American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (1937). The main plot of this novel by Ernest Hemingway* (1899-1961) deals with a Key West* charter-boat captain’s trips across the Florida Strait to Havana. Economic depression in the United States and political oppression in Cuba have widened the gap in both countries between those who have material means and those who have almost none. Hemingway’s allusion is to St. Matthew 13:12: “For whosoever hath, ... shall have more ... : but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.” One consequence of the pervasive misery is that the ninety-mile stretch of ocean between the deprived populations, a legal and a physical gulf, is exploited by the desperate as well as the greedy on both sides, in violent smuggling and revolutionary schemes. Cheated out of his honest livelihood, the self-sufficient captain gambles on covert ventures to feed his family. But by the end of a disastrous third trip he has lost everything.

“A man alone” has no chance (ch. 23), the captain concludes in a dying utterance at first seen to show Hemingway abandoning apolitical individualism for socialist collectivism. But if a person alone has no chance of gaining anything beyond wretched survival, neither do people banded together. Following a scene of human carnage on the captain’s boat in the middle of the Gulf Stream, a school of two-inch fish mills frantically around recurrent drops of blood in the water (ch. 20). The little fish of the human community, scrambling for minimum subsistence on both shores, mirror a mode of existence in marine species living collectively and by implication governing life within all such species in the natural world.

Moreover, the materially favored but morally deprived “haves” of the novel’s subplot are equally desperate emotionally, and the anxiety-ridden affluent ashore have their counterparts, too, beneath the boat, in a complex marine microcosm. Anxious dissatisfaction emerges as nature’s imperative for those who struggle together as well as those who struggle alone, for “haves” and “have-nots” alike. Thus, the sea’s portrayal in the novel urges alert readers to look beyond materialist interpretations of the captain’s last words.

The novel was adapted into a film starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in 1944.

Bickford Sylvester