American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

KEY WEST LITERATURE. Key West, Florida, occupies a singular place in American geography and letters. Though just a tiny island (one mile by three in area, population 25,000, twenty-two feet at its highest point) at the southernmost end of U.S. Highway 1, one of forty-two other dots making up the Florida Keys, its secluded, but strategic, location and its tropical allure have not only inspired a number of notable works, such as Ernest Hemingway’s* To Have and Have Not (1937) and Wallace Stevens’* widely anthologized poem “The Idea of Order in Key West” (1935), but also aided its development as a literary gathering place and home to many well-known writers over the course of the twentieth century.

The earliest known mention of Key West in literature appears in the journals of naturalist John James Audubon* (“Death of a Pirate,” in Ornithological Biography, 1832). A minor sea novel by James Fenimore Cooper* is Jack Tier (1847), whose protagonist is assigned to a navy ship that spends some time in the waters near Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas, some seventy miles west of Key West. Fort Jefferson, begun as a Mexican War fortification in 1846, was completed on the eve of the Civil War. Soon a federal prison, its most notable inmate was Dr. Samuel Mudd, the doctor who set John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg following the Lincoln assassination.

However, the development of Key West in American letters came relatively late. Novelist John Dos Passos, who visited Key West in the early 1920s and was taken by the easy availability of Prohibition-era liquor as well as the bountiful big-game fishing in the nearby Gulf Stream, is generally credited with popularizing the island with other writers. Though Hemingway, who went to Key West at Dos Passos’ behest and lived there from 1928 until 1939, has become most synonymous with the place and its rough-and-tumble qualities, other notable residents drawn during the first half of the twentieth century include Stevens, Robert Frost,* Thornton Wilder, Archibald MacLeish,* Elizabeth Bishop,* and Tennessee Williams.*

While many of these writers were content primarily to live in, and enjoy, Key West, a number were to make substantive use of characteristic themes and aspects of the place in their works: a number of the poems in Bishop’s first collection, North and South (1946), examine tropical sensuality and life on the sea; Stevens’ poem is an intense meditation on the interaction between the mythic nature of the tropics and the writer’s ordering consciousness; and Hemingway’s first “Key West” novel, To Have and Have Not* (1937), concerns the efforts of maverick Harry Morgan to run rum and Chinese nationals into Cuba. While there is no record of the ill-fated Hart Crane’s* ever having lived in Key West, a number of his poems composed in 1930-1932 and intended for publication in a volume entitled Key West suggest, at the very least, his intimate knowledge of, and fascination with, the place.

Such constants as the surrounding waters, the relative solitude, the tropical lassitude and languor (and the attendant, inexorable decay), the natural beauties of sun and sea, and the mystical quality of “island-ness” are observed by nearly all the writers who have set work here. As a town situated literally at “the end of the line,” as well as at the edge of the continent, Key West has also attracted its share of drifters and grifters, outlaws and outcasts, immigrants and dreamers. One of the most notorious of the many con men in Key West history, New Deal relief official Julius F. Stone was immortalized in Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not as latter-day carpetbagger Frederic Harrison. Much of the work produced by writers during the second half of the twentieth century reflects a characteristic sense of cultural diversity, individualism, and, often, outright suspicion of such concepts as governmental regulation, societal convention, even law and order.

Possibly the best-known Key West novel of this era is Thomas McGuane’s Ninety-two in the Shade (1973), the story of a young man’s effort to regain his sense of identity by returning to the quirky, but bountiful, place of his formative years. Perhaps the most ambitious is Thomas Sanchez’s Mile Zero (1989), a sprawling epic that details the development of the island from its very beginnings, including the lives of slave traders, pirates,* sponge divers, cigar makers, turtlers, shark hunters, and other colorful types who are part of the mythos of the place.

McGuane set another book in Key West, Panama (1978). Other contemporary novelists who have made use of the place include Jim Harrison in A Good Day to Die (1973), David Kaufelt in American Tropic (1986), and Alison Lurie in The Truth about Lorin Jones (1988) and The Last Resort (1998). Recently, mystery novelists have been drawn to the island, notably James W. Hall (Bones of Coral [1991]), John Leslie (Killing Me Softly [1994]; Night and Day [1995]), Tom Corcoran (Mango Opera [1998]), and Laurence Shames (Mangrove Squeeze [1998]).

In addition, highly regarded fiction writer Joy Williams (Escapes [1989]) has set several of her short stories in Key West, and John Hersey* (Key West Tales [1994]) did the same; nonfiction writers Hunter S. Thompson (A Generation of Swine [1988]) and Jonathan Raban (Hunting Mister Heartbreak [1991]) found much on the island for their idiosyncratic turns of mind to ponder. Many of the country’s finest poets, including John Ciardi, John Malcolm Brinnin, James Merrill, Judith Kazantzis, and national laureate Richard Wilbur have lived and set work there over the past half century.

Though writers and residents of every stripe bemoan the ever-increasing pace of development within the fabled city, the ever-growing crowds of tourists, and the ever-diminishing returns from the sea itself, the sun still shines, the Gulf Stream still flows, and the island still rests at the veritable end of the road. So long as these verities hold, there is always likely to be a literature of Key West.

FURTHER READING: Altobello, Patricia, and Deirdre Pierce. Literary Sands of Key West. Washington, DC: Starrhill, 1996; Kaufelt, Lynn Mitsuko. Key West Writers and Their Houses. Englewood, FL: Pineapple, 1986; Murphy, George, ed. The Key West Reader. Key West: Tortugas, 1989; Williams, Joy. The Florida Keys: A History and Guide. New York: Random, 1986.

Les Standiford