Hemingway’s Boat, Everything He Loved in Life and Lost, Paul Hendrickson, Alfred A. Knopf/Random House, 2011.
I’ve got a very distinct memory of the 1961 end of author Ernest Hemingway, almost inarguably the most famous fiction writer of his day, though not necessarily for his body of published work.
My father and I, along with some of his co-workers at the nearby state fish hatchery had just finished a round of target-shooting at a quarry when the word came over the car radio. Hemingway had used a shotgun in his mouth to end his life at his home in Idaho. I doubt my dad or his co-workers had ever read much or any of Hemingway’s work outside of sporting magazines, but the author was famous in a way unknown to present-day writers. His African safari hunting and deep sea fishing got constant attention in the national media and Hemingway made a lot of money by writing about them for the magazines while he engaged in more ambitious literary projects. His war reporting in Spain and then World War II, marriages, divorces and overseas trips were regular grist for the media mill.
Hemingway’s complete fiction and non-fiction might take up one library shelf. Multiple shelves would groan under the collection of critical and biographical writings about the author, much of it aimed at knocking an iconic figure off his high pedestal. Paul Hendrickson has come at this an entirely different way, using Hemingway’s fishing boat Pilar as an entry-point to a complicated life that did not end well. Hendrickson has done us the service of plowing through often dated criticism and trolling the vast amount of material left by Hemingway and those around him for fresh material. Even those who wearied of the macho legend of Papa may be encouraged to revisit his serious work after reading this one.
Hemingway, growing up in the Midwest (Illinois) had been fishing since childhood, but living in Key West in the 1930s he found his true passion in the Gulf Stream, surpassing anything he found hunting in Africa.
‘Papa’ Hemingway shows off his 420 pound blue marlin in Havana, Cuba, 1934
“Once he’d found marlin, all bets were off,” Hendrickson writes. “It was as if every other creature in the sea was just guppy sport. Yes, giant bluefin tuna and broadbill swordfish and, to some extent, mako shark off Bimini in the mid-thirties would have their obsessions. But for the rest of his life, marlin reigned supreme, most especially the blue marlin: Makaira nigricans, a trophy that could go to fiteen feet, could go from fifty pounds to twelve hundred.”
The Pilar, purchased in 1934 from a New York boatmaker, was Hemingway’s enabling tool, allowing him to cruise the Gulf in trips to Cuba, Bimini and other points where the fish were running. Aboard the Pilar, Hendrickson reconstructs the floating soap opera around the famous author and his numerous fishing expedition guests.
Of course, as Hendrickson makes clear, there was plenty of foreshadowing of Hemingway’s ultimate destiny. His father, a doctor, was a suicide by pistol. Hemingway managed to seriously wound himself while boating a fish and, annoyed by sharks chasing his potential trophy fish, armed himself with a then-legal Thompson sub-machine gun and dispatched dozens of the predators.
Hendrickson chronicles a long slide for Hemingway, with depression and premature aging setting in.
“It’s heartbreaking to read Hemingway’s letters of his last few years and see how Pilar and the sea were slipping from him, no less than his mind was. For all the years he’d had her, Hemingway always knew he could stop what he was doing and drive to the waterfront and meet Gregorio and unfasten the ropes and climb up onto the bridge and step on the starters and glide his boat out of Havana Harbor toward the Stream.”
The Pilar would prove to outlive Papa Hemingway.
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