Thursday, July 17, 2014

Who Murdered the Vets? by Ernest Hemingway

A look at Ernest Hemingway’s other writings for Friday’s Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase.

In Who Murdered the Vets?, a firsthand news report on the Florida hurricane, Ernest Hemingway seems to be referring to the Labour Day Hurricane which has been described, on Wikipedia, as “the strongest tropical cyclone of the 1935 Atlantic hurricane season, and the most intense hurricane to make landfall in the United States and the Atlantic Basin in recorded history.” This is my understanding.

The hurricane lasted thirteen days, from August 29, 1935 until September 10, 1935, and Hemingway wrote his hard-hitting piece on its deadly impact exactly a week later, in the left-wing magazine, New Masses, September 17, 1935.

In this compelling article, the American writer demands answers to many questions: Who sent nearly a thousand US war veterans to live in frame shacks on the Florida Keys in hurricane months? Why were the men not evacuated before the hurricane struck the Keys? Who delayed sending the ten-car rescue train that washed away between mainland Florida and Key West? Finally, who was responsible for their deaths?

Hemingway raises his eyebrows at Washington for possible answers.

After the hurricane, Hemingway travelled to the Keys and found hundreds of bodies of civilians and veterans strewn everywhere, in the sea, in the mangroves, in the shelters, in the trees, in the rails, wherever the strong winds and storm waters swept them.

In Camp Five, Hemingway talks about finding only eight survivors out of a total of 187 vets though only sixty-nine bodies are accounted for, the rest having been washed up in the mangroves and other places.

Hemingway, who was resident-writer of Key West for several years, has used his firsthand knowledge of the archipelago, its history, its inclement weather, its hurricanes and storm warnings, its inhabitants, its railroad, and its boats and harbours, to write this piece. He paints an intense picture of the deadly hurricane and its tragic aftermath, which is a testament to his personal experience and to his sublime writing. Not surprisingly, the article also reads like a short story. Hemingway often wrote articles for magazines, left leaning I suspect, given his own political ideology.

I've reproduced below two passages that reveal Hemingway’s anguish over the fate of the war veterans and others.

Who sent them down there?

I hope he reads this—and how does he feel?

He will die too, himself, perhaps even without a hurricane warning, but maybe it will be an easy death, that's the best you get, so that you do not have to hang onto something until you can't hang on, until your fingers won't hold on, and it is dark. And the wind makes, a noise like a locomotive passing, with a shriek on top of that, because the wind has a scream exactly as it has in books, and then the fill goes and the high wall of water rolls you over and over and then, whatever it is, you get it and we find you, now of no importance, stinking in the mangroves.

* * * *

You're dead now, brother, but who left you there in the hurricane months on the Keys, where a thousand men died before you in the hurricane months when they were building the road that's now washed out?

Who left you there? And what's the punishment for manslaughter now?

This has turned out to be Ernest Hemingway week for I also discovered, and promptly read, a book of poems by the writer.

The Suppressed Poems of Ernest Hemingway, published by The Library of Living Poetry, Paris, has two sections, ‘Miscellaneous Poems’ (poems from The Double Dealer and Querschnitt), and ‘Ten Poems’ (from Three Stories and Ten Poems). Each poem is dated, beginning June 1922 and ending May 1929.

Some of the poems read like limericks. I enjoyed reading many of them although there were some I didn’t understand. I got the impression that Hemingway might have written them on an impulse, perhaps for want of anything better to do, as poetry is often written. Here are the ones I liked.

He tried to spit out the truth;
Dry-mouthed at first,
He drooled and slobbered in the end;
Truth dribbling his chin.

The Ernest Liberal's Lament
I know monks masturbate at night
That pet cats screw
That some girls bite
And yet
What can I do
To set things right?

All of the Indians are dead
(a good Indian is a dead Indian)
Or riding in motor cars —
(the oil lands, you know, they're all rich)
Smoke smarts my eyes,
Cottonwood twigs and buffalo dung
Smoke grey in the tepee —
(or is it my myopic trachoma)

The prairies are long,
The moon rises
Drag at their pickets.
The grass has gone brown in the summer —
(or is it the hay crop failing)

Pull an arrow out:
If you break it
The wound closes.
Salt is good too
And wood ashes.
Pounding it throbs in the night —
(or is it the gonorrhea)

Some came in chains
Unrepentant but tired.
Too tired but to stumble.
Thinking and hating were finished
Thinking and fighting were finished
Retreating and hoping were finished.
Cures thus a long campaign,
Making death easy.


  1. thank you for sharing this. I'm a big Hemingway fan but had not seen these poems, nor the report on the hurricane. the man could write.

    1. Charles, you're welcome. I didn't know Hemingway had written magazine articles and poems either. This particular report is a great example of field reporting and writing, as it is difficult to distinguish Hemingway the journalist from Hemingway the storyteller. There is evidence of both. Many of his articles and poems are available online.

  2. Thanks Prashant - great to be reminded of Hemingway's other output - it's been a while since I read anything by him, but I really must - thanks again chum.

    1. Hi Sergio, it's good to have you back! And you're welcome. I want to read some of Hemingway's short stories as well as some more news features he contributed to various periodicals. I do like his journalistic writing.

  3. Never read any Hemingway. I maybe ought to try at least one. Not a big poetry fan myself, so if I do give him a go, it probably won't be this.

    1. Col, I read Hemingway pretty late but since then I have been reading something or the other by him. He wrote very few novels and many short stories. I hope you try his novels some of which are quite short. I enjoy reading poetry and do so when I'm in the mood for it.

  4. I've read plenty of Hemingway and prefer his early work. His novels are weaker than his short stories and non-fiction.

    1. George, I never thought of his novels as being weaker than his short stories and nonfiction. You make an interesting point there. I think Hemingway is one of few writers whose work is forever a subject of debate.

  5. I have his By-Line collection of articles and have reread countless times. That's where the Papa magic occurs along with his short stories and The Old Man and The Sea.

    Super post, Prashant!

    1. David, thank you for the appreciation. I read THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA first and then a few years later I read FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS and I couldn't believe the same man had written both—such different styles. I look forward to reading his short stories and essays.

  6. An interesting writer, but not one who appeals to me greatly. I do like reading about the group of American writers who wandered round Europe between the wars, including Hemingway and Fitzgerald.

    1. Moira, I like the way Hemingway wrote though I admit I haven't read all of his novels and stories. Fitzgerald, I have read even less. You've intrigued me by mentioning the group of American writers who wrote between the two world wars. I'll have to see who the others are.

    2. Prashant: I found this list on the internet: "Active duty in World War I introduced Paris to many American writers, musicians, and artists, including Ernest Hemingway and e. e. cummings, who returned to France after the war. The following two decades found such writers as Archibald MacLeish, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Carlos Williams, John Dos Passos, Hart Crane, Sinclair Lewis, and Henry Miller living in Paris. Artists, musicians, and writers from other countries also helped make Paris a cultural Mecca. Such writers as Ford Madox Ford, Wyndham Lewis, H. D., D. H. Lawrence, Samuel Beckett, and James Joyce; visual artists Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, Salvador Dali, and Luis BueƱuel; and music composers George Antheil and Virgil Thompson relocated to Paris during this period, influencing and helping to advance such literary movements as modernism, Vorticism, surrealism, and Dadaism."

    3. Moira, thanks for reproducing this passage. There are a few writers here that I haven't read even once. I'm aware of some authors who took part in WWII before returning home and took to writing as a career.