Bell Tolls for Hemingway’s Papers, and SSRC Answers
Electronic Copies of Writer’s Cuba Papers Now Available
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By Mary-Lea Cox
Pity the poor biographers of Ernest Hemingway. Not only do they face the task of uncovering the person beneath the legend of the fearlessly globetrotting, hard-drinking man's man, but they also have to figure out a way to account for the period from 1939 to 1960, during which the world-famous author made his home in Cuba.
Why did the Illinois-born writer choose to become a "Cuban mutt"—as he once referred to himself, in perfect Cuban slang, to a reporter in Havana—for a good twenty years? In her New Yorker profile of the author, published in 1949, journalist Lillian Ross found his affinity for the Caribbean's largest island nation a curiosity. She wrote: "Ernest Hemingway, who may well be the greatest American novelist and short-story writer of our day, rarely comes to New York. For many years, he has spent most of his time on a farm nine miles outside Havana with his wife, a domestic staff of nine, 52 cats, 16 dogs, a couple of hundred pigeons, and three cows."
Scholars have long suspected that the papers Hemingway left behind at at his Cuban estate, known as La Finca Vigía ("Lookout Farm"), contain the keys to unlocking this somewhat eccentric albeit highly productive period of his life. Sandra Spanier is the editor of the Hemingway Letters Project, which will result in a 12-volume scholarly edition of the writer's estimated 6,000–7,000 letters. "Scholars and the public have always been very curious about what was left at the Finca," she says, not least because while ensconced there with his fourth wife, Mary, and their menagerie, Hemingway produced some of his greatest works: The Old Man and the Sea, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and the manuscript for his quasi-memoir, A Moveable Feast. He also corresponded regularly with the friends, fans, colleagues, and muses he'd collected on every continent. (A famously dutiful letter-writer, Hemingway once said that he would never stop writing letters because he loved to receive them so much.)
But for more than forty years, the Finca papers have been inaccessible, victims of the freeze in U.S.-Cuban relations.
Enter the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), which has a long track record of working with scholars in Cuba despite the frozen relationship. In June of this year, Sarah Doty, who serves as coordinator for the SSRC's Cuba work, delivered 15 rolls of microfilm to the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston containing a treasure trove of documents from the Finca's collections, including the corrected proofs of The Old Man and the Sea, an alternate ending to For Whom the Bell Tolls, and thousands of letters. The library intends to make an announcement about the acquisition later this month.
Spanier for one can hardly contain her excitement. A professor of English at Pennsylvania State University, she has long been active in the movement to restore Hemingway's Cuba legacy—particularly after viewing the original materials in their deteriorated state. "I feel extremely fortunate to have had a dream experience for a literary scholar, to be able to have seen the papers in the basement of the Finca during a visit in March of 2002," she says. "But it's so difficult to make the pilgrimage to the Finca from outside of Cuba. The access to the papers in Boston is going to be wonderful. Now scholars can do the work to fill in the blanks on this very important chapter in Hemingway's life."
The Cubans, too, have greeted the news enthusiastically. Doty delivered an identical set of microfilms to the National Council of Cuban Cultural Patrimony in May. (The original papers are to remain in Cuba, in an archive at the National Ministry of Culture in Havana.) On Monday, January 5, 2009, Cuban cultural authorities announced that they are now accepting requests for electronic access to specific documents. They also said they intend to build a computer room in the Finca (now known as Museo Ernest Hemingway), where the roughly 50,000 annual visitors will be able to view the documents.
According to Spanier, what makes Hemingway's Cuba papers invaluable is not simply the draft fragments of his novels and stories, which help to reveal his writing process—but also the ephemera that can tell us about Hemingway's day-to-day life at the Finca Vigía and elsewhere.
"You don't always think of Hemingway as the guy who has to change the oil in his car and fix his roof, but he was very much in touch with the texture and rhythms of his daily routine in Cuba, and there are many domestic notes in there. There's a recommendation letter he wrote for a carpenter. There are meticulous notes he wrote, in Spanish, to the cook at the Finca, explaining extremely involved recipes, how to do the carrots, and which days of the week he wanted avocados in the salad instead of tomatoes."
The rescue mission owes its provenance to Jenny Phillips, granddaughter of Hemingway's longtime editor and friend Maxwell Perkins. Phillips visited Finca Vigía in 2001 and, because of her grandfather's special connection to the writer, was granted the rare opportunity to tour its interior. Upon learning that the house contained letters her grandfather had written to Hemingway, she asked to see them—only to be told she would need to apply to the Cuban Ministry of Culture.
As she would soon realize, Phillips had entered the quagmire that had long been bogging down American scholars. The Cuban authorities had repeatedly demonstrated their unwillingness to open the Finca's collections, and by the time Phillips arrived on the scene, most researchers of Hemingway's legacy had given up hope of seeing the papers that might offer the first real light on the writer's Cuba years.
Phillips consulted with several of these disgruntled scholars upon her return to the United States. Acting on their advice, she enlisted the help of Congressman James McGovern, a long-time advocate for normalizing U.S.-Cuba relations. Together she and McGovern conceived of a plan to launch a joint Cuban-American project to archive and preserve Hemingway's Cuban home. McGovern also helped Phillips obtain the requisite permission for viewing the Finca's books and papers.
A posse of experts—including Sandra Spanier and A. Scott Berg, the biographer of Max Perkins—accompanied Phillips on her return journey to Finca Vigía in March of the following year. The entire group was escorted down to the villa's humid, dirt-floored basement, where most of the documents were stored. In an article for the Hemingway Review later that year, Phillips vividly recalls the group's first impressions. Many of the papers were faded and warped, she says, some of them torn or else eaten by insects. "In one corner, an air conditioner and a de-humidifier raggedly chugged and rattled in a losing battle to protect the contents of the basement from the relentless effects of tropical heat and humidity."
We often hear of cultural artifacts being looted and traded illegally, or else destroyed. But the culprit in this case was a pernicious combination of nature and man.
The Hemingway connection is a source of ardent pride for the Cubans—the result of a mutual love affair between the American writer and his adopted homeland, lasting well beyond his death by his own hand in Idaho in 1961. Hemingway donated his 1954 Nobel Prize medal to the shrine of the country's patron saint, the Virgin of Charity (it to this day has pride of place in the national archives).
When Mary Hemingway returned to Finca Vigía to sort through their belongings after the writer's death, she removed the manuscripts that would be published posthumously as well as some priceless pieces of art. She deeded the property and all its remaining contents to the Cuban government, expressing the hope the Finca would be turned into a museum for the Cuban people. In the event, the Cubans immediately declared it a national monument.
Mary's gesture was ill timed, however. By the time she made her widow's journey to the Finca, Castro's revolution was closing in, and the Bay of Pigs invasion had taken place. The only reason she was able to go back was because she had received special permission from President Kennedy as well as Castro's blessing. Soon after she left, the United States imposed a trade embargo against Cuba. The Cuban missile crisis occurred later that year. Increasingly strapped for cash, the authorities in charge of Museo Hemingway devoted themselves to preserving it exactly Hemingway had left it and to cataloguing its contents. Tourists were allowed to visit, but they could only stroll through the grounds and peer in the windows.
Gladys Rodriguez Ferrero, the Finca's curator for 17 years, slept in one of the bedrooms whenever hurricanes threatened, to make sure the shutters stayed closed and Hemingway's books and papers would not be harmed. But even this intrepid woman proved no match for Mother Nature. Over the years, the villa deteriorated, its contents falling prey to the effects of Cuba's tropical climate.
A Rescue Plan Emerges
Alarmed at the state of the Hemingway collections, Phillips approached Deborah Leff, then director of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, for advice on what could be done to preserve the property's 3,000 letters and documents, 3,000 photographs, and 9,000 books. The JFK Library is the principal center for research on Hemingway's life and work—it contains over 90 percent of existing Hemingway manuscript materials.
Leff suggested contacting Stanley Katz, who headed the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS). He was also serving as chair of the Working Group on Cuba, a team of scholars dedicated to stimulating intellectual and cultural exchange between the United States and Cuba, whose activities are cosponsored by the SSRC and the Cuban Academy of Sciences. Congressman McGovern knew of the Katz's involvement in Cuban cultural-heritage preservation and seconded Leff's recommendation.
As Eric Hershberg, then director of the SSRC's Latin America Program, puts it: "The Phillips family kept hearing that Stan Katz was the person to help them."
Katz for his part recalls thinking that the project would be perfect for the Working Group on Cuba, which was already spearheading several efforts to preserve and provide access to materials in Cuban libraries and archives. He met with Marta Arjona Perez, then president of the National Council of the Cuban Cultural Patrimony. Less than a month later, in November 2002, a signing ceremony was held in front of the Finca marking a formal agreement of cooperation between Cuba and the United States on an ambitious scheme to preserve Hemingway's former villa and papers. Hershberg represented the SSRC. Also in attendance were McGovern, Arjona, Phillips, Spanier, and several Hemingway family members. Even Fidel Castro made a brief appearance, as Hershberg recounts:
Castro was not announced, but it was quite clear from the security in place he was going to show up. He proceeded to talk for a little less than an hour, offering his reflections on Hemingway, with no notes. He said that Hemingway was among those the Cuban revolutionaries read when they were in the mountains, and talked about his life and his writing as a part of Cuba's history and arts. He reflected on The Old Man and the Sea, with a particular emphasis on the shipwrecked old person on his way out. He seemed in pretty good shape, shuffling a little on his feet. Upon leaving the stage, I heard him tell some workers at the Finca Vigía that they needed to fix Hemingway's pool, which was full of cracks and weeds. "Right away, comandante!" they replied...
Why, after so many years of resistance, had the Cubans approved the plan? One reason was that, unlike previous proposals, the Americans did not intend to remove the original documents from Cuba; instead, they would use state-of-the-art preservation technology to restore the original documents and convert them to microfilm.
Another important departure from the past was the SSRC's emphasis on having Americans and Cubans work side by side on the project from day one. As Doty tells it: "Earlier attempts at preservation by American scholars had left the collection's Cuban custodians wary of U.S. involvement and uncomfortable with the idea of ceding any control over the materials or the process of their preservation." By contrast, the SSRC-led effort was intended to serve as a model for further collaboration between the United States and Cuba, by strengthening ties among scholars in both countries. As Katz put it in his application to the Rockefeller Foundation for the initial funding, such ties are "significant on both a professional and symbolic level."
At the SSRC's instigation, the curatorial staff at the museum traveled to the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) in Andover, Massachusetts, for training. Likewise, specialists from the NEDCC and from the Center for Research Libraries (CRL) in Chicago were invited to come to Havana and give workshops on document conservation, preservation, and digitization techniques.
Even more ambitiously, the Working Group on Cuba helped establish a Cuban chapter of the International Committee of the Blue Shield (ICBSC), an organization dedicated to protecting the world's cultural heritage in times of disaster. "Hopefully, our efforts will create a new area where Cuba is a model for disaster preparedness in the region," remarks Doty.
Hardly a Moveable Feast
Still, progress was slow. Although everyone agreed that the papers had to be saved before they disintegrated, no collaboration between Cuba and the United States—old Cold War enemies—is above politics. SSRC staff encountered the usual impediments: red tape (too much) and funding (too little). Or, to put it in Doty's words, the restoration soon proved "a logistical nightmare."
Because of the continuing U.S. trade embargo, the SSRC was prohibited from sending some essential equipment, such as microfilm machines, digital cameras, and computers, to Cuba, and the shipping of other supplies and equipment was more often than not subject to arcane restrictions. For instance, hygrometers, which measure humidity, must be licensed and returned to the United States once their licenses expire.
The embargo also forced the group to do all its shipping indirectly, via a third country. Doty recalls an occasion where some vital materials got held up due to a shipping strike in Canada.
Funding was an even bigger bugbear. Explains Doty: "The project had to be put on hold many times because we didn't have the necessary funds to finish it." The money provided by the Rockefeller Foundation initially soon ran out, she says, noting that foundations tend to shy away from projects involving Cuba—even when the purpose is not expressly political. (It hardly comes as a surprise to learn that the project's next phase, the restoration of Hemingway's photographs and scrapbooks, has been delayed until more funds can be procured.)
By the time Doty made her trek up to Boston, very few of the original project participants were left. Doty herself is a relative newcomer, having only joined halfway through (there had been three project coordinators before her). Marta Arjona Perez, the president of the National Council of the Cuban Cultural Patrimony, passed away two years ago and never saw the fruits of the team's labors, though her successor, Margarita Ruiz, is now involved.
There have been other personnel changes as well. Deborah Leff is no longer at the Kennedy presidential library (she now heads the Public Welfare Foundation in Washington, DC). Eric Hershberg, though he still consults for the SSRC, has returned to academe and is a professor of political science at Simon Fraser University in Canada. And Phillips, after getting the archives project under way, moved on to other restoration challenges at the Finca: the house itself and Hemingway's beloved fishing boat, the Pilar. She now runs the Finca Vigía Foundation, dedicated to restoring Hemingway's legacy in Cuba.
Bell Now Tolling for Phase Two
The year 2008 was a landmark for both Cuba and the United States. Both are on the cusp of political change, with Fidel Castro passing the reins to his younger brother, Raúl, in February and with the election of Barack Obama as the new American president in November. Obama took a position during his campaign in favor of a possible relaxation of the Cuban embargo policy and discussions with the island's leadership.
Katz, who remains very hands on with the project, took SSRC President Craig Calhoun on his first trip to Cuba last March, just after Castro stepped down. They toured Museo Hemingway and met with the Cuban preservationists responsible for the project's first phase. This trip became the catalyst for reinvigorating the search for funding for the project's next phase, preserving Hemingway's photographs and scrapbooks.
The SSRC held a two-day workshop in November of last year, to test the fundraising waters. "We invited several foundations that are not currently working, or working selectively, in Cuba but who are interested should relations improve between the two countries—which hopefully will be soon under an Obama administration," says Doty. "We held a similar meeting two years ago, but there was little we could do to expand the work that was being done—policies were too restrictive. We're now feeling hopeful that the funding climate may be shifting."
Sandra Spanier, too, remains hopeful about seeing the project through to completion. She gave a talk on "Hemingway in Cuba" at the annual Ernest Hemingway Festival last September, regaling her audience with the story of the SSRC-led rescue effort. She praised both the SSRC and the NEDCC for their leadership in restoring the manuscripts for scholarly use. "Each piece of paper has been examined and has something specific that is going to happen to it," she says, "including the introduction of a special Japanese tissue paper for mending tears in old documents."
Among the papers that have yet to be microfilmed are folders full of press clippings that survived the writer's multiple moves. "Hemingway kept them from Paris in the 1920s to Key West to Cuba," says Spanier. "These papers were important to him." She adds that one in particular has caught her eye: the scrapbook he kept of all the clippings announcing his death all over the world after he narrowly survived two successive plane crashes in the African jungle.
That was in 1954. Fifty-five years later, an article could easily have appeared announcing the demise of these clippings, along with the rest of the documents Hemingway took to, or amassed in, Cuba. That we are announcing instead the availability of microfilmed copies owes to the unstinting efforts of a binational group of scholars and conservationists, all of whom believed it was better to have than to have not—and, perhaps even more important, showed the stoicism of a Kilimanjaro climbing team. They have moved the unmoveable, the kind of feat that would make the author, who was a hunter of lions and a student of bullfighting, proud. May the scholarly feast continue!
The SSRC thanks Alejandra O'Leary for doing the original research for this article.