Hemingway’s Boat by Paul Hendrickson

In 1935, a child of some friends of Ernest Hemingway died, and the author wrote: “we are all on a boat now together, a good boat still, that we have made but that we know now will never reach port […] because we know now that there will be no landfall we must keep the boat up very well and be very good to each other. We are fortunate we have good people on the boat.”
Ernest Hemingway owned a boat that he named Pilar, and Hemingway’s Boat is indeed about the author and his relationship to this (waterline) thirty-eight footer that he bought in Brooklyn, New York in 1934, and kept till his death in 1961. Pilar is still around. She can be found in Havana, Cuba, where she sits “up on concrete blocks, like some old and gasping browned-out whale.” However, this book, which is a curious and effective blend of detail-obsessed accuracy and speculative nonfiction, is also about Pilar as a metaphor for her captain’s life and for life in general. It is probably true that Pilar in Cuba is Hemingway’s boat, although a profoundly alternated version of her, but it can’t be known for certain – like Hemingway, “she resists knowing,” and, Paul Hendrickson says, this “makes Pilar a better metaphor and storytelling vehicle than I ever bargained for.”
Near the end of his life, Life magazine asked Hemingway to write an article on bullfighting. It seemed a manageable task but the assignment tormented the author. Eventually, he got underway, but the text – “numbingly repetitious” – swelled to about 120,000 words – easily a book, not an article. Help arrived from New York City. Eight cuts were suggested in the first hundred pages. Hemingway rejected them all. Shortly thereafter, the author was clobbered by a heavy writer’s block. He was mentally and physically unwell, and he could not write anything. But while he was hospitalized, he heard that a friend’s son had taken ill, and – amazingly – he managed to lift himself out of his valley of darkness and write the boy. The letter can be found in Hemingway’s Boat, and it may be Hemingway’s most heroic piece of writing.

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