A conversation with Seán Hemingway.
By Deborah Treisman, June 1, 2020
A story in this week’s issue, “Pursuit as Happiness,” will be included in a new edition of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” to be published by Scribner later this year. Can you explain why it was never published and how it was discovered (or rediscovered)?
The story is part of the Ernest Hemingway Collection at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum, in Boston, which is the most important repository of my grandfather’s manuscripts and papers. As I was preparing the new Hemingway Library Edition of “The Old Man and the Sea,” I carefully went through the rich archive of manuscripts, letters, photographs; fishing logs from my grandfather’s boat, the Pilar; and other ephemera at the Kennedy Library, with the help of the textual archivist, Stacey Chandler, and her colleagues. The story exists in a single typewritten manuscript with emendations in Hemingway’s hand. I was surprised and excited by it and thought it would make a wonderful addition to the new edition. Another copy of the manuscript exists in the Scribner Archive, at Princeton University, and came with the papers of Carlos Baker, who wrote a major biography of my grandfather. There is no indication as to when Baker acquired it and whether it was after Hemingway’s death, but that seems likely to me. Along with several autobiographical stories about the Second World War, it is one of the few Hemingway stories that was left unpublished. I am not sure why it received so little attention; it is a gem among the unpublished material in my grandfather’s personal papers.
The story is autobiographical: the narrator is referred to as “Ernest” and “Hemingway,” and he goes on a fishing trip with “Mr. Josie”—Hemingway’s name for his friend Joe Russell, with whom he fished in Cuba—and his first mate, Carlos Guttiérez. What made you conclude that the story was fiction and not a memoir?
Actually, I find it difficult to classify as fiction or nonfiction because much of the story is autobiographical, but I do prefer to think of it as fiction. It is carefully crafted and reads like a short work of fiction. As my grandfather wrote about his memoir “A Moveable Feast,” which he called fiction, a work of fiction may shed light on actual events.
How much of the story do you think was invented? Was it based on a particular experience Hemingway had—of hooking a giant marlin and losing it?
It is certainly possible that the story was inspired by a particular fishing trip in the summer of 1933, when the story is set, but in my opinion it was more likely inspired by several different experiences, to which the author has added fictional elements that improve upon the story.
The story is set against a backdrop of political strife in Havana. Mr. Josie has a couple of run-ins with the Cuban police—first, when one tries to take the fish that he and Hemingway have caught, and then when “one of those special Machado police” gets belligerent in a bar. Gerardo Machado’s government collapsed a few months after the events of the story. How important do you think that political setting was to Hemingway?
Hemingway witnessed plenty of the ugliness of that summer of 1933 in Cuba, including riots and the shooting in the streets of young activists protesting the Machado regime. To my mind, the political strife is not the focus of the story but the contrast with life ashore makes the happiness of fishing for marlin at sea all the more poignant. The giving away of all their catch to the locals adds purpose to their fishing pursuits, especially during that difficult summer.
The story is set in 1933, but you believe it was written years later. Do you know whether it dates to before “The Old Man and the Sea,” which Hemingway wrote in the early fifties, or if it could be considered in some way notes for the novella?
There are elements of the story that make it clear that Hemingway is writing it years later. I find it hard to pin down and would date its creation somewhere between 1936 and 1956, when he was working on the film of “The Old Man and the Sea.” I don’t see it in any way as notes for the novella, but I do think that it makes a strong companion piece, since it is also about setting out to catch a very large marlin, and it shows in different ways how difficult that undertaking is, even with modern fishing equipment, a motor boat, and several experienced fishermen.
The title was chosen by your uncle Patrick Hemingway. Where did it come from?
The manuscript is untitled. My uncle Patrick, Ernest Hemingway’s second son, chose the title, which is a section heading in my grandfather’s book “Green Hills of Africa.” Hemingway divided his nonfiction account of his African safari, which took place in the winter of 1933-34, not long after the setting of this story, into four sections. “Pursuit as Happiness” was the last and climactic section of the book. Hemingway adapted his fourth section title from a famous phrase in the United States Declaration of Independence: “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” I think it is a very apt title for this unpublished story, because it is not just about catching and losing a large marlin—in the same way that “The Old Man and the Sea” is not just about catching and losing a large marlin to sharks. It is about the joy of fishing and the happiness that it brings.
Deborah Treisman is The New Yorker’s fiction editor and the host of its Fiction Podcast.