"Can we ever really know Ernest Hemingway?"

For his masterly new biography, Paul Hendrickson tracked down Papa's brother, a living friend -- and his boat

By Kevin Canfield
Published September 18, 2011 5:01PM (EDT)
Ernest Hemingway, cradling a shotgun.
Ernest Hemingway, cradling a shotgun.

As Paul Hendrickson concedes early in his new book, "Hemingway's Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961," the world isn't in dire need of another Papa bio. "Ernest Hemingway," he writes, "has been examined by so many scholars and memoirists and respected biographers and hangers-on and pretenders and doctoral students desperate for a dissertation topic that I feel sometimes we have lost all sense of who the man really was."

So Hendrickson, a winner of the National Books Critics Circle Award for his 2003 book "Sons of Mississippi," decided to go at his subject in a roundabout way. The result is a book that is as much about Hemingway himself as it is his relationship with Pilar, the 38-foot seafaring vessel on which he spent endless hours during the final decades of his life. On board Pilar, Hemingway wrote, loved, argued, drank and, for a time during World War II, went looking for enemy submarines. And it's a boat, Hendrickson believes, that may have had a distinct impact on the evolution of Hemingway's prose.

In a recent phone interview, Hendrickson talked about traveling to Cuba to see Pilar for himself; his delight in locating a still-living Hemingway contemporary; and how the book took root in a long-ago meeting with a stranger who just happened to be Ernest Hemingway's brother.

How did you get started on the book?

This book, in a sense, goes back through at least three decades and four intervening projects. It may have been seeded in the winter of 1980, when my wife and I were fleeing the winter snows for Bimini. There, waiting to go over in a little seaplane, a 20-minute hop from Miami to Bimini, there was this man with a big Hemingway beard and tattered clothes and tennis shoes and a grocery sack under his arm. I whispered to my wife, "That's got to be Ernest Hemingway's little brother." I was an amateur Hemingway student by then, and I knew about [Leicester Hemingway] "the Baron," 16 years younger than Hemingway, whom Hemingway mostly despised. But here was this guy going to Bimini, where Hemingway had haunted and made famous. As luck would have it in this 12-passenger Grumman Goose seaplane, he took a seat right ahead of us, and I leaned forward and said, "Sir, by any chance are you Ernest Hemingway's brother?" And there was this bared-teeth grin, and he said, "Yeah, and if you're lucky it'll get you a cup of coffee." We got along fabulously. He told me that weekend some inside stories that to me were not only incredible but incredulous. Most of them turned out to be true. Other books went on, and my job at the Washington Post went on, but I never really forgot that encounter.

You write, "We've had far too many Hemingway biographies." Is that why you decided to use the boat as a narrative device?

I do believe we've had far too many biographies and critical explanations of the man, each one contradicting the last. I didn't want to join that group. If I was going to do something, I wanted to do something different, which would lead to point B. I can only do what I can do. When I've gotten in trouble with books before it's because I have not been authentically true to who I am and what I can do. I am not a conventional biographer. I am not a thoroughgoing, date-of-birth to last day of life kind of biographer. My brain doesn't think that way. There's a great Emily Dickinson line starting a poem that says, "Tell all the Truth but tell it slant." And that's what seems to power my imagination.

Hemingway bought the boat in 1934, as his marriage is dissolving, and as he's getting his first spate of bad reviews. This was a major period of transition in his life.

Absolutely. You could say that at the moment he gets this boat he is still the reigning monarch of American literature, but he's already been sniped at by the critics. He's still the king; he controls the crown. But he understood that he was beginning to have trouble. One theory about Hemingway is that he turned to a lot of journalism in the '30s because the fictional well was starting to go dry. The first book that comes up after acquiring Pilar is this quasi-documentary, novelist, journalistic report "Green Hills of Africa," which in its own day suffered bad reviews. Why did he write that book rather than a pure novel about Africa? I think in some sense he began to understand that he was losing some fictional power. And yet he roars back in 1940 with "For Whom the Bell Tolls," the novel about the Spanish Civil War that, ironically and retrospectively, in the long view of history, I think is a weak novel -- even though it was his largest-selling novel.

Many Hemingway detractors like to say that it was all downhill from the '30s onward. I don't see it that way at all. I think it's a sine curve, like most of our lives.

He really did live a life onboard his boat. In addition to landing 500-pound marlins, he got into a dispute with the poet Archibald MacLeish that was the beginning of the end of their friendship; he wrote parts of "Green Hills" onboard; he accidentally shot himself in the legs.

While we're talking, I just flipped open a journal. Here's a note I wrote to myself when I was writing the previous book, "Sons of Mississippi." The Hemingway book was festering, and here's the note I wrote: "Hemingway's boat. June 18, '02. If you study what happened just on that boat you'll get Hemingway's whole life."

About a third of the way through the book you write, "For the last several books and years, Ernest Hemingway's world-famous prose style has been discernibly if subtly altering." And you add, "I believe Pilar was a key part of the change, allowing him to go farther out, where you don't see the shoreline." What do you mean by that?

It's both, in my mind, a literal and metaphorical idea. It is clear that by the mid-'30s the famous prose style of these seemingly simple-minded, declarative sentences without any subordinate clauses had begun to go by the wayside. Not entirely, but he was experimenting with other things -- the sentence line was growing much, much fuller, and there were often many subordinate clauses. Why is this so? What explains it? I don't know that anybody can quite explain it. Some people have thought it had to do, as I say in the book, with getting out of those tight, damp enclosures of Europe and, indeed, atavistically what he came from in the winters of Oak Park, Ill., and crawling out where you can be ever the bohemian, in your beard and your sandals and your raggedy beltless shorts in Key West. Does this have something to do with the expansiveness in his own writing? That's an interesting theory that no one can ever prove. But what you do notice is the evolving change. I like to think that the acquiring of this boat and the ability of Pilar to release him from shore was doing something to him. He was no longer shore bound. It was a seagoing vessel, and you could go far enough out where you would lose sight of land. And I wonder metaphorically whether that, in its sense of adventure, in its sense of release, in its sense of freedom, didn't help expand the sentence line.

I also found it interesting when you write, "Hemingway, a man in a solitary profession, could barely stand to be alone, no matter how much he'd curse at the world for not leaving him alone." In that way, Pilar was his own world, wasn't it? He could control who was onboard, and who wasn't.

I think what you're saying is spot-on. You're in that beautiful environment, but when you're in this contained little capsule you can control it, largely, because you are the captain of it. You also like being challenged, I think, by the elements, these storms that will come up that you cannot control. I think this was also part of the constant adventure that Hemingway needed to seek, needed to challenge himself against. You can control that capsule, and yet the double-edged sword: He hated being alone. His letters to the women he's wooing, who will become his wives and then they'll become failed marriages. Constantly the refrain is: I can't stand to be alone, I'm so lonely. I need you. He needs people around him, and at the same time he is so angry that people are around him and taking his writing time away. So he's shooting himself in the legs once again.

Who is Walter Houk? How did you find him and what did he do for the book?

He's 86. He's reading the book in its entirety now. He is one of two or three veritable, authentic living Hemingway witnesses. If I'm not a conventional biographer, I have to be true to what I can do. The journalistic nose in me instantly said, "Holy shit. You mean there's somebody alive who knew Hemingway. My God." I was trembling. For me to have been able to go and spend all this time with Walter Houk, who turns out to be a great old guy, not a self-aggrandizer. But a very, very astute man, who, yes, is slipping into Alzheimer's but whose long-term memory is so brilliant and beautiful. His life suggested itself to me, "Whoa, Paul, you could make this guy a character in his own right in the story and tell a part of Hemingway through him."

What did Hemingway do with the boat in 1942, during the war?

It's a part that I expect to be criticized by certain critics who wish to say, "Gee, he turns Pilar into a Q-boat, a sub-hunting boat, patrolling off the north coast of Cuba. Why didn't you do more with this?" The short answer is because my imagination took me elsewhere. And also because it has been written by others to some extent. He armed Pilar as a sub-hunting boat, and no matter how much the exercise got polluted with too much ego and too much booze and too many hangers-on, I believe that at base Hemingway had great motivations -- and really did want to encounter a sub and would have been willing to blow up Pilar and himself in the cause of taking down one sub.

The boat today is in Cuba?

The prologue begins in May 2005, when I'm looking at Pilar as if it's dying of thirst and wanting only to get into water. In the process of doing this book, the boat became restored, and I was going to close the book by going back to Cuba and seeing Pilar in her shiny, well-refurbished state. But I did not go there, because I've had to contend with a significant health issue in the last year-and-a-half, during the finishing of the book. The doctors did not want me to go back to Cuba, because you don't want to land in a Cuban hospital. I wrote a different kind of epilogue and then wrote the coda.

And in the process you dispelled, at least in your own mind, the rumors that the Pilar on view in Cuba is an impostor, not Hemingway's actual boat.

Yes, this is probably the authentic boat. But you know, I don't care, ultimately, because that's somebody else's project to see if this is the absolute authentic boat. Pilar is my metaphor, my storytelling vehicle, and there's a secret sly part of me that's happy if we can't know. Because that only adds to the notion of: Can we ever really fucking know Ernest Hemingway?

Kevin Canfield

Kevin Canfield has written about arts and culture for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Bookforum and many other publications.

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