Sunday, September 23, 2007


Ernest Hemingway (July 21, 1899 - July 2, 1961)

There are times when I think Dan Bern's I Need You is the best real love song ever written, but this usually occurs during moments of weakness and moral depravity when I have temporarily forgotten about songs like Zep's Ten Years Gone and Long Long Long by the Beatles.

So I Need You is not Ten Years Gone, but it is still a great song. The first verse (set on top of a melancholy chord progression of C / Am / F / C), in which Dan is wandering around Key West missing his girl, goes something like this:

Walking around the happiest place in the world,
And all I do is wonder if your hair is still curled.
South of Brownsville, Texas, south of Miami Beach,
And all it means to me is that you're further out of reach.

Everywhere there's sand and sun, blue sky, water, too,
And I need you.

From a purely musical standpoint it is not remarkable; the whole song only has about six chords total and it is nearly all just straightforward fingerpicking or strumming (depending on whether you have the live or the studio version).

Lyrically, however, it resonates with me because (1) it is a great love-is-going-to-end-me song of resigned desperation; and (2) it mentions my boy Ernest Hemingway a few times. And I think we can all agree that a song with a decent, well-placed literary reference is bad-ass.

Last summer my brilliant, literary daughter and I were listening to a lot of Dan Bern, and I had just finished reading The Sun Also Rises (for about the fifth time) and For Whom the Bell Tolls (for the first time) as September came to a close. The end of September and the thought of an approaching bleak and colorless autumn had, as usual, depressed the hell out of me, so she and I -- using Dan Bern as inspiration -- planned a trip to Key West in search of sand and sun and blue sky, and we thought we'd make a pilgrimage to Hemingway's house while we were there.

Upon bad advice, we flew into Miami and drove the rest of the way to Key West. The drive unfortunately was not really as scenic as promised due to endless road construction and significant traffic. I think it took us about 65 hours to get there on the crowded two-lane roads in our sad little rental car. Nevertheless, we finally arrived and made it up to our room at the Crown Plaza La Concha on Duval. It was January but it was still hot and good beach weather.

Interestingly, even in winter in the town where the sun rises and sets on the southernmost point of the United States, beer vendors selling cheap beer out of what appear to be hot-dog carts line both sides of Duval Street (which is essentially the main drag), and the law is such that it is acceptable to carry open containers of beer around outside.

A Key West sunset (cell-phone picture) taken from the edge of Mallory Square.

Most of the bars have broad entrances and windows that open widely onto the streets, and at night as you walk around you'll find lots of the typical shitty cover bands and guys playing and sweating over acoustic guitars, chording mindlessly through Jimmy Buffett and Van Morrison favorites surrounded by excessively tanned rednecks with bad tattoos singing along at the front of the stage amidst dozens of empty Bud Light bottles and ashtrays full of half-smoked cigarettes.

Drag queens stand on the corners in groups and invite passersby to buy advance tickets to late-night drag shows in what are almost always packed houses, and college kids selling bicycle tours swarm around the town. Magicians, escape artists, and acrobats fill Mallory Square at the northern end of Duval Street every night at sunset and work for tips from the crowds that gather to watch.

Key West at some point in the not-to-distant past probably had the charm of Savannah, but no longer. Take away the mindless tourists and I think it would be an extraordinary place, for there is still magic there. The floods of people walking the streets entirely unaware of the hidden magic of the town further obscure it, robbing the town of its real identity and making it like Myrtle Beach and every other tourist town in America. Awash in the obscuration is the house of Ernest Hemingway.

I Need You has a couple lines about Hemingway's house and the "boxing in the back," but that hasn't been the case for decades. Hemingway was not a boxing aficionado (to borrow a word that I saw for the first time in The Sun Also Rises), but he did love boxing, and he did have a boxing ring behind his house in Key West until one of his four wives (don't ask me which one - Pauline, maybe) had it replaced with a swimming pool when Hem was out on an overseas frolic covering the Spanish Civil War.

If I ever make enough money, I am going to try to buy Hemingway's house in Key West, just because I think the pool looks inviting.
Hemingway's Key West house is located at 907 Whitehead Street, and the property is bounded on the north by Olivia St. with trees and a brick wall all around the perimeter of the property. Whitehead runs north and south, parallel with Duval, the latter running the entire length of the island. You can find Sloppy Joe's at the corner of Green and Duval; purportedly Sloppy Joe's opened in 1933 and has been situated at its present location since 1937. Legend has it that Hemingway frequented Sloppy Joe's. I doubt Hem would find it suitable these days. The Key West Sunset Ale they serve there is $4.00 a glass and it tastes like vulture piss.

You can easily walk to the Hemingway house if you stay anywhere on the western part of the island. The house, which consists of two storeys and hell's own amount of expansive porches, is surrounded by palm trees and other rain-forest-looking vegetation that gives the place an exotic Jurassic Park look and feel.

This is a view of the back of the house from the vantage point of someone changing into their bathing suit. The house more or less looks the same from all sides.
Upon entering the front of the house, the first site encountered is the stairway seen below. Note the two "Old Man and the Sea" pictures on the left, with the marlins leaping dramatically out of the water. I did not learn the provenance or history of these paintings, but I think it is safe to assume that they were added after Hemingway's untimely demise.

Center Staircase in the Hemingway House

Downstairs there is a lot of Hemingway memorabilia, and naturally upstairs that is the case as well. There are a hell of lot of books and bookshelves in the place, and I tried to read the spines of each book in there to see if I could recognize anything interesting or pick out any discernible patterns.

I was most interested to see if I could locate a copy of Beryl Markham's West With the Night, because Beryl knew Hemingway in Africa and while they weren't exactly pals, Hemingway read Beryl's book and commented that it made him ashamed to be a writer. I'm pretty sure that if I could have found Hemingway's copy of West With the Night, I would have stolen the fucking thing.

This inscription was found inside Hemingway's copy of Stella Benson's The Poor Man, which was published in 1922. It reads: "For Hem . . . tell me how you like it."

Right next to the Hemingway house stands a carriage house in which Hem reportedly wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Green Hills of Africa, among others. The losers that volunteer at the Hemingway house will tell you that his writing studio (seen immediately below) looks exactly the same today as it did when the old man himself used to sit in at his typewriter and bang out his rather terse but effective prose.

I suspect this is true with the exception of the anachronistic electric fan on the left side of the picture, and maybe even the Thompson's gazelle (or whatever the hell that is) whose decapitated head appears on the far wall and appears to stare inquisitively into the room. Certainly the Escher-like placement of the painting of Hemingway's writing studio that hangs over the bookshelf on the right was added later. A wrought-iron barrier prevents entry into Hemingway's writing studio today. As if somebody would really steal something out of there. 

Hem's Writing Studio

When Hemingway was alive, a catwalk of sorts connected the main house to the second floor of the carriage house. The catwalk no longer exists; instead, metal stairs lead to the writing studio, which is not nearly as cool. The picture immediately below shows the view from the entry way to the writing studio back to the main house, which is pretty much the same view from the electrical building where the main breakers were located back to the main headquarters thing at Jurassic Park.

The View of the Main House from the Writing Studio

Among the items of memorabilia are a few paid checks written on Hemingway's account with the National Bank of New York. The check below was made out to Carlos Gutierrez, who I'd be willing to bet is the father or grandfather of this guy. The stamp on the check reads "RECIBIDO - June 14, 1934 - THE FIRST NATIONAL BANK OF BOSTON - SUCURSAL DE LA HABANA," indicating that Carlos took the check and probably deposited it with his bank in Cuba, which was a branch of the First National Bank of Boston.

A check made out to Carlos Gutierrez

*  *  *

I started reading Moby-Dick and The Old Man and the Sea simultaneously, and while the beginning of Moby-Dick is much more literarily auspicious and seems to foretell the coming of a great sea adventure, it kind of peters out (as discussed in the last post) and leaves the reader ready for voyage but wanting of a vessel.

The Old Man and the Sea is much the opposite. Written exactly 100 years after Melville wrote Moby-Dick (1851 and 1951 respectively), the beginning of Hemingway's story reads like one of those short stories you have to read in 9th grade like The Most Dangerous Game or The Scarlet Ibis or even The Cast of the Armadillo, which is a very touching story about a burrowing Argentinian creature with a broken limb.

The first paragraph of The Old Man and the Sea:

"He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But after forty days without a fish the boy's parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week. It made the boy sad to see the old man come in each day with his skiff empty and he always went down to help him carry either the coiled lines or the gaff and harpoon and the sail that was furled around the mast. The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat."
Hemingway goes on to describe the old fisherman in sadly endearing terms, and one wonders whether there are vaguely autobiographical aspects to the work:

"He was asleep in a short time and he dreamed of Africa when he was a boy and the long golden beaches and the white beaches, so white they hurt your eyes, and the high capes and the brown mountains. . . . He no longer dreamed of storms, nor of women, nor of great occurrences, nor fights, nor contests of strength, nor of his wife. He only dreamed of places now and of the lions on the beach. They played like young cats in the dusk and he loved them . . . ."
The story is simple: the kind and impoverished but unlucky fisherman who hasn't caught a fish in 84 days sets out to sail with courageous but innocent optimism in the hope of finally catching something to eat. Once far out to sea, he snags an immense marlin - whose strength of heart is equal to the fisherman - and the fisherman proceeds to spend the next three days and nights without enough food, water, or sleep, but nevertheless still with a strong heart he tries with increasing desperation to bring in the giant fish as it pulls the small boat farther and farther out to sea.

The Old Man and the Sea and Moby-Dick tell very similar tales of desperation upon the sea wherein a desperate man chases a sea creature whose significance may be mostly symbolic. It is astonishing that without the use of a single inkhorn term, obscure Biblical reference, or pentasyllabic word, Hemingway's work manages to be dramatically more effective.

I was saddened when I finished
The Old Man and the Sea, and this puzzled me somewhat. While I was reading the story, I kept thinking that it wasn't particularly good. I usually underline sentences or paragraphs that are moving or well written or which contain an aspect of the profound or the sublime, but I'm not sure that I made a mark in the entire book. I did not locate a single sentence worthy of an underline, yet I read on somewhat morbidly enthralled -- I think because the work as a whole is profound in its entirety.

The whole book is only about 110 pages long, double-spaced, with giant margins, as if Hem turned the thing in as a term paper for an English class, making it such that it can be read in absolutely no time and without modification to the reader's contact-lens prescription.

As far as the story goes, the tale is bleak and harsh. Day after day the poor fisherman (Santiago) suffers under the immense heat of the indifferent and unrelenting sun while the fishing line cuts and slices the skin of his time-weathered hands, and day after day the intrepid marlin fights for its life and presents a compelling case for its own survival. Both fisherman and fish fight for their life.

In the end, Santiago summons the strength and determination to defeat the marlin, but the fish is too large to pull into the boat. Santiago is far out to sea, and he is forced to secure the fish to the side of his small fishing boat. On his long and lonely voyage back to shore, sharks tear at the marlin relentlessly while Santiago strikes at them with courage, anger, and then futility. By the time his small boat crushes sea shells beneath it upon the shore, the old fisherman is exhausted and his extraordinary marlin is but a skeleton that will provide the fisherman no sustenance nor reward.

And so the book concludes:

"Up the road, in his shack, the old man was sleeping again. He was still sleeping upon his face and the boy was sitting by him watching him. The old man was dreaming about the lions."
As the indifferent sun that is behind me now reflects pale and white in the corner of my computer screen, I remain baffled at the efficacy of this work of literature. In fewer than 130 pages, and in the simplest of language, Hemingway perfectly portrays great themes -- the resiliency of the human spirit and the classic struggle between man and nature -- that so many other artists have required truly epic works to convey. But plainly the book is not a work of triumph or success. It is instead a work of bleak, harsh reality.

Thus, more important in
The Old Man and the Sea than the themes of human resiliency and triumph over nature is Hemingway's expression of the universal life struggle borne by every living thing from awakening at birth until the coming of eternal darkness upon death - which by most accounts is a disappointing conclusion to an otherwise largely acceptable existence. I do not believe that Hemingway's depiction of the fisherman's bleak futility was simply for dramatic effect necessarily. I believe, rather, that this futility was how Hemingway had come to view life.

On July 2, 1961, while at his home in Ketchum, Idaho, Hemingway ended his life by shooting himself in the forehead with a shotgun. There has been (and likely will continue to be) great speculation as to what may have caused or contributed to Hemingway's suicide. There is evidence that for a number of years he fought mental illness that was compounded by alcoholism. And I read once that Hemingway believed that the electroshock therapy he received in his later years in response to his mental illness had stolen him from himself, such that the flesh and blood of the man no longer matched the soul of the person he once was.

I have read no accounts that appear definitive, but surely desperation may be attributed to Hemingway in his final hours and minutes. Still I wonder if, in his last nights and in the hours before he awoke on his last summer morning, he had dreamed about the lions.


Anonymous said...

First of all I want to say, I read the whole blog from start to finish and really enjoyed it. I especially liked the part about Key West and Hemingway. It was just like being there. I think you are dead on about Hemingway. So sad. It really makes you love him.

As for Moby Dick - can anyone sue you for the thoughts you expressed? And, as far as you know, are you the first person to express these thoughts? It certainly seems that you are right on here too.

I also enjoyed reading Bessie and Walter again. What a nice thing for you to do for your dad. Speaking of your dad, he just arrived home from teaching his class so I need to go get his supper out of the oven.

I also spent about 30 min. trying to renew my Norton Anti-virus or whatever - to no avail before I read your blog. I think I need to get it renewed. What do you think?
Love ya, Mom

ps -- I really enjoyed reading your blog. Thank you.

Unknown said...

a. I was so surprised to see, "Mom said. . ." that I was initially skeptical that the comment was truly from her. Then I read it and obviously it is authentic.

b. I loved your Cask of Amontillado reference. It took me 10 minutes to recall the actual title of Poe's story; once I had the word "armadillo" in my head, I simply could not shake it.

c. Obviously you pasted that frightening photo into the Hemingway stairway picture -- please also reassure me that the photo itself is a photoshop creation and if not, pray tell where the hell you and Eric were and what on earth were you doing?

d. I read The Old Man & the Sea when I was 11 or 12 years old and I could literally taste the salt on my cracked, parched lips by the time I finished it. It made quite an impression on me as a young reader. It was REAL.

Anonymous said...

Excellent blog, as usual. I now want to abandon my life as a responsible, (read-boring), member of society and run away to join the "magicians, escape artists and acrobats" that fill Mallory Square! Well done, Mr. Hornbeck.

(And yes, it was Pauline, who was partial to peacocks as well as pools.)

Anonymous said...

Great blog -- I feel intensely deprived to have never been to Hemmingway's house in Key West. I do, however, have as a consolation a really freaking cool mug . . .

I think you captured the truest essence of Hemmingway in your words about The Old Man and the Sea; Hemmingway's words and works seem, cumulatively, to speak of the long suffering, basically pointless -- and yet how astonishingly beautiful! -- existence of mankind. (Or fishkind, as the case may be.)

My favorite book of all time (and trust me, I have read a lot of books) (seriously, I don't do much else -- like work or generally contribute to society in any way) is For Whom the Bell Tolls. I have never wept so over a book. I was despondent for weeks (hell, I think I still am). I had always known life was erratic, senseless and cruel, but Hemmingway was the first writer who ever punched me in the back of the head and said, "See, I told you it's all for shit."

I guess For Whom the Bell Tolls is probably the greatest love story ever told, too. I mean that in the truest sense -- that the love in FWtBT was the closest thing to real love I have ever read about. It wasn't a divine love, a Hallmark love, or an eternal love. It was a love for the now, in this moment, that was fierce in its desperation. If love, as a thing, actually exists, I think it exists only in such extremes of honesty -- "no, dear, I won't love you until the stars fall from the sky, but goddamn I do love you right this second, on this night, under these steadfast stars, on this cruelest of worlds."

Oh, I love Hemmingway. OK. I'm gonna go kill myself now. Just kidding.

H. Philip Aster said...

Shelly: the photo itself was not a Photoshop(TM) creation, but I will not disclose the events surrounding the taking of the photo. You'll have to buy my autobiography for that information.

Lost: great song (er, sorta). How did you know that Pauline was partial to peacocks?

Rabbit: good freaking lord.

"If love, as a thing, actually exists, I think it exists only in such extremes of honesty -- 'no, dear, I won't love you until the stars fall from the sky, but goddamn I do love you right this second, on this night, under these steadfast stars, on this cruelest of worlds.' " I think that is EXACTLY right.

Do me a favor and - contrary to your usual unwillingness to contribute to society in any way - write something that I can post on here. You are wasting that shit.

Anonymous said...

I liked the way you tied together the story, Hemingway's life, and his body of work, which was considerable. Your blog is very perceptive and clearly reveals a keen eye for detail and an appreciation for nuances. I look forward to the next one.

I think an author's work reflects his/her creativity as well as their personality. I perceive Hemingway to be a very complex man who had stories to tell. He wrote simply, not because he did not know any words with more than six letters or could not craft highly literate sentences but rather because he did not want the author's ego to get in the way of the story being told. I admire the fact, too, that in "The Old Man and the Sea", he knew when to stop. He had a story he wanted to tell and when it was finished, he closed up his typewriter and went to Sloppy Joe's for a drink.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful post.

I read "The Old Man and the Sea" when I was very young - at the urging of my father (it is still his favorite book). While I struggled to fully grasp Hemingway's commentary on life at the time (or why my father was so touched by a story about a cranky old fishmonger), as I matured I found myself faced with the same feelings of "this cannot be all there is to life. There is so much struggle!"

It is such a Sisyphean task to get out of bed every day, fulfill everyone's expectations of you, deal with feelings of imperfection, take risks, make mistakes (sometimes the same ones over again) and somehow still find a way to smile. Add to all that: aging - physically and mentally (my mother always said growing old is not for the faint of heart!).

The truth is, Hemingway was flawed. He felt pressure to make his parents happy and never felt that he could. He wanted to be loved but never really felt loved enough (he married frequently and committed adultery just as often). He wanted to be adventuresome and dashing and masculine, but traveling and hunting and being an international star were never enough. In his mind, he got too tired of keeping it all up. No matter what he accomplished, it seemed there needed to be more. His pursuit of the proverbial "big fish" continued to draw him further away from happiness and, in the end, his catch was never as grande as he envisioned.

The fact is, no matter how much talent or money you have or how beautiful your surroundings (see picture of Key West sunset taken from the edge of Mallory Square) - or how big your fish is for that matter - unless you have the chutzpah to deal with the banalities of life too, eating your gun seems pretty practical.

Oh, and definitely renew your Norton Antivrus™!

Anonymous said...

I found your mention of Hemingway and drag queens in the same post to be most refreshing and eye-opening, as well as your use of the phrase “your boy” in describing Papa H. Interesting, that is, to a lasciviously shrewd mind perhaps like mine. I think Hemingway, with his love of boxing and a writing style that evokes the idea of so many repressed passions, often set out to prove in his stories that he was someone who he very much was not. Touting his machismo in nearly every book makes me think of the phrase penned by Shakespeare, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

I would call into question a few observations for the simple fact that it seems you are not just critiquing a book in this post but perhaps also the people of a town, such as:

“…surrounded by excessively tanned rednecks with bad tattoos singing along at the front of the stage amidst dozens of empty Bud Light bottles and ashtrays full of half-smoked cigarettes.”

Perhaps these “rednecks” are excessively tanned because they make an honest living working with their hands out in the blazing sun much like Santiago. If these people had been drinking Heineken Lights would you have viewed them with the same distaste? Perhaps beer at higher cost indicates a more soulful and intelligent person ingesting it.

“Take away the mindless tourists and I think it would be an extraordinary place, for there is still magic there. The floods of people walking the streets entirely unaware of the hidden magic of the town further obscure it,…”.

How do you know they are unaware of the magic? Did you speak to any of these “tourists”? Did you stop and ask them what the purpose of their visit was? When you have only seen the surface of something, you cannot know what is on the inside.

After all, you can't judge a book by its cover…


H. Philip Aster said...

My dear Grace:

You and your lasciviously shrewd mind (whoever you are) fascinate me. Interesting point about Hem and the gay thing. I thought about raising that issue - there are some parts of A Moveable Feast in which Hem protests way too much - but I decided not to go there because so much of the Moby-Dick post touched on the gay and I didn't want to overdo it.

In response to your critique of my critique, I will say that my critique of Key West was based on spending about a week there, and certainly I'll concede that my acquaintance with the town was limited and arguably superficial.

I intended my description of the "mindless tourists" who were "entirely unaware of the hidden magic" to contain a hint of ironic contradiction, in that (to borrow a mathematical concept) by being there I was necessarily in the set of Key West tourists that I was describing. Get it?

In regard to the choice of beer, I probably would have regarded them with more disdain had they been drinking Heineken Light rather than Budweiser. My (abbreviated) scale of beer-inspired respect or disdain goes something like this:

Duck-Rabbit Milk Stout: respect
Guinness: no disdain
Peroni: little or no disdain
. . .
Budweiser: some disdain possible, but less than Bud Light
Bud Light: moderate disdain, but it is understandable that people drink it because it is a popular beer that is fairly light and inexpensive, even if it doesn't really taste like beer
. . .
Michelob Best Light: great disdain, but an equivalent level of empathy, for this cheap-ass quasi-beer is the beer I consumed most in college until something organic and multicellular grew in one of my empties (long story)
Michelob Ultra: for pansies
Heineken Light: for pretentious pansies; tremendous disdain

So you see, you are wrong about me.

But I get what you are saying. And doubtless you are right. I'll go back and take another look - probably next fall when I get depressed as summer comes to a close and I remain in need of sand and sun and blue sky.

Anonymous said...

You forgot PBR: admiration mixed with adulation bordering on psychosis


Anonymous said...

I found myself back at my parents' house recently, briefly squatting in my old childhood room. (Always an unusual experience, sleeping in your childhood room; once cherished stuffed animals gazing plastic-eyed into the space that isn't quite yours anymore due to the inevitable passage of time and the small, daring in-roads made by your parents to transform the space into a sewing room.)
Anyway, not being able to sleep one night I swung my legs out of bed, put on my very thick glasses and sat Indian style in front of my bookshelf that held the left-over books deemed not worthy to take the trip with me to college and eventually were abandoned.

Never being a big Hemingway fan there, on the second shelf from the bottom, was my copy of "For Whom the Bell Tolls". Based mostly on your post I slid it from the shelf, blew the dust off it, and started reading.

I haven't finished it yet but I now know two things. First, when my favorite Political Theory professor would call me "Little Rabbit" he was hitting on me. And second, I would never have realized I was wrong, silly, young, superficial and wrong, about Hemingway if I hadn't read your post.

(Though I think you could've heaped more praise on Guinness, which should be its own food group in my view.)

Love SMS said...

This is a story of an old man who hasn’t been able to catch a fish for last 84 days. People start calling him “Salao”, worst form of unluck and make fun of him. A young boy believes in him and goes to fishing with man as he believes there’s a lot to learn from old man. Although he has to go for fishing with some other guys at end because of his parent’s will but he’s unhappy about decision and wants to be with old man. On 85th day old man goes alone and he catches a fish (which turns out to be a giant fish). Story turns around then when man has to spend 3 days in water and fish is not giving up to be caught. Old man eats small fish this time and he gets bruises in his hands. He thinks he’s going crazy and asks to be clear in head. He has slept very less. He talks to fish and consider him brother. How old man saves himself and fish from sharks.
To me this is a story where author has tried to explain how we constantly keep on fighting and explaining our inner friend/enemy. Where we explain why we did this, especially wrong and how much it matters to our lives. This is not just about my happiness or your hurt but many others whom we are treating.