TOPICS > Arts

The Old Man and the Boat: Hemingway’s Quest for Peace

October 6, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Paul Hendrickson, the author of "Hemingway's Boat, Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961," is the latest biographer to delve into Ernest Hemingway, and he does so by narrowing his narrative focus on the famous writer's 38-foot motorized fishing vessel, Pilar.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, the story of the boat that took Ernest Hemingway out to sea and helped him weather the storms of fame and ruin.

It’s told by the author of a new biography on the famous writer.

PAUL HENDRICKSON, “Hemingway’s Boat”: “A man who let who let his own insides get eaten out by the diseases of fame had dreamed new books on this boat. He’d taught his sons to reel in something that feels like Moby-Dick on this boat. He’d accidentally shot himself in both legs on this boat.”

I’m Paul Hendrickson. And I’m the author of “Hemingway’s Boat,” subtitled “Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961.”

I was after some kind of evocation or interpretation of the man. But there have been a dozen biographies of Hemingway and really a heck of a lot more scholarly studies, critical studies. I wanted to do something different.

And one way or another, I came on this metaphor that might anchor the story. Pilar was Hemingway’s 38-foot motorized fishing vessel, which he owned for 27 years, which were the last 27 years. And he lovingly possessed her, rode her, fished her through three wives, the Nobel Prize and all his ruin.

If you said Hemingway, the association to people who have read him somewhat might be these very simple declarative kinds of sentences and sentence rhythms. He invented a new kind of American speech.

But Hemingway, by the ’30s, by especially the mid-’30s, is beginning to experiment with the longer prose line. These sentences are growing much, much longer. And they’re full of subordinate clauses. He got out of those damp enclosures of Europe, where he had first made his fame. He got out of what you might call the four-square Protestant Oak Park winters where he had grown up.

And where does he end up? In Bohemian Key West, where he can wear his raggedy beltless shorts. You read his letters, and the way Pilar threads through those letters of “Can’t wait to get on the boat,” she did help keep him sane. She did help provide a release.

Pilar represented this little encapsulated existence, wherefore a long weekend or for just an afternoon, getting away from the pressures of the writing desk. And in these posthumous years of Hemingway, I think we have begun, just by examining the work itself, to have a deeper, fully understanding of what a tortured human being he was.

This is why he continues to fascinate us, because he’s like a beautiful kaleidoscopic art object. You turn it one little tilt, and a whole new angle of light comes in.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That was author Paul Hendrickson on his new book, “Hemingway’s Boat.”