The Cuban government has agreed to allow access to a trove of Ernest Hemingway’s papers that experts say promises to illuminate the period in which he wrote some of his most significant works.
The collection, deteriorating amid rifles and stuffed African game heads in the basement of Hemingway’s home outside Havana, includes 3,000 letters and documents, 3,000 photographs and 9,000 books, many with his musings in the margins.
Those who helped persuade the Cubans to open the collection say they have seen just a small fraction of it, but it already offers hints of Hemingway’s creative process: raw fragments of stories scribbled on paper and book jackets, galleys and early drafts of major works, and a poetry anthology in which he circled No man is an island, the line from John Donne that would serve as the epigraph to For Whom the Bell Tolls.
There is Hemingway’s copy of the screenplay for The Old Man and the Sea, with his notations. There is a scrap of paper on which he jotted a profanity-laced conversation from World War II, which he apparently planned to use in a story, but then dismissed, writing above it, “too frank”. There is the start of an epilogue, later rejected, to For Whom the Bell Tolls.
The documents also reveal details of Hemingway’s personal life: he recorded his weight and blood pressure almost obsessively on the inside cover of his copy of Wuthering Heights.
In a written soliloquy dated June 1, 1953, he agonised about his conflicted feelings for his fourth wife, Mary, wondering whether he should accept her as a scold or “learn not to give a damn about her”. He then sent it to her with a cover letter asking her to read it when she got a chance.
“This really is the last frontier,” said Sandra Spanier, a scholar who is involved in the preservation effort, and is the editor of a new collection of Hemingway letters.
Under an agreement with Cuba to be announced in November, American conservators will begin repairing and preserving the materials and scanning and microfilming them. The originals will remain in Cuba, but the electronic collection will be stored in the US, at the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston, which already has a small Hemingway archive. An inventory of the collection will be available online.
Hemingway spent a third of his life in Cuba, where he lived longer than anywhere else. There, he wrote The Old Man and the Sea, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and manuscripts that would be published posthumously, including A Moveable Feast.
He felt such fondness for Cuba that he donated the medal from his 1954 Nobel Prize to the shrine of Virgen de Cobre, the country’s patron saint.
Cubans returned the affection with equal intensity. As Patrick Hemingway, the author’s son, said in an interview: “I think many Cubans don’t realise he wasn’t a Cuban.”
The Cuban government has been so protective of its holdings that visitors are allowed only to peer through the windows, where they can see Hemingway’s Cinzano bottles and typewriter gathering dust. And no one, not even Cuban scholars, have been allowed to see the documents in the basement.