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Sunday, March 22, 2015


I’m an Ernest Hemingway fan going way way back.  I love the crisp succinct style, the vivid description, the superb analysis of human nature, and the familiarity I feel each time I open a Hemingway novel or short story.  Part of the allure, of course, comes from the exhaustive materials written by scholars and not-so-much-scholars about this man.  Part comes from a fascination with the time period in which he wrote his greatest works, his long career as writer, his years as traveler and news reporter, his avocation as sportsman, and his intense international celebrity.  As a teacher I taught his works; I’ve lead library discussions and always find other readers intrigued as I am with his genius.  So when I came across Hemingway’s Boat by Paul Hendrickson, I had to see how the Pilar could have been such a central part of his existence. 

One would think that after all these years new Hemingway material would be hard to find.  Hendrickson found it.  He found previously unpublished materials.  He interviewed Hemingway’s sons and the few people still alive who actually knew the author.  He traveled to Cuba to see the Pilar, a rotting hulk outside the Hemingway museum there.  Covering the period from 1934 when Hemingway, a literary giant of the time, bought the Pilar in a Brooklyn boatyard until his suicide in 1961, Hendrickson explores the whole man and shows him with all the boorishness and weaknesses—his alcoholism and explosive temper--that alienated almost all his friends as well as his wives yet also exposes the soft side that nurtured young, struggling writers, shared generously of his home and boat, and tenderly interacted with the dying son of a friend.

If one thinks about Hemingway’s life in Key West and then in Cuba, so much is connected with Pilar which became a haven for friends, family, prostitutes, and employees.  It defined fishing, exploring, and escaping for him.  The Caribbean Sea, its currents, and its seasons feature prominently in his books, and Hendrickson defines the sea as the navigational chart of much of Hemingway’s life.  Those who tolerated him—for whatever period that was—understood that as guests on the Pilar, they might also become combatants against a man who always wanted to be #1—to write the finest, to hook the biggest.

Hemingway’s Boat is a fascinating read opening yet another avenue to understand and appreciate this great American author.  All that aside, however, it’s just a fascinating story of a brilliant yet damaged man and his greatest love.


Anonymous said...

You sound like a great Hemingway fan. Have you been to his home in Key West?

Wendy Dembeck said...

Yes, his home is well worth visiting. His books are on the shelf, and you can go up to his study where he wrote. That was awesome. Cats everywhere--descendants of his cats. I loved visiting the house and imagining....