With the opening of Cuba’s Hemingway archives in Havana, a Hemingway scholar plunged into two years of research. The result is this original portrait of the author’s life and work.
Going to the “source” after “54 years of Cold War blockade,” New Orleans–based academic Feldman adds extensively to the already massive Hemingway archival material. Cuba—and, in particular, the Finca Vigía that he bought with his third wife, Martha Gellhorn, in 1939—became the center of many things: his writing solace and success; his alternating marital bliss and torment (after Gellhorn, he brought Mary Welsh there, where they lived off and on until his suicide in Idaho in 1961); his heartfelt attachment to the locals and their families; his watering hole and source of fishing adventures; and the ultimate degradation in his health, mostly from drinking. Feldman engagingly traces Hemingway’s remarkable journey as an American writer and mythmaker on many levels. At the same time, he delineates the history of modern Cuba, especially the creation of Havana as a glamorous magnet for rich Americans while it festered in political turbulence, culminating in Fidel Castro’s consolidation of power in 1959. While the sordid details of Hemingway’s affairs, excessive drinking, and brutal treatment of family and friends are familiarly difficult to read, what remains in Feldman’s eloquent, evenhanded biography is a palpable sense of the author’s fierce allegiance to his work, which crushed everything that came in the way, including wives and devoted friends like F. Scott Fitzgerald. Papa’s demons, in the end, caught up with him, leaving many books (Islands in the Stream, A Moveable Feast, True at First Light) unfinished. Feldman concludes with a touching chronicle of how Castro revered the author ("All the work of Hemingway is a defense of human rights") and how the Cubans remember El Americano warmly to this day.
A fresh and fair assessment of Hemingway’s life and work that refreshingly avoids slipping into hagiography.