Key West in the 1930s

Sunday, November 22, 2015
F: 3:15 a.m. All right, Papa. Yesterday you said we’d look at To Have and Have Not as it turned out, and you started with Harry Morgan. Shall we continue?
EH: Describing Harry was one way of describing Key West as I experienced it, and beyond the one island, the keys, and beyond the keys, a whole human ecosystem.
Now look at that word ecosystem. It is one of yours, not one of mine. In the 1930s common language didn’t even have such a word – in other words the idea wasn’t common, for many reasons, mostly that in those days we weren’t divorced from life in the way your time is, so it didn’t occur to us to separate ourselves [conceptually] from the world we lived in. The only thing is, we didn’t think to question that we could do whatever we wanted with it, and to it. It seemed so big, so impervious. Who would have thought you could fuck up the air or the water or the food we had to eat? Yes, it could happen in the biggest cities, but we didn’t think of them as merely an exaggeration of what we were doing; we thought of them as different.
This is a side-trail and yet not. It is, in that my prime concern at the moment is to describe the society I was portraying. It isn’t, in that the very fact that people were—
Well, let’s go at it a little systematically.

Key West in the 1930s had problems peculiar to being a place that had thrived on industries that had gone away. But the keys in general had the same problems, not so exaggerated because they hadn’t been shaped by a previous prosperity.
F: May I?
EH: Go ahead.
F: Key West was a coaling station, then a submarine warfare base, and a shipping point at the end of Henry Flagler’s railroad, and a center of cigar rolling – and all those things went away, and when they did they left the island worse off than if they’d never been there, in a way, because they had lured families there by the paychecks they offered, then left them stranded when the paychecks disappeared. The natural base on which the island’s economy subsisted – fishing and whatever else – wasn’t enough to support the additional superstructure that had been added in flush times.
EH: That’s what I said. Maybe people needed to have it spelled out like that, I don’t know.
Key West was a little survival at the edge of the United States. In many ways – not merely in terms of miles, but of affinity – it was closer to Havana than to Miami. And yet, it was very much aware of its differences with Cuba and Cuban government and temperament and life in general. We might like to go to Havana to play, or to fish, but we knew it was no place for an American to live unless he had a way to live with the gangsters who owned the government. It could be done, and it was done, but that kind of life wasn’t as comfortable and certainly wasn’t as safe as living in a town of 10,000 that was pretty much a world of its own.
Bear in mind, if I describe Key West in terms of my own life and preferences, it is because that’s what I knew. That’s all you ever really know – what you experience first-hand. Anything else is an approximation that perhaps you can fill in, out of your imagination, but the very things you read and absorb would be different if you experienced them, and you have to keep this in mind if you aren’t going to be misled into thinking you are experiencing what in fact you are only imagining.
Life in the keys was one representation of life in the States in many obscure places. In that, it was like the rural Michigan of my youth. But I didn’t know those other places, and I did get to know this one. In describing it I was describing an older America that was always under pressure from a more modern America that it experienced as a continual alien intrusion. When I got there it was still mostly its raw independent self. By the time I left, a dozen years later, it had succumbed. My snapshot was all it would ever get by way of recognition in the culture at large, and then it disappeared. In its place was a tourist resort at the end of a long highway, and by the end of my life it wasn’t even a short hop to Cuba, because of the politics involved. [After the Castro revolution and the break in diplomatic relations.]
F: Presumably the life that it was built on survived? Maybe survives?
EH: Is there a lot of buffalo hunting going on outside Kansas City, these days?
F: Gone for good?
EH: People adapt. One way of living disappears and they find another way to scratch out a living. Maybe it’s as good as it was before, maybe not. They adapt, like Harry Morgan. But the 1930s were a time when good men couldn’t find any way to adapt. It isn’t that they were lazy, or dumb, or too stubborn to change. It is that the economic forces shaping their lives had become too incomprehensible and immovable. Nobody really knew what had hit us. Nobody knew the cause – though as usual there were people who were absolutely convinced they knew, and who could be positive that they didn’t? – and so nobody knew the things to do, nor was there any established way to do anything even if we had known what should be done.
What we knew was that good men and their families were starving for lack of work to do. They were willing to work, and the work was there needing to be done – but who was going to pay for it? Roosevelt set a million things in motion, trying to get things going, but we could see that at least some of them – all of them, for all we knew – were going to be a waste of money that would leave us – I mean society in general – holding the bag, in debt to pay for something that wasn’t worth anything. And all that government spending on leaf-raking never did do the job of getting things started again. It took massive spending for war equipment for the Army and Navy and [material for] the British and French armies.
F: Some of what Roosevelt’s agencies did was valuable, and was a bargain at the price. TVA, the conservation efforts, a lot of civil engineering projects.
EH: I am not saying it was all wasted. I am saying a lot of it was, and for all we knew all of it would be. But people were desperate, and without all that obvious effort (that required time to tell if it would work or not, which in itself was valuable in buying time against a possible revolution of despair) there’s no telling what might have happened. That doesn’t make the situation we were in any less revolutionary. America after the New Deal would have been a very different place regardless of if the results were an obvious success or failure. And of course America after the New Deal and World War II was changed unrecognizably. But by that time I was gone from the keys and from America.
So one strand of To Have and Have Not was the passing of a way of life. Nobody could be more independent and skillful and courageous and self-reliant than Harry Morgan, and yet he couldn’t do it alone.
Now, take a good look at the people I counterpointed to Harry, and maybe you’ll see it more easily. Take Albert. Albert isn’t as self-reliant or as skilled as Harry, but he is a hard worker, and a family man trying to get by, willing to work for the government at slave wages in order to feed his family. Society was filled with men like Albert, even in Key West. It didn’t have a lot of Harry Morgans even as it didn’t have a lot of Owen Wister’s Virginian – but it did have some, and you could tell their stature easiest by putting them side by side with decent but more limited men like Albert.
Or take the tourists Harry interacts with at the bar. They are hardly even there, as far as he is concerned. They are an annoyance and the one woman is an impertinence, but they are hardly a thought. That shows you something, too, because although you may be identifying with Harry in your sympathy, you are going to know you are more like the tourists in who and what you are. You are an outsider in Harry’s world and you always will be, and he hardly knows you are there even if you impact his life the way the Washington bureaucrat he never meets does.
And then there are the vets. Maybe we had better consider them next time.
F: Not worth trying now? It has been an hour, but I’m still “going good,” as you would say.
EH: I’ll just say this. I had been writing about veterans all my career, and I would again after our next war, but this was the only time I had to describe a whole subculture of defeated men. I didn’t describe the vets who readjusted; they disappeared back into the culture that had raised them, wherever they came from, whatever their parents did, and whatever would become of them. These particular vets were what was left of the bonus army which was itself composed of a certain kind of vet, the unemployed, probably homeless, certainly rootless vet who either had never been able to reenter society or who had reentered and fallen out again. I’ll let you describe the bonus army, but when Roosevelt came in, he didn’t set the army on them as Hoover did – or rather MacArthur, that son of a bitch – but he got them sent to Florida to rebuild Flagler’s railway and got them out of the way of national publicity the way they were when they were in Anacostia [Flats, in D.C.].
[No need for me to re-tell the story: Search for Bonus Army. One example,]
These particular vets were still in the army, but it was the army of starvation, the army of no path to be found. And a lot of them were crazy in one way or another.
EH: We didn’t have any such term, or any such understanding, but probably, yes. War is not good for your mental stability, and some guys never got past it, injured [physically] or otherwise.
As you know, but millions apparently still don’t, I never romanticized war or called it a good thing the way Teddy Roosevelt or Rudyard Kipling did. What men could rise to in a war was one thing; war itself was a very different thing, and if you were going to consider what it could lead men to rise to, you ought to also show what it could lead men to sink to, and that’s what I did here. I didn’t give you an abstraction. Abstractions don’t sink in. I painted a picture of what some vets had become, and that picture was drawn from life, not from ideology. I invented the scenes, but I invented out of what I had seen and experienced, as always.
Now, it’s good your stamina is increasing and we’ll keep working at that, but this is enough for now. At 4:30 you are already 25% beyond your past limitation. Next time we’ll talk about the writers and Harry, maybe.
F: Okay. Thanks as always.

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