Arts & Culture

Hemingway's Key West has, and has not, changed

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the April 8, 2007 edition of The Kansas City Star

KEY WEST, Fla. - Harry Morgan, the angry boat captain at the center of Ernest Hemingway's 1930s novel To Have and Have Not, struggled against the forces of economic change.

Even then, Harry sensed the coming ruin of Key West. He lamented the displacement of poor locals as the salt-of-the-sea place turned into a "beauty spot for tourists."

Harry undoubtedly would howl today at the sight of the nightly sunset revels in the heart of touristy Key West. In the self-proclaimed "Conch

Republic," the largest thing in sight is a cruise ship, all out of proportion to this fragile spot of faraway land.

Key West marks the end of a string of islands off the southern tip of Florida. It also sits on the Hemingway Archipelago, a chain of alluring places around the world that still resonate with artifacts of the writer's life, his spirit or his literature. Which is why some 250 scholars, devotees and members (as I am) of the Ernest Hemingway Society gathered here last month for its biennial international conference. Attendees spent a week delivering and listening to scholarly papers when they weren't snorkeling or sipping rum drinks on the beach outside a comfortable resort hotel.

Well, there was more than that, of course.

A cosmic high point occurred one blustery morning at the end of a pier. A couple of dozen people gathered at sunrise to witness the Transit of Venus, a rare alignment of planets that last occurred in 1882. Telescopes came courtesy of Joe Haldeman, a prominent writer of science fiction novels (The Forever War) and such an ardent Hemingway follower that he once wrote a novella about a dastardly effort to publish a bogus piece of Papa's work ("The Hemingway Hoax").

One attending graduate student had the brilliant idea to lug his worn copy of Thomas Pynchon's gargantuan novel Mason & Dixon onto the pier. Mason and Dixon were 18th century British surveyors, and on a June morning at the Cape of Good Hope, they, too, saw the Transit of Venus. As Pynchon has it:

Upon first making out the Planet, Dixon becomes as a Sinner converted. "Eeh! God in his Glory!"

"Steady," advises Mason, in a vex'd tone.

Ernest Hemingway's Key West years spanned 1928 to about 1939. Although there was much happiness as he plied his "twin trades" of writing and fishing the Gulf Stream, his life there ended up anything but steady. His second marriage dissolved there as his affair began with future wife No. 3. When Hemingway left Key West it was for Cuba, 90 miles away across the water.

At the conference's daily sessions scholars analyzed, deconstructed and explained Hemingway's writings. His Key West period included A Farewell to Arms, Death in the Afternoon, To Have and Have Not and a slew of his finest short stories. Even now, 105 years after his birth, the Hemingway territory remains vast. New insights involved his spiritual leanings, his friendships and rivalries, his work's racial conundrums, his fishing logs.

Susan Beegel, editor of a twice-a-year scholarly journal (The Hemingway Review), connected Key West, Hemingway and Harry Morgan to the history and literature of piracy. Draped on the table in front of her was a skull and cross-bones banner. Miriam Mandel, an Israeli scholar, explained how three sentences in one chapter of Death in the Afternoon embedded a decade of labor unrest and violent repression during Spain's revolutionary convulsions of the 1920s.

Many of the attendees were contemporary scholars, after all, so there were feminist/Marxist papers and Freudian papers and one paper that, in its 20-minute time slot, performed Olympic-style academic acrobatics. It discussed Harry Morgan in the context of "masculinity in crisis," linking him with Edward Norton's character in the macho-mythic movie "Fight Club." Several talks covered one of Hemingway's most overtly political writings. He wrote "Who Murdered the Vets?" in the aftermath of a hurricane that ripped through Matecumbe Key up the way, killing 458 disenfranchised military veterans at a labor camp. Reading it today, Hemingway's hot-headed essay might put one in mind of a Michael Moore-style "f-u-mentary." The resulting diviseness is similar, too. Indeed, one historian suggested that when Hemingway wrote it, he must have been drunk.

"When you go looking for ghosts, ghosts rise up," Lorian Hemingway, a granddaughter, said one afternoon. She was about to read from her memoir about a spiritual journey that took her beyond the bottle and into fly-fishing.

And if the ghost of Hemingway were hovering in the halls of the Casa Marina Hotel, he might have been startled to encounter a doppelganger in the form of Lawrence Luckinbill. Tall and round-faced and sporting a mostly white beard, the actor performed a one-man Hemingway show he's developing. Luckinbill's staged reading portrayed Hemingway in his last hour, the dark and troubled mind racing through memories, unable to draft a single sentence and about to give in to the shotgun.

Luckinbill couldn't have found a better or more brutal audience. Those who knew Hemingway so well were unrelenting in their feedback that night and over the next few days. Luckinbill planned to mount a version of the play in New York in December. It will be interesting to see how the play evolves in the wake of all that informed and passionate response.

The Hemingway house in Key West remains a major tourist attraction, with its tall windows, its huge palm trees and its swimming pool. But for a credible sense of Hemingway's history, you have to visit the Key West Museum of Art and History at the red-brick Custom House. The museum maintains a collection of Hemingway memorabilia. Of particular note are the tunic and breeches Hemingway apparently wore on July 8, 1918, near the Piave River in Italy when first a trench mortar exploded and then a round from a machine gun tore into his right knee.

Also on display was an important collection of nearly four dozen photographs taken by Walker Evans in Cuba in May 1933. Evans met Hemingway during this trip amid a period of rising unrest and repression on the island nation. The prints came from a cache of Hemingway belongings that were long stored in Key West and only recently came to light.

The weekend newspapers made it clear that the Hemingway legend lives large in Key West, without even noticing that the scholars were in town. One story touted the forthcoming annual Hemingway Days Festival (under way this week), which promises the famous lookalike contest and other folderol. Then there was the feature story about polydactyl felines, or "Hemingway cats," the ones with six toes or more. Whether Hemingway actually owned six-toed cats in Key West - knowledgeable sources say he didn't - is immaterial in a world that can't stop believing he did.

But more interesting was a letter to the editor of the Key West paper. A man complained about a fishing contest in which he'd just competed. He'd failed to win because of some weigh-in snafu. The man was a boat captain. And in his anger over being jerked around by the system he sounded more than a small bit like Harry Morgan. Yet more evidence that some things never change, even in Key West, and that Hemingway's aim was true.

To reach Steve Paul, senior writer and editor, call (816) 234-4762 or e-mail