Monday. November 2, 2015
F: 3:15 a.m. Okay, Papa, Famous Author versus One of the Guys.
EH: Again – and I’ll say this at the beginning of every session if need be – remember that this is leading toward something. We’re heading for the moment when I met Martha. If you keep that in mind, what otherwise may seem like rambling will have point.
I knew not to get caught in that Famous Author trap if I could. I saw it in its most phony and superficial aspect the minute I got to Europe in 1921 and saw the crowd at the Dingo or the Dome, people trying to impress each other as a success without having accomplished anything. That was, let’s say, Famous-Author-To-Be, and fortunately it couldn’t amount to a real trap because it involved pretending to work instead of really working, but it showed me one pattern to avoid.
Then I began interacting with men who really had achieved something – men, and Gertrude Stein – and I saw that here too, there was a potential trap, a sort of inbreeding, a setting up of Our Crowd like the 400. You can explain the reference if you think necessary. [At the turn of the 20th century, New York Society was said to consist of 400 families who counted, with everyone else apparently being considered as extras.] Like the 400, it depended upon mutual recognition and a large dose of continual reinforcement of, “We are special. We are special. We are not the common herd.” You’d get exhausted. As I say, genuine achievement, but inbred. Ford Madox Ford, say, or any number of authors, critics, editors, book reviewers, the whole literary racket.
Then – and most insidious, because realest – it was easy to assemble your own mob of literary friends, and the danger here was that it was genuine talent and genuine personal attractiveness and a person-to-person camaraderie that was entirely different from having a fan club.
So, three levels of Famous Author trap. Now, I wouldn’t have been this charitable in life, maybe, but from here I can see that for many people there wasn’t anything wrong with the third level and maybe not even with the second. (The first is just pathetic, although I suppose you could say it is the equivalent to “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”)
But I couldn’t be entirely happy being only Famous Author, and from here I see a connection that I don’t remember making in life. Famous Author was too close to my mother’s version of respectability. It was too Oak Park, with no Michigan. You understand.
F: I do. You needed it, but it was only part of you. you also needed everyday communication with non-literary types, non-public figures, and you needed them to be self-sufficient men and women who could do something, regardless what value society put on what they did.
EH: True enough but we can go a little farther. I was at home with what are called “common people” and they were at home with me. I didn’t put on airs and they didn’t distance themselves from me with deference. Hell, in Key West when I told my first friends I was an author, they didn’t even believe me, at first! Not because they’d never seen an author (they hadn’t, as far as they were aware) but because I didn’t act like their idea of how an author would act.
We haven’t quite gotten it yet, but we can keep at it and it will clarify, I think. When I found Key West, I found a place where I could learn an entirely new world. Dad had taught me to fish when I was a very small kid, but that was river and streams, it was never the ocean. That was fishing from the stream banks, not going 30 miles out from land where there was nothing but the sea and the sky and your little boat.
I fell in love with small boats and deep sea fishing, and I set out to learn everything I could about it, the way I did. Well, this naturally put me in with Karl Thompson and Joe Russell and then all the fishermen in Key West. That led to my spending time with them in Joe’s bar, and once Pauline and I moved there, it led to my getting involved in every aspect of their lives – amateur prize fights, fishing, drinking, story telling, cock fighting (though not to the extent I did later in Cuba), card playing, any part of their lives that interested me. And there was no barrier to it. This is important for you to understand. There was no line between me and them, no Mr. Bigshot and a bunch of Nobodies. We were all pals together. There were differences among us, but there are always differences. You take two guys working at the same thing, making the same money, and one of them is going to be a reader and another one isn’t, or one will be a hunter and another one not, or one will be interested in politics and another one not. Those are differences among individuals, not class distinctions. So I had more money than most of the others, but so did Karl, say, and it didn’t make more than a certain amount of difference – in Karl’s case because he had grown up there, and in mind because I became a friend of his and of Joe Russell.
And when they realized that I was an author, that meant them mostly that I had an independent income. They didn’t feel qualified or obligated or even interested to talk Literary. They talked what they knew, and it interested me just as much as discussing other things did with other friends. And when I’d assemble a mob to come down and share some fishing, Dos and Mike and Max when I could get him down there, we could talk about whatever interested us without being any less a bunch of guys going fishing. You see?
F: I do. You had a life that was true to who you were, rather than one that might have been more “respectable” or anyway conventional for a literary man. It was your father’s war on your mother’s restrictions, carried forward.
EH: What you are saying isn’t wrong, but it isn’t the whole story. I wasn’t about to let my life be stifled by respectability, but remember, my father was a physician; he had a profession and he worked at it, and until his mental illness began to overcome him, he balanced it with an entire summer every year in rural Michigan, to some extent recreating his pioneer youth – for the frontier was still very close when dad was young, remember. In a way I was re-creating that pattern, with a wife who was very much society – but who could understand and share my profession – and a life I could fashion pretty much as I wanted, as long as I kept working, which I wanted to do anyway.
Now one more time I am going to point out that this all leads to the meeting with Martha. You have to keep that in mind, or you won’t see what this is about.
I built a life in Key West that consisted in my writing, my playing, my life with Pauline and the servants and the boys, and trips elsewhere when we were so inclined. Under “playing,” very much include fishing and learning everything about deep sea fishing and handling small boats. This life includes reading and correspondence and listening to the radio and a thousand ordinary everyday things that biographers don’t think to mention, and people don’t think to include by imagination. You understand. It was a full and balanced and comfortable life. After a while I was living very well on my royalties and the ability to borrow against future royalties if need be – and then there was always Uncle Gus.
F: Yes, and although he was a generous man who loved his nieces – and you by extension, I gather – we have talked about the possible ill-effects on you of so much generosity.
EH: That’s another story. But it is true, without Uncle Gus there would have been no safari in Africa in 1933-34, and that is something I wouldn’t want to have missed. The point for today, though, was to reinforce just one thing: In Key West I was one of the boys in a way that never quite happened again. It had happened before – certainly among the correspondents in Europe in 1922 and 1923 when the Star started sending me to do feature stories about the economic conferences, and in Paris among Ezra and Ford and the crowd trying to create a more up-to-date literature in the aftermath of the war that had destroyed everything we’d grown up with.
But it wasn’t going to happen again, not to the extent it did in the keys. In Cuba I was not the author living in the best house on the island, as I was in Key West. I was the master of the Finca, and I was El Escritor [The Writer], and although I had plenty of my acquaintances and friends come visit, it wasn’t the same. Nor was being married to Martha the same as being married to Pauline, in any way. And after the war it was worse, but we’ll come to that. Here’s your hour.
F: And our ten pages, nearly exactly. This came awfully smoothly today.
EH: No complaints, I hope.
F: None. See you next time.
Monday. November 2, 2015