The Hemingway House, Key West

Hemingway House, Key West Illustration 2014 jpbohannon

Hemingway House, Key West
Illustration 2014 jpbohannon

I have always had a love/hate relationship with Ernest Hemingway. For a long time, all the machismo got in my way: the big game hunting, the bull fighting, the boxing, the boasting, the egoism, all seemed to be compensating for something, a sense of insecurity perhaps, to put it in simplest terms.

And yet, I love his writing. It is pure and clean and powerful and elemental. I can still feel the the visceral punch in  “Indian Camp” when the father removed the blanket from the young husband in the upper bunk. Or, the pared-down, gradual dawning of realization in reading “Hills Like White Elephants” or the existential abyss yawning at the end of a “A Clean Well Lighted Place.”

It’s been a while since I read one of the novels. I remember A Sun Also Rises fondly. The damaged romanticism of  Jake Barnes, the alluring aloofness of Brett Ashley, the thirsty landscape of Spain are all still vivid in my mind despite how long ago I last read it. And while critics claim A Farewell to Arms to be the better written novel, The Sun Also Rises remains more important to me.  (A colleague just last month called it the worst novel written in English! Oh well.)

And so, with this ambivalence about Hemingway, I visited his home while in Key West in early June.

The home is extraordinary–and rich in story and history.


The front of the Hemingway House on Whitehead Street in Key West. Photograph 2014 jpbohannon

In the 1930s, Hemingway moved to Key West with his second wife–Pauline Pfeiffer–whose uncle purchased the house on the corner of Whitehead and Olivia Streets. And although, Hemingway claimed that he was “restless” in Key West, at this house he wrote a great deal of what would be his most important work.

The house is a two level structure built in 1851 by Asa Tift, a successful architect and salvager, and the Hemingways bought it in 1931.  Today, the home is an Historic Site and remains filled with the Hemingways’ furniture and artifacts.  Throughout each room are both original furnishings and memorabilia–posters of movies made from his novels, photos of Hemingway at various stages of his life, of his family, and of various celebrities and writers. The bed in the master bedroom is actually two double beds that Hemingway wired together and the headboard is a gate made of Spanish mahogany that Hemingway and his wife had seen in a monastery in Spain.  A bench in the foyer is from the same monastery.

Hemingway's Writing Studio in Key West Photograph 2014 jpbohannon

Hemingway’s Writing Studio in Key West
Photograph 2014 jpbohannon

Behind the main house is a “carriage house” in which Hemingway had built a writing studio on the second floor.  In order to ensure his privacy, Hemingway had a wrought-iron catwalk stretched across the patio from the bedroom to his studio.  This was the only means in and out.  Today, the catwalk has been taken down and there is a narrow stairway from the patio to the studio door.  It is an ideal working space.

The house also has a large pool–the first ever in Key West.  Hemingway and Pauline had wanted to build a pool, but cost was prohibitive.  They had bought the house for $8000 dollars, but building a pool in the remote Keys was expensive. Instead, Hemingway built a regulation sized boxing ring. Much to Pauline’s dismay, her dream of lounging poolside had given way to a ring side seat to her husband’s sparring bouts.

However, Pauline got her way (and ultimately the house itself).  Hemingway had started an affair with the writer Martha Gelhorn, and the two of them had met up in Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War.  When Pauline caught wind of the tryst, she promptly had a over-sized pool built–at the cost of $20,000, two and half times the cost of the house.

When Hemingway returned he was none too pleased.  In one gesture of comeuppance, he dragged a urinal from what was then Sloppy Joe’s (and is now Captain Tony’s) which had been thrown curbside during renovations, and brought it home as a watering trough for his many cats. As he told his wife, “you have your pool, and now I have mine.”

And it is the cats that retain their residency.  Hemingway loved cats, particularly 6-fingered, “polydactyl” cats. He believed them to be good luck. There are countless photos of Hemingway with them–while he wrote and while he lounged. (Apparently, they were the only others who had access to his studio.) Today, all of the 48 or so cats on the property are descendants of Hemingway’s cats–and all of them carry the gene for the polydactyl mutation.

One of the many six-fingered cats on the Hemingway Huse property. photograph 2014 by jpbohannon

One of the many six-fingered cats on the Hemingway Huse property.
photograph 2014 by jpbohannon

But after the cats and the pools and the writing studios, after the womanizing, the wives, and the bluster, after the houses and the legends and the suicide, what we are left with in the end is the writing.  As I said earlier, it is pristine and clear and purposeful.  Hemingway was a great reviser, mostly paring down and paring down to the very essence of what he wanted to say. As he famously told an interviewer, the hardest part is getting the words right:

Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.
(Ernest Hemingway, “The Art of Fiction,” The Paris ReviewInterview, 1956)


Rejection: a writer’s two-way street


Ah rejection! It is the most certain part of the writer’s life. And we all have had our share. Putting something out there, for someone else to judge, to deem suitable for his or her journal/magazine/anthology/contest, is risky. The odds of receiving a “no” are much larger than receiving a “yes.”

At least they are for the less established writers. Which is the majority of us.

Having said that, however, 2012 has been a particularly successful year for me. Even Duotrope–the wonderful submission/market site that I use– congratulated me saying that my “acceptance ratio” is higher than average for users who have submitted to similar markets. And my rate for both fiction and poetry is a measly 21.4%!

But lately, I’ve hit a fallow patch. Stories going out, rejections coming back.  Indeed, one journal (who in fairness won’t be named) e-mailed the same rejection to me three times in one day! Talk about Churchill’s black dog in the afternoon!

So at the moment, I have eleven pieces out there awaiting some editor’s thumbs up or thumbs down. Two have been out there for five months.  If I continue at my current above average pace (hah!) then I can expect two of the eleven pieces to get the okay.

And when that happens all the self-doubt and depression (understandable with a three-pronged rejection) disappears and one once again fantasizes about quitting the day job and really getting it done fill an hour or two of my daydreams.

♦     ♦     ♦

Now, the other side of the coin is that we as writers must do our fair share of rejection, as well, if we are to do the task well.  I believe it was Hemingway who once said that he knew he had had a productive day if in the morning he had three pages of manuscript and by afternoon he had only one. That’s a lot of rejection. That’s a lot of concision. That’s a lot of word choice.

Someone once told me that if I really love a particular phrase or passage, I should probably discard it! Reject it! My love of it is a signal that it is too”special” and doesn’t belong in the work. And he is probably right. Be careful when you are feeling particularly “writerly.”  Not a good portent for good writing.

Another story I heard was that the writer Ray Bradbury would complete a piece, date it, and file it away for a year to the day to begin editing it. He believed that when he first completed a piece, he was too enamored with it to critically re-write, edit, and polish.

But who has that kind of time?

I know one of my many faults is to believe something is finished well before it is. I do not edit well on a computer screen and there is a certain part of me that cringes at printing out drafts.

So my August 1 resolution will be to do better editing, better re-writing. Maybe I’ll even start printing out my work to look over…but certainly on both sides.

♦     ♦     ♦

P.S. Originally I had no  graphics in this post because

I wrote it on my iPad on a cross-country plane with WiFi from Los Angeles to Philadelphia.

How cool is that?

But when I got home my interior clock was a bit askew, so I returned and added some images.

Thursday Music Review: Great music and then musings on greatness.

I went to see a band tonight down at a local pub, The Dark Horse, known more for soccer clubs and televised soccer games than for music. But some friends of mine are in this band and I had to see them.

The Dark Horse Pub, Philadelphia, PA

I have played with two of the members before in an Irish band, but this new band, The Flashbacks, is just that …a flashback to several decades earlier.  The band started out as a Beatles cover band, but then expanded with a lot of Steely Dan, Yardbirds, Stones, Kinks, before settling into CSNY, Beach Boys, the Dead, Eagles, etc. (They tout themselves as the second British Invasion, but they cover a fair amount of  American bands as well.)

And the reason they can cover this music is that they are DAMN GOOD!  The harmonies are precise–three-part most of the time–and the musicianship is impeccable.  They are seasoned players who have, for the most part, known each other for a very long time and they play to each others’ strengths and build on it. The youngest member–Joe Manning–is just a pup compared to the others, (he wasn’t born when these guys first started playing together) but he is one of those wunderkinder who can play anything and play it with perfect beauty, wit and definition. If he had been alive forty-five years ago, they would have called him a god.

And so this got me to thinking….

There are an awful lot of very talented people out there. I could go see scores of really talented bands or individuals every night of the week in my city alone.  Multiply that by every other city, burg, town. How many great musicians are there in Dublin? Edinburgh? Berlin? London? Madrid? Cairo?  Innumerable.

I know very talented artists, amazing writers, magical poets, extraordinary designers who day in and day out work at their craft (or because of the ways of the world, work at their “day-job” and then work at their craft) and create wonderful pieces. I am sure you know similar people in your parts of the world. What separates these artists from those who’ve become household names?

Luck, certainly plays a role, but a very minimum one.  Being at the right place at the right time, meeting someone who can truly help, etc. are all fortunate but are not the thing that separates the very good from the great.  And mere technique is not sufficient–there are thousands of technically gifted people.

I believe it is focus, focus on one’s calling at the expense of all else.

Picasso and Bardot. How great is that?
re-posted from

I remember having a discussion with my father once. He was bemoaning the way that Picasso treated women, discarding them indiscriminately whenever it suited him. I argued that it was a symptom of his genius. (He challenged my assumption that Picasso was a genius.)  Genius, I said, uses everything it comes across. There is nothing else that matters but his or her art, his or her genius–other people and other people’s emotions included.

The conversation came up again this week, when someone remarked on seeing the television movie Hemingway and Gellhorn on what an unlikeable cad Hemingway actually was.  Again, it is all ego wrapped around his art…or maybe the opposite, all his art is wrapped around his ego.

The attitude can be summed up in the clichéd saying “It’s his (her) world, we’re just living in it.”

Hemingway and Gellhorn in Sun Valley, Idaho.

Who else has stepped on everyone to further their art–or in the furtherance of their art?  We could cite both Shelley and Byron, who stepped on and used everyone in their belief in their own genius and the entitlements it should deserve.

But this is not only in the arts.  Steve Jobs may have been a genius but he was hardly a likeable person. And Bobby Fischer, arguably the greatest chess player ever, became more than simply an egocentric genius. He became a misanthropic, hate monger.

Mozart–a man who could create entire operas in his head without touching an instrument–was certainly egocentric, almost to an infantile degree.

So what about all your acquaintances who are truly talented, gifted people? Is it that they are decent human beings whose company you enjoy, whose interest in you and others around them is obvious, that keeps them from reaching the pantheon of genius.

And would you have it any other way?  I know I wouldn’t!  I too much enjoy the people who are creating wonderful, beautiful things–like the middle-aged Flashbacks at The Dark Horse pub–and who are still wonderful human beings, interested in the world and the people around them.

The etymology of the word “amateur” comes from the word Latin word “amat” –to love. Whether one is paid or nor, celebrated or not, it is the love of doing, making, performing something that is good and beautiful that makes for a better world.

I’ll go see the Flashbacks, the next time they play!