Key West: Hangin’ with Hemingway

In my last post, I mentioned that I was recently in Key West, soaking up the sea and much longed-for time with family. I got to swim in turquoise waters, stuff myself silly with seafood, and wander streets lined with tropical trees and homes that, to my untrained eye, blended the beach architecture of my childhood with southern-Victorian and Spanish styles.

But of course, no writer’s visit to Key West would be complete without a stop at one house in particular: The Hemingway Home and Museum.

I’m always a bit embarrassed to admit this–after all, I have a Masters in English and American literature–but I haven’t actually read all that much Hemingway. I did read his “Hills like White Elephants,” a short story that exemplifies Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory (the concept of writing around a particular subject–here abortion–without ever explicitly naming it). But my research emphasis in my degree was Romantic, Victorian, and Post-Colonial British literature, and Early American and 19th-century literature. Chronologically-speaking, Hemingway came a little too late for me.

But a few years ago, I picked up Paula McLain’s historical, Hemingway-themed novel, The Paris Wife. Obviously, this book is A) fiction (and therefore, a not-necessarily-rigidly-factual interpretation of history) and B) more focused on Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, than Hemingway himself.

But the novel hummed with the striving and anxiety of a young Hemingway desperate for what he hadn’t yet achieved: recognition within the American literary canon. His successes and setbacks, battles for inspiration and confrontations with failure, his small publishing victories and devastating disappointments, his flickering belief in his talent and his persistent pursuit of recognition… all of this resonated with the part of me that is a hopeful novelist, waging my own war of rejection and resilience.

This made wandering around Hemingway’s Key West estate a very thought-provoking experience. First, there is the simple fact that I was standing in a place where a person of so much literary significance once stood. (One of the many Hemingway-centric art works decorating his home depicted a ghostly Hemingway lingering in the corner of his writing studio; this was a fair depiction of my sensations upon the occasion.) But there was something more than this, too.

By the time Hemingway took up residence in that particular house, he was on to wife no. 2  (Pauline Marie Pfeiffer) and had gained some of the fame he sought. His Key West period (approximately 1928-1940) was also his most prolific, seeing the authoring of 9 of his novels and novellas, including some of his most renowned works (A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, etc.). So standing in his writing studio, a large room above the remodeled carriage house, was for me a source of encouragement. Hemingway, too, struggled with doubt, discouragement, and temporary defeats. But he persevered, broke through, and went on, despite all his early uncertainties, to pen works that endured. Right there in that room, he took up his typewriter in triumph.

Lest you think I hold a marvelously inflated view of myself, please allow me to underscore this: I don’t anticipate myself becoming Hemingway 2.0. I will have a much more modest career than that, I’m sure. But the lesson of encouragement is there nonetheless. And in a business that involves rejection as an intrinsic component, encouragement is never something to be lightly valued.

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