Hemingway's Key West and a Thriving Literary Arts Scene
By Shayne Benowitz
Key West has long been a place where creative people flourish. Every July, the city celebrates one of their own, Ernest Hemingway. Plus, a January seminar regularly draws Pulitzer and National Book Award winners and poet laureates.
Key West – A few steps off bustling Duval Street, through a yard overgrown with banyan and palm trees and flowering hibiscus, a craft beer and wine bar occupies a sea foam-green mansion.
On this night at the Porch, a burlesque troupe in bustiers, fishnets and feather boas stands for drinks alongside a boat crew straight from the docks still wearing board shorts and flip-flops, their skateboards in tow. Mingling among them, made conspicuous by their ordinary dress, are some locals and tourists.
No one is surprised by the pastiche. Everyone seems to know each other; or will by the end of the night.
"You can do whatever you want to do here without feeling inhibited," said Porch co-owner
Chris Shultz – a publisher, filmmaker and co-author of the popular book Quit Your Job and Move to Key West. "I've lived in a lot of cities and this is the only place where I feel like you can have an idea and no one pooh-poohs it. It's a supportive small town with the attributes of a big city. It's like Never-Never land. It's a magical place."
Key West has long been a place where creative people have flourished. Robert Frost, Tennessee Williams, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop and Richard Wilbur found inspiration here. Judy Blume, Annie Dillard, James Gleick and Laurent de Brunhoff call the island home today.
And every July, Key West throws a six-day party to celebrate its most famous resident, Nobel Prize winner Ernest Hemingway, who lived here throughout the 1930s.
Hemingway's time here was prolific. He wrote five novels, including A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls and To Have and Have Not, which was set in Key West. In this excerpt, he described the city from a boat approaching shore:
"Then we came to the edge of the stream and the water quit being blue and was light and greenish and inside I could see the stakes on the Eastern and Western Dry Rocks and the wireless masts at Key West and the La Concha hotel up high out of all the low houses."
The picture is still accurate.
Hemingway established a routine of rising early to write. Afternoons were spent sport-fishing, and evenings he could be found at his friend Joe Russell's bar on Greene Street (now Captain Tony's) before it moved to the Duval Street location where Sloppy Joe's is today. The home he occupied on Whitehead Street is now the Hemingway Home & Museum, open for daily tours.
"(Key West) is an ideal place for writers," said Lynn Kaufelt, president of the Key West Literary Seminar, in her book Key West Writers and Their Houses. "(It's) a Technicolor place, remote from modern-day pressures, redolent of old-time adventure and romance."
Kaufelt's annual seminar, which has been going on for more than 30 years, is two independent four-day sessions of readings, lectures, panel discussions, dinners, cocktail parties and a writing workshop. The upcoming seminar includes Pulitzer and National Book Award winners such as Joyce Carol Oates.
Billy Collins, two-term United States poet laureate, first attended the seminar in 2003 and has missed only one since.
The regular backdrop for this literary mecca is the United States' Southernmost City, where sunset is celebrated nightly at Mallory Square and snorkeling and fishing conditions are ideal year round. The island's location at the end of the road coupled with its anything-goes attitude continues to draw more than 2 million tourists annually while supporting a local population of about 25,000.
Arlo Haskell, a Key West native, poet and small press publisher, says, "What's most important is that we don't lose sight of the need to continue making history, and that happens writer by writer, by perseverance, chance and coincidence. Cultural organizations and creative people have an obligation to Key West by continuing to offer a unique experience of American life.
If You Go
The Hemingway Days Celebration in 2013 is July 16-21 at various locations throughout Key West. Events include a Hemingway look-a-like contest, a marlin tournament and the announcement of the winner of the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Contest.
For more information, visit www.fla-keys.com/hemingwaymedia/ or call 1-800-FLA-KEYS
Shayne Benowitz is a freelance travel and lifestyle writer based in Miami Beach.