Hemingway's Boat

From global acclaim to suicide: Paul Hendrickson examines the three final decades of Ernest Hemingway.

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    Hemingway’s Boat:
    Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961
    By Paul Hendrickson
    Knopf
    544 pp.
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By 1934, when Ernest Hemingway turned 35 years old, he had become perhaps the most celebrated living writer in the English language – and perhaps in any language. That year, Hemingway purchased a fishing boat that he would dock in Key West, Florida, or in Cuba or less permanent places where he might be able to reel in the big ones. He named the boat Pilar. Hemingway treasured that boat until the day he shot himself at his Idaho home during 1961. A lot of his outer life and inner life occurred on or near Pilar, which served as a place to write, read, sleep, copulate, and entertain friends as well as a fishing vessel.

After Hemingway’s death, Paul Hendrickson, two generations younger, began earning his reputation as a superb newspaper feature writer, magazine freelancer, and daring nonfiction book author. In 1980, by chance, Hendrickson met a surviving Hemingway brother. In 1987, Hendrickson wrote a feature about Hemingway’s three surviving sons, published by the Washington Post, where Hendrickson earned a paycheck. Some sort of Hemingway book began to take shape in Hendrickson’s mind. But not a traditional biography. Readers had plenty to choose from already.

Between the preliminary thinking about a Hemingway book and the appearance of Hemingway’s Boat this month, Hendrickson published a memoir about his religious training (“Seminary: A Search”), and three books with people other than himself at the center, although none could be categorized as a traditional biography (“The Living and the Dead: Robert McNamara and Five Lives of a Lost War”; “Looking for the Light: The Hidden Life and Art of Marion Post Wolcott”; and “Sons of Mississippi: A Story of Race and Its Legacy”).

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I have read all of Hendrickson’s books. Each contains a connecting thread that might not occur to most authors to employ. For example, “Sons of Mississippi” is built around a 1962 photograph of racist Southern sheriffs. Using Pilar as the connecting thread of a rumination cum partial biography of Hemingway fits the pattern, and the choice feels inspired.

By connecting Hemingway’s moods and accomplishments to his time with and away from Pilar, Hendrickson connects the man (young, middle aged, and old-ish) to the sea. The connecting thread of the boat helps Hendrickson understand for himself – and then explain to readers – Hemingway’s alternating jags of cruelty and compassion toward his four wives, his three sons, his hired help, his fellow writers, his editors, his friends and enemies on solid land, and his friends and enemies on the water, all sharing the boat. Wisely employing thousands of letters Hemingway wrote and retained, Hendrickson is able to explain what happened as it happened, supplemented by wise use of oral histories, memoirs, traditional biographies, and interviews with a few individuals still living who knew Hemingway well, or at least the children of those individuals who recall anecdotes passed on to them.

As always, Hendrickson writes so well that every page is a pleasure to absorb. He is also honest, sometimes excruciatingly so, about the gaps in his knowledge and the inner turmoil caused by his speculations, however well grounded in the best available evidence.

My only criticism of “Hemingway’s Boat” is related to the final third, as Hendrickson struggles to figure out the meaning of the relationship between the famous writer and son Gregory, who found a career as a physician and a tortured life as a transvestite. Too much Gregory in the book for my liking, because the narrative and the speculation about him becomes repetitious and Pilar seems forgotten for a while. Other readers might disagree with my reservation. In any case, “Hemingway’s Boat” is educational and enthralling, an obviously desirable combination.

Also newly available is the first of numerous planned volumes, “The Letters of Ernest Hemingway,” edited by scholars Sandra Spanier and Robert W. Trogdon, published by Cambridge University Press. The letters in volume one cover 1907-1922. Hemingway as a young man said to fellow author F. Scott Fitzgerald: “[D]on’t you like to write letters? I do because it’s such a swell way to keep from working and yet feel you’ve done something.”

Spanier, an English professor at Pennsylvania State University, and Trogdon, an English professor at Kent State University, have collaborated with other scholars as well as non-academics to round up as many letters from and to Hemingway as possible. The first volume covers letters from Hemingway’s childhood, World War I experiences, and his decision to reside in Paris. The letters are skillfully annotated, the photographs are revelatory, and every other aid to learning about Hemingway throughout the book feels just right.

I hope that by the time I have absorbed the richness of Volume 1, the next volume will be ready.

Steve Weinberg is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

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