NEA Literature Fellowships

Paul Hendrickson

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(2012 - Prose)

Excerpt from Hemingway's Boat

She was sitting up on concrete blocks, like some old and gasping browned-out whale, maybe a hundred yards from Hemingway's house, under a kind of gigantic carport with a corrugated-plastic roof, on what was once his tennis court, just down from the now-drained pool where Ava Gardner had reputedly swum nude. Even in her diminished, dry-docked, parts-plundered state, I knew Pilar would be beautiful, and she was. I knew she'd be threatened by the elements and the bell-tolls of time, in the same way much else at the hilltop farm on the outskirts of Havana -- La Finca Vigia was its name when Hemingway lived there -- was seriously threatened, and she was. But I didn't expect to be so moved.

I walked round and round her. I took rolls and rolls of pictures of her long, low hull, of her slightly raked mahogany stern, of her nearly vertical bow. When the guards weren't looking, I reached over and touched her surface. The wood, marbled with hair-line fissures, was dusty, porous, dry. It seemed almost scaly. It felt febrile. It was as if Pilar were dying from thirst. It was as if all she wanted was to get into water. But even if it were possible to hoist her with a crane off these blocks and to ease her onto a flatbed truck and to take her away from this steaming hillside and to set her gently into Havana Harbor, would Hemingway's boat go down like a stone, boiling and bubbling to the bottom, her insides having long ago been eaten out by termites and other barely visible critters?

A man who let his own insides get eaten out by the diseases of fame had dreamed new books on this boat. He'd taught his sons to reel in something that feels like Moby Dick on this boat. He'd accidentally shot himself in both legs on this boat. He'd fallen drunk from the flying bridge on this boat. He'd written achy, generous, uplifting, poetic letters on this boat. He'd propositioned women on this boat. He'd hunted German subs on this boat. He'd saved guests and family members from shark attack on this boat. He'd acted like a boor and a bully and an overly competitive jerk on this boat.

She'd been intimately his, and he hers, for twenty-seven years -- which were his final twenty-seven years. She'd lasted through three wives, the Nobel Prize, and all his ruin. He'd owned her, fished her, worked her, rode her, from the waters of Key West to the Bahamas to the Dry Tortugas to the north coast and archipelagoes of Cuba. She wasn't a figment or a dream or a literary theory or somebody's psychosexual interpretation -- she was actual. Onto her varnished decks, hauled in over her low-cut stern on a large wooden roller, had come uncounted marlin and broadbill swordfish, tuna, sailfish, kingfish, snook, wahoo, tarpon, horse-eyed jacks, pompano, dolphin, barracuda, bonito, and mako shark, which, as Hemingway once remarked, are the ones that smell oddly sweet and have those curved-in teeth that give them their Spanish name, dentuso.

He could make her do sixteen knots at full-out, and he could make her cut a corner like a midshipman at Annapolis. When she was up and moving, her prow smartly cutting the waves, it was as if she had a foaming white bone in her teeth -- which is an expression old seamen sometimes use. When he had her loaded for a long cruise, she'd hold 2,400 pounds of ice, for keeping cool the Hatuey beer and the daiquiris, the avocados and the Filipino mangoes and, not least, the freshly landed monsters of the Gulf Stream, which Hemingway always thought of as "the great blue river." Who knew what was down there lurking in those fathomless bottoms -- the skeletons of slave ships? Who'd ever caught what was possible to catch in those mile-deep waters of his imagination?

("Prologue" from Hemingway's Boat: Everything He Loved in Life and Lost, 1934-1961 by Paul Hendrickson. Copyright © 2011 by Paul Hendrickson. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.)

Paul Hendrickson spent seven years on his New York Times bestselling biography, Hemingway's Boat (Knopf, 2011), nominated for a National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) Award. His previous book, Sons of Mississippi (Knopf, 2003), also won the NBCC Award and took five years of research, supported by fellowships from the NEA and the Guggenheim Foundation. Hendrickson was a staff feature writer at the Washington Post from 1977 to 2001. His other books include Seminary: A Search (Summit Books, 1987); Looking for the Light: The Hidden Life and Art of Marion Post Wolcott (Knopf, 1992), a finalist for the NBCC Award; and The Living and the Dead: Robert McNamara and Five Lives of a Lost War (Knopf, 1996), a finalist for the National Book Award. Hendrickson is married and has two grown sons and lives outside Philadelphia, where he is a senior lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania. He has begun his next book project about Frank Lloyd Wright.

Photo by Michael Lionstar

Author's Statement

This is my second NEA literature fellowship. The first came ten years ago at a critical juncture of trying to finish a book about civil rights entitled Sons of Mississippi. This one comes at the start of a project and will enable me to explore on my own tensions about several American artists, and their angles of intersection, in a freeing kind of way that I might not otherwise feel were I bent over with book contracts and time constraints. I am at a late point in my career, and to have this luxury of exploration -- and the actual beginnings of the writing itself -- is something for which I feel immense gratitude. I hope many writers coming along in the years behind me will be able to avail themselves of similar opportunities under the sponsorship of a benevolent-minded and arts-conscious government agency.