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Published: Fri Oct 15 2004
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, El Fracoso de los Texeles / The Failure of the Church Women (detail), 2004, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
AGNI 60 Writing Process On Fiction Travel
H & I

The 2004 PEN/Hemingway Prize Speech, Delivered at the John F. Kennedy Library, April 4, 2004

Finding myself here, and in particular on the occasion of the presentation of the PEN/Hemingway Award, I’m suddenly moved at finding myself as well in the near presence of the papers of Ernest Hemingway. My legs are a little wobbly, my hands tremble, and I fear that my voice will tighten and rise—as if the man himself, or his ghost, were somewhere in the building waiting impatiently for me to finish so he can say his piece and shake the hand of the winner and go out with a few fishing buddies for a mojito. Or three.

I should not be surprised by my emotion. After all, the letters, journals, and manuscripts archived here are the writings that over my lifetime created me, or at least that part of me which is responsible for much of my own letters, journals, and manuscripts. Like so many American writers of my generation, perhaps especially those of us who are male, my sense of the enterprise, my view of myself as a writer, my understanding of the writing process, for better or worse (and there is some of both) have been generated and shaped by the life and the work of Ernest Hemingway. Perhaps especially by the life.

My connections with Hemingway were solely to his work and to his public image. But for me they were and still are powerful. I never met him, which from some accounts might have been fortunate for me. When he died in 1961, I was twenty-one years old and had only begun to think of myself as a writer. I would not have dared to present myself to him in person. And I never qualified for the PEN/Hemingway Award, since by the time it came into existence I was 37 and my first book, which was not very good anyhow, had long gone out of print, along with my second and third. (Happily, they have since been returned to print—but you know what I mean.) I was too late and too soon for any personal association, direct or indirect, with Ernest Hemingway.

Nonetheless, he is as vivid a presence to me as any writer who ever lived. And I have in the last few days been wondering why this is so, and how. The shape and nature of my work does not especially resemble his, although it is American fiction and is therefore inescapably descended from his. And as I am now a few years older than he was when he died, I can say that I have lived my life very differently from the way he lived his. Which is one of the reasons I am still a writer at sixty-four, and probably one of the reasons I am still alive. (In fact, I am a few years older than my father was, my real father, when he died—of the same causes as Hemingway.)

I’ve been put in mind of a novel by Nicholson Baker published back in 1992 called U & I, a comedy of literary manners about the obsession of an obscure novelist named Nicholson Baker for an older, very famous novelist named John Updike—the “U” of U & I. It’s a novel of an obsessive love of an imagined object, as well as an amusing meditation on fame, literature, and the writing process itself. It tells us perhaps more than we want to know about “I” and rather less than we want to know about “U,” but nonetheless, it made me think I might title my remarks today “H & I” and hope that in the process I can shine a little more light on “H” than “I.”

There is probably no writer in American literature who in his or her lifetime was as famous as Ernest Hemingway—not even Mark Twain, who wrote more, lived longer, was a stage performer and stand-up comedian of the first rank, and probably outsold Hemingway from first book to last. And in the late 1950s, when, in my late teens, I first rose to literary self-consciousness (as opposed to literary self-awareness), it was practically impossible for me, a white boy turned loose in America, not to model myself in my own inept, skinny way after the public persona created by and for Papa Hemingway. Though I was impressed and, as an American, proud, it wasn’t because of his Nobel Prize, which he won in 1954, when I was 14 (Faulkner, who’d won it in 1949—the first American Nobelist in my lifetime—made no such impression on me: his fame was of a different, strictly literary order). It wasn’t because of The Old Man and the Sea, which I read at about the same time, or For Whom the Bell Tolls or A Farewell to Arms, which had already become part of the classic American literature read in classrooms alongside Moby-Dick and The Scarlet Letter and his own beloved Huckleberry Finn. And it wasn’t because of the permanently great short stories. I was too young and cosseted and innocent to understand, let alone imitate, the astringent stoicism of his protagonists, their disillusionment and tight-lipped rejection of both despair and happiness in this or any other life. And a few years later, when I began to fumble my way into writing stories and novels, I saw at once that his style—his sentences, paragraphs, diction, and structure—was whole and of a piece, uniquely his, perfect, and inimitable. So it wasn’t that. Instead, drunk on words and high on American history and myth, I imitated Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, Kerouac, and Nelson Algren.

Yet, in 1959, when I hitchhiked south from my mother’s home in Massachusetts to join Fidel Castro and Che and Cienfuegos and put my poor shoulder to the wheel of revolution, it was due less to revolutionary ardor than to Ernest Hemingway’s publicly declared support of Fidel and his bearded band. I was, therefore, motivated more by product endorsement than ideology, which is probably why I never got closer to Cuba than downtown Miami, and when Fidel, in early 1959, rode triumphantly into Havana and no longer needed the help of a teenaged American kid who spoke no Spanish, I got a job moving furniture in a Florida hotel, and a year later married a pretty girl who modeled bathing suits for Maas Brothers department stores, and a year after that discovered I was a father. Not an auspicious start for a young man trying to model himself on Ernest Hemingway, who at the same age had gone to war, been gravely wounded, nursed back to health by a beautiful older woman, and wrote deathless prose by the time he was twenty-one. I was frightened by what seemed to be my fate and ashamed of myself. For having failed Hemingway. “H.”

Yet, despite my early failure to achieve heroic literary lift-off, two years later—by which time Hemingway had forcibly taken himself from us—I did think of myself as a writer. I was also newly divorced, as he had been at that age. Like Hemingway, I wrote every day and kept a list of each day’s word-count. I drank heavily and did a bit of barroom brawling. I fished for trout with flies and shot at animals. Once again, the image of Ernest Hemingway was in ascendance and constantly before me. Now, however, with Hemingway’s shocking suicide, like so many young men of my generation and most of the male writers of the generation preceding mine, I was worshipping at the altar of an absent god. Having mythologized his life, we elevated Hemingway’s suicide and personalized it. We made his death as heroic as his life had seemed and used it to color our own lives with a preening dread. Ostensibly writing about the Apollo 11 mission in A Fire on the Moon, Norman Mailer began, “Norman, born in the sign of Aquarius, had been in Mexico when the news came about Hemingway.” He continues the ponderous hymn, a song of himself as much as of Hemingway: “Now the greatest living romantic was dead. Dread was loose. The giant had not paid his dues, and something awful was in the air. . . .Into the silences static would enter. . .” (As indeed it does, at least in that particular book.)

Russell, born in the sign of Aries, was in Boston’s Back Bay when the news came about Hemingway. I was an urban Beatnik and snapped my fingers to Miles and Monk, read poems in coffeehouses, and typed out my first novel on a battered Olympus portable typewriter. But it wasn’t long before I was hitchhiking south to the Florida Keys, where I hunkered down alone in a rented room on Islamorada Key, situating myself there for no other reason than that it was only a few miles from Key West, where the Old Man had lived and famously fished and drunk too much and brawled from the late twenties into the mid-1930s, where he’d sucker-punched Wallace Stevens and insulted John Dos Passos and entertained fabulous movie stars, where he wrote A Farewell to Arms, Death in the Afternoon, Green Hills of Africa, and some of his greatest stories, and in the process turned himself, or was turned by others, into an American hero. Not merely a literary hero—something more nearly mythic than that: an iconic figure the likes of which we had never seen before and probably never will again.

I moved down the Keys, landing eventually at Key West, rented a room in a house that turned out to be a whorehouse, where I saw a man get stabbed to death, played cards with a man named Doc—which I advise you never to do—ate at a place called Mom’s—which you should also never do—and drank too many daiquiris at Sloppy Joe’s, Hemingway’s old haunt. Then one lonely night, standing in an alcoholic haze outside the gate of Hemingway’s empty, darkened house, it gradually dawned on me that I was too late. In every imaginable way, too little and too late. I was chasing Hemingway’s ghost. Worse, I was chasing the ghost of a ghost, not that of a man, certainly not the ghost of an artist of the first magnitude, and it was only an image designed to feed male fantasies of bravery and glamour manufactured for popular consumption by magazines and films and newspaper columnists. It was as if the real ghost of the real Hemingway himself, like Hamlet’s father, had emerged from the long-abandoned house on Whitehead Street, had stood there on the verandah for a moment and had spoken to me. I saw for the first time that the raw material used to construct and sustain that godlike image was a man—a genius, yes, but a deeply flawed human being who had suffered physically and mentally for decades, who had been driven mad by fame and his need for it and for alcohol and for violence.

At that moment a great sadness came over me. I soon left Key West and traveled first to New Orleans—with Doc, as it turned out—where we shared a motel at the edge of the city with a dozen strippers from the Latin Quarter, a cheerful, friendly claque of women whom Doc had worked for as a barker back in his Atlantic City days. From there I made my way to Mexico, where I was mugged and robbed at gunpoint, and on out to Los Angeles, all the while banging away on my old Olympus portable. After that, down and out in LA, broke and unable to find work, for I had no marketable skills (and for all I know still don’t), I returned to New Hampshire, where I had been raised, joined the pipefitter’s union and started working days as a plumber alongside my father, nights writing stories and poems and re-writing that same first novel. I read obsessively and with reckless abandon from the Concord, N.H., public library. I fell in love and married again. And though I eagerly read the posthumous works of Hemingway as they appeared year after year—A Moveable Feast, Islands in the Stream, and the previously uncollected bits of journalism and fiction—and loved everything of his that I read, and learned with each sentence fresh ways to master my own craft, the image of Hemingway no longer held me in thrall. I was inventing my life as a writer the only way a writer can—with no models, no templates, and no gods, false or true.

Many years later, I returned to Key West, this time to accept a career achievement award made annually during a festival called Hemingway Days, and this time I was invited through the gate and into the house on Whitehead Street, where, in a ceremony on the verandah, I was given a plaque and a check by the mayor of the city. As today, there were several members of the Hemingway family present, which gave the event a special luster. Of course, I remembered freshly that young, beginning novelist who had nearly been led astray by the manufactured image of Ernest Hemingway and realized anew that if I had continued to follow what I imagined was his lead, I would never have qualified for this or any other career achievement award. I would have had no career. I probably would not have had a life.

Nonetheless, I took delight in the irony of finding myself on the streets of Key West eyed anxiously by a large number of robust, broad-faced, white-bearded men of middle age who vaguely resembled me, all of whom seemed to be wearing turtle-necked sweaters and fishing caps. Another aspect of Hemingway Days was the annual Hemingway lookalike contest. It had come to that.

Then a year ago last December, I finally made it to Cuba. Forty-three years too late for the Revolution, I had come as a guest at the Havana Film Festival with my fellow American writers William Kennedy and Frank McCourt and the Canadian Michael Ondaatje. And of course I remembered the teenaged boy who, hoping to follow the image of the young Hemingway, had run away from home to join Castro in the Sierra Maestra Mountains. To complete that fantasied journey in literal fact, I left my writer friends in Havana, flew across the island, and climbed up into the mountains, now a national park, a pre-Columbian ecological wonder. The actual location of Fidel’s encampment is marked off and is considered a historical shrine, one of the Revolution’s stations of the cross. There is a plaque and a clearing and a shelter against the rain and little else. I stood there among the head-high ferns, liana vines, and orchid-laden trees and looked out over the string of green peaks and wondered what that American boy would have become if he had actually somehow made it here and had taken up arms and fought his way with the others down from the mountains into Havana. Surely, there would have been no grievous wound, no beautiful older woman to nurse him back to health, and most importantly, no deathless prose written at the age of twenty-one. Or at any other age. Probably, he would have ended up a minor Marxist bureaucrat, a party apparatchik—bitter, alienated, and lonely, but fluent in Spanish.

Naturally, when I returned to Havana, my writer friends and I wanted to visit Hemingway’s famous retreat, Finca Vigia, which had been his querencia after he left his home on Whitehead Street in the early 1940s until his death in 1961. It’s owned by the Cuban government, the buildings and contents willed by Hemingway in perpetuity to the people of Cuba, and is closed to the public. Because we were visiting foreign writers who were guests of the government, we were allowed inside to wander through the house as we wished.

It was as if its occupants, Mary and Ernest Hemingway, had left just yesterday for the weekend and intended to return tomorrow. The table was set for lunch, liquor bottles were half-full, Hemingway’s shoes were lined up erratically in the closet, and much of his clothing on hangers needed pressing. There were stuffed animal heads and game fish, trophies and pelts and weapons, and paintings and drawings by his friends, who were the modernist masters. We prowled through his thousands of books, a writer’s collection with Norman Vincent Peal cheek-by-jowl with James Joyce, Dante, and Birds of the Caribbean.

At one point I peeked into his bathroom, which was off the room where he wrote and usually slept—alone, I noted, as it held nothing belonging to a woman. It was strictly a man’s room. In the corner of the bathroom, almost out of sight behind a door, was a doctor’s scale. I stepped up to it, swung the door back, and there across the whitewashed wall, from knee-height to as high as I could reach, were columns of carefully inscribed dates and figures. Every day, during the years that he lived and worked at Finca Vigia, right up to his final departure from Cuba in July, 1960, each morning when he woke in the adjacent room, Ernest Hemingway weighed himself and wrote on the wall the date and his weight. Just as every day, when he finished his work, he noted the number of words he had written.

The words were the record of the writer’s mind. But the numbers and dates on the bathroom wall were strange, sad evidence of the physical man’s physical presence and his desperate attempt to monitor and control it. For years, the figures for his weight vary little, usually between 204 and 208 pounds (which happens to be precisely my own weight, and although I do not write the numbers on the wall, I do have a doctor’s scale and weigh myself on it every morning). And then, over the last few months of 1960, the numbers suddenly rise, until the final July entry in his log, when he’s ballooned to nearly 275 pounds.

We know that he went to Spain alone in August, abruptly ended his trip and went to Idaho. We know that in November he began a series of long-term treatments at the Mayo Clinic. We know that he shot himself in Ketcham, Idaho, on July 2nd, 1961. But somehow, for me, those columns of numbers on the wall of his bathroom in Finca Vigia a few miles east of Havana tell me more about Ernest Hemingway than anything in any of the biographies. They are the marks scratched on a wall by an imprisoned man counting the days until he’s served his sentence and is finally released. And then he realizes that his broken and battered body and mind are the prison and he’s serving a life sentence. And then the numbers suddenly change, and end.

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Russell Banks (1940–2023) published twenty-one books, including the novels Cloudsplitter (HarperCollins, 1998), finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; The Sweet Hereafter (HarperCollins, 1991); and Continental Drift (HarperCollins, 1985), finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; the nonfiction books Voyager: Travel Writings (HarperCollins, 2015) and Dreaming Up America (Seven Stories Press, 2010); and two volumes of poetry. Born and raised in New England, he served as president of the International Parliament of Writers and was New York State Writer from 2004 to 2006.

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