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A TRIBUTE WORTH ITS SALT

 
Published Aug. 4, 1999|Updated Sept. 29, 2005

A South Florida game fishing museum pays homage to a rugged enigma, Ernest Hemingway, who would have been 100 this year.

You sit in the fighting chair as the line buzzes off the reel and you hold on to the rod that bows to the fish, a big marlin greyhounding away from your boat, then sounding, then coming up to jump again, and your back muscles ache even while you are thinking about Ernest Hemingway.

He is being honored this year, the 100th anniversary of his birth, at South Florida's International Game Fish Association Museum, whose displays include everything you would want to see and experience _ even virtual reality fishing.

You can fight a pretend marlin on computer video and experience the power and brag and even write about what happened. It won't come out sounding like Hemingway though.

Once he was asked how a writer should train himself for literature. At the time, he and his interrogator were afloat far offshore and hoping for marlin.

"Watch what happens today," Hemingway answered. "If we get into a fish, see exactly what it is that everyone does. If you get a kick out of it while he is jumping, remember back until you see exactly what the action was that gave you the emotion.

"Whether it was the rising of the line from the water and the way it tightened like a fiddle string until drops started from it, or the way he smashed and threw water when he jumped. Remember what the noises were and what was said.

"Find out what gave you the emotion, what the action was that gave you the excitement. Then write it down, making it clear so the reader will see it too and have the same feeling that you had ..."

The snell of the hook

When you live in Florida near water blessed with fish you become curious about them. What do they feel like in your hand? Are they slimy and do they stink? Are they strong? You pick up a rod, bait a hook and try to find out.

Maybe you hope to bring home the fish, dress it out and eat it for supper. Nothing wrong with eating your kill. But mostly fishing is for another reason. It is about connecting with something wild and primitive and stronger, pound for pound, than any human. It is about celebrating life and considering the possibility of death.

Hemingway knew it and knew how to write about it. In 1953 The Old Man and the Sea won a Pulitzer and it led to a Nobel Prize in literature for lifetime achievement. Some critics consider The Old Man and the Sea inferior Hemingway. Maybe those critics never felt the power of a big fish, never suffered the muscle cramps or the dry mouth, the triumph or the humility.

Even before Old Man were the Nick Adams stories. Nick Adams was Hemingway's alter ego. You read about Nick as a boy and as a young man returning from World War I. Read the Big Two-Hearted River. It is a war story hidden in a trout stream.

"There was a long tug. Nick struck and the rod came alive and dangerous, bent double, the line tightening, coming out of water, tightening, all in a heavy, dangerous, steady pull. Nick felt the moment when the leader would break if the strain increased and let the line go."

He lost the fish anyway.

"Nick knew the trout's teeth would cut through the snell of the hook. The hook would imbed itself in his jaw. He'd bet the trout was angry. Anything that size would be angry. That was a trout. He had been solidly hooked. Solid as a rock. He felt like a rock, too, before he started off. By God, he was a big one. By God, he was the biggest one I ever heard of."

Smell that fear

Hemingway grew up in Michigan but spent a dozen years in Florida and two decades in Cuba. In 1939, when he was living in Key West, he helped establish the International Game Fish Association, an organization devoted to sport fishing and conservation.

The IGFA opened a new museum last December and its Hemingway exhibit on July 21, Hemingway's birthday. The museum, which cost $32-million, has a great hall with hundreds of mounted fish, all world records. There is the largest fish ever taken on rod and reel, a 16-foot, 6-inch great white shark that weighed 2,664 pounds, caught by an Australian, Alf Dean.

Hemingway never had a world record. But he liked engaging big fish. He developed a way of catching marlin and bluefin tuna that thwarted shark attacks. Hemingway fought his marlin aggressively, putting all the pressure he could on them at the risk of a broken line. He knew if he let the fight go on long, the sharks would come up the current and smell the fear and weakness in the marlin and eat it.

Hemingway's fishing story is told through museum exhibits. There are pictures of him as a boy wearing a straw hat, fishing for trout in Michigan, and as a barrel-chested man posing with marlin or tuna. There are his manuscripts, written in pencil, and his old Royal typewriter, on which he tapped out journalism. There are paintings and tackle and letters and pieces from his old boat, built from black mahogany, the Pilar.

The memorabilia is property of a Hemingway museum near his former home in Cuba. The Cuban museum lent it to the IGFA at the prompting of Hemingway's family. The IGFA will keep the display through the end of the year.

Punch that tuna

Hemingway helped put Florida on the fishing map. He moved to tattered old Key West in 1928, because of the fishing and the quiet it provided a writer.

He wrote in a studio next to his house. He stood and wrote in pencil in longhand. He finished A Farewell to Arms and wrote To Have and Have Not while a Key West resident.

He was disciplined in his writing, starting early, even when he had a hangover. He wrote for about five hours a day and liked to quit when the writing was going good and had momentum. Then he would put it out of his mind. It was time for fishing.

Sloppy Joe Russell was his captain. They'd fish until nightfall and eat and drink until drunk. Hemingway was an angry drunk. One time he broke the jaw of the famous poet Wallace Stevens because Stevens insulted his work in front of his daughter. Another time he was discovered, in the morning's wee hours, using a dead tuna as a punching bag.

Hemingway got famous for his writing, but also for his feuds and his marriages and his affairs and his hunting trips and fishing trips and plane crashes and injuries suffered. He became a larger-than-life celebrity. He became Papa, forever Papa, trapped as Papa.

He divorced his second wife and married a war correspondent. He divorced her and married again. He wrote less, fished more, battled his demons always. Critics delighted in claiming he was a drunken washout.

He still had a book in him.

The public loved the novella The Old Man and the Sea. Critics said it wasn't his best work. The critics said the novel couldn't really be about an old man, Santiago, who had fished 84 days without catching a marlin, who finally catches a giant marlin only to lose it to sharks, and sails home defeated with the marlin skeleton to be met only by a neighborhood boy, his only admirer.

The critics said Poor Hemingway's novel could only be about Hemingway and his own sharks, the literary critics who enjoyed ripping him to shreds.

Hemingway said no. He wrote a friend: "The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The shark are all sharks no better and no worse. All the symbolism that people say is s_t."

The true-story teller

No American writer has been psychoanalyzed more. No modern writer has been so imitated, praised or criticized. Some people will tell you he is the greatest American writer of the century. Others will say don't be ridiculous. He was a man-boy who was overly fascinated by war and bullfighting and fishing and hunting. Macho died, thank heavens, with Hemingway.

Most agree he was the most influential writer of our century. He hated mush, hated the complex, valued economy. He wrote in short, declarative sentences that packed an emotional wallop. He made writing look easy but it never was, not for him or anyone else who yearns to be a writer. Yet he made people want to be writers.

People are fascinated still. There are 37 books about him in print, and since his death editors and family have released five works of fiction, including True at First Light, which was published last month to catcalls. Hemingway had struggled with the book and knew enough to give it up as a bad job. It will no doubt make the publisher a lot of money.

After Old Man he wrote for publication sporadically while drinking heavily. In 1960 he checked himself into Mayo Clinic to be treated, in secret, for depression. Shock treatments failed to help.

He wrote a note to be posted on his hospital door.

"Former Writer," it said.

He was discharged and headed for his house in Idaho. His old tonics, hunting and fishing, didn't pull him out of his gloom this time. On the morning of July 2, 1961, his wife came downstairs and found him lying in his pajamas on the floor.

His favorite shotgun, a double-barreled 12-gauge, lay beside him. His wife told the press it must have been a gun-cleaning accident.

Hemingway had had the last, memorable word. He blew his brains out.

"All stories, if continued far enough, end in death," Hemingway once wrote, "and he is no true-story teller who would keep that from you."

IGFA Fishing Hall of Fame

300 Gulfstream Way, Dania Beach, FL 33004

(954) 922-4212

Website: http://www.igfa.org

Fishing boat captain Michael Lerner, Ernest Hemingway and a blue marlin in the 1930s. Lerner was a founder of the International Game Fish Association. Hemingway was a co-founder.

A stuffed great blue marlin greets visitors to the Ernest Hemingway memorabilia room at the International Game Fish Association Museum in South Florida, which he helped found in 1939.

Hemingway liked catching big fish, but he never owned a world record, such as these mounted specimens hanging in the museum's main gallery.

A scale model of Hemingway's prized black mahogany boat, The Pilar.

Hemingway wrote fiction with pencil in longhand while standing. But he wrote his non-fiction on this old typewriter, displayed at the museum.