Sunday, July 21, 2013

Of Mice And Hemingway...


If you were to hitch a ride on a cigar boat to Key West this morning you just might miss Jimmy Buffett.


Because the big show in town this weekend, apparently, is 'Hemingway Days':

KEY WEST (CBS Miami/FKNB/AP) – Men with long white beards will wander the streets of Key West this weekend for the annual Hemingway Days celebration. Only one will take the top honor at the “Papa” Hemingway Look-Alike Contest.

The competition is the crowning achievement of stocky men who grow their beards and dress-up to look like Ernest Hemingway, the famous author who called The Conch Republic his home during the 1930s...


It was a very different show that a 22 year-old kid from Minnesota went looking for when he took a trip to the Keys to find the (not-quite-yet) Papa-in-Residence in 1934:

Arnold Samuelson was an adventurous 22-year-old. He had been born in a sod house in North Dakota to Norwegian immigrant parents. He completed his coursework in journalism at the University of Minnesota, but refused to pay the $5 fee for a diploma. After college he wanted to see the country, so he packed his violin in a knapsack and thumbed rides out to California. He sold a few stories about his travels to the Sunday Minneapolis Tribune.

In April of ’34 Samuelson was back in Minnesota when he read a story by Hemingway in Cosmopolitan, called “One Trip Across.” The short story would later become part of Hemingway’s fourth novel, To Have and Have Not. Samuelson was so impressed with the story that he decided to travel 2,000 miles to meet Hemingway and ask him for advice. “It seemed a damn fool thing to do,” Samuelson would later write, “but a twenty-two-year-old tramp during the Great Depression didn’t have to have much reason for what he did.”

And so, at the time of year when most hobos were traveling north, Samuelson headed south. He hitched his way to Florida and then hopped a freight train from the mainland to Key West. Riding on top of a boxcar, Samuelson could not see the railroad tracks underneath him–only miles and miles of water as the train left the mainland. “It was headed south over the long bridges between the keys and finally right out over the ocean,” writes Samuelson. “It couldn’t happen now–the tracks have been torn out–but it happened then, almost as in a dream.”...


In the end, Hemingway gave the kid a job as the caretaker of his boat so he could spend a year-long apprenticeship as both a sailor and a writer.

The kid later wrote an entire book about the experience.

And, in a twist befitting the juxtaposition, Hemingway ended up writing an entire letter about it, one of a series that was published every month in Esquire:

About a year and a half ago a young man came to the front door of the house in Key West and said that he had hitch-hiked down from upper Minnesota to ask your correspondent a few questions about writing. Arrived that day from Cuba, having to see some good friends off on the train in an hour, and to write some letters in the meantime, your correspondent, both flattered and appalled at the prospect of the questioning, told the young man to come around the next afternoon. He was a tall, very serious young man with very big feet and hands and a porcupine hair-cut.

It seemed that all his life he had wanted to be a writer. Brought up on a farm he had gone through high school and the University of Minnesota, had worked as a newspaper man, a rough carpenter, a harvest hand, a day laborer, and had bummed his way across American twice. He wanted to be a writer and he had good stories to write. He told them very badly but you could see that there was something there if he could get it out. He was so entirely serious about writing that it seemed that seriousness would overcome all obstacles. He had lived by himself for a year in a cabin he had built in North Dakota and written all that year. He did not show me anything that he had written
then. It was all bad, he said.

Besides writing this young man had one other obsession. He had always wanted to go to sea. So, to shorten this account, we gave him a job as a night watchman on the boat which furnished him a place to sleep and work and gave him two or three hoursʼ work each day at cleaning up and a half of each day free to do his writing. To fulfill his desire to go to sea, we promised to take him to Cuba when we went across.

He was an excellent night watchman and worked hard on the boat and at his writing but at sea he was a calamity; slow where he should be agile, seeming sometimes to have four feet instead of two feet and two hands, nervous under excitement, and with an incurable tendency toward sea-sickness and a peasant reluctance to take orders. Yet he was always willing and hard-working if given plenty of time to work in.

We called him the Maestro because he played the violin, this name was eventually shortened to the Mice, and a big breeze would so effectually slow up his co-ordination that your correspondent once remarked to him, “Mice, you certainly must be going to be a hell of a good writer because you certainly arenʼt worth a damn at anything else.”...

Sure does sound (and read) like a very different man than the walled-off old old one that another young writer went to find after the fact, in Idaho, some thirty years later.

"Ketchum (Idaho) was Hemingway's 'Big Two Hearted River', and he wrote his own epitaph in the story of the same name, just as Scott Fitzgerald had written his epitaph in a book called 'The Great Gatsby'. Neither man understood the vibrations of a world that had shaken them off their thrones, but of the two, Fitzgerald showed more resilience. His half-finished 'Last Tycoon' was a sincere effort to catch up and come to grips with reality, no matter how distasteful it might have seemed to him.

Hemingway never made such an effort. The strength of his youth became rigidity as he grew older, and his last book was about Paris in the Twenties.....Like many another writer, Hemingway did his best work when he felt he was standing on something solid - like an Idaho mountainside, or a sense of conviction."...

The young punk who wrote the passage above never wrote a decent lick or real fiction himself.

But he sure as hell could flat-out write.


When he was doing publicity for his first book about a bunch of thugs on two wheels three years later that same young punk, who was actually a hillbilly from Louisville who was just another scant three years away from penning his own 'Big Two Hearted River' piece at the time, said he wasn't very different from said thugs....Except for one thing...Which was that he had a gimmick...And that gimmick was?....Well....Like a few others in the various outer reaches of the Bloggodome that he helped create (whether he likes it or not), the Hillbilly really could write.


No comments: