One of the my favorite poems was inspired by Key West, Florida. It is Wallace Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West.” It starts:
She sang beyond the genius of the sea.
The water never formed to mind or voice,
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion
Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,
That was not ours although we understood,
Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.
I thought of it when I was there recently and, partially from it, wound up considering what I imagined was the fluidity of reputation and genius… and difference. And partially from two of the most beloved writers of the 20th century in the United States, Tennessee Williams and Ernest Hemingway, who, I knew, had both spent a good deal of time on the island. Hemingway for a decade from the late 1920s until the late 1930s; Williams from the early 1940s until his death a little more than forty years later.
The works of both writers remain wildly popular today, yet it is the Hemingway house people flock to, not Williams’. In the Courthouse Museum near Mallory Square, there is one room, with little apparatus, devoted to Williams’ paintings. Much more concerns Hemingway and there are signs of careful and considered curation. The Williams Museum close to the other end of Duval Street, is essentially one large room in a small house created and lovingly managed by one man, Dennis Beaver. He raced in to stow a plastic statue of a nude while we were there then disappeared in a continued rush. We were the only visitors, our tickets dispensed by a man who worked there one day a week. Beaver was the only active part of the place. The actual Williams house is a bit of a walk away–and you need to want to find it or you will never get there.
The house, still with distinctive red shutters on its white exterior, gives no indication that a superstar lived there for decades. The house next door sports a small plaque, “The Rose Tattoo,” having something to do with its role in the movie made from Williams’ play; the Williams house itself shows nothing.
It’s not even much of a house, admittedly. The gazebo is hidden by palms and the little out-building where Williams worked is also mainly out of sight. There’s nothing that sets the building apart from the others on the street and we were the only people paying any attention to it at all. I felt a little conspicuous when I snapped my picture.
The Hemingway house is another story. Not only is it a museum in its own right but it is a magnificent structure with lovely grounds–not to mention its 59 cats, many with six toes. It’s a world-famous tourist destination, and it has been so since the time the writer lived there, now so long ago. Visitors line up well before the house opens at nine each morning, cheerfully forking over $15 each for a guided tour and the chance to wander the grounds and pat the cats.
Who, by the way, have their own full-time veterinarian.
The crude brick wall surrounding the lot, so out of keeping with the craft of the rest of the place, was put up sometime in the 1930s by a Hemingway friend/employee in order to keep the growing number of gawkers at bay. The brilliant writer was someone to stare at even in the early days of his fame.
Hemingway became “Papa” in Key West, the great celebrity of the town. Williams reverted to “Tom,” his birth name, in order to remain inconspicuous. Hemingway’s six-toed cat Snowball, distinctive and the ancestor to many of the cats on the grounds today, is now legendary. Williams’ bulldogs, of a breed still quite popular on Key West, probably raised little comment then or interest now.
Hemingway was a large man, we know, while Williams was small, and Hemingway adored publicity for his person as much as for his work while Williams had good reason, in that homophobic time, for keeping his life private.
For all of their differences, the two shared a number of characteristics. They both made themselves into important features of their work, even when somewhat hidden. They each faced family disasters, alcoholism and mental illness. They worked alone (both in structures apart from their main houses) yet loved companionship. They both achieved their greatest fame, probably, as a result of the movies made from their work that still motivate new fans to explore their impressive bodies of literature.
One would think that, over the forty-plus years since Williams’ death and sixty-plus since Hemingway’s, the tide of the latter’s popularity would have ebbed a bit and that of Williams would have flowed in some, especially given the growing acceptance of homosexuality and the re-establishment of reputations harmed by sexual storms. But that has not happened. Yes, the oceans of culture swirling around Key West have changed a great deal of what is on the island, but they haven’t changed some aspects of the island’s nature–or the pride in Papa and the much more muted acceptance of Tom.
Key West, for all the changes it has seen and sees, provides something special for artists and lovers of beauty. The song Stevens heard on the beach is as myriad and common today as readings of his poem, of Williams’ plays, of Hemingway’s stories. The song, so open and embracing, allows listeners to make it their own, to find in it what they need and need to create. Hemingway got what he needed from Key West and the island still resonates with what he gave it. Not in return, not a quid pro quo, but a mutual embrace. What Williams wanted was a cordial handshake, a neighborly wave. Here, too, the island is still giving it to him and still resonates with the quieter gift he gave.
Our hotel was across the street from the Hemingway house. We saw the crowds, the traffic and could imagine Papa enjoying another repetition–for the tenth or twentieth time this very day–of the story of the penny his wife Pauline had embedded with the stones around the pool. The walk to Tom’s house (still a private residence) takes more than half an hour once one heads to it and leaves Old Town behind, taking you to a plainer, more relaxing, less traveled part of Key West where I, at least, could imagine our breathing getting easier and our steps less determined.
There’s no competition, I finally conclude as we walk back to the tourist mecca, between the two writers, not on Key West, at least. And no need for one. The island brings the writers together yet lets them live apart, each their own way, each one’s life and work heard individually, as in “The heaving speech of air, a summer sound/Repeated in a summer without end,” a sound or sounds that’s the sound of the island. Like Key West itself, the writers speak to each of us and let us speak as we will, no matter where we come from, not matter when we leave.
Like Key West, they live.