PHUKET: Paul Hendrickson, a veteran journalist at the Washington Post, has written books on people involved in the Vietnam war and the civil rights movement. His first book, Seminarian, is a favorite of mine because I was a Catholic seminarian too and empathize with his insights about the long-term effects such rigorous training has on character.
His latest book is Hemingway’s Boat (Alfred A Knopf, New York, 2011, 530pp). Hendrickson uses the famous writer’s 38-foot fishing boat, Pilar, as a scaffolding to erect a sympathetic narrative about Ernest’s tortured life. The subtitle is “Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961” and the cover photo is of a mid-thirties Hemingway at sea, bare-chested, rod and reel in hand, grinning off to the side.
For all the many dreary academic tomes on Ernest Hemingway, Hendrickson’s point is that the writer’s great joy was fishing, especially for marlin, and this often brought out the best in him. Hendrickson sums up his purpose in the prologue:
“Ernest Hemingway has been examined by so many scholars and memoirists, and respected biographers and hangers-on and pretenders and doctoral students desperate for a dissertation topic, that I feel sometimes we have lost all sense of who the man really was. It’s as if each new Hemingway book by each new Hemingway “expert” wishes to contradict the last, which is one reason why I have been determined to try to anchor a Hemingway narrative, to ground it, in something that once existed in the world that still exists in its way, just as he had once existed in the world.
“Indeed, I hoped to find people who were once on that boat, who had had their own deep relationship with her, and tell their stories, too. And I have found them, both the living and the dead.”
He devotes entire chapters to two such people: Arnold Samuelson and Walter Houk.
In 1934, just out of college and infatuated with Hemingway, Samuelson turns up at Hemingway’s door in Key West and winds up spending a year crewing on his new boat in Key West and Cuba. At his death five decades later, an eccentric loner in a small Texas town, Samuelson left behind an admiring memoir of his year with Hemingway, and Hendrickson eagerly plumbs it for a portrait of the man in his prime.
A young American diplomat in Havana in 1951, Walter Houk was the fiancée of Hemingway’s secretary Nita Jensen. Hemingway hosted their wedding and showed them much kindness. Hendrickson came across articles that Houk had written for specialist journals and interviewed him many times at his retirement home in California. Here is Houk on Hemingway:
“It was a hugely positive experience to be around him, for those several years in the fifties, getting to go out on his boat and all the rest. . . He wanted to help us out with our lives. The vultures have long ago gathered around the Hemingway corpse and rendered their judgment. But their judgment’s wrong; at least it’s incomplete. I don’t think the terrible vile side defines him; it was a facet of his character. He was a great man with great faults. We should not allow the faults to overshadow the accomplishments. . . He’s Gulliver surrounded by Lilliputians. He threatens all the little academics sitting at their computers. Somehow or other you’ve got to try to help rescue him from all that.”
Hendrickson mentions that Houk had often urged him “to try to help rescue Hemingway from his seemingly set-in-stone image of immortal writer and immortal bitch of a human being”.
To some extent he succeeds. But he also uses Pilar and “the fisherman” as an excuse, amid gaudy rhetorical flourishes, to wander down many an exotic pathway. He often makes a fool of himself as much as the academic pedants whom he mocks.
Meandering, self-indulgent and much too long, Hemingway’s Boat still, from time to time, brings forth the real man behind the myth: the fishing captain happy at the helm of the flying bridge of Pilar. And for that we should be grateful.
— James Eckardt
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