade were shocked by how old and frail he looked compared to the image of the vigorous sportsman and war reporter that had taken root the popular imagination. Still, he was managing to live an intermittently happy life, taking special pleasure in the company of the latest generation of the 57 cats that lived at the Finca Vigía during his decades there. “A cat has absolute emotional honesty,” he famously wrote. “Human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feelings, but a cat does not.”
The emotions behind Hemingway’s enduring legacy in Cuba click more clearly into focus when you talk to those who knew him when they were young. I spoke to an octogenarian fisherman in Cojímar who’d once been invited up to the Finca Vigía, along with several other young locals, to talk about his daily life and fishing practices, undoubtedly as background research for The Old Man and the Sea or Islands in the Stream. On the way back from his outings in the Pilar, Hemingway would throw towropes to local fishermen, saving them half a week’s wages in valuable gas. Indeed, the author went out of his way to maintain good relations with many working men — taxi drivers, bartenders, fishermen — with whom he was more at ease than the awestruck international visitors who were constantly knocking on his door.
The Cuban government has honored the author’s memory by preserving the Finca Vigía exactly as it was when he left it in the spring of 1960. It’s a profoundly evocative place. Hemingway’s well-stocked bookshelves are exactly as he kept them; the magazines strewn about the tables are all from 1959 and early 1960. His spectacles lie open on a side table; the typewriter where he worked rests on a shelf; several enormous pairs of shoes hang toe-down in a closet rack. The walls of the pleasantly airy and light-filled house display several of his big game trophies, including the actual physical remains of the animals that played starring roles in “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” (water buffalo), and The Green Hills of Africa (kudu). You can see the author’s handwriting on the bathroom wall, where he periodically inked his fluctuating weight during those difficult waning years.
The onset of the Cuban Revolution worried Hemingway — the explosion of a nearby munitions depot broke windows in the Finca Vigía — but according to Carlos Baker’s biography he was pleased in January of 1959, when Fulgencio Batista fled the country and Fidel Castro’s bearded revolutionaries rolled in to Havana. Hemingway was disgusted by Batista’s corrupt dictatorship, and he saw the Revolution as a positive change: “I wish Castro all the luck,” he said. “The Cuban people now have a decent chance for the first time ever.”
He did meet Fidel Castro, in November of 1959, at a fishing tournament west of Havana. The young Revolutionary leader won the tournament, and Hemingway presented the trophy. Castro said that he’d kept a copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls in his backpack during the years of guerilla insurgency in the Sierra Maestra, which must have been thrilling for Hemingway to hear. “I always regretted the fact that I didn’t…talk to him about everything under the sun,” Castro later remarked. “We only talked about the fish.”
At the Finca Vigía, downhill from the main house through shaded gardens, a walkway leads to the author’s voluminous pool. Drained now, it’s a dangerous-looking abyss, the slanting cement bottom painted blue, blown leaf litter piled in the deep end. Just below the pool, where the tennis court used to be, the Pilar rests in dry dock beneath a high tin roof. Bolted to the top of the boat is Hemingway’s custom-designed flying bridge, where he could steer the yacht and stand lookout for marlin, or U-boats. This few square feet of decking, upon which the author spent so many avid hours, is perhaps the place in Cuba where Hemingway’s troubled ghost bleeds through the thin tissue separating the living from the dead most unmistakably. It’s impossible not to visualize him standing there, gazing out over the prow as he steered the Pilar among the azure channels and white-sand keys of the island’s northern coast, as reflected in this passage from Islands in the Stream:
The water was clear and green over the sand and Thomas Hudson came in close to the center of the beach and anchored with his bow almost up against the shore. The sun was up and the Cuban flag was flying over the radio shack and the outbuildings. The signaling mast was bare in the wind. There was no one in sight and the Cuban flag, new and brightly clean, was snapping in the wind.
One of the chief traits of Havana that makes it irresistible to visitors is the city’s elegant decay: the fact that its long isolation from the architecture-purging mainstream of the world economy has preserved a striking carapace of multi-layered history. Havana is a kind of massive time capsule in which, depending on the neighborhood, one barely has to squint to be transported back to the 17th century, the Art Deco 1930s, the 1950s gambling era dominated by the American mafia, and of course the forbidden Soviet Cuba of the Cold War.
It’s ironic, and perhaps fitting, that Hemingway’s single-minded pursuit of vivid real-life experience that he could immortalize in fiction is what led to him to Havana. Because despite his best efforts, the life could never quite match the intensity of the fiction, and that truth may have contributed to killing him. In Havana, the spirit of Hemingway endures, much like the architecture of the city itself, a fading reminder of what was and what might have been.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
In June 1925, Ernest Hemingway turned to a blank page in his notebook and scrawled these five hopeful words:
Along With Youth
Hemingway was 25 years old, living in a cramped Paris apartment with his wife Hadley and their two-year-old son, Jack. He had published two chapbooks with tiny presses in Paris, and sold a collection of stories, In Our Time, to a New York publisher. In Our Time is now a classic, its stories taught in high school and college classrooms around the world, but his advance was just $200 and Hemingway understood that if he didn’t follow the collection up with a novel, it would probably sell a few hundred copies and disappear.
Along With Youth was a sea story, apparently, set on a troop ship in 1918 and featuring Nick Adams, the Hemingway stand-in who stars in many of the stories in In Our Time. In the opening scene, Nick Adams talks with some Polish officers on the deck of the ship while someone strums a mandolin in the background. The book continued in this vein for 27 largely plotless pages until Hemingway gave up and packed his bags for his annual summer pilgrimage to the bullfights in Pamplona, Spain. Just two months later, in September 1925, he had finished a draft of The Sun Also Rises, the novel that would launch his career.
Hemingway’s epic week of partying at Pamplona’s fiesta de San Fermín in July 1925 is the centerpiece of Lesley M. M. Blume’s new book Everybody Behaves Badly, which traces Hemingway’s rise from a promising young proto-hipster sweating out sentences in a Paris garret to one of the 20th century’s most influential prose stylists.
Ninety years on, it can be hard for readers to comprehend the revelatory shock The Sun Also Rises delivered to its original audience. Yes, the sexuality and decadence of Hemingway’s characters raised eyebrows in a country where Prohibition was still in effect and adultery was against the law in most states. But it went deeper than that. The First World War upended a dynastic landed gentry that had patronized the arts for centuries, and new technologies, most notably movies and mass-circulation magazines, were bringing art and literature to a far wider audience than ever before.
Paris was Ground Zero for the artistic response to these social and technological revolutions, and Hemingway’s innovation was to make the formal experiments of the Parisian avant garde accessible to middlebrow readers. “My book will be praised by highbrows and can be read by lowbrows,” he wrote to Horace Liveright, publisher of In Our Time. “There is no writing in it that anybody with a high-school education cannot read.”
Hemingway was ideally suited to this role of middlebrow revolutionary. He was not only an American, but a Midwesterner, raised in the Chicago suburbs far removed from the urban cultural elite. Also, unlike many of his fellow Modernists, who attended the best universities in Europe and the U.S., Hemingway never went to college and served his apprenticeship not at Harvard or University College Dublin, but in the newsrooms of provincial newspapers and in the cafés and salons of Paris.
This, the story of how Hemingway became Hemingway, is the subject of Everybody Behaves Badly. It’s a tale that has been told many times, but it bears repeating, in part because the version that most people know, the one told by Hemingway in his posthumous memoir A Moveable Feast, is so deeply disingenuous, and in part because it demystifies the legend and makes Hemingway’s achievement comprehensible in human terms.
The Hemingway of Blume’s book is not especially likeable. In A Moveable Feast, he paints his Paris years as a time of almost sacred poverty (“Hunger is good discipline and you learn from it,” etc., etc.), neatly eliding the fact that for much of his Paris period, he lived off his wife’s trust fund. Like many men who pride themselves on their toughness and self-reliance, Hemingway was almost comically insecure and prone to betray anyone who had the effrontery to do him a favor. In a typically gratuitous move, he repaid Sherwood Anderson, who had given Hemingway crucial letters of introduction to Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound, by writing The Torrents of Spring, a poisonous and unfunny satire of Anderson’s novel Dark Laughter.
But if the young Hemingway was an asshole, and he was, he was a preternaturally talented and savvy one. In Everybody Behaves Badly, he seeks out the high priests of the Parisian avant garde one by one, soaking up what each has to teach him before abruptly casting them aside. Their influence permeates his work, from the stream-of-consciousness riffs in his stories to the famous epigraph to The Sun Also Rises — “You are all a lost generation” — supplied by Stein.
But nothing exerted a more profound influence on Hemingway’s fiction than his work as a reporter. Hemingway wrote for newspapers, principally the Toronto Star, off and on for about four years, filing from war zones and writing travel and feature pieces about expat life in Europe. He never loved the work, and after a disastrous stint at the home office of the Star in Toronto he quit altogether to live off Hadley’s trust fund, but news writing not only gave his prose its signature economy of expression and coolly objective tone, it taught him to see the news value in a story. It’s not for nothing that Hemingway knocked out a draft of The Sun Also Rises in a matter of weeks. He saw in his 1925 trip to Pamplona a perfect vehicle for telling the hot story of the dissipated post-war generation in Europe, and he wanted to get it into print before it went stale.
The first draft of The Sun Also Rises was so close to reportage that Hemingway didn’t even change the characters’ names. The most famous of these are Lady Duff Twysden and Harold Loeb, whom Hemingway immortalized in the published version as Lady Brett Ashley and her moony former lover Robert Cohn. Along for the ride in Pamplona was Twysden’s fiancé, Pat Guthrie, who like his fictional alter ego Mike Campbell was an alcoholic bankrupt who put up with Twysden’s compulsive promiscuity. In life as in fiction, shortly before the Pamplona trip, Twysden had run off with Loeb for a sex-soaked weekend at a seaside resort — and in life as in fiction, the affair was just as much over for Twysden as it was alive for poor, lovestruck Loeb.
Then there’s Hemingway himself, the model for the novel’s narrator, Jake Barnes. Blume says it’s unclear whether Hemingway had an affair with Twysden, but he was clearly fascinated by her and deeply envious of Loeb, whose first novel, Doodab, was set for publication in New York later that year. Then, too, in the summer of 1925, Hemingway was trapped between his unraveling marriage to Hadley and a nascent affair with his soon-to-be second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer.
In The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway airbrushes Hadley out of the tale and gives his alter ego, Jake Barnes, a war wound that renders him impotent while still allowing him the full range of romantic and sexual desire. As literary strategies go, this is a stroke of genius, transforming his autobiographical narrator from a husband with a wandering eye to poignant, wounded hero. But it’s more than that, too. In the architecture of the novel, Jake’s war injury turns him into that rarest of beasts: a knowing innocent, a man of appetites who is incapable of sin.
This works so well because, like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, published just the year before, The Sun Also Rises is a novel about the tyranny of unbounded appetite. Hemingway’s characters spend the book consuming things: drink, food, bloody spectacle, each other. “It kept up day and night for seven days,” he writes of the fiesta. “The dancing kept up, the drinking kept up, the noise went on. The things that happened could only have happened during a fiesta. Everything became quite unreal finally and it seemed as though nothing could have any consequence. It seemed out of place to think of consequences during the fiesta.”
What is true in Pamplona is true in more subtle ways elsewhere in the novel. None of the characters are tied down by marriage or have children to care for. Except for Jake, they have no visible employment, and thus no jobs to lose. They either have enough money not have to worry about it, or are so perpetually broke that it has ceased to worry them. This, more than the war, which has little practical effect on anyone but Jake, is what makes them “lost.” They lead lives in which their actions have ceased to have meaningful consequences. This is why Robert Cohn is so furious at Lady Brett: He wants their affair to have meant something, if not to her, then at least to the other men who are in love with her, Jake and Mike Campbell.
In a traditional novel, the kind that the Parisian avant garde sought to outmode, this heedlessness would spell the characters’ doom. The temptress Lady Brett would have to be destroyed so bourgeois society could carry on, in the way Jay Gatsby must be destroyed at the end of The Great Gatsby. But nothing like that happens in The Sun Also Rises. In Pamplona, Brett seduces a 19-year-old bullfighter, Pedro Romero, the walking epitome of the Hemingway hero: handsome, self-assured, brave without artifice. “Romero’s bull-fighting gave real emotion,” Hemingway writes, “because he kept the absolute purity of line in his movements and always quietly and calmly let the horns pass him each time.”
Here at last, after hundreds of pages of drinking and eating and fucking, is the act that tears at the social fabric of the novel. Lady Brett seduces the pure young bullfighter, with Jake himself providing the introductions, yet no one in the novel suffers real consequence. After his first night with Brett, Romero performs so well in the ring that he is allowed to cut off a bull’s ear as a trophy, and after their affair has run its course, Brett sends him on his way, and slithers back to her long-suffering fiancé.
This, finally, is the true modernity of Hemingway’s novel. In the fictive world of F. Scott Fitzgerald, a brilliant 20th-century stylist with a 19th-century sensibility, Gatsby must die for the sin of daring to rise above his station and love whomever he wants. In the fictive world of The Sun Also Rises, Lady Brett Ashley, the witty, decadent castoff of Britain’s dying aristocracy, can live however the hell she pleases without it costing her a thing.
Except that it does cost her one thing: Jake Barnes. A central conceit of the novel is that Jake would marry Brett but doesn’t because he can’t physically consummate the relationship, but after her affair with Romero, Jake finally tires of his high-maintenance girlfriend. When Brett tells him, “You know it makes one feel rather good deciding not to be a bitch…It’s sort of what we have instead of God,” Jake replies wryly: “Some people have God.” And a little later when Brett tries to weasel back into his affections, saying, “Oh Jake, we could have had such a damned good time together,” he responds with perhaps the most famous last line in American literature: “Yes. Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
And there it is, the revolution of the middlebrow. With an act of literary sleight of hand only a master could pull off, Hemingway manages to have it both ways: Lady Brett and her ilk live in a modern amoral world without consequences, and yet we his readers, through the eyes of Jake Barnes, the hard-boiled innocent, have judged her and found her wanting.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
Who is the greatest American writer? In any such conversation, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner must be considered. And when discussing anything both great and American, Donald Trump — who has written more books than either aforementioned novelist and is perhaps the greatest American of all — obviously merits mention. But of the three, who is the greatest writer? The following comparison should move the discussion along:
Number of Books Written:
Hemingway: Gertrude Stein
Faulkner: James Joyce
Trump: Scriptwriters for The A-Team, Airwolf
Often Compared To:
Hemingway: Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness)
Faulkner: Henry James (Daisy Miller)
Trump: Benito Mussolini (The Doctrine of Fascism)
Hemingway: “The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” — A Farewell to Arms
Faulkner: “Memory believes before knowing remembers.” — Light in August
Trump: “If you have laws that you don’t enforce, then you don’t have laws. This leads to lawlessness.” — Crippled America
Hemingway: “You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.” (A Moveable Feast)
Faulkner: “They say love dies between two people. That’s wrong. It doesn’t die. It just leaves you, goes away, if you aren’t good enough, worthy enough.” (“The Wild Palms”)
Trump: “There’s nothing more terrible than an ex-spouse with a ten-ton axe to grind, and no agreement on how your common property is to be divided.” (Think BIG and Kick Ass in Business and Life)
Attitude Towards Women:
Hemingway: For Whom the Bell Tolls, starring Gary Cooper
Faulkner: Tomorrow, starring Robert Duvall
Trump: Cameo in Home Alone 2, starring Macaulay Culkin
Hemingway: Life is a constant test of man’s will and fortitude.
Faulkner: We must confront the darkness that lurks within ourselves.
Trump: Donald Trump is like Scrooge McDuck, but with pants. Also, he hates himself.
Titles that Reference Thinking “BIG” While Assaulting Acquaintances and Business Associates:
Trump: 1 (Think BIG and Kick Ass in Business and Life)
Hemingway: Martha Gellhorn, fellow war correspondent
Faulkner: Meta Carpenter, Howard Hawks’s secretary
Trump: Donald Trump, clothed orangutan
Politically Notable For:
Hemingway: Siding with the Republicans while covering the Spanish Civil War
Faulkner: Keeping his affiliations to himself at a time of great social upheaval
Trump: Running for president to extend his brand, then at some point realizing, Oh fuck, it’s for real
Image Credit: LPW.
In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris, Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast has rocketed to number one best-seller status in France as an emblem of cultural defiance. With a title in its French iteration that roughly translates to “Paris is a celebration,” the sudden popularity of the book run even Amazon out of stock.
We crave what we lack, and most professional desk-sitters lack the satisfaction of producing something tangible. We cannot eat or wear or hold the sentences we read or write or analyze. Money – if we’re lucky – is the only thing we make.
People cope in different ways. Sometimes, while reading, I keep a knitting project nearby just to give my hands some work to do. And I like to mark the end of my working days by cooking dinner – a form of labor in its own right, certainly, but also, in my circumstances, a luxurious re-entry from a world of glowing screens and uniform pages into the material world of smells, textures, and colors.
A lot of writers seem to yearn for the sensory immediacy of doing over thinking. You find evidence of this tendency in those many moments in poems and novels that dwell not on the thoughts of characters but on their mundane actions. Read closely enough and you’ll see that the writer might actually be instructing you on how to complete a practical task.
This didactic impulse has a long history. Hesiod, a Greek poet who lived around the time of Homer, included in his poem “Works and Days” such salient advice as “remember always to work” and “You really need two plows, and they can both be homemade,” and “Don’t piss standing up while facing the sun.” His Roman counterpart Virgil responded a few hundred years later with the Georgics, a four-part poem that claims to be a farming guide and contains a memorable lesson on generating bees from a bull carcass (don’t try this at home).
In recent centuries, that explicitly imperative voice has lost popularity among Western writers. This has something to do with the rise of novels, in which narrators spend a lot more time observing characters than admonishing readers. At first, novelists could get around this inconvenience by writing their morals into preachy prefaces, but that custom also faded over time. Romanticism, with its emphasis on lyric self-expression, also helped quash the instructive literary spirit. But it was those grumpy high Modernists who outlawed the practice of literary teaching most fiercely: Literature is Art, and only Art! Art is Form, and only Form! Form sullied by Moral Instruction is…positively Victorian!
Or so the story goes. Yet practical lessons lurk even in the most quintessentially modern texts. Ernest Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River,” the last story in his 1925 collection In Our Time, is essentially an instruction guide for camping and fishing. In it, Hemingway’s stand-in character Nick Adams goes on a solo fishing trip, seeking release from the past. The “hard work” of hiking to his campsite pleases him: “He felt he had left everything behind, the need for thinking, the need to write, other needs.”
It is a great story, sparse and moving and so eminently close-readable that Hemingway might as well have wrapped it, tied it with a bow, and given it to the world’s English teachers for Christmas. Nick goes to the woods to recover from war trauma by fishing instead of thinking, and it sort of works, except everything in the woods reminds him of war. Even the grasshoppers he uses as trout bait act like angry little warriors.
When recovery succeeds, it comes from Nick’s ability to recreate the conditions he knew before the war by following simple instructions, like setting up a tent. Danger, in the form of thinking, arises when he runs out of things to do with his hands. And on the flipside, Hemingway craved engagement with the material world so keenly that he actually wrote instructions into the abstract world of fiction. The physical immediacy of the prose got me antsy when read the story recently: why was I sitting around reading? Why wasn’t I out doing all the things that Hemingway so clearly shows you how to do?
I became enamored with the idea of literature leaving the page and entering the world of things. Maybe that divide between mind and material didn’t have to be so absolute; maybe Hemingway stories had more in common with my bossy hat patterns and lentil recipes than I had realized. I decided to test the theory by treating “Big Two-Hearted River” like an instruction manual: I would cook every “recipe” it contains.
It is all camp food, easier to prepare than to digest. There would be spaghetti and beans from a can, buckwheat pancakes, and onion sandwiches. Everything might have tasted better if I’d actually been camping. Hemingway surely would only have eaten these foods in the woods; in trendier locales, he was as snooty a gourmand as ever pranced the streets of Greenpoint. See A Moveable Feast for his Parisian memories of slurping top-notch oysters “with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture.”
But oysters à la Hemingway would have been too expensive and too effortless: you go to Paris, you demand douze huitres, you wash them down with exquisite Sancerre.
I wanted to put in some work. In Hemingway’s story, most of the work comes before the first meal – a supper of pork and beans mixed with canned spaghetti, bread, coffee, and canned apricots. Nick huffs and sweats his way to the river, and then he is very strict about setting up camp and cooking carefully before he dives into his bubbling mess of carbohydrates. I mimicked his discipline by eating lightly on the day of the experiment and spending an extra half hour at the gym. My boyfriend came over right after his usual 12-mile run. Yes, you read that right. He has a sedentary, brain-centric job too, and if mine leaves me needing to make, his leaves him needing to move.
He was already very hungry when he arrived, and I still had to take a shower. He wanted a snack but I wanted authenticity. We compromised on water and a mug of tea. I was pretty hungry too. The thought of dinner-from-a-can had turned my stomach when I was buying the ingredients, but now it was starting to sound pretty good.
I cooked out of my kitchen, not the woods, but I did at least empty the cans of spaghetti and beans into the good old pot that saw me through my more adventuresome backpacking days. Its warped base recalls the many meals it held, precariously, over my feisty little propane stove. Even back then I wasn’t as hardcore as Nick, who cooks over a real campfire. And I cheated a little bit, replacing pork and beans with baked beans to avoid meat.
But the neon-bright, all-American glop of sugar, salt, and acid that was soon burbling on my stove must have looked a lot like Nick’s. My boyfriend watched skeptically as I poured the steaming mix into our bowls. I even topped mine with an artistic splurt of ketchup, as prescribed by the story — more sugar, salt, and acid. We rounded out the meal with a side of bread for sopping up the sauce, because Dr. Atkins wasn’t born until 1930 so we could have as many carbohydrates as we wanted. (In a concession to 2014 tastes, the bread was homemade and whole grain.)
It was perfect workout recovery food, and the first few bites didn’t taste so bad. Intensely tomatoey, extremely sweet, salty, and tart. We were really hungry. We could appreciate the meal, even if we couldn’t approach Nick’s level of enthusiasm: “He took a full spoonful from the plate. ‘Chrise…Geezus Chrise,’ he said happily.”
Pretty soon, my lips were puckering with the tartness. I fobbed the rest of my plate off on my boyfriend and urged him to eat what was left in the pot, too. He almost made it. We couldn’t bear to face the super-sweet canned peaches. After dinner, we both buzzed with sugar highs as strong as any third grader’s and couldn’t stay still. That phase lasted about ten minutes. Then we felt quite ill and went to bed.
The next morning, it was time for pancakes. Here is Hemingway’s buckwheat pancake recipe from “Big Two-Hearted River”:
Rapidly he mixed some buckwheat flour with water and stirred it smooth, one cup of flour, one cup of water. He put a handful of coffee in the pot and dipped a lump of grease out of a can and slid it sputtering across the hot skillet. On the smoking skillet he poured smoothly the buckwheat batter. It spread like lava, the grease spitting sharply. Around the edges the buckwheat cake began to firm, then brown, then crisp. The surface was bubbling slowly to porousness. Nick pushed under the browned under surface with a fresh pine chip. He shook the skillet sideways and the cake was lose on the surface. I won’t try and flop it, he thought. He slid the chip of clean wood all the way under the cake, and flopped it over onto its face. It sputtered in this pan.
There is so much to love about this paragraph, as a paragraph. This time around, I got most excited about what happens to the word “buckwheat.” It occurs exactly three times and modifies three different nouns – first “flour,” then “batter,” then “cake” – effectively echoing the narrative arc of the paragraph. I couldn’t question Hemingway’s mastery of prose. His pancake recipe inspired less confidence. It went against all of my pancake-making instincts, and I have developed a lot of those. I love making pancakes and eating pancakes and I have experimented with a whole internet-full of recipes over the years. Plain, blueberry, oatmeal, vegan, zucchini, whole wheat, apple, yeasted, carrot, cornmeal, sweet potato. All these pancakes share traits that Nick’s flour-and-water version lack: they include something to provide flavor (salt, sweetener, fruit, vanilla), a binder (usually egg), and most importantly leavening (baking powder, soda plus acid, yeast).
I thought maybe buckwheat flour had some magical property that would create perfect pancakes out of almost nothing. It did not. The flour was a pretty pearly gray, but the batter looked dead and gloppy and the cakes did not “bubble to porousness” in the skillet. They did not bubble at all. They were like thick buckwheat tortillas, but too stiff to fold. I served them, as per the story’s recommendation, with apple butter and “coffee according to Hopkins.” This, according to Hemingway, is coffee grounds boiled in a pot until they make the water bitter and gritty and disgusting. My boyfriend rebelled against this coffee and put up water for a French press. Of the flat pancakes, he said “They taste fine, if you have a taste for fine cardboard.”
I was frustrated. Nick’s pancakes bubbled, and mine – following the same instructions – did not. A pinch of research revealed the reason: Nick was secretly using pancake mix. Which means that Hemingway included an inaccurate recipe in “Big Two-Hearted River,” and that maybe literary didaxis is a practical failure, and maybe literature is doomed to survive on its aesthetic laurels alone.
This is not to say that Hemingway wasn’t a mansplainer par excellence. I discovered the discrepancy in a 1920 Toronto Star column that Hemingway wrote on how to go camping in the woods. Yes, Hemingway wrote a column called “Camping Out,” and it is as cheerful and snarky as “Big Two-Hearted River” is somber and reflective. Here is his remarkably familiar pancake recipe:
The coffee can be boiling at the same time, and in a smaller skillet, pancakes being made that are satisfying the other campers while they are waiting for the trout. With the prepared pancake flours, you take a cupful of pancake flour and add a cup of water. Mix the water and flour, and as soon as the lumps are out, the batter is read for cooking. Have the skillet hot, and keep it well greased. Drop the batter in, and as soon as it is done on one side, loosen it in the skillet and flip it over. Apple butter, syrup, or cinnamon and sugar go well with the cakes.” (Emphasis mine.)
Well. Hemingway certainly has no compunction about using the imperative voice in his journalism, even if the strictures of modern fiction forced him to excise it from his story. Maybe — and this is just a theory — maybe he worried that using preachy language in fiction would make him sound more like an advertisement than like High Art. See, for example, this copy from an Aunt Jemima Buckwheats pancake flour ad, circa 1932:
Just the simple act of mixing up a cup of milk or water with a cup of ready-mixed Aunt Jemima Pancake Flour… Prepare a delicious breakfast of Aunt Jemima’s buckwheats tomorrow. You can whisk them up while the coffee boils.
I decided to make the pancakes again to get closer to that Aunt Jemima taste, or maybe exceed it (side note: if you need new reasons to be horrified by American history, spend time with old Aunt Jemima ads). Craig Boreth provides a pretty compelling pancake mix recipe in his 1998 compendium The Hemingway Cookbook, a collection of recipes inspired by Hemingway’s writing. But his version contains no buckwheat flour and requires funny things like powdered egg and dried milk. I improvised a buckwheat recipe instead, with the internet’s help, and threw in a little extra baking powder just for spite. This time, the buckwheat batter “poured smoothly” onto the hot skillet. Then, after a minute, the cake bubbled. Oh, did it bubble. I flopped it and made two more and served the new stack of pancakes proudly. The boyfriend’s verdict on this round: “Feel free to make these any time.”
One challenge remained, and I feared it the most. For lunch by the stream, Nick packs two sandwiches. The sandwiches contain nothing but raw, sliced onion between bread slices. I hate eating raw onion. The taste is okay but the lingering breath bothers me almost as much as it must disgust others. Still, I had come this far. I sliced my onion thinly and layered it onto the bread. The first thing I noticed when I picked it up is that onion sandwiches aren’t well engineered: there is nothing to keep the slices in place so a lot fall out. The second thing I noticed was – wow, onion. I lasted just a few bites.
Then I remembered something. When I bought my Hemingway ingredients, I whimsically picked up a package of smoked trout, thinking I might eat some to celebrate the completion of the camp food marathon. Nick presumably eats his freshly caught trout for dinner.
I did not catch my trout. I did not smoke the trout. I did not even carry the trout farther than the distance from my driveway to my kitchen. Hemingway would have fainted, but I took the trout out of the fridge. I flaked off a generous hunk of this pale pink trout and placed it on my onion sandwich. Then, by sudden inspiration, I added a thin smear of cream cheese to the top slice of bread before replacing it. I picked up the sandwich and took a bite. Geezus Chrise, it was good.