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Ernest Hemingway and the Promise of Popular History

March 14, 2012, 1:38 pm

Ernest Hemingway, perhaps in Key West with cotsies at feet

If there is anything better than spring break, it’s spring break in a warm place.  And if there is anything better than shaking off the gloom of our Northeastern non-winter with a little southern sunshine, it is visiting places that you have imagined through the study of literature and history.

Wait — being an adult means not being dragged around to museums, national landmark homes and other edifying places whenever you go on vacation?  Aw, c’mon.

This year’s break is in the Florida Keys, where I have never been but have always wanted to go as I am a fan of Everything Ernest Hemingway.  For those of you who have only gone to resort-y places in Florida, or whose visits are confined to relatives living in planned communities, it is a truly beautiful state. The ravages of land development (including RV and mobile home parks where rectangular tin homes are packed cheek by jowl, baking in the hot sun) have also produced determined and sophisticated citizen action groups who are dedicated to land and wildlife preservation.  To the extent that the government is involved, tourism and conservation agendas have been combined to produce some of the prettiest, and most accessible, state parks and wildlife refuges that I have ever seen.

If you can overcome your feelings about Bush v. Gore (as Associate Justice Antonin Scalia is reported to have said when he spoke at Zenith last week, “Get over it!”) Florida is a lovely state that is well worth a visit.  You might not want to teach there, mind you, as the legislature recently proposed devastating cuts to higher ed, many of which targeted the University of South Florida and Florida Atlantic University. These cuts — initially proposed at 60% of the budget — are widely presumed to be a political attack on the university for resisting a plan to give up its Lakeland campus. This would surely mean firing faculty, overcrowding the other campuses with Lakeland students, and having some of those students drop out due to an extended commute. Meanwhile, the legislature proposes to establish an entirely new school with a different (untenured?) faculty on the vacated USF-Lakeland site.  As the Tampa Bay Times pointed out last Friday, “Only in Tallahassee would it be considered a victory to cut $300 million from higher education and still establish a new university with no students, no faculty and no accreditation. Yet Florida legislators are congratulating themselves on spreading the financial pain while meeting Senate Budget Committee Chairman JD Alexander’s demand to create Florida Polytechnical University.” If you click the link, you will see that there is much more than higher education involved:  in the end, the Times argues, establishing the new university is all about real estate development and a new toll road.  Is the latter so that the state can raise new revenues while claiming that they haven’t raised taxes? Floridians are invited to comment.  So is Justice Scalia, for that matter, since we at Tenured Radical are all about free speech.

But I digress.  The real point of this post is that at long last la famille Radical visited Key West, if only for an afternoon. While nowhere near as pretty as the other Keys, due to massive overdevelopment on its northern end and people roaring down the streets of Old Town on motorcycles, for those of us who are into all things Hemingway, Key West does have:

The Hemingway Home in Key West, FL

The Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum.  It is said that the house first became a site for tourism while Hemingway was living and writing there in the 1930s and that the annoyed famous author built the brick wall that now surrounds it to keep away fans armed with maps marking the houses of famous writers (isn’t that a lovely notion?) Nowadays the house is run as a private museum, with tours every fifteen minutes.  Admission is $12.50 for adults (10% off for college students on break with I.D.), and for a larger fee you can get married there if you like.  As the woman at the ticket box, who I believe was the owner, responded to a couple who wanted to know whether their entrance fee could be counted as a tax-deductible donation, “This is a business.”

This is important information for history buffs. What you, and your teenage children who were force-marched through some Hemingway classic in AP English, will get from the official tour is highly anecdotal views, and somewhat sensational stories, about Hemingway’s life. What is ho-hum for college profs might actually encourage the kids to read more Hemingway. After eavesdropping on part of a tour (the author’s many marriages were being discussed at the time in a way we didn’t appreciate, even as people who opted out of wife-dom), we opted to forgo an official guide in favor of yours truly telling Hemingway stories as we wandered through the collections of photographs in the house. It isn’t clear what in the house did — or did not — belong to Hemingway. One room in a small back building has been restored to what it would have looked like as Hem banged out some of his best-known work there: The Snows of Killimanjaro (1936), To Have and Have Not (1937) are two. There are also books in the hall that belonged to him, although as we learned, most of the Hemingway library is still in Havana. But the overall effect was similar to the (almost impossible to find) Victor Hugo Museum in Paris. Located in an apartment where Hugo lived for 16 years, the rooms are furnished with antiques that, as cheerful signs admit, are the kinds of objects Hugo might have owned, but actually didn’t. On the other hand, there is a wonderful room that has photographs of every Hugo play ever produced, which means that there are numerous portraits of Sarah Bernhardt that I ca guarantee you have never seen before.

A six-toed cotsie: note prominent thumbs

The Hemingway house has similarly unusual features. One to which the academic bloggers and my Facebook friends who post a lot of cat pictures should be drawn is that the house and grounds are filled with cats. Many of these felines are descended from the polydactyl, or six-toed, white cat that was a gift to Hemingway and who bred rapidly.  Hem was fond of these cats, but his fondness did not extend to having them fixed, so that the “cotsies” (as he and third wife Martha Gellhorn called the cats, and each other, according to biographer Caroline Moorehead) produced non-stop litters of kittens. The younger generations were often polydactyl too, because it is a recessive trait and they were all having sex with their relatives.  Legend has it that Gellhorn (to whom I have been devoted since my Radical high school days and is admittedly a contradictory feature of my Hemingway worship) eventually decided to put a stop to this and stabilize the fast-growing cotsie population. While Hem was away, she scooped up a number of the males and took them off to be fixed.  As their marriage was crumbling, in part over Hemingway’s refusal to accept Gellhorn’s equal status as a war correspondent, or even her presence in a war zone, one of their female house guests tried to pick up a cat and was clawed. “The cotsies,” Hemingway commented acidly in response to this incident, hated “the wimmies” because it was a “wimmie” that had “cut their balls off.” (Moorehead, 195) Gellhorn and Hemingway filed for divorce in 1945, after five years of marriage and a nine year relationship.

Cat Condo meant to resemble the Hemingway Home (above)

The Hemingway house is not only fun for literature geeks and historians, it is also fun for people who like cats, and who then get a dose of Hemingway. Somewhere around forty cats, a number of whom have large furry thumbs like the one pictured above, roam the property.  There is also a Cat Graveyard and a Cat House (designed to resemble the Hemingway house) out in the garden.  These two items make it clear that this museum is being run by an eclectic and creative mind who is not taking her marching orders from the National Historic Landmarks Program. While Hemingway did bury a few pets, complete with headstones, this particular cemetery was clearly (from the dates on the graves) established several decades after his death. One also imagines the cat condo as a “wimmie” thing that he would not have tolerated, and that Gellhorn would have been too busy with her career to promote.

D. Starke's Poise, with overlaid image of iconic writer

But much of what is interesting about this place as a tourist site is the contrast between the cat stuff and the traces of Hemingway that gesture to a more “authentic history”: for example, the reconstructed writing room, or the well-known photographs on the walls, or the book case that includes a first edition inscribed “To Hem” next to an old paperback detective novel. These books, left by Pauline Hemingway when she sold the house for $80,000 back in the 1950s, exist side-by-side with the unexpected, self-improving D. Starke’s, Poise: How to Attain It (1916), the first chapter of which opens: “Lack of poise has always been an obstacle to those who are imbued with the desire to succeed.”

One thinks many things of Hemingway, but being lacking in poise is not one of them, opening up whole ways of imagining a well-known figure. Some of these alternative Hemingways are explored in Paula McClain’s excellent novel The Paris Wife (2011), which explores the author’s transformation from a struggling artist to a self-aggrandizing icon through the eyes of his first wife Hadley.  But other interpretive perspectives are opened up by the place itself, and the very different kinds of people who have been affected enough by literature to come to the Hemingway Home at all.  Popular history may be inaccurate in many ways, but understanding how — and why — a more colloquial past speaks to people who are on vacation and not in search of a high culture experience is something professional historians might want to think harder about. As politicians cut the university budgets that support our work, destroying whole departments in the process, building scholarly affiliations with the sites that are broadly enjoyed might create the kinds of citizen action that has also helped to preserve the beautiful natural world in Florida that Hemingway loved.

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