Chapter 17: Key West –Middle Years

“So, Mr. Hemingway, when you returned from Africa in 1934 did your life in Key West seem too small, too domesticated?”

“Maybe it would have, but now I had the Pilar. The minute we got off the boat in New York, we went straight to Wheeler Shipwrights in Brooklyn and placed an order, modified to my specifications. And when it arrived and I learned how to run it, I h ad my own boat.”

“Yes. Your escape from civilization.”

Startled: “You understand!”

“Tell us what you think we understand. Mr. Hemingway.”

“Go out a few miles, out of sight of land, and you’re back in the world the way it always was. Sea and sky and you yourself, and all the creatures that live in the sea, and on it, and over it. Even the weather, and the way things smell, and the way the clouds change, and the different feel of the sea in different circumstances: It was all part of it. Going fishing wasn’t just about catching fish.”

“And if you hadn’t had Pilar? If you had had to go back to fishing from other men’s boats?”

“It was fine before, why wouldn’t it have still been fine? You don’t miss what you’ve never experienced.”

“Perhaps not. Mr. Hemingway, we haven’t talked about your role as father. In your Key West years, besides being the father of a teenager who mostly lived with his mother, you were the father of two very young children. Would you say you gave them enough of your time?”

“Listen, I was freer than most people, the way I made my living, but if I was going to succeed, it would be on the back of my own work. It doesn’t make it easy to concentrate on family. I couldn’t very well include them in my working life. Writing is done alone. Mr. Bumby – Jack – got a good deal of my time and attention when he was little, but I didn’t have the responsibilities and pressures I did by the time Pat and Gigi came along. By then, too, we had enough money to pay others to take care of them, and of course that tended to shut them out of our lives.”

“So do you think they suffered neglect, being your sons?”

“It’s too late to do anything about it, but yes, I suppose they did. They weren’t first in my mind except when I was doing something with them. Kids need a lot of attention, and the more sensitive they are, the more attention they need. And if they don’t get what they need, that has consequences. But I think they’re usually pretty philosophical about it, in the way kids accept whatever life dishes out to them. Anyway, did you feel a part of your father’s inner world? Plus, when I was with them, I was very much with them. I taught them how to do the things I knew, like hunting and fishing. And maybe I taught them by example to enjoy what they were doing, and to make their own fun by planning it. When I could concentrate on the kids, I really concentrated.”

A hesitation. “Every child wants to be the center of the world for the parents, but it can’t happen, and wouldn’t be healthy if it did happen. We all have to make our own way in this world.”

“Very good. Your honor, the prosecution calls John Dos Passos.”


Dos! Who would have thought that Dos would outlive him? (They were asking him to swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Useless ritual anyway, but particularly in this case. Who had ever known Dos to lie to anybody?)

Dos sat there beaming at him with his usual overflowing goodwill, looking like he had in the twenties. He had sent a get-well note, just days ago, on earth, which was just like him. It was gall and wormwood, seeing that familiar face with its affection unimpaired.

“Mr. Dos Passos, you and the defendant knew each other much of his adult life, is that correct?”

“That’s right.”

“You had both been ambulance drivers in the war.”

“Yes, but not at the same place and time. I was three years older than he was, and I had had more than a year of the war, in France and Italy. When we met in 1922, we realized that we had met in Italy, in May, 1918. At least, we were pretty sure we had. There was this tall handsome kid who had just arrived while I was on my way out. I had retained a vivid impression of a long talk, but I hadn’t caught his name.”

“By 1922 you had already had some success as a novelist.”

“Yes, and it came as quite a surprise. I had been all the way to Persia, and I came back to Europe by camel across the Middle East, and when I got to Paris, I was broke, but I found that Three Soldiers, a novel I had written before I left, was selling all over the place.”

“So how did you experience the defendant when you met again after the lapse of four years?”

“We took to each other right away. We had the same interests, the same ideas. Ernest didn’t sketch, the way I did, but already he knew how to read a painting. And he and I had had vivid experiences, but different kinds of experience, so we could learn from each other. And of course, we were both writers.”

“So, you got along.”

“Ernest lived in a bubble of active vigorous enjoyment, and he could bring you into it. You somehow got sucked into his enthusiasms, even things you didn’t really care about, like six-day bicycle races. And he could bring things out of you that you didn’t even realize you knew. He had that tremendous gift for listening. He was stimulating, he was receptive, he was serious about his craft. He was fun. He and Hadley were still in the first year of their marriage, and they were lovely to be with.”

“Could you sketch for the court how your relationship to the defendant changed over the years?”

He got a vivid image of Dos walking on uncertain terrain, picking his way carefully.

“I suppose friendships go through phases, like love affairs. They change as the people change. Sometimes they change in ways that strengthens the friendship. Sometimes not.” The prosecutor out-waited him. Reluctantly, but sticking to the truth, rejecting half-measures as usual. “The more Ernest succeeded, the harder it got to be his friend.”

“Success went to his head.”

“I’d have to say it did, more so as the years went on. His own opinion became more and more important to him, and other people’s less and less. As his literary star rose, he started expecting a certain deference, even from old friends. He didn’t get it from me, and things between us started to fray a little. Also, he got so either he couldn’t hear criticism, or it enraged him.”

“Why do you think that was?”

“It’s a heady feeling, succeeding while you’re still very young. It had happened to me when I was about the same age. You’re afraid to believe that the success is real, because until then it has been out of reach and it seems you’ve been pursuing it so long! And yet you also have this feeling of inevitability.”

“Would you say that success changed you in the same way it did him?”

“No, because I had other things I wanted to do. Writing a successful book was a pleasant experience, but I hadn’t been staking my life on it. Ernest was going to be a writer of fiction and that was all there was to it. So to him, quick success was a promise and a validation, in a way it wasn’t for me.”

Well, it was true. He hadn’t seen it that way, struggling with his fears and insecurities.

“You and the defendant parted ways in Spain.”

“That’s true, we did, but don’t forget, we had many good years together. And Ernest was the reason I met Katy. He and Pauline invited me to Key West, thinking to fix me up with his sister Sunny, but I didn’t interest her and she didn’t interest me. The one who did interest me was his old friend Katherine Smith, and the minute I saw Katy’s green eyes, that was it for me.”

“We will discuss what happened in Spain, but first I should like you to describe for the court your own political views at the time.”

“Why? Is this my trial?”

“Let us say, the court would value your view of the writer and society in the 1930s.”

“As a corrective to Hem’s?”

“To help us triangulate, let’s say.”

“All right.”

“You are often described as moved to the right after having been radical in your youth. Would you agree with that assessment?”

“Not really. It’s true, that is a common pattern. People learn that it isn’t safe to judge things before you watch them and think about them. And after you’ve been betrayed by fine words a couple of times, you learn to question people’s motivations. But I started out as a libertarian, and I remain a libertarian. That’s one of the things Ernest and I had in common, by the way, to the extent that he had any politics at all.”

“I was more of an anarchist, really.”

“Well, Hem, I know that’s how you saw yourself, in some moods. But he asked me how I saw your politics. When I first knew you, politics and ideology didn’t interest you. They were too abstract for you.”

Fair enough.

“Proceed, Mr. Dos Passos.”

“In the 1920s, the cultural left loved me. Three Soldiers, Manhattan Transfer, The 42nd Parallel, 1919: The literary establishment praised my work as artistically innovative, which it was. It took me a while to realize that I was being praised mostly because what I was doing was supported by the official party line.”

“Figuratively speaking, I take it?”

“No. I mean the official Communist Party line. I found that out when they turned on me, and I watched the whole school of fish turn in formation.”

“Are you saying that your literary success prior to 1934 rested on the approval of the Comintern?”

“More the other way around. I was a modernist, and as long as the party line officially supported modernism in art, I automatically benefited.”

“Mr. Dos Passos, this is an important point, because both you and the defendant have been described as fellow travelers in the 1930s. Please give the court your understanding of what it meant to be a fellow traveler, and tell us whether you think that characterization is accurate.”

“If you mean, did we trim our views to conform to the party line, then no, obviously not. Not me, not Ernest. But if you mean did the party claim us as long as it found our views useful, then yes.”

He paused. “Here’s how it worked. The Soviet government  — Stalin, Karl Radek, a few others – decided what public opinion they wanted to foster in the West, for the sake of Soviet foreign policy. That became what they called the party line, which was aimed at left intellectuals and literary critics in the West.”

“Not designed to control Soviet writers?”

“They were already under control. It was about making the Soviet Union look like the home of a new culture that favored forward-looking art and literature.

“So, the left intellectuals praised my books, right up until the party line swerved. Karl Radek made a speech to the First All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934, denouncing modernism as western decadence, and just like that, modernism was out, and the new `in’ thing was what Radek called socialist realism. And since he had attacked James Joyce and me by name, it wasn’t long before my work was being attacked by `progressive’ critics in the West.”

“Did this damage your career?”

“Not right away. At first it just looked like I was bucking one of those literary trends that put a given writer out of fashion for a while. The Soviets still wanted to use me if they could, you see.”

“So please describe the working of this mechanism with regard to the defendant.”

“In 1934, he was so popular, the left would have loved to gather him into the fold, but they couldn’t. His short stories and his novels were never political, and of course books about bullfighting or safari hunting were impossible. He seemed to have no interest in larger social issues. Then in 1936, he fell in love with Martha Gellhorn and his politics changed.”

“Boy that’s the truth!” The prosecutor and the judge and Dos were all looking at him, but by now he was tired of apologizing for his thoughts being overheard. “Well, it is the truth. Of all the bars in all the joints in all the world, she had to walk into Sloppy Joe’s.”

The prosecutor: “Do you wish to testify to this?

“I’m willing to.”

“Very well.” The prosecutor looked at the judge, who nodded assent. Dos Passos remained in the witness chair, observing.


“Mr. Hemingway, how did the man who went on a safari in the middle of the depression become the symbol of the anti-fascist intellectual?”

He sighed. “Franco’s rebellion. And, as Dos just said, Marty Gellhorn.”

“Please explain that for the court.”

“In July, 1936, the Falangists tried to overthrow the Spanish Republic in a coup, and when the coup failed, Mussolini sent thousands of Italian conscripts to fight against the Republic, at the Falangists’ invitation. I didn’t like it, because I supported the Spanish Republic, and because I had seen that Mussolini was a baboon when I interviewed him in the early twenties. But I was 3,000 miles away, and I was working hard on my novel about Harry Morgan, and I hadn’t solved all its problems. I was hoping we could stay out of more European wars.”

“So you did not plan to participate?”

“No, of course not. I knew better than to go off on another crusade.”

“And yet, in the event, you did go to Spain.”

“Well, everybody knows what happened. I’m sitting in Sloppy Joe’s drinking, and this young woman comes in looking for the famous author who was one of her literary heroes. She’s a published author herself, and she’s beautiful, and she admires my work. You must know how political Marty is, she’s a lefty to the core. All the time I’m getting involved with her, she’s saying it’s our duty to go to Spain and do our best for the Republic. So I got to imagining a fast trip to Spain, as much as an excuse to have an affair as anything else, sort of planning it behind my own back. And of course once I got over there, I got more and more deeply involved.”

The prosecutor stopped him. “Mr. Hemingway, it is obvious that you told yourself this story for a long time. I ask you to return to the memory of the actual events.”

There was a silence that extended for several moments, and then he said, “I guess I got interested in going to Spain earlier than I thought. It was September when I told Max that I’d hate to miss the show, and it was November when the North American Newspaper Alliance approached me about reporting on the war. I didn’t meet Marty until December.”

“So for whatever reason, once you started daydreaming about going to Spain, you got tired of working on your book and you let it go, relying on your reputation to carry it.”

“That isn’t really what happened. The way I had planned it, Harry dabbles in revolution and fails, and winds up laughing at his attempts to change the world. Once I got involved on the Republican side, I didn’t want to put this message into print, so I threw all that out and changed it. It’s too bad, too, because I still think that book that might’ve been a classic. I had been thinking about the problem for years, waiting until I knew enough. It was my answer to the boys who thought government was the answer to everything. Harry Morgan’s story would have expressed it.

“Harry Morgan was an ordinary guy trying to make a living for his family and finding it harder and harder every year. In the old days, he had been able to function alone, in a sort of tribal way, just him and his family and community. They didn’t get anything special from the government and they didn’t owe anything special to the government. They lived their lives without paying much attention to the law one way or another. But everything had gotten too big and interconnected. Technical advances keep tying the world tighter. Where sailing ships could go where they wanted, coal-fired ships had to have coaling stations, and then motor ships had to have refueling docks. Or, take radio. Radio let you set up stations to help navigation and lifesaving, but then you had to have some sort of regulation of radio, or it becomes chaotic. And one thing keeps leading to another, and it’s regulation on regulation. And so government keeps getting bigger, and people like Harry Morgan keep getting squeezed.

“You know, Max Perkins said he liked Harry Morgan `even though he was a bad man — almost because he was a bad man.’ But he liked Morgan because Harry wasn’t a bad man, he was a good, responsible, reliable, well-intentioned competent man, and the times made his virtues look like vices. If Harry had been a cowboy in the old West, nobody would have thought him a bad man. He was a self-sufficient man providing for his family. He did what he thought was right and necessary.

“I know the lefties thought the answer to ` big and complicated’ was more government, but I didn’t. As far as I could see, government is a protection racket. You have to have it, because without it you’d be in the position of a man alone, surrounded by gangs. And how are you going to win a war, say, without a government? But you can’t trust it, and you don’t have to like it.”

“So what was your answer to the problem?”

“I didn’t have an answer any more than Harry did. The best a man could do was stay the hell away from it all, if he could.”

“Did this not leave you pretty much isolated in your social thinking?”

“You bet. But if you don’t choose your own values, you’ll live by somebody else’s. Now maybe you look at Harry Morgan and you say, he wasn’t wise enough, or flexible enough or even smart enough, and that all misses the point. He didn’t just drift with the tide. He planted his feet.”

“And so did you.”

“And so did I. As a writer, I had to. Writing is a solitary occupation. It means seeing, judging, understanding, weighing, balancing –  and how are you going to do that as part of a committee? It means expressing whatever you can find of the truth, and how are you going to do that if you have to try to remain a member in good standing as part of a `movement’? Writing is hard enough, without trying to stay within somebody else’s fixed limits. Groups mean compromise, and when did compromise ever produce great literature? Find a group of writers who define themselves as part of a group, and you’ll find a group of very mediocre writers.”

“You mean like the writers of the lost generation?”

“That’s different and you know it. I’m not talking about groups that get defined by what other people call them, I’m talking about people who are careful to stay within bounds other people set for them. In the 1930s, ‘serious’ literature came to mean stories that were calling for some form of revolution, and there I was, writing about bullfighting or safari hunting, subjects that the political-literary establishment despised. I was never going to be the literary establishment’s fair-haired boy. Fortunately, they couldn’t make me conform or starve. I could go my own way.”

“Nonetheless, many people, looking at To Have and Have Not, concluded that you were attempting to jump onto the liberal bandwagon.”

“Yeah, they did, but that’s because they only saw what they wanted to see. Take what Harry was thinking while he was talking to that student revolutionary, for instance. You wouldn’t catch the party faithful thinking that. Or when I was talking about the people in the yachts in the harbor. One of them had a family that made money honestly. The pleasant, dull and upright family. I said, `There are no suicides when money’s made that way,’ That was Gus Pfeiffer, a man leading a quiet prosperous life that did no one any harm. I wasn’t against people having money; I was against all the phoniness and stupidity that so often goes with rich people leading their bored and boring lives.”

“Very good. So let us return to Mr. Dos Passos. We come to the events of 1937.”


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