Is “To Have and Have Not” Hemingway’s worst book?


Papa made sure that the next time Social Services called to check on the kids’ welfare he’d be ready…

I know received opinion is that Across the River and Into the Trees is the nadir, but I wish to make a case for To Have and Have Not

The 1930’s saw Ernest Hemingway get more overtly politically engaged. If For Whom the Bell Tolls was the high water mark of this mode of writing, then To Have and Have Not must rank as the low ebb. This, his third novel (fourth if you include The Torrents of Spring) is not an unmitigated disaster, but if any book epitomises his uneven 1930’s output then this is it. On the one hand it’s Hemingway at his most fluent and slick. But on the other it’s a lumpen, stodgy and unedifying affair. 

I read this book first in my late teens. After re-reading part one of the novel this time around I was thinking that the book wasn’t quite as I remembered it. By the time I’d finished I realised that I hadn’t remembered it at all. For a start I seemed to recall that it was just about main character Harry Morgan, a gruff anti-hero of the sort who is initially hard to like, but who shows himself to have some sort of moral compass when there’s a choice to be made between self interest and the common good.

In truth, what I’d remembered was Humphrey Bogart’s portrayal of Harry Morgan in the book of the film. By contrast, the Harry Morgan of Hemingway’s book is an out-and-out sociopath. What’s worse is that while Morgan’s story makes for a simple enough tale of action, exciting in parts, what force it has is diluted by Hemingway’s burying it amid heaps of social commentary and invective as the book wears on.

At the risk of over-simplifying things (but then again this is a pretty over-simplified novel) I suspect this book was written during Hemingway’s fishing and drinking phase, when he lived in the Florida Keys but was also feeling the pull of Cuba; when he spent a lot of time on his fishing boat; and he liked a drink or ten at Sloppy Joe’s and other establishments of that kind. Since even some of the great writers stick to the dictum of  ‘write about what you know’, it’ll come as no surprise that the novel is set in the Florida Keys with the odd Cuban interlude; that Harry Morgan is skipper of a boat; and that virtually everyone in the book likes a drink or ten in the kind of cavernous establishment where they now hold Ernest Hemingway lookalike competitions.

The book does get off to an exciting start. Part one is set in Cuba and is narrated in the first person by Morgan. It’s the Depression era, and he is in dire financial straits.  Previously he made a good living chartering his boat to rich tourists for fishing expeditions. Now he’s reduced to getting money any way he can. This means grubbing a living by hiring the boat to dud clients who can’t fish and don’t pay; agreeing to get illegal immigrants in the US; running guns and alcohol; and finally (and unwittingly) acting as skipper of a getaway boat for Cuban revolutionaries who have robbed a bank.

But then in part two things take an odd turn. The novel’s action shifts to the Florida Keys, and with it the point of view. With the exception of one chapter ‘guest narrated’ by Albert, sometime mate on Morgan’s boat, things are now told in the third person. From here the story of Morgan’s run of bad luck continues through a series of increasingly dangerous and illegal jobs. But the whole thing takes an abrupt left turn with the arrival of  a new set of characters who come with their own emotional and intellectual baggage, which Hemingway’s new narrator goes into at length. These people are in the main tourists from elsewhere in the US, chief of whom are a Professor, a writer of socially engaged novels, and the novelist’s wife. I couldn’t help get the feeling that Hemingway parachuted these characters in to juxtapose them with Morgan, as if to say “look at this poor son of toil trying to make an honest living in a dishonest world, while these pampered intellectual types get into trivial romantic tangles of their own making”.

To give Hemingway the benefit of the doubt, it wasn’t as if he lost all sense of the structure of his book from part two onwards. I think what he was attempting to do was use shifting points of view in order to provide insight into the lives of different kinds of people at all levels of society. This could even have worked if the plots were more carefully woven together. However, given that the book started out as basically a thriller, such a change of gear is grating. It’s as if Raymond Chandler had written part one, given up and handed it over to John Steinbeck for part two, who in turn let  John Dos Passos do some experimental narrative tweaking. There’s even a bit of sub-Joycean internal monologue type stuff going on, but mostly this consists of Morgan and then his wife musing on how horrible their lives are, and what a drag it is to have daughters.

It doesn’t help that  Hemingway seems to have been writing from a position of scorn and spite when it comes to the Professor, the writer and others in part two.  Had he certain people in mind when describing these characters?Perhaps it’s no surprise that this novel was among the first to contain the disclaimer that any resemblance to any person living or dead was purely coincidental.

The paradox of this book is that the fabled Hemingway style, which gave his best writing such strength, actually lets him down here. In his earlier books he made virtues of carefully choosing words to vary the amount of detail for maximum emotional effect.  He also wrote razor sharp dialogue that avoided extraneous description. And of course he mastered withholding information so that maximum power was released as the reader imagined what was going on for themselves.

To Have and Have Not is terse and we still have scenes largely driven by dialogue. But the effect of all this is rather flat, since the plot is not as strong as his previous novels and stories, and he tries to hard and to obviously to make political points. We also get a lot of clunky interior monologues. If you want a better example of how he wrote about the kinds of people he did not like, try “The Short Happy Life of Francis MacComber”. If you you want a great example of how he wrote of the interior world of a character, try The Old Man and the Sea.

Luckily, Hemingway was to come back to the concept of the honest man trying to make a stand in a dishonest world in his next novel, “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, where he cut the pseudo intellectual content, wrote from the heart and consequently made a far better job of it.  As for “To Have and Have Not”, I’m tempted to say that had Hemingway spent less time in Sloppy Joe’s he’d have written a far less sloppy novel.

The verdict: Nasty, brutish and thankfully short.


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