Love and Death in Key West: To Have and Have Not, Ernest Hemingway

The first edition published for Scribner Classics pimps To Have and Have Not as “a novel of rum running between Cuba and Key West in the 1930s, creating in the durable Harry Morgan one of the most remarkable of Hemingway’s characters.” In its defense, the novel is set in Key West and Cuba in the 1930s, Harry Morgan is the protagonist by most definitions, and there is an instance of rum running between the two settings. My quibble, besides being vaguely off put by the prose, is that the description doesn’t actually tell the interested reader what THaHN is about, but relies on the reputation of Hemingway to draw in the potential reader/buyer. To wit, the accompanying biography of Hemingway is more than twice as long as the teaser for the novel. I venture that the six word title for this review gives a truer sense of the novel than does the evocative promise of a novel about rum running. But I should begin at the beginning.

Hemingway is most noted for writing novels with one of two settings, Europe or the Caribbean. My own proclivity is to favor the former, but THaHN takes place in the second of the settings. Harry Morgan is a fisherman who charters his boat, usually for fishing trips, but also for smuggling runs when he is desperate. During prohibition he smuggled rum from Cuba, but prohibition is over, so the profits are no longer worth the risk. The first portion of THaHN follows the activities of Harry Morgan trolling the waters between Key West and Havana, but, gradually, the novel opens and pulls back from this narrow perspective, revealing for the reader characters such as Marie Morgan, Harry’s wife, Helen and Richard Gordon (a novelist and his wife), and Professor MacWalsey. As Hemingway broadens the perspective, THaHN ceases to be a novel even about smuggling or sailing between Key West and Havana. It is about people falling into and out of love in Depression-era South Florida.

This is not to say that other Hemingway novels are devoid of emotional attachment between men and women, quite the contrary. I found there to be genuine affection between Robert Jordan and Maria in For Whom the Bell Tolls, and the relationship between Lady Ashley and Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises has a number of different levels to it, [1] but in THaHN the dominant emotion. In contrast, THaHN has a protagonist, Harry Morgan, who is in love with his wife Marie and sees her one way, but that impression is radically different from what Richard Gordon imagines her to be; Richard Gordon has his relationship snarls with his wife and others, while his wife has her own issues.[2] And at the same time Hemingway highlights the relationships of minor characters, including some who only exist in a sort of panoramic scene that sweeps through the harbor. In this way the novel is more generally about these emotions than any one relationship as is the case in some of Hemingway’s other work.

Of course a Hemingway novel would be incomplete without alcohol. But rather than rum running, the alcohol in THaHN tends to be more mundane drinking, particularly to avoid problems. So Professor MacWalsey:

”I am ashamed and disgusted with myself and hate what I have done. It may turn out badly, too. I will return to the anaesthetic I have used for seventeen years and will not need much longer. Although it is probably a vice now for which I only invent excuses. Though at least it is a vice for which I am well suited.”

To Have and Have Not is a beautiful little book. Critics of Hemingway will be sure to find something to become riled up about,[3] but none of the language seemed particularly excessive. I still like tSAR the best among the Hemingway books I have read, [4] but THaHN is a close second.

Next up, I am nearly through reading both Kafka’s The Castle [5] and Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.

[1] This relationship and its limits is one of the obvious through-lines of the entire story and (in my own opinion, naturally) the two have an emotional closeness that is made all the more heart-wrenching from the narrator’s point of view because he is utterly incapable of bringing the relationship to fruition. This is the long way of saying that I find Hemingway’s work to be loaded with emotion.
[2] It is cliche to point out that Hemingway was looking to write a true story, but when a couple is having a falling out, it seemed particularly apropos for them to snap at each to snap at the other about his or her sexual prowess, or lack thereof.
[3] In particular I am thinking of some of the descriptions of African Americans and Cubans, but I am generally willing to forgive that sort of descriptions if it enhance the novel.
[4] The Sun Also Rises, To Have and Have Not, For Whom the Bell Tolls, A Moveable Feast, The Green Hills of Africa.
[5] My impression of it so far is that Kafka wrote a brilliant story about the problems bureaucracy in which seems to be playing a grand, incomprehensible joke on the protagonist and the reader alike.

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