Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Hemingway's Cuban Home and Papers Endangered

Word comes from The Guardian that everything that Ernest Hemingway left behind in Cuba seems to be caught between a rock and a hard place at the moment. On the one hand, his home and possessions belong to a government and a country which can't afford (and may lack the will) to ensure that they are preserved for future generations. On the other, is a U.S. government whose economic sanctions against Cuba make it extremely difficult for help, in both money and skilled labor, to get from this country to the Hemingway home located 10 miles from Havana.

The dining room in Ernest Hemingway’s house

For the past two years, a group of American organisations has been working to restore the battered house and save the manuscripts and books. But US sanctions against Cuba have hindered the group's attempts to collaborate with the Cuban government. The Bush administration's response has been mixed, flitting between acquiescence and obstruction.
The house made the US National Trust for Historic Preservation list of 11 most endangered historic places in 2005, the first time a site outside the country has done so. The roof was sagging and there was mould on the walls. Parts of the ceiling were so close to collapse that furniture was put in storage.

That alerted Hemingway fans in the US - businessmen, actors and even congressmen - who offered to help. But the sanctions prevent Americans financing projects that might help the Cuban government. In this case, Cubans stand to gain from tourism revenue as Hemingway's house would be a big draw.

The Bush administration blocked direct financial aid, but issued a licence that allowed a visit to the island by US architects and construction specialists paid for by Hemingway devotees. With their help, the Cuban government went ahead with the project, and renovation of most of the house was completed in February.

But much of the rest of the estate remains in disrepair. An impressive tower next to the house is closed, Hemingway's fishing boat is shrouded in scaffolding, and red tiles are sliding off the roof of the termite-infested guesthouse. More importantly, the original manuscripts and books, which contain thousands of Hemingway's notes, are still at risk. The US government has blocked not only the money needed but specialist equipment such as dehumidifiers and scanning equipment.
The struggle started when Jenny Phillips, the granddaughter of Hemingway's editor, Max Perkins, visited Cuba in 2001 and was stunned by the importance of the collection and the dire state of the house. "This is the house that contains the most important legacy of Ernest Hemingway, and it really was falling apart." When she returned to the US, Ms Phillips founded the Hemingway Preservation Fund and began raising money and interest in repairing the house and saving the documents. She and others helped broker a deal between the US and Cuba in 2002 that allowed copies of the author's papers to be made and returned to the US, but the Treasury rejected an initial request for more direct collaboration.
Sympathisers include academics, writers and actors. The novelist Russell Banks started a literary campaign that gained the public support of John Irving, Norman Mailer and Salman Rushdie. The Sopranos star James Gandolfini turned up at one fund-raising event, according to Ms Stephens. Among politicians, Senator John McCain, a long-time Hemingway fan, has also helped.
The loss of so much Hemingway material would be a tragedy for the literary world and I'm surprised that someone in the Hemingway family has not tried to acquire the material by now or at least worked to make sure that it is properly treated and preserved. It is discouraging to see what can happen when politics end up in the middle of a project that requires little more than common sense. Since politics and common sense seldom mix, I'm not optimistic that all of this will have a happy ending. And the clock is ticking.


  1. We've got something in common, mate! I love Hemingway. I think he's one of the best writers ever so thank you so much for posting this article.

    By the way...we all seem obsessed with Harry Potter at the moment...and the more I think about it the more I wish I could have the book in my hand at this very moment...

  2. Glad you found the information interesting, bookclover. Thanks for stopping by and also for leaving the link back to your blog.