Hemingway and Key West

Tuesday, November 3, 2015
F: 3 a.m. So, Papa, in Key West you established a life that did not involve your being enmeshed in Oak Park – which you had feared when you came home in 1919 – nor becoming enmeshed in Pauline’s family life in Piggott [Arkansas], which I imagine you may have had nightmares about. You found a place where you could be you as you created yourself. No, this is rambling. You go ahead.
EH: I never had nightmares about living in Piggott as a family retainer, or even as the family heir. That was never going to happen. A deadly dull place, Piggott. Some good shooting, and that’s where I found Toby Bruce, but otherwise an awful place. Not much more rural than Key West, but too much family too close. I did like Pauline’s mother, very much, but it would have taken a lot more than that to lead me to live there. Besides, by the time I saw Piggott, I had seen Key West, and I’d been fishing in the Gulf Stream. How was it going to compare with that?
So, I set up shop in Key West. A long train ride from New York, and something of an effort even to get to Miami. In those days, we had Western Union, which seemed fast to us, but mostly we functioned with a level of delay in communication and a practical day-by-day isolation that you would find unbearable and soon will find hard to re-create in your own minds.
F: I find it difficult enough to remember my own earlier life waiting by the mailbox for letters that never came, so to speak. TV only one-way – toward us, not also from us. Information so much harder to get, involving trips to the library or to book stores, and often enough not being available there, especially if you lived in smaller towns. I’ve only been on the internet 20 years but it is blotting out the memory of the preceding half-century.

EH: That’s what I said. Soon it will become a state of being that only historians and creative writers will be able to reconstruct. But of course it seemed modern to us. Before the coming of Western Union and short-wave radio, the pace of life had been even slower, so to us it seemed we were becoming ever more tightly-knit, just as it seems to you, and it’s true in both cases. That pressure to modernize always tends to flatten out differences, and you lose a lot that way, it’s just that there isn’t any way to stop it.
F: My dad used to say, “you can’t stop progress,” and I couldn’t get him to wonder if progress was always a good thing. I suppose I should have said, what if “progress” is really just “change,” but I don’t think he would have considered the idea.
EH: It’s the same thing always and everywhere – change brings good and bad things in its wake, and some people focus more on the one and others more on the other. Your father and you weren’t right or wrong, it was just a matter of what you focused on.
Now, I knew what I wanted and needed, and I knew why, so when I discovered them to be in Key West, that’s where we landed. I needed access to New York, and in the keys I was still considerably closer than I had been in Paris. I needed distance from casual visitors who would interfere with my work schedule, and it was enough off the beaten path that I had that. I needed physical recreation, and Key West had it in plenty, and I needed male companionship that wasn’t a bunch of fairies being arty and wasn’t people wanting to be writers without having the talent or the willingness to work hard or anything to say, and the Key West I found had that too. And, it was still close enough to my friends like Dos that we could assemble a mob for some fishing and drinking and all-round hell raising, given a little organizing. Really, Key West for a long time was just about perfect.
F: It strikes me, you got to be a big shot without having to be a Literary Big Shot.
EH: That’s one way to put it, but it might be more accurate to say I had an established place on the island – I wasn’t nobody but I wasn’t some outside celebrity or some Snowbird rich guy either. My place there, my range of friends, my day to day life, did not depend on my literary career at all. It didn’t matter. And that was a tremendous insulation from the irritating side-effects of a literary life, the kind of diversions that sometimes cost a guy his career by diverting him from the real work that had to be at the center of his life if he was going to survive. Faulkner, for instance, spent time in Hollywood writing screenplays for movies, but he always had Oxford, Mississippi to return to, or you could say he never left Oxford in his mind, so it protected him from losing his values, losing his sense of who he was. Well, I didn’t have an Oxford, but I did have Key West, which for me was better than my own Oxford would have been because in my case Oxford would have been Oak Park, the pole-star of suburban America.
F: When I visited Key West a few years ago, one of the books I bought was Papa: Hemingway in Key West, by James McLendon, which taught me a lot. I just took it down from my bookshelves to get the title and author, and I guess I’ll be re-reading it soon. I wonder, sometimes, how much of what I think I’m getting from you is actually stuff I read and have forgotten I read.
EH: Meaningless worry, and you know it. If you read it, that puts it there to be easily used – that is, reading it created a pathway that makes it more easily accessible later. Stick to your own definition of usefulness: Does the material resonate for you? Maybe the reason you are led to pick up one book rather than another, or go to one place rather than another, at one time rather than another, is precisely to enable you to create such pathways.
F: Like [author] Dana Redfield being led to read up on quantum physics for no reason she could imagine.
EH: Just like that and it happens all the time, only few people notice and fewer talk about it and almost nobody talks about it in the context of perpetual gradual course-correction, or steering.
So – to skip forward a couple of years – by the time Martha Gellhorn and her mother and her brother wound up sitting at a certain bar having a drink, I had established a life that worked well for me. But I am going to have to go slowly with this because every time I go about it, there is the pull between the well-established story I told myself, and told others, over so many years, and the contradictory stories that have emerged as I have thought about it in the years since my mind cleared.
F: I tried to dramatize the process in “Papa’s Trial.”
EH: Yes, and that isn’t a bad image of what happens when you think you know what went on because after all you were there , you lived it – but when you start remembering it along with other things that you hadn’t been remembering, or remembered only separately, you start to see the cracks in your cover story, and then you either start papering-over what you just discovered, or you rewrite the story to include it. Neither way do you come to The One and Only Truth About It, because that doesn’t exist in any way accessible to finite minds, which means us after we leave 3D as much as when we were still in it.
F: I think people expect that once we are free of the limitations of the body, we are free of the limitations of perception. I know, I certainly thought that would be the case.
EH: A relative expansion – which certainly does take place – is not the same thing as an absolute hold on every way to see things. That can’t be had; the world is too big, things keep changing, there are a million versions of reality to consider, you’re changing it yourself as you reconsider it – how can anybody freeze all that into one Official Version of the Truth except arbitrarily?
F: There’s a lot in that paragraph to absorb.
EH: Take your time. The point is the same point you have been absorbing for 15 years and more, now – the world and your lives and everything about them is more complicated and more continuously changing than you can suspect while you stick to “common sense” definitions of life. You have to change the way you weigh things, not just the things you weigh, and you have to keep doing it as you go along, because of course each change changes you, which you could say to some degree invalidates the “you” that came to the previous conclusions.
F: I guess I’m never going to get to the bottom of Rita’s “to understand A you have to understand B, but to understand B you have to understand A.”
EH: Maybe you aren’t going to get to the end of the process because the process doesn’t have an end. Maybe any settled place you come to is only a resting place. If you think of it, that will make more sense. As you grow, if you grow, you become automatically less satisfied with what satisfied a less sophisticated you.
F: Well, that’s our hour, and a little more. Next time start with Martha and you meeting?
EH: Maybe not quite there, quite yet. But that is what we are moving toward.
F: Okay. Till next time, then. Thanks, Papa.

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