Ernest Hemingway is the most famous writer in American history. He is also one of the most misunderstood. According to many of his critics, and even some of his admirers, he was a conservative, or even apolitical. Carlos Baker, the first biographer of Hemingway, wrote that the American icon had a general instinct toward the theory that “he who governs least, governs best,” but had little interest in politics or actual governance, while Michael Reynolds, another biographer, goes to the lengths of calling Hemingway the “least overtly political writer of his generation.”
To miss Hemingway’s commitment to leftist politics requires intense discipline and myopia. Sources not exactly esoteric or obscure—Hemingway’s letters, along with the testimony of his family and friends—demonstrate that the great author was a passionate supporter of Eugene Debbs and Fidel Castro. A self-identified socialist throughout most of his life, and as Nicholas Reynolds proves in his book, Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy: Ernest Hemingway’s Secret Adventures, 1935-1961, an occasional spook on behalf of the Soviet Union. One of Hemingway’s first paying jobs as a writer was with the Co-Operative Society, an organization devoted to generating solidarity among farmers and laborers in support of workers’ rights, collective bargaining, and the labor movement more broadly. During World War II, he was a correspondent for an anti-fascist magazine, but not content to merely write about the war, Hemingway jumped into battle alongside American soldiers. A lifelong anti-fascist with communist sympathies doesn’t exactly gel with the popular depiction of Hemingway as an apolitical American individualist.
It is certainly true that Hemingway’s foremost subject matters were not sociopolitical, but for anyone willing to attend to the details of his stories, or in language he would appreciate, inspect the iceberg beneath the surface of the ocean, there is a rich world of antiwar, anti-colonial, and socialist politics. None of Hemingway’s work better captures his suspicion of capitalism, and his affection for the radical politics of the 1930s, than To Have and Have Not. Given the long relationship between crime writing and the underside of the American dream, it is apropos that To Have and Have Not is Hemingway’s only crime novel, and his only novel set in the United States.
Originally conceived as a series of interlocking and sequential short stories, Hemingway morphed the picaresque tales of Harry Morgan into a novel at his publisher’s insistence. He would always believe that his literary surrender was a mistake, inflicting irreparable damage on the story itself. To Have and Have Not’s conflicted reception from critics, and more importantly, any honest reading of the novel, justifies its author’s regrets. There are problems of pacing, and too many passages—likely the connective chapters Hemingway wrote to fill in the gaps of his standalone stories—read like unnecessary padding. As is the case with any great artist, Hemingway is his own worst enemy. An author responsible for multiple masterpieces (The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, The Old Man and the Sea, For Whom the Bell Tolls, the Nick Adams stories) sets a standard for his readers—reasonable or not—that anything even slightly less than excellent will fail to meet.
On its own merits, and despite its flaws, To Have and Have Not makes for an intriguing and fascinating reading experience. Hemingway imbues his tried and true plot device with subtle and thoughtful Marxist theory, dramatic exploration of capitalism’s failures, and of course, romance. Its protagonist, Harry Morgan, is an honest fishing boat captain in Key West, Florida, where Hemingway himself would famously live for ten years after moving back stateside from Europe. Morgan has an insecure and doting wife, Marie, who reveres Harry, even seeming to prioritize him above the care of their three daughters. When the Great Depression devastates the fishing market, Morgan is unprepared and ill-equipped to spare his family, and himself, from the traumas of extreme privation, especially after a wealthy businessman swerves Harry into taking him on a three week fishing trip, and leaves him high and dry without their agreed-upon compensation. A barren commercial landscape, and three weeks of wasted work and expenses, leaves Morgan desperate for financial relief. He is reluctant, but cannot say no when that relief comes in the form of an offer to transport illegal Chinese immigrants from Cuba to Florida.
Suspicious of the Chinese middleman, and fighting off overwhelming anxiety over betrayal and legal repercussions, Morgan murders the middleman, and fully transforms into an outlaw, moving alcohol, tobacco, and even Cuban revolutionaries from shore to shore. The prose is as hardboiled as the fugitives and killers Morgan meets in his illicit trade, and like any noir novel, things don’t end well.
To enter the world of To Have and Have Not is to occupy a no man’s land where, as the title would suggest, people fall into one of two categories of wealth, and where their entire existence is almost a consequence of their prosperity or precarity. Reading the novel is almost akin to an assault, in a good sense, because of the extent to which Hemingway succeeds in placing the reader into a thoroughly debased and inhumane milieu. Characters, as a function of the worldview that Hemingway depicts and condemns, are not human beings so much as they are functionaries of the market. Morgan and others think of whoever they meet solely in terms of transaction. References to racial minorities are replete with slurs, descriptions of Morgan’s associates are comprised of short, rudimentary labels (“rummy,” as an example), and one quickly learns that people have no identity or value beyond their material potential. A “have” is worthy of respect, and has a name, whereas the “have nots” are expendable, always at risk of elimination if they fail to widen a have’s profit margin.
An economic calculus seems to render humanity obsolete—a condition that Hemingway depicts brilliantly in a conversation between a Black worker that Morgan has hired to help who has been shot. Fearing his own death, he pleads in vain for Morgan to help:
“I hurt,” the n***** said. “I hurt worse all the time.”
“I’m sorry, Wesley,” the man said. “But I got to steer.”
“You treat a man no better than a dog,” then***** said. He was getting ugly now. But the man was still sorry for him.
“I’m going to make you comfortable, Wesley,” he said. “You lay quiet now.”
“You don’t care what happens to a man,” then***** said. “You ain’t hardly human.”
“I’m going to fix you up good,” the man said. “You just lay quiet.”
“You ain’t going to fix me up,” then***** said. The man whose name was Harry Morgan said nothing then because he liked then***** and there was nothing to do now but hit him, and he couldn’t hit him. Then***** kept on talking.
“Why didn’t we stop when they started shooting?”
The man did not answer.
“Ain’t a man’s life worth more than a load of liquor?”
The man was intent on his steering.
Even if Morgan “likes” Wesley, he is helpless to answer his simple questions, and more significantly, unable to offer any medical or even emotional comfort as he lay dying. The narration strips him of his personhood, reducing him to a cold, brutal epithet, and his protest is cast into oblivion. Morgan steers without breaking concentration when he hears, “Ain’t a man’s life worth more than a load of liquor?”
Morgan might have the inclination to answer in the affirmative, but in the context of the job, the commercial purpose has greater weight than any social or ethical concern. In a contemporary setting, one could ask if a man’s life is worth more than corporate profits as he is choking on air pollution or drinking contaminated water. One could ask if a man’s life is worth more than an insurance premium when he cannot afford proper medical care. One could then imagine the captain of the ship steering ahead with a blank, faraway stare.
Even the rare moments of affection in To Have and Have Not take place under an ominous shadow. Morgan and his wife, Marie, have a sexually intense relationship, allowing Hemingway to write surprisingly effective erotica under the constraints of 1930s mores. Their sensual bond, and Morgan’s repeated assurances to Marie, do nothing to assuage her feelings of insecurity resulting from her failure to lose weight after giving birth to three children in a relatively short period of time. While she wrestles with feelings of inadequacy, she also remains fixated on Harry’s conventional good looks. The sex appeal quotient gains power as Hemingway depicts Key West barflies ridiculing Mrs. Morgan for her ample body. Even in sexuality, and in a seemingly happy marriage, people are powerless against the “market standard,” and struggle to assert their own value, independent of judgements on utility.
Meanwhile, there are characters who have not only an intuitive, but intellectual understanding of the problems of their society, and how those problems manifest in the pain of ordinary people. Hemingway’s literary ability to cut to the quick of human truth, slicing away abstraction, and dishing out cold, hard substance made him a profoundly effective illustrator of political economy and Marxist theory in storytelling form. An exchange between a newly radicalized Harry Morgan and a disenfranchised worker in a Key West bar demonstrates Hemingway’s gift, along with the prescience of Marxist analysis on contemporary crises, such as gentrification:
“There ain’t any work,” I said. “There ain’t any work at living wages anywhere.”
“I don’t know.”
“Neither do I,” he said. “But my family is going to eat as long as anybody eats. What they’re trying to do is starve you Conchs out of here so they can burn down the shacks and put up apartments and make this a tourist town. That’s what I hear. I hear they’re buying up lots, and then after the poor people are starved out and gone somewhere else to starve some more they’re going to come in and make it into a beauty spot for tourists.”
“You talk like a radical,” I said
“I ain’t no radical,” he said. “I’m sore. I been sore a long time.”
The brilliance of Hemingway is to hide profundity within simple terms. “Sore” is the perfect description of Morgan’s condition, or the condition of many rejected and abandoned workers, but few writers would have the necessary clarity of vision to use it.
Later in the novel, Hemingway has Harry Morgan describe the inescapability of class deprivation with similarly straightforward, but elucidative terms: “Plenty in this town with their bellies hollering right now. But they’d never make a move. They’d just starve a little every day. They started starving when they were born; some of them.”
The problems of pacing that plague the second half of the novel diminish as Morgan reaches a tragic end, fitting for a Hemingway story. While it isn’t as devastating and effectual as the unforgettable finish to A Farewell to Arms, the conclusion of To Have and Have Not still packs a heavyweight punch. The bruise expands with the realization of political truth that Morgan has difficulty expressing.
As he lay dying from a gun shot wound to the gut, Morgan sputters the opening of what will become his last words, eerily becoming Wesley, the Black worker, that he once ignored. The captain of the boat trying to transport him to receive help, along with the crew, have no idea what he is trying to say, and are even more confused when he finally releases his dying declaration: “No matter how a man alone ain’t got no bloody fucking chance.”
With his last breath, Morgan offers a blunt force renunciation of American individualism. The denial of a social compact leaves Harry bleeding out alone, surrounded by indifference to his final words. Hemingway’s narrator tells the readers that it took him a long time to get those words out, and a lifetime to learn them. Hemingway was responding to the Great Depression when he authored To Have and Have Not, but one cannot help but apply Morgan’s hard earned, socialistic wisdom to modern times. Man alone doesn’t have a chance against a pandemic. Man alone doesn’t have a chance against climate change. Man alone doesn’t have a chance against extreme wealth inequality, and the escalation of poverty that accompanies it.
One of the most effective purveyors of the individualistic myth is Hollywood. It seems ironic that the big capitalist machine of American cinema would clamor to adapt To Have and Have Not, but it has happened multiple times. The most famous film version of Hemingway’s socialistic novel is the first, starring the smoldering duo of Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart. A film producer who knew Hemingway personally tried to convince him to write the screenplay, but the author declined, keeping with his lifelong contempt of the film industry, and dislike of movies more generally.
It might have seemed particularly irritating to Hemingway that his literary rival, William Faulkner, cowrote the screenplay, and mangled the story beyond recognition. Bogart’s Harry Morgan is a valorous, but greedy fishing boat captain who reluctantly helps the anti-fascist resistance in France. Marie, expertly played by Lauren Bacall, is a jazz singer who he meets in a hotel bar. Their love affair is the main focus of the film. If a viewer enters the motion picture without any expectations of fidelity to the novel, To Have and Have Not is entertaining, especially as it finds vitality in the chemistry of its two leads. The sultry quality of Bogart and Bacall’s interplay is best accessible in the film’s most famous line. While giving Bogart a come hither gaze, and instructing him to whistle for her should he desire to see her again, Bacall says, “You know how to whistle, don’t you? You just put your lips together, and blow.”
The director of Bogart’s best film, Casablanca, Michael Curtiz, directed the second adaptation, The Breaking Point. An admirer of the novel with a desire to correct the bastardization of the first film version, Curtiz remained faithful to Hemingway’s source material. It was a decision that pleased the author, leading him to tell a friend that the movie “suited him,” which is probably the kindest appraisal he ever offered a Hollywood film. The critical consensus is that The Breaking Point is a less famous, but better film than To Have and Have Not. While it is certainly a smarter and more realistic movie, it lacks the entertainment value of Bogart and Bacall’s star powered delivery. Viewers looking to spend an afternoon with a classic can decide if they want a simple, but fun popcorn experience, or a sharper and deeper film that lacks the pizazz and sex appeal of its counterpart.
The less that is said about the third adaptation, The Gun Runners, a truly awful exercise in Hollywood frivolity, the better.
To Have and Have Not, the novel, will never acquire the legendary status of Hemingway’s better work, even if it had a few notable champions, such as Curtiz and Raymond Chandler, who although not fond of Hemingway, thought it was an outstanding crime story. Most biographers depict it as a failed diversion, but to those looking to understand and appreciate the great American author’s oeuvre, it possesses profound implications and underrated importance.
Just as one can gather insight into Hemingway’s exploration of alienation through a reading of The Sun Also Rises, or his romantic stoicism with The Old Man and the Sea, a reader can begin to discover the influence of Hemingway’s leftist politics by beginning with To Have and Have Not. After learning how Morgan comes to recognize the veracity of Marx’s criticism of capitalism, the solidarity with the underclass in “The Killers,” “The Battler,” and other stories suddenly becomes more salient. The anti-war current running through A Farewell to Arms, with a spotlight on class distinctions, becomes more easily detectable after a close reading of To Have and Have Not, and the warning against American fascism growing out of opposition to New Deal liberalism in For Whom the Bell Tolls becomes much more urgent and prescient.
Gore Vidal believed that Norman Mailer’s novel, Barbary Shore, was unfairly maligned due to its articulation of left wing politics, and Vidal’s own novel, The City and the Pillar, was on the receiving end of one of the worst ostracization campaigns in literary history, because of its sympathetic presentation of homosexual passion. It doesn’t require the paranoia of a conspiracy theorist to wonder if some of the harsh condemnation of To Have and Have Not was more political than artistic. Given the “better dead than red” politics of the press and the major political parties of the 1930s, many scholars and biographers might have preferred an American icon in Ernest Hemingway who was not a radical, who did not support Eugene Debs and Fidel Castro, and who did not create a Marxist allegory out of his only US-set novel.
Hemingway never returned to the crime novel after To Have and Have Not, and he would never make a political statement as direct and confrontational, but his misunderstood 1937 novel, despite the protests of his critics, is an unlikely touchstone for his triumphant career.