- Key West Hemingway: A Reassessment
Key West, which calls itself the Conch Republic, seceded from the Union on 23 April 1982. No one paid them any mind, but that hasn't stopped native Conchs and adopted locals from thinking—correctly, I'm convinced—that Key West is different from the rest of the United States. You see things down there that you don't see anywhere else.
Children's book author Shel Silverstein left his bicycle leaning against a banyan tree in his front yard before he went away for an extended period, and when he returned he discovered that the tree had grown around the bike. It became a minor tourist attraction and thereafter marked the author's yard—that is, until the tree completely engulfed the bicycle.
Key West has a way of wrapping itself around legends. Another tree, which appears to grow right out of one of Duval Street's many small-vendor buildings, has a polished brass nameplate that boasts, tongue-in-cheek (but lyingly, of course), "Hemingway pissed here." From his old house and watering holes to racks of t-shirts hawking his image, Key West is still Hemingway's town—every bit as much as when he lived there during the 1930s, a decade he shared with second wife Pauline Pfeiffer. Though the Hemingway Estate balked at the commercialism and tried to shut down the Hemingway Days Festival in 1997 and revive it on Sanibel Island, Key West stubbornly wrapped itself around the summer event, taking possession again. The Look-Alike Competition at Sloppy Joe's still flourishes, and slowly the town is adding new events. Commercialism and irreverence notwithstanding, it's easy to see why Hemingway remains a posthumous presence. While he was alive, he embodied all of the aspects that still make Key West unique: the artsiness, the blue-collar toughness, the sexually liberated attitudes, the hard drinking, the work ethic, and the tropical, nature-loving side.
Now, with a book of scholarly essays—proceedings from the 11th Biennial Ernest Hemingway Society Conference held in Key West in June [End Page 168] 2004—editors Kirk Curnutt and Gail D. Sinclair have announced their attempt to reclaim Hemingway's Key West for serious scholarship. Because the city's celebration of Hemingway has mostly revolved around the author's drinking, fishing, and brawling, and because Hemingway has been to Key West what Mickey Mouse is to Orlando, Key West had never been considered "a serious site of Hemingway study," the editors write. "The goal of this book is to change that assumption by demonstrating the complexities the island introduced to Hemingway's life and work—and, reciprocally, those that his presence have brought to it" (4). In this they succeed mightily, with the help of 17 contributors whose essays were chosen from among 130 papers presented at a conference that drew 250 Hemingway scholars and aficionados.
Key West is a colorful town, and Key West Hemingway: A Reassessment is a colorful book. You sense this already from the full-color dust jacket portrait of Hemingway fishing, painted by Waldo Peirce, and the back-cover painting of Hemingway and other Sloppy Joe's regulars, painted by Erik Smith. Inside there are 26 illustrations and photographs that impart an energy which, despite high-quality scholarship, can sometimes be lacking in other published proceedings.
Because the contributors saw others' essays and several of them refer to what colleagues have written elsewhere in the book, Key West Hemingway also has the kind of vitality that comes from critical discourse—including lively but respectful disagreement. A number of authors explore larger, intertextual contexts, and that too gives the book a kind of power. Additional energy comes from the level of scholarship. Many of the essays here reflect more than critical interpretation; new information and insights are provided, and none of the essays is written in a style so dry that a Conch would quickly slam the book shut.
The editors chose essays that "demonstrate how the island inspired [Hemingway] to...