"Did You Know He Had Cats?": On The Hemingway House and Humanizing the Literary Elementals

Literary adventures were farther afield than usual this week, as I built an artificial spring break into my non-academic schedule and traveled to Key West with CJ Hauser. CJ brought six books on a six-day vacation and then proceeded to neatly work her way through them; amazing as usual. I read along behind her in her beach library, Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists and Lauren Groff’s Florida (does it count as a #galleybrag if it was someone else’s galley?). I’ll always associate those books with the Keys, but our most place-specific venture was, inevitably, touring the Hemingway House.  

Though I’ve never traveled specifically to visit a writer’s home museum, I always enjoy them when I get the chance. I visited several in Russia, most memorably Alexander Pushkin’s (years later, though years before today, I wrote a frantic essay-thing about it here), and Emily Dickinson’s in Amherst. I grew up almost within shouting distance of CJ’s so-far favorite, the Mark Twain House in Hartford, but have somehow managed not to make it so far. I did grow up going periodically to tour Newport mansions, and then worked in college as a tour guide. So in addition to the creative-rhetorical magic for a student of writing to see a mythological figure humanized, I appreciate the selective sculpting narrative—and the patter—of a good tour. For better and for worse, writer’s home tours are also more interesting the more famous an author was during their lifetime—the earlier in the estate-planning process someone had an inkling that people would pay to see their stuff, the richer and more affecting their shrine-museum.

When we walk into a home museum, we’re looking for connection. Iconic and located on a small island more focused on general relaxation than on acute attractions, the Hemingway House walks a tough rhetorical knife’s edge—tours are a mix of folks who don’t have a particular interest in literature, diehard fans there to worship Papa, and one-foot-in folks who grate against elements of his work and worldview and arrive with side-eyes in place. (Present.) All three groups might contain international tourists who aren’t fluent in English. (It’s also a private, for-profit attraction, and I did not notice any particular effort to restrict tour size. We went very early in the day, and I can’t imagine what the crowds are like by mid-afternoon.) Like any writer’s home museum, the Hemingway House deepens its subject’s mythology—the polydactyl cats everywhere; the home office decorated as though he’d just stepped out; the penny pressed into concrete by the pool as a souvenir of a fight with his wife. And it confuses that mythology as well, finding a condensed line of best (most positive) fit through a problematic life; hosting weekly weddings on the grounds of a four-times-married misogynist; coaxing the cats with treats to lounge where they’ll be most photogenically evocative of a writer’s cozy humanity.

A well-run writer’s museum creates a branded, dynamic avatar of the writer—again for better or for worse, for a long-lived legacy or a loss of the person to the business. More than anything they give us characters to imagine, alongside and within their work—home museums let us feel we know famous and infamous writers as people, not just mythological whirlwinds who spun through history and delivered books like literary elementals. It’s powerful for a young and/or emerging writer to see where Dickinson, Pushkin, Hemingway, or Twain wrote. It’s also powerful to see their bathrooms. And in Hemingway’s case, certainly one of the reasons the cats are so popular is that they humanize a figure so removed from tourists in time, experience, and in many cases ideology that he can be hard to conceptualize. (The cats are also emblematic of something we’re always looking for in writer’s homes, a literally living “history” we’re happy to embrace despite knowing it’s been constructed for us.)

I’m sure I need to visit a few more writer’s homes—and write, and live in a few more homes myself—before I get a fuller understanding of why they affect me the way they do. But I’m also sure part of it is that it’s one more way to bolster confidence, to broaden dreams—to see more and more of the ways people have been writers and writers people, and so to imagine more for ourselves.