Today, the expression “a separate peace” is a favorite allusion of headline writers and other journalists. It’s almost as well known as “grace under pressure,” another famous phrase that owes its popularity to Hemingway’s wordplay. It’s how Hemingway once defined “guts.”
These terms come to mind with the news about a twist in the bitter relationship between the United States and Cuba–a twist that involves Hemingway, and one that may have lessons for the leaders of both countries.
Hemingway (1899-1961) is possibly the most important American writer of the 20th century. He was born outside of Chicago, spent his youthful summers in the woodlands of northern Michigan, and then traveled the world: He was an ambulance driver in Italy, an impoverished writer in Paris, a celebrated author in Key West, and, finally, a literary giant in Cuba.
He lived in Cuba for more than twenty years, enjoying the climate and the deep-sea fishing. “The Old Man and the Sea,” the short novel that helped him win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954, takes place off its shores.
Because of this close association, the people of Cuba adopted Hemingway long ago, regarding him almost as an honorary Cuban.
I understand the attraction. Hemingway is a larger-than-life figure who ran with the bulls in Spain, hunted big game in Africa, and wrote classics such as “The Sun Also Rises” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”
On a recent visit to Key West, I walked outside the house where Hemingway once lived and also looked in on Sloppy Joe’s, his famous haunt (which has actually moved from its original location). This summer, I read “The Paris Wife,” the best-selling novel by Paula McLain, which tells the story of Hemingway and his long-suffering first wife, Hadley Richardson.
Soon, we’re going to know more about Hemingway than ever before. Cambridge University Press has just put out the first volume of “The Letters of Ernest Hemingway,” edited by Sandra Spanier and Robert W. Trogdon. In the coming years, the publisher expects to release some 15 books in the series, covering the entire span of Hemingway’s life.
The books will include letters that Hemingway kept in Cuba. This is a significant development because it will help scholars and Hemingway buffs gain insights that were previously unavailable.
That’s because shortly after Hemingway’s death, the regime of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro seized his property, vowing to turn it into a museum. Yet for five decades, most visitors have been denied access and the contents of his papers, stored in a cellar, have remained a mystery.
It was a Cold War conundrum, a small controversy amid a larger dilemma. As leaders in Washington and Havana glared at each other across the Straits of Florida, a valuable archive of Hemingway material remained off limits.
Several years ago, however, relations began to thaw–and the papers that Hemingway left in Cuba are now becoming available. More than 3,000 pages are conserved at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston and the letters will surface in the series of books from Cambridge University Press.
“Their value cannot be overstated,” writes A. Scott Berg in the October issue of Vanity Fair, in an article that describes how scholars behaved as diplomats to gain access to this priceless trove.
Relations between the United States and Cuba remain tense, and perhaps they’ll stay that way as long as Cuba’s government denies basic freedoms to its people.
Yet the story of the Hemingway papers suggests that we have alternatives to continued adversity. Cooperation can produce good results–not just in the exchange of ideas and information for professors, but also in the trade of goods and services between ordinary Americans and Cubans.
It may take some guts, but perhaps it’s time for the United States and Cuba to negotiate “a separate peace.”
Mary Boote serves as Executive Director for Truth About Trade & Technology http://www.truthabouttrade.org