May 4, 2010

Up and Down

by Beverly Rollwagen

I don't know anything
for sure unless I look it up,
but sometimes I can figure
things out if I write them
down. So it's up and down
all day long. It's a good life.
Better than back and forth
or in and out which I find
constraining. I have up
and down in balance and
with my mother's death
have discovered the true
meaning of before and after.

"Up and Down" by Beverly Rollwagen, from Flying. © Nodin Press, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1953 that Ernest Hemingway (books by this author) won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Old Man and the Sea(1952), the story of an old Cuban fisherman and his three-day struggle with a huge marlin against the attacks of sharks.

Before Cuba, Hemingway lived in Key West, about 90 miles north, but he often went to Cuba on deep-sea fishing trips, staying at a hotel in Havana where he kept a room. It was there that he wrote most of For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), and he wrote columns for Esquire so that he could afford to buy a boat, which he did, and named it Pilar. At the end of 1940, with money from For Whom the Bell Tolls, he and his third wife bought Finca Vigía,a villa a few miles southeast of Havana. He would live there for 20 years.

He wrote in the mornings, standing up, typing on his beloved Royal typewriter. The afternoons were for recreation. Local boys played baseball outside Finca Vigía, and because Hemingway had two sons who spent the summers with him, he bought the boys equipment and invited them into his yard to play with his sons. Hemingway was the pitcher for the games. But most often in the afternoon he went fishing. He used his boat, Pilar, both for fishing and to patrol for German submarines. He had spent many years directly involved with war, as an ambulance driver in World War I and a war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War. But at the outbreak of World War II, he didn't know how to be involved from Cuba. So he outfitted Pilar with machine guns and grenades and patrolled the water for German submarines; he also set up a counterintelligence position to find Spanish fascists in Cuba.

Mostly, though, Pilar was for fishing. It sailed out of a small port town, Cojimar, the model for the fishing village in Old Man and the Sea. And the inspiration for the Old Man himself is widely assumed to be a fisherman named Gregorio Fuentes, who died in 2002 at the age of 104. Before Hemingway even moved to Cuba, in the 1930s, he hired Fuentes to serve as cook, captain, mechanic, and general caretaker for Pilar. The two of them spent many afternoons together, sailing around in the sun, fishing for marlin and sailfish, Fuentes mixing rum and lime juice drinks and piloting the boat for Hemingway.

But in the mornings he wrote. In his early days in Cuba, before he bought Finca Vigía, he had written For Whom the Bell Tolls. Now he worked on his memoir, A Moveable Feast, based on his notebooks of his days in Paris; and he wrote The Dangerous Summer (1985), about a season of bullfighting — a shortened version was published in Life, the rest published posthumously.

The Old Man and the Sea comes out of the dream of a much larger project. Hemingway envisioned something called The Land, Sea, and Air Book. The "land" section would be about the war in Europe; the "sea" about life in the Caribbean, with a plotline based on Hemingway's counterintelligence work there during WWII; and all that is known of the "air" section is a fragment Hemingway wrote about the Royal Air Force. The "land" section became part of Across the River and Into the Trees (1950), which got bad reviews.

The "sea" section, or "The Sea Book," was further divided into sections that he called "The Sea Chase," "The Sea When Absent," "The Sea When Young," and "The Sea in Being." Besides "The Sea in Being," the sections all revolved around the character of Thomas Hudson, an expatriate who lives first in the Bahamas and then in Cuba. Eventually, after Hemingway's death, these sections were all heavily edited, and combined as Island in the Stream (1970).

Hemingway took out “The Sea in Being” and renamed it as The Old Man and the Sea. He sold it to Life magazine, which decided to publish the whole novella in a single issue, instead of breaking it into parts. They sent a famous photographer, Alfred Eisenstaedt, to photograph Hemingway in Cuba, and on September 1, 1952, Life ran The Old Man and the Sea, with a portrait of Hemingway on the cover. It sold 5.3 million copies in two days, and went on to become a Book-of-the-Month selection and a best-seller.

Today, despite the restrictions on American travel in Cuba, Hemingway is a huge tourist draw there. In his favorite Havana bar, the Floridita, there is a life-sized statue of him in the corner where he used to drink daiquiris. You can visit his favorite hotel room in Havana, which has been preserved, as have the rooms of his villa Finca Vigía, which the government recently spent a million dollars to restore. Pilar is on display there — Fuentes donated it to the government after Hemingway's death. In Cojimar, local fisherman took the bronze propellers off their boats, melted down the metal, and created a bust of Hemingway. Hemingway helped set up a fishing tournament in 1950, and it is still going — the 60th Annual International Hemingway Fishing Tournament will begin later this month in Havana.

The Old Man and the Sea begins: "He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show