Writing about revolution

Saturday, November 21, 2015
F: 6 a.m. Papa, if you know where you want us to go, let’s go. Otherwise I’ll have to skim the past few days’ entries.
EH: I know just where we’re going – which ought to reassure you.
I was thinking to examine the question of revolution in To Have and Have Not – or I should say in the idea for the book that became To Have and Have Not. What I did and what I had wanted to do were vastly different. Now, we have touched on aspects of this before, but maybe it’s best if we examine it without reference to past attempts. It will be less patchy. It’ll give the scholars something else to do, too, comparing versions.
F: I know that’s a joke; some readers might not. It isn’t like we’re expecting ever to be taken seriously by scholars.
EH: Don’t be too sure. Times change, fashions change, modes of intelligence and perception change. Moby-Dick resurfaced after sixty years.
F: In any case it won’t affect us in my few years left.
EH: Probably not. So – that means you don’t have to worry about the, doesn’t it?

I already explained that the keys and Cuba were to be the setting for the book. If I had needed to, I could have imported the main American character from somewhere, anywhere, the way Robert Jordan appears to the small Spanish band out of the wider incomprehensible world. If he had had to be a professional revolutionary, chances are he would have come from elsewhere. If his expertise had been in explosives, he could have been a local, but then you have to figure out how he’s connected to the whole business.
You’ve read that the idea was going to be an insurrection in Havana, a bridge needing to be blown up at the right moment, the dynamite and the dynamiter to be imported from the States. That would have been the setting, and in fact Cuba might have wound up taking as much space as the keys. The plot could have gone in several variations, but it would have been a tragedy, because the times were tragic, the situation in Cuba was tragic, and the whole damn subject of revolution – if you strip off the romantic veneer – is nothing but tragedy mingled with a faint but not very realistic hope.
Here is what I would have liked to portray, and you will recognize the elements as their shadows appeared in Harry Morgan’s book.
First, there was a need for change in Cuba, and no legal way to bring it about. Second, the people who make revolutions are of different types, from altruists to thugs. They work together uneasily and without any but a surface trust in each other. Always among them – except perhaps in the most naïve – is the knowledge that somewhere in the future there is going to be a struggle and a reckoning among them even if, or maybe particularly if, they succeed. Thirds, revolutions have needs and have no legal ways to meet the needs – therefore they always involve coercing people who have nothing to do with making the situation, and have no ability to change anything – who are without guilt, in other words. Fourth, that those innocents always are ground between two millstones, the police and the army in Cuba being one millstone, the police in Florida being one, and the revolutionaries in either place being the other.
Now, change tack. Look at the situation in America. Forget the revolution and the dynamiter and just look at America as it was. I am showing you what would have been the buildup for the revolutionary novel – the explanation of the American’s motivations, perhaps – if it had gone as planned.
America in the 1930s was broken, and nobody understood why or what to do about it (how could you know what to do if you didn’t know what had gone wrong?), and maybe the only reason we didn’t get a revolution was that Roosevelt was obviously trying to fix things and people were willing to see if his experiments worked. I never thought they would, but that doesn’t matter. Roosevelt bought the country time. That’s one way of looking at it, no matter what you think of the mess he inherited or the mess he made.
So what I wanted to do was show what I knew, what I had seen. I wasn’t into economics and scientific observation and analysis – I trusted what I had seen and experienced. I made my own observations and came to my own conclusions. I read a lot, from many sources, but I measured everything I read against my own internal crap-detector.
I knew America’s rich, its poor, and its middle class. I didn’t talk about workers or tradesmen or sportsmen or clerks or day-laborers – I lived among them, and drank with them, and swapped tall tales, and I dug into their stories until I understood them. How many of my fellow writers did that, or could do that? It’s one thing to talk grandly of the poor, and idealize them and abstractify them – you keeping a long arms-length away from actually living among them – but there was no reality in that. No matter how much a guy might know intellectually, his portrait is going to differ from the real thing the same way a statistical average is going to differ from an actual average Joe. You have to know. Anything else is faking.
Same thing with the rich. The reason for the rich is one thing. The fact of the rich is another, and the individual rich is something else. If you’re going to deal in stereotypes and scapegoats – or in idols, as Scott tended to – you are going to entirely miss what is right in front of your face. If you want to portray the rich as they are, you have to have lived close enough to them to know what you are painting. Otherwise, you end up with stereotypes. It was my fortune to live among them for much of my life, so I knew. And I had enough notoriety as a writer – as a successful writer, which was an absolute necessity for most of them to decide I was worth their time – for them to be interested in me. I was dissecting them and their lives. They were using me as they used everything, to try to temporarily dispel their deadly perpetual boredom.
F: I noticed what you were doing in that God’s-eye view of the people in the yacht harbor in the book as it finally came out. It was a devastating survey that was saved from caricature mainly by the portrait of the one family where the money was made honestly.
EH: That was the intent. But like everything else in that novel, it didn’t quite gel. I just couldn’t give it the time and attention it needed. Things were moving too fast.
Okay, so here’s the point. My times had a literary establishment just as yours does. In my day, the writers were very consciously lining up on the left or right, and it kept getting drawn tighter and tighter, the cord still connecting them, till it finally snapped. Bad analogy, discard it. Let’s just say, there was a sort of understood pressure to choose sides and for the moment the left had control of the literary centers of power. If you weren’t independent because you had your established market, your own draw based on your name, you ran the risk of being frozen out. That’s a lot of pressure, so naturally everybody who wanted to be a writer but didn’t have the ability to break out of the pack signed up to be part of the “revolution.” I didn’t. Zane Grey, for instance, didn’t. Scott. Anybody who could make his own way didn’t because it would be death to write what somebody told you you could write – it would be worse than somebody telling you what you couldn’t write, in the way that prostitution was called a fate worse than death – and that’s a very close analogy.
I want to be clear. I’m not talking about people whose beliefs ran in harmony with the times. Dos, for instance, or Martha. Neither one of them ever wrote anything they didn’t believe. But there were plenty who did.
Now as you know, I didn’t follow directions and I wasn’t inclined to follow fashions. So while the comrades were investigating utopia, I wasn’t among them, and when the party bosses said “socialist realism” I didn’t hop onto that particular bandwagon either. I didn’t need them and maybe I wasn’t even all that much aware of them. I had my own life and I was following my own star. They were exploring utopia, I was writing A Farewell to Arms. The economy went to hell, I was writing a damned good book on Spain centering on bullfighting, its history, essence, techniques, scandals, excellences, prognosis. The economy went further to hell and Roosevelt came in remaking its social and governmental and economic institutions, and I went to Africa on safari. Can you see why the comrades despaired of me?
But the thing is, I sympathized with the poor. I saw how the game was rigged against them. I had no faith in “progress” as such. But neither did I have faith in a revolution. I didn’t have faith that it would cure things, and I didn’t have faith that it was coming. Was a revolution going to cure original sin? But the comrades didn’t even believe in original sin, and couldn’t see its signs when they were surrounded by them.
But of course I was stung to have my life and my sympathies and my understandings so totally misunderstood. So after Green Hills of Africa, I decided to try to say what I knew, and do it in the setting I finally knew well enough to portray. I knew Max was hoping for a good salable story and I thought I could give it to him.
And that’s enough for the moment.
F: Okay, Mr. Cliff-hanger. Thanks for all this.

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