Florida's Hemingway Festival

By Davies, Alan I. | Contemporary Review, October 1995 | Go to article overview
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Florida's Hemingway Festival

Davies, Alan I., Contemporary Review

When Ernest Miller Hemingway (21 July 1899-2 July 1961) pushed a double-barrel shotgun against the roof of his mouth and blew off the top of his head, he peeled back his machismo facade to reveal a human being possessed by a full quota of personal demons. The faith of his less thoughtful fans must have been badly shaken.

Before this act his writing, his adventurous, peripatetic, and hard-drinking life made him a legend in his own time. His exploits in both world wars, his passion for bullfighting, his Spanish Civil War reporting, his well-publicized African safaris, his 1954 Nobel Prize for Literature, plus his many far-ranging magazine and newspaper assignments, afforded him a fame normally reserved for stars of the screen, and made his masculine image recognized around the globe. That legend and image are today being perpetuated, perhaps even embellished, in Key West, Florida.

Key West is the last of twenty-five low-lying, coral, limestone, and mangrove islands of a chain that curves almost 150 miles south-westward from the Florida peninsula into the Gulf of Mexico. The series of islands is called the `Florida Keys', a name derived from the Spanish word cayos meaning small islands. Key West rises just eleven or twelve feet above sea level. It is also only ninety miles from Cuba, closer than Miami, and Cuba has influenced Key West from its earliest days of development, and still does.

The continental United States' southern-most town, Key West once served as a young US Navy's base of operations against Caribbean pirates. Its climate at a latitude just north of the Tropic of Cancer nourishes a wealth of lush vegetation, especially various types of palm trees, autograph and poinciana trees, hibiscus, bougainvillea, and coco plum. Intial settlers produced salt by sea water evaporation and then raised fecund groves of key limes, tamarind and breadfruit. Commercial fishing, together with sponging for a few decades, was a principal employment from the beginning, although it has now almost died out.

By mid-19th century Key West enjoyed the nation's highest per capita income from salvaging ships wrecked on the Florida reef. At that century's end the town was America's leading manufacturer of cigars: one hundred million were produced each year in fifteen factories operated by Cubans, refugees from their Spanish occupiers. Turtle hunting for the soup delicacy was a later major industry until laws enacted in the 1970s protected the endangered reptiles.

In 1928, when the Hemingways first visited, Key West was still a sleepy fishing village with more in common with the Caribbean than the United States. An enormously expensive railroad linking it with Miami opened in 1912. However, the railroad never generated the traffic anticipated by its builder and, in 1935, was damaged extensively by a hurricane. It was never repaired, and today's connecting road runs on parts of the former track bed. Hemingway liked the island's remoteness at that time and its deep-sea sport fishing opportunities, calling it the `St. Tropez of the poor'.

A few years into his sojourn on the island Hemingway said, during a New York City visit, that he `wanted to get back to Key West and away from it all'. Had he lived to be a nonagenarian, reasonably common among literary types, he would have seen his isolated retreat develop into a three-million a year tourist destination. Tourism is now both the island's and the state's top industry. Statistics for the latest year available indicated Florida attracted 41 million vacationers who spent $32 billion.

Nowadays expensive resorts and condominium complexes overlook the harbour where once stood warehouses and run-down cafe-bars catering to the town's fish commerce. The few remaining shrimp boats are confined to the rear of the harbour. In their place, private ocean-going yachts ride at anchor, and some of the sleek power boats docked in the marinas resemble Richard Branson's launch that challenged the Atlantic speed crossing record.

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