Hemingway, Bishop and Key West: Two Writers’ Perspectives


by Thomas Travisano

The poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) was once considered a comparatively isolated figure. Because she shunned labels and avoided becoming identified with well-publicized literary movements, she was once considered—as David Kalstone wrote in 1977— a “hard [writer] to ‘place.’” However, as her posthumous fame has grown and she has not only reached “major” status but become the subject of intensive research by a full scale Bishop “industry,” her close connections with a wide range of writers and artists, including such poets as Marianne Moore, Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell, May Swenson, James Merrill, Pablo Neruda, and Octavio Paz, such fiction writers as Mary McCarthy and Flannery O’Connor, such visual artists as Alexander Calder and Loren McIver, and such musicians as Billie Holiday and Elliott Carter have become increasingly well understood. Yet despite Bishop steadily rising posthumous fame, the close research her work has attracted, and the celebratory occasions devoted to her poems, prose and letters throughout this (her centennial) year, Bishop’s intriguing interactions with Ernest Hemingway, a figure who might at first seem antithetical to Bishop as a writer and as a person, have remained largely unrecognized and unexplored. Still, I would suggest that while the differences between Hemingway and Bishop are real enough, their points of contact are surprisingly many and surprisingly close—in fact, more manifold and more significant than I would have suspected when I first began my investigations. However, once one begins to consider them, these points of connection become not only surprisingly obvious but surprisingly telling as well.

During the course of this brief outline of the common ground over which Bishop and Hemingway so often traveled, I will be looking at four primary factors: geography (particularly the geography of Key West), biography (particularly through Bishop’s close friendships with Hemingway’s ex-wife Pauline and sister-in-law Jinny Pfeiffer), writerly raw material (particularly the world of sea and shoreline), and artistic approach (particularly the commitment of both writers to a deliberate submission to craft and a dedication to the power of close observation and understatement). Bishop and Hemingway also shared a love of travel, adventure, and emotional risk, as well as a dispensation toward alcoholism and a propensity for depression—a propensity that was, in Hemingway’s case, actually fatal. Indeed, when she got the news of Hemingway’s death in 1961 she wrote sympathetically to her friend Pearl Kazin, “I feel dreadful about the Hemingway [suicide] — he must really have been half out of his head for some time, don’t you think?” It’s possible that they never met—no confirmation has yet turned up— and of course, since Hemingway was a dozen years older than Bishop and vastly more famous, the connection was largely one-sided. Indeed, since she arrived in Key West in 1938, just as Hemingway’s marriage was breaking up and he was leaving Pauline and 907 Whitehead Street behind, Bishop experienced (along with many others) the extraordinary awareness of living not so much in Hemingway’s shadow as traveling in his wake.

As a first step in studying the Bishop-Hemingway connection, let us turn to a series of remarks made by Bishop herself. In a 1964 letter to her first biographer, Anne Stevenson, Bishop speaks of her wide range of extremely funny friends—including E. E. Cummings, Marianne Moore and her Brazilian lover Lota de Macedo Soares. Yet she describes her Key West neighbor, “Pauline Hemingway (the 2nd Mrs H) a good friend until her death in 1951,” as “the wittiest person, man or woman, I have ever known.” Moreover, she not only knew Pauline well, but lived for a time in Hemingway’s former studio in the Hemingway house in Key West. In a letter to Robert Lowell from 1947, Bishop vividly describes the famous swimming pool of which Ernest is alleged to have claimed that it cost him “his last penny”:

The swimming pool is wonderful—it is very large and the water, from away under the reef, is fairly salt. Also it lights up at night—I find that each underwater bulb is five times the voltage of the one bulb in the light house across the street, so the pool must be visible to Mars—it is wonderful to swim around in a sort of green fire, one’s friends look like luminous frogs.

In that 1964 letter to Anne Stevenson, Bishop notes that:

Pauline Hemingway … sent my first book to Ernest in Cuba. He wrote her he liked it, and, referring to “The Fish,” I think, “I wish I knew as much about it as she does.” Allowing for exaggeration to please his ex-wife—that remark has really meant more to me than any amount of praise in the quarterlies.

She then adds the following remarkable comment about her own complex response to Hemingway:

I know that underneath it, Mr. H and I were really a lot alike. I like only his short stories and first two novels—something went tragically wrong with him after that—but he had the right idea about lots of things. (Not about shooting animals. I used to like deep-sea fishing too, and still go out once in a while, but without much pleasure, & in my younger tougher days I liked bull-fights, but I don’t think I could sit through one now.)

It seems to me that—along with the acknowledged differences— Bishop is right in hinting at certain deep and underlying connections between them as writers and people. What Bishop seems to treasure in Hemingway’s remark to his ex-wife is his praise of her knowledge of “The Fish,”—“I wish I knew as much about it as she does”— and she seems right to suggest that they shared the view that profound knowledge of a thing—based on close and concentrated observation—is the backbone of literary art. Bishop makes this figure literal in her poem “The Fish,” where she not only describes the surface of her “enormous” catch in remarkable detail, but also its interior, including its skeletal structure:

    the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.

Indeed, when Bishop completed “The Fish,” which would become, for a long time her most famous poem, she wrote to Marianne Moore with characteristic modesty, that “I am sending you a real ‘trifle’”—a word that she interestingly places in quotation marks. “I am afraid it is very bad and, if not like Robert Frost, perhaps like Ernest Hemingway. I left the last line on it so it wouldn’t be, but I don’t know…” (One Art, 87) The last line, of course, is “And I let the fish go.” It is tempting to suggest that Bishop’s remarkable “modesty” about her life and work, very much like Hemingway’s equally remarkable immodesty, was a product of a deep-seated and ineradicable insecurity, and this is yet another point of connection.

Ernest and Pauline Hemingway at their house in Key West, Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Museum

Bishop shared Hemingway’s obsession with presenting complex experience in simple words, and she also shares with him a sense of the value of what is left unsaid. In fact, what Hemingway’s states about prose in Death in the Afternoon applies exactly to Bishop’s verse: “If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.” Bishop’s masterly letters convey decisively the depth of what she knew through close observation—only a small fraction of which found its way into her poetry—and this helps to explain why there are so very few (if any) hollow places in her writing. Just before the paragraph in her 1940 letter in which Bishop offers Marianne Moore her poetic “’trifle’” “The Fish,” she observes what she calls a characteristic Key West story: “The other day I went to the china closest to get a little white bowl to put some flowers in and when I was rinsing it I noticed some little black specks. I said to Mrs. Almyda [her housekeeper], ‘I think we must have mice’ but she took the bowl over to the light and studied it and after a while she said, ‘No, them’s lizard’.” Bishop’s image as a quaint and lady-like master dies hard, but it’s difficult not to think that Hemingway would have enjoyed this piece of domestic scatology even more than would Marianne Moore.

In Bishop’s own early poem “The Imaginary Iceberg,” published in 1935, just three years after Death in the Afternoon, Bishop observes that “This iceberg cuts its facets from within.” For both writers, the iceberg is a metaphor for the vast potential scope and impact of literary creation and for the origins of writing in observation and in the deep and peculiar hermeticism of craft. Taking things a step further, an argument can be made that Bishop’s mature verse style grows to a significant extent out of the assimilation of important elements of prose. So far, drawing on a notable Bishop essay, most critics (including myself) have explored Bishop’s affinity for 17th century masters of the baroque style in prose—a style that also interested Hemingway. However, the influence of contemporary prose writers on Bishop was arguably just as great, and one of the prose writers most likely to have anticipated and influenced the famously “reticent” Bishop’s style in verse was Ernest Hemingway, who went before her in articulating and putting into practice an artistic “theory of omission.” Bishop told an interviewer in 1978 that “The greatest challenge, for me, is to try and express difficult thoughts in plain language. I prize clarity and simplicity. I like to present complicated or mysterious ideas in the simplest way possible. This is a discipline which many poets don’t see as important as I do.” Yet Hemingway clearly shared that discipline and on this level, too, the author of “The Fish” and the author of “Big Two-Hearted River,” that “simple” tale of fishing and not fishing, are “really a lot alike.”

Their proximity of style is linked to a proximity of subject matter. Bishop moved away from the peculiar and powerful “fables of enclosure”—such as “The Man-Moth” and “The Imaginary Iceberg”— that marked her early style just as she was moving to Key West, and it was in Florida and Key West, that she rather suddenly discovered the mature poetic style that she would exemplify for the rest of a career ending in 1979, a style which—as I have noted—was marked by close observation, carefully selected detail, and deliberate omission.

Bishop began exploring Florida in the mid-1930s and, after a brief visit to Key West in 1936, she returned to settle there in 1938, when—as I have also noted— Hemingway’s marriage to his second wife Pauline Pfeiffer was hitting the rocks and he was finding a new life in Cuba with Martha Gellhorn. From 1938, living much of the year in Key West for more than a decade, Bishop could not help but be acutely aware of Hemingway’s lingering presence, both through her friendship with Pauline and through Ernest’s famous association with the island. By 1940, Bishop had become a close enough friend to Pauline that Bishop could spend many visits studying what she called “that wonderful Miró Farm” that the Hemingways owned “with everything in it, trees, hens fences, etc., and a dog barking at footprints.” The Hemingway home had been named in a tourist brochure in 1935, and it quickly became a magnet for annoying visitors. Bishop recalled in a 1954 letter that during her stay in the Hemingway house in 1947 “I had to chase tourists out of the front yard all the time.” Yet Bishop lived in Key West in almost total obscurity—local historian Tom Hambright testifies that Bishop received nary a mention in the Key West newspapers during her decade-long stay on the island—and it was only in 1993 that her former house on 624 White Street received a historical plaque in her honor. The present owner of this house tells me that he does now receive the attentions of unwanted visitors, though he did graciously grant me a look around rather than chase me away.

624 White Street, Key West, Key West Library

Yet Bishop’s obscurity had its advantages. Bishop not only enjoyed more of the peace and quiet that a writer requires, but the intensely private Bishop could see Key West life from a different perspective than could the intensely public Hemingway. If Hemingway lived in a fishbowl, Bishop stayed under the radar, and it is clear that she preferred it that way. Indeed, a gay poet could stay under the radar in Key West far better than in the most places in America in that date and time.

Yet so many things in Key West seemed tinctured with the Hemingway aura, even as the living representatives of that aura were aging or passing on. For instance in a 1941 letter she mentions to a friend that “Sloppy Joe [Russell] died very suddenly while he was visiting Hemingway in Havana. They closed the bar for a few days, and hung those awful palm branches and purple ribbons on the doors. Now young Joe is running it…” In 1947, Bishop wrote to her friend Robert Lowell, also a fisherman, about her experiences with a fishing boat captain, Eddie “Bra” Saunders, who had previously gone out many times with Hemingway himself:

I have been fishing twice with hand lines off the dock—but caught nothing. I started to go out deep-sea fishing once…. with an old, old captain I’d gone out with for years. He has ‘failed’ a great deal and almost before we were out to sea the boat started smoking, the engine got red hot, we were in danger of blowing up, etc—in the midst of it all, Capt. Bra lit up a cigarette and looked very remote. We finally got in safely but it was quite exciting. Someone said, ‘Oh Bra would like to do nothing better these days than take on a large good-paying party and head out to the gulf and never come back’—but I don’t want to be in on his Viking funeral. Ernest Hemingway got a lot of stories from him—he is someone you could write about—better than Ernest, certainly better than me.

However, despite Bishop’s compliment to her talented friend Lowell, it seems that it was her own and Hemingway’s eye and ear that were most attuned to the world represented by Captain Bra. In fact, as Lowell himself self-deprecatingly noted early in their correspondence in an “envious” comment on Bishop’s poem “At the Fishhouses” (1947), “I’m a fisherman myself, but all my fish became symbols, alas!”

In a December 1952 letter to Pearl Kazin, Bishop enthusiastically greeted the appearance of Hemingway’s late masterwork The Old Man and the Sea, though with characteristically mordant reservations, observing that “I…liked most of it—all except about six of his really horrible lapses —enormously. Such a wonderful sense of the sea and space, etc.” In her praise of the book’s sense of the sea and space, surely she had in mind such passages as this, in which the old fisherman Santiago, after two days and a night of silent and solitary battle with the gigantic marlin he has hooked, for the first time sees the great fish break water:

The line rose slowly and steadily and then the surface of the ocean bulged ahead of the boat and the fish came out. He came out unendingly and water poured from his sides. He was bright in the sun and his head and back were dark purple and in the sun the stripes on his sides showed wide and a light lavender. His sword was as long as a baseball bat and tapered like a rapier and he rose his full length from the water and then re-entered it, smoothly, like a diver and the old man saw the great scythe-blade of his tail go under and the line commenced to race out.

Bishop’s too had “a wonderful sense of the sea and space, etc,” and in many passages, such as the opening lines of “Seascape,” she parallels Hemingway’s brilliance, color, and scope. Here, though, the tone is lighter and more playful, since Bishop’s flying birds and rising fish are enjoying their apparent freedom, while Hemingway’s fisherman and fish are caught, inexorably, at opposite ends of 300 fathoms and more of taut and heavy fish line. Bishop’s poem begins:

This celestial seascape, with white herons got up as angels,
flying high as they want and as far as they want sidewise
in tiers and tiers of immaculate reflections;
the whole region, from the highest heron
down to the weightless mangrove island
with bright green leaves edged neatly with bird-droppings
like illumination in silver,
and down to the suggestively Gothic arches of the mangrove roots
and the beautiful pea-green back-pasture
where occasionally a fish jumps, like a wildflower
in an ornamental spray of spray;
this cartoon by Raphael for a tapestry for a Pope:
it does look like heaven….

Playful indeed—yet dazzling. However, near the end of a poem like “At the Fishhouses,” Bishop can achieve a somber intensity that rivals Hemingway as her speaker peers down into the frigid waters off the shoreline of Nova Scotia:

I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same,
slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones,
icily free above the stones,
above the stones and then the world.
If you should dip your hand in,
your wrist would ache immediately,
your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.

Lowell, in his 1947 praise of “At the Fishhouses” and his humorous disparagement of his own early style, puts his finger unerringly on a key aspect of Bishop’s technique that she shared with Hemingway (and that Lowell would learn over the next decade), the gift of permitting the symbolic significance of an object to arise only gradually out of a slow, steady, carefully selected accumulation of precise detail. Hemingway, responding to widespread discussion of the symbolism The Old Man and the Sea, made his position clear in a 1954 comment in Time:

No good book has ever been written that has in it symbols arrived at beforehand and stuck in. … I tried to make a real old man, a real boy, a real sea and a real fish and real sharks. But if I made them good and true enough they would mean many things.

Bishop outlined her own view in a 1948 essay on Marianne Moore, where she praises Moore’s work for its precise and surprising powers of accumulative observation and for “its steady aura of reserve and having possibly more meanings in reserve.” There Bishop cites Poe’s essay “Philosophy of Composition” as a warrant for reserving the emergence of thematic or symbolic meaning until a work draws to its close.

It would be intriguing to consider many other potential parallels, such as the competing veins of stoicism and epicureanism in both writers. There are similarly intriguing parallels between the luminous and pain-filled stories and memoirs of Bishop’ early childhood experience in Nova Scotia and Worcester and Hemingway’s spare and luminous writings, in In Our Time and elsewhere, based on his childhood experience in the big woods and on the big waters of Northern Michigan. However, given Bishop’s affinity for the stylistic possibilities of Hemingway’s famous “iceberg theory,” let us close by looking at the affinity of Hemingway’s work for one of Bishop’s own aesthetic formulations. In the important but (characteristically) untitled and unpublished essay beginning with the words “Writing poetry is an unnatural act,” Bishop immediately follows with the words: “It takes great skill to make it seem natural. Most of the poet’s energies are directed toward this goal: to convince himself (perhaps with luck, eventually some readers) that what he’s up to and what he’s saying is really an inevitable, only natural way of behaving under the circumstances.” The unnatural effort and craft required to make writing seem natural—this seems to me a formulation to which Hemingway would readily subscribe. Bishop then goes on state that “The three qualities I admire in the poetry I like best are: Accuracy, Spontaneity, Mystery.” These seem to me core characteristics of Hemingway as well. The prose writer who authored “A Clean Well Lighted Place” and “Hills Like White Elephants” and the poet who authored “In the Waiting Room” and “One Art” were masters of an exacting craft and made the unnatural seem natural with an accuracy and spontaneity that remains the keenest of artistic mysteries.

About the Author:

Thomas Travisano is the Chair of the Department of English & Theatre Arts at Hartwick College.  He specializes in modern and contemporary American literature and in American poetry. He is particularly well known for his critical and editorial work on the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979), Robert Lowell (1917-1977), and the poets of their generation. Along with many articles, he has published such books as Elizabeth Bishop: Her Artistic Development  and Midcentury Quartet: Bishop, Lowell, Jarrell, Berryman and the Making of a Postmodern Aesthetic.