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Pilgrim at Key West « Last Stands
 
May 31st, 2009

Pilgrim at Key West

By KENNEDY WARNE

“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.”

This sentence, the first line of The Old Man and the Sea, always thrills me—the simple way it sets up what is to come. Hemingway is one of the reference points I have as a writer. Like a GPS satellite, he’s someone I use to triangulate my position, to consider my direction, to consult when I’m lost. I don’t know how many times I’ve alluded to the “built-in, shock-proof shit detector” that Hem said is the most essential gift of a good writer. Or how many times I’ve recalled his advice to “write the truest sentence you know.”

Seeking inspiration in Hemingway's house.

KENNEDY WARNE
Seeking inspiration in Hemingway's house.


So I was happy to pay my $12 to have a look through his house in Key West. I had driven to the “Conch Republic” from Miami to catch up with my friends David Doubilet, the great underwater photographer, and Jennifer Hayes. The two of them were on assignment for National Geographic, photographing a story on artificial reefs. A really big artificial reef in the form of the ship Vandenberg had just been scuppered six miles offshore, and David showed me some spectacular images of the sinking from two remote cameras he and Jen had attached to the bow and the bridge.

But back to Hemingway. The first surprise was how many people were queuing to take the tour. Not bookish types trying to get in touch with some literary ambience residual in the walls—or possibly in the cats, of which there are dozens lounging about the place—but standard-issue Hawaiian-shirt-and-suntan-lotion tourists. Either the man’s celebrity is undiminished, or the Hemingway marketing machine is highly effective—or, I suppose, both.

Hem's house, a place of pilgrimage.

KENNEDY WARNE
Hem's house, a place of pilgrimage.


I stood at the steel grille blocking entry to the sanctum sanctorum, Hemingway’s study, and imagined myself tapping at the ancient portable typewriter on the desk, or reclining in the faded green lounger when the words weren’t flowing (probably more of the latter than the former), or strapping on the canvas backpack stashed under the window and heading for the snows of Kilimanjaro.

I glanced at the titles on the bookshelves in the main house. Danger is My Business, The Great American Novel, The Tumult and the Shouting. Muscular titles for a muscular writer. Though for Hemingway the inner tumult grew too great. Another title on the shelf gave me pause: When Night Descends.

Ground zero: Hemingway's study.

KENNEDY WARNE
Ground zero: Hemingway's study.


According to a sign on the wall, half of Hemingway’s library is in Cuba, where the man’s memory is also revered. A Google search brought up a story about finding Hemingway in Cuba by Wright Thompson in the Kansas Star. He writes about a bar where Papa’s followers raise a glass to his memory:

“Yet they also know that this might be as real as it gets. The Hemingway McDonald’s isn’t here yet, and the drinks do go down easy. They’re made the same way as back then. The waiters probably dress the same. So what if the prices are higher. They don’t come for a historical dissertation. They come to feel adventure, something they’ve otherwise traded for the safety of a cubicle and a 401(k). They come for a feeling, for that one moment of one day when they get it. When the lights dim and the band plays and the smoke curls, this place delivers.”

In a week I’ll be in Cuba, looking for my own adventure, not in a bar, nor in a fishing skiff in the Gulf Stream, but among some of the best preserved mangrove forests in the Caribbean.

Correction: When I first published this post I got the name of the Kansas Star author wrong: it’s Wright Thompson, not Wayne Thompson (which happens to be the name of my solicitor). I also couldn’t get the link to work, but it seems to be OK now.

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