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.

Papa Hemingway- A review of the 1966 memoir by A.E. Hotchner

Based on the author’s friendship with the literary legend in the last 13 years of his life, is this a serious portrait or a just another exercise in analysing the tortured Hemingway psyche? 

I could have gone down the cliched route by giving this review a title like ‘the lion in winter’. There is a melancholy and defeated air hanging over the final chapters of this book, mainly because they consist of Hotchner’s version of seeing his friend’s personality disintegrate and his life-force drain away.

Yet the resounding minor note on which Hemingway’s life and therefore this book end doesn’t completely drown out the happier tone struck elsewhere. In fact Hotchner’s portrait does a good job in adding extra levels to our understanding of Hemingway. He remained dedicated to his craft, for instance, and personally it seems that although his final decade and half of life had a lot of deep lows, he also enjoyed great highs. For all the physical and mental struggle, it’s reassuring to know that he remained productive until the final year or so.

Hotchner was a friend of Hemingway’s in the final 13 years of the author’s life, beginning in 1948 when as a  young journalist Hotchner was sent to Cuba to doorstep the man who was his idol. From there a friendshi devloped, and the book’s remaining chapters are accounts of the times when the two got together in various parts of Europe and the US.

Hotchner portrays himself as a close and admiring friend, and it’s a self portrait that rings true. To that extent this book succeeds in putting Hemingway centre stage because Hotchner was obviously in a position to observe him closely and record all he said of note. Although the tone is perhaps overly respectful at times, Hotchner’s intentions seem to be honest and true, resulting in a book that is more a tactful ‘the author as I knew him’ type of work, rather than a trivial and exploitative ‘reveals all’ hack job.

At the very core of the book are conversations with Hemingway. There’s plenty of incidental colour and detail, such as what they did in Venice together, or who they summered with in Spain. Ultimately, however, this book reminded me of a traditional book in the ‘table talk’ genre. It’s essentially Hemingway talking: reminiscing on his life, revealing things about himself, analysing the world around him, opining on things and most interestingly musing on the writer’s life and giving words of writerly advice.

Perhaps some might feel uneasy at the thought of Hotchner exhausting the detail of a personal friendship to turn them into a book. Make no mistake though: this book is a tribute rather than a simplistic cash in. And anyway, 47 years after the book’s first publication, and 52 years after Hemingway’s suicide, Hotchner’s homage  seems a paragon of restraint in our modern era, when the Hemingway name sells everything from furniture to rum.



Is this the truly essential Hemingway?

Ernest Hemingway, The Collected Stories, ed James Fenton, Everyman’s Library Classics.

For a number of years in the UK a book has been available called “The Essential Hemingway”, consisting of the whole of his novel “Fiesta”, excerpts from some of his other novels, and most of the major short stories. It’s a good collection, which has a decent stab at trying to be a version of “Hemingway’s Greatest Hits”. However, to really get to know this writer, and to know the full force of the smack around the intellectual and emotional chops that he can produce, you need to do yourself a favour and read the stories, preferably in order. I’m going to argue here that it’s the collected stories that make up the truly essential Hemingway.

The Everyman edition is  a beautifully produced hardback volume of all of Hemingway’s collected and uncollected stories. There are some major differences between this and the other claimant to the title of ultimate Hemingway story collection, the ‘Finca Vigia’ version. In the ‘Finca Vigia’, the editors include pieces that for the sake of argument they class as short fiction. However, the editor of the Everyman, James Fenton, doesn’t include these, arguing that they are excerpts from longer works which are available elsewhere (for example, sections from the novel “To Have and Have Not”).

As a result the Everyman contains the celebrated 1939 story collection The First 49 Stories, together with work uncollected there, some post-1949 short fiction and some items of jevenilia. I bought it as a replacement for my very old Jonathan Cape edition of The First 49 Stories, and I am very pleased with it.

It is worth investing in this book rather than the other collections of Hemingway’s short fiction for two main reasons. The first and most obvious one is that this book collects the short fiction altogether in one place. This simplifies things because Hemingway’s short work has been rounded up in various books over the years, and sometimes rather confusingly. Also, this book captures the essence of his brilliance, so much so that it is this book that truly deserves the title “The Essential Hemingway”. And although Hemingway wrote three indisputably classic novels (“Fiesta”, “A Farewell to Arms” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls”) I increasingly feel that this book contains his finest writing of all.

I think Hemingway is one of those writers you keep coming back to if you identify with his work. Personally speaking, my interest in other authors has come and gone over the years, but Hemingway is one of the very first ‘serious’ writers whose work I sought out in my teens, and my interest has remained consistent for 20 years. I might go a year or more without reading anything by him, but he’s always there, the yardstick by which all other prose writers- and a good few poets too- are judged in my mind.

No-one beats Hemingway for the clarity and precision of his vision of the world and the way he expressed this. It’s often overlooked these days, but this man really did change the way that a lot of people wrote. He learned from the best literary teachers in order to form his own pared-down, razor-sharp way of writing. Like other great artists he forged his own style, and it’s a testament to his talent that this is present from virtually the very beginning, in the “In Our Time” collection. This book still has the power to move a reader very much. I can only imagine the effect on the reader when it was first published in the 20s.

Hemingway once wrote of Nelson Algren’s work that “this is a man writing and you should not read it if you cannot take a punch”. This statement is not the product of the bullish machismo that Hemingway is still accused of (and, let’s face it, was guilty of in his laziest writing). Instead it’s really a statement that acknowledges how some writers are unflinching and extremely serious to the point of being brutal. The same statement applies to Hemingway. He was a great artist, and as such he tackled the big universal themes head on. Many of his very best stories deal with some of them: “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” is a portrait of three very different people, the eponymous American society figure, his faithless wife and the British hunter they engage to lead them on safari. In relatively few pages the story says more about courage, cowardice, shame, regret and human weakness than some writers manage in a whole novel. “The Snows of Kilimanjiro” tells of a dying writer who feels that he has dissipated his talent and laments all that he will never have the chance to write. “On the Quai at Smyrna” is effectively a monologue by a British Officer who witnessed the Greek evacuation of Turkey, but behind the seemingly offhand language and stiff-upper-lip understatement, the reader glimpses the full horror of a whole people forced to up sticks and move en masse. “A Clean, Well Lighted Place” is a profound vignette, being a study in hopelessness and loneliness, a piece that James Joyce no less considered to be one of the best short pieces ever written.

There are other stories in this book that are rightly hailed as classic, and others that are less well known. If you are a newcomer you will find plenty to engage you. If you know his work you will probably find fresh delights in this edition (upon receiving this book the first title that caught my attention was “The Capital of the World”, a story I’d either overlooked or just plain forgotten. When I read it it was a real heartbreaker!).

Another bonus of this edition is its focus on the work from the 1950s. There’s a school of thought that says Hemingway did his best work early, and then dissipated his talent through too much shooting, fishing and drinking, so that it only re-emerged in beautiful late flickers like “The Old Man and the Sea”. Well, the later stories prove that there was plenty of life left in the old dog, before his nerve and then his mind finally failed him.

The only thing this book lacks is Hemingway’s preface from the original edition of The First Forty Nine Stories, which contains one of the most telling phrases I know not just about writing but about anything in life worth doing:

In going where you have to go, and doing what you have to do, and seeing what you have to see, you dull and blunt the instrument you write with. But I would rather have it bent and dulled and know I had to put it on the grindstone again and hammer it into shape and put a whetstone to it, and know that I had something to write about, than to have it bright and shining and nothing to say, or smooth and well oiled in the closet, but unused. 

So whose moveable feast should you partake of? Or two ways to get back to Hemingway’s Paris of the 20’s.

Recently I took another look at Hemingway’s classic late period  memoir of life in 20’s Paris, A Moveable Feast. I’m very fortunate to own a UK first edition- without dust jacket unfortunately- published by Jonathan Cape. This publishing house isn’t particularly cool anymore, having long since been swallowed up by some faceless multinational publisher or other, but I’ve still got a soft spot for it before it went corporate and was one of the THE great UK publishing houses.  Going way back to when I first started trying to read ‘serious’ books, it seemed a lot of the authors whose work I was getting to grips with were on the Cape list. Chief of those was Ernest Hemingway. I distinctly remember reading Fiesta, The Old Man and the Sea and Across the River and Into the Trees in Cape editions from my local library. The dust jackets were beautifully designed. Well the first two were at least. Appropriately enough, for his least essential novel published in his lifetime, Across the River… had a rather dull brownish affair which isn’t as easy to recall as the vivid jackets for Fiesta and The Old Man….

Anyway, I’ve always loved Hemingway, but when it comes to recommending an edition of A Moveable Feast, it’s not out of a sense of personal nostalgia that I suggest you go for a copy of the text as it was first published in 1964, rather than get the more recently published ‘restored’ edition.

The restored version caused something of a stir when it was published a couple of years ago. The author’s grandson, Sean, decided to put the text back to what he claims was its final state, that is to say the condition it was in at the time of Hemingway’s suicide in 1961. This restoration largely consists of removing the ’64 edition’s foreword by Hemingway’s fourth and final wife Mary; altering the wording here and there; substituting a couple of passages from the ’64 text with alternate readings from the draft; and also going for a different chapter order at the end of the book.

Aside from being true to what is perceived as the great man’s final intentions, another key motivation seems to be to soften the overall picture painted in the book of Hemingway’s second wife (Sean’s grandmother) and her role in the author’s first divorce.  However, in comparison with the 1964 text I’m not sure this newer edition is as good a book.

To explain why, allow me to go a little into the work’s composition. Hemingway started work on it in the 1950s, legend has it after he came back into possession of an old trunk  that he’d left in the basement of the Paris Ritz Hotel back in 1930. It contained all manner of things he’d left behind, including working notebooks, and so it was in effect a time capsule. Soon the floodgates of memory opened, inspiring him to produce a draft of  what he originally called his Paris Sketches, which dealt mainly with his early working years in the 20’s, a time of relative poverty and obscurity.  Read the book and you’ll see that the first title is a pretty good, if less poetic, than “A Moveable Feast”, since it consists of a series of vignettes which taken together form a composite picture of his life at that time.

Now according to the Hemingway Estate, their restored version is superior since it reproduces the FINAL draft Hemingway was working on around the time of his suicide in 1961. In their view, this supercedes the original 1964 text and is, in effect, the true version. The estate object to the 1964 book, seeing it as inferior on the grounds that it was put together by Hemingway’s fourth wife Mary alongside Harry Brague, an editor from Hemingway’s US publishers Scribners. The Estate don’t like the way they supposedly made decisions they didn’t think Hemingway himself would have taken.

Things may not be as simple as all that, however. According to Hemingway’s friend A.E. Hotchner, around the end of 1959 Hemingway entrusted him with a draft of Feast to deliver to the publishers in New York. In  Hotchner’s view that draft was effectively what was finally published,  give or take a few details (mainly the lack of an introductory note and a title, the working version of which was, as mentioned, Paris Sketches). According to Hotchner, writing in the New York Times in 2009 “What I read on the plane coming back from Cuba was essentially what was published. There was no extra chapter created by Mary.”

On balance of probability it seems to me that the Hemingway estate’s restored version is that first draft, plus a few alterations derived from the working notes (a chapter removed here, a few rewordings of passages there) that Hemingway might have been tinkering with. It could well have been that these were second thoughts that date to his final two years of life. The trouble with printing this ‘restored’ version, however, is that he was an ill man for a lot of that time.  To put it bluntly, it seems that he didn’t know whether he was coming or going a lot of the time towards the end of his life. Personally I think that after his death his original editors did a fine job in getting Feast into shape and presenting it to the world as a fitting final work.  If you want any evidence as to the kind of trouble the old man was in when trying to rework this book, then look at the ‘Fragments’ included by his family at the end of the restored version. They consist of attempts to hammer out an introduction and an ending to the work, and have a pretty desperate tone to them to my mind, as if the poor man couldn’t fix his words on the page. I know writing is a hard business sometimes, and the best of us have days when the right words just will not come. However, to print Hemingway’s repeated attempts to produce a short introductory note to the book induce nothing in me other than pity. God knows what state his mind was in at the time. I don’t think the inclusion of such material helps illuminate anything except his suffering.

Overall, a look through this manuscript material made me realise what a good job his 1964 editors did in taking these fragments and assembling a brief intro and a fitting final chapter. Yes they had to make an executive decision without Hemingway’s input. Conceivably they went against his own thoughts at the time of his death. But I think they made sound judgements about what would make a better book, clearly things Hemingway might not have been able to judge clearly for himself.

The 1964 book, then, is leaner, sharper and more focussed: precisely the kind of tightly constructed work that would have emerged had Hemingway lived to discuss it properly with his editors. In contrast, the Estate’s restored version goes with Hemingway’s final chapter order. This isn’t as effective, since this book now closes- rather bathetically- with the chapter about Scott Fitzgerald’s concerns over the size of his manhood, rather than the original’s closing chapter which takes place in the mountains during skiing trips and deals with Hemingway’s infidelity that led to the break up of his first marriage. Another new editorial change I’d take issue with is the beginning of the chapter entitled “Scott Fitzgerald”. In the 1964 text went with a passage from the draft material that takes a negative tone in summing up that author’s character. In this restored version Sean Hemingway uses a later draft that is more positive about Fitzgerald. The trouble is, the chapter gives a pretty negative portrayal of Fitzgerald. It’s clear that Hemingway respected him as an artist but found his human flaws got in the way.  The original editors’ choice of intro, which sets that negative tone from the start,  seems to me the more fitting.

If there’s a saving grace to the restored version the extra material taken from the manuscript, given as appendices, is interesting and allows us to play the amateur textual critic if we wish. It also prints some pictures of the manuscripts and of the main protagonists. But ultimately, by going with Hemingway’s second thoughts on the book from a time when writing anything was clearly so difficult, and in trying to present a kinder picture of his Grandma, Sean Hemingway ultimately hasn’t done Ernest Hemingway any favours.

In his introduction, Sean writes quite dismissively of fourth wife Mary Hemingway’s editing of the original version, as if his book is the final settling of an old score. But if we believe A.E. Hotchner  again, Mary was less involved with editing the book than Harry Brague was. Either way, I think the 64 text is your own best way of getting back to the wonders of Paris in the 20s.