l i t e r a r y l i v e s s t e p h e n am i d on
The Sail Also Rises Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934–1961
By Paul Hendrickson (The Bodley Head 534pp £20)
Ernest Hemingway’s troubled psyche, terse prose style and macho antics have been so thoroughly anatomised by a legion of biographers that yet another life of the man would seem to be utterly superfluous. It is to Paul Hendrickson’s immense credit, therefore, that he has hit upon a novel way of looking at Hemingway by writing a history of Pilar, the boat upon which the Nobel Prize winner spent a significant portion of his adult life.
Hendrickson ambitiously claims that his aim is to try to lock together the words ‘Hemingway’ and ‘boat’ in the same way that the locked-together and equally American words ‘DiMaggio’ and ‘bat,’ or ‘Satchmo’ and ‘horn,’ will quickly mean something in the minds of most people, at least of a certain age.
He succeeds admirably. No one reading this book will ever be able to think of Hemingway again without picturing him standing on Pilar’s flying bridge or wrestling with giant blue marlin from its fighting chair. Time and again, Hemingway took to his boat to escape the pressures of marriage, fame and fatherhood, spending long periods trawling the waters of the Caribbean in search of ever larger fish. It proved his existential lifeboat, the perfect vessel for playing out his complex, ferocious inner dramas.
ing the 1930s, it was most inextricably entwined with his years in Cuba, where he moved to his famous Finca Vigía estate in 1939 and lived for the next two decades. It was here, often on the boat itself, that Hemingway created some of his most notorious books, including Across the River and into the Trees, which was so reviled by New York critics that Hemingway openly fantasised about murdering them all with the Thompson sub-machine gun he kept aboard Pilar to slaughter sharks. It was also the source of the novella that bagged him both the Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes, The Old Man and the Sea.
Hendrickson, a veteran Washington Post reporter whose fine The Living and the Dead memorably depicted Vietnamera America, has created a richly nuanced portrait of Hemingway that charts a course between hagiography and hatchet job. Certainly, there is a lot here that is distasteful. In 1935, while working on an article for Esquire, Hemingway was forced to substitute the word ‘illegitimate’ for ‘bastard’. Papa could prove to be a right illegitimate himself. When his youngest son, Gregory, suggested that his arrest on a morals charge – the day after which his mother, Pauline, died – ‘wasn’t so bad’, Hemingway reportedly replied to his deeply troubled son: ‘No? Well, it killed mother.’ When asked by his publisher Charles Scribner to blurb James Jones’s much-lauded From Here to Eternity, Hemingway’s response made it clear that there was only room for one captain on the bridge of American letters:
I hope he kills himself as soon as it does not damage his or your sales. If you give him a literary tea you might ask him to drain a bucket of snot and then suck the puss [sic] out of a dead nigger’s ear.
Pilar became a place for Hemingway to prove his masculinity, one every bit as intense as the bullfighting arena or the plains of Africa. Friends who thought they were going on a pleasant outing could find themselves engaged in bloody struggles. Hemingway once shot himself in the leg while wrestling with a shark he’d pulled aboard, then wrote a memorable essay about it. After the poet Archibald MacLeish failed to reel in a big fish, a furious Hemingway grabbed the boat’s shotgun and began to kill seabirds. ‘Ernest took to shooting terns,’ the poet reported, ‘taking one on one barrel and the grieving mate on the other.’ Woe to anyone who insulted his prowess, like the poor sod in
Hemingway bought the thirty-eightfoot, dual-engine Pilar in 1934, just as his fame was solidifying and, in the view of many critics, he was also losing his grip on the astonishing talent that had allowed him to create The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms and many of his fine Nick Adams stories. From the moment it set sail, Pilar was meant to be redemptive. ‘A man who let his own insides get eaten out by the diseases of fame,’ Hendrickson writes, ‘had dreamed new books on this boat.’
Although Hemingway owned Pilar during his residency in Key West dur-
Hemingway on ‘Pilar’: only room for one
Literary Review | f e b r u a r y 2 0 1 2 10