Monday, March 28, 2011

Hemingway’s Key West Hideaway

Hemingway House in Key West - Photo by DG Hudson

Down Whitehead Street in Old Town Key West, we went searching for the Ernest Hemingway House. We entered through the walled gate entrance at #907 and purchased our ticket from the booth-tender. Past the palms framing the front porch of the Spanish Colonial style house, we walked up the front steps and onto the ground floor verandah. A gruff-voiced older man came up as we approached and asked for our tickets, while his friends waited with that island bred patience. Then we were free to wander about the rooms of the house where Ernest lived for ten years with his second wife Pauline. He would have been in his thirties during that time.

Tours of the house are available, but we chose to amble at our own pace. The Hemingway House retains strong resonations of its former tenant, an essence which is reinforced with photographs, art works and furniture selected by the couple. As a museum, it provides a snapshot of that particular time period. Hemingway’s collection of books in the hallway display cabinet, his binoculars and canteens look well-used. The garden is stuffed with large frond palm trees, wide squat palms, flowering palms, and fragrant bougainvillea blooms that lend their scent to the air surrounding the two-story house. The resident cats have their own unique drinking fountain snuggled in between the palms; it’s made of composite items unique to Key West.

Bourgainvillae Old Town Key West - by DG Hudson

In earlier days, the second level wraparound veranda of the Key West house was connected by a bridge to the author’s studio above the carriage house. Hemingway wrote here surrounded by lush tropical vegetation and the salty sea air. After the bridge was destroyed during one hurricane season in the 1940’s, it was never replaced.

As you walk through the house you see the paintings by original artists, a humorous cartoon strip featuring ‘Hem’ or Papa, and everywhere -- the cats. Photos of the wives of Hemingway and their friends decorate the dining room walls. The children’s rooms are on the second level, with gentle breezes wafting in from the trees outside.

The many extra-toed polydactyls (6 toed felines), which freely roam the house, are descendents of those Hemingway kept. They lounge about like beautiful women in fur coats, hoping for some attention but pretending aloofness. The Hemingway House website offers detailed information on the history of the house, the man who lived there and the cats.

The Conch Republic, Key West, Florida - Photo by DG Hudson

When Hemingway lived here, mornings were spent writing, afternoons were for socializing at Sloppy Joe’s or Capt’n Tony’s. Hemingway worked on the draft of A Farewell to Arms in the late 1920’s while living here. To Have and Have Not was written in the late 1930’s and is set in Key West and Cuba. Social attitudes were different then, and his stories portrayed the mores of the day.

Hemingway, a modern man of his time, wanted to offer an alternative to the existing style of writing. With fewer words, he managed to convey more. Succinct, concise, and sharp -- these are words that describe the writing of a man with journalistic field experience. His fiction seems to encompass those things he observed and often participated in -- the wars, expatriate writers in Paris, the Florida Keys, and Africa.

After touring Hemingway’s house, I had an intense urge to read those books written about or in Key West. I had the frame of reference fresh in my mind. Some of the books were hard to locate, but most were in print.  I also read The Old Man and the Sea again. In some cases, such as A Moveable Feast, which is said to contain some biographical details, your perception of the author can change.

In my case, I became more interested in reading books by the author after visiting his tropical getaway. Perhaps he seemed more real, rather than an illustrious Nobel Prize winner. He became more human in scale.

Do we understand the author better by reading most of his books? Do we get a better perspective about what he was trying to say? If we know some of the author's real life experiences (e.g., big game hunter or expatriate writer in Paris), we will sometimes see those reflected in their writing about a particular event. Of course, that's my take.

What's your opinion? Do you visit literary hotspots?

Sources:  (Hemingway House)