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Hemingway Days: Celebrating America’s Greatest Writer

Hemingway Days: Celebrating America’s Greatest Writer

Picture of Sally Pidgeon
Updated: 11 January 2017
Hemingway Days is a full-on six-day festival of events that takes place on Florida’s Key West to celebrate one of America’s literary geniuses, Ernest Miller Hemingway. Fans of the late writer come together every year at this unique event held around his birthday on 21 July to celebrate aspects of his life and literature.

Florida Keys was home to Hemingway throughout the 1930s, following what was supposed to be a brief pick up point for a car on his way to the US mainland from Havana by ferry. As legend has it, the car was late arriving and so the dealer offered him accommodation in compensation, where he finished his novel, A Farewell To Arms. The novel explores the post-war disillusionment of his generation, inspired by his time spent during the First World War in Italy in 1918 where he was an ambulance driver for the Red Cross – a post for which he volunteered, compelled to be active in the war effort, yet unable to join the army due to poor eyesight. His stopover in Florida Keys led to him becoming quickly captivated by the laidback atmosphere on the island, and embarking on the most prolific period of his career, during a time which is described as ‘the deepest and longest-lasting economic downturn in the history of the Western industrialised world’, the Great Depression.

Throughout his career and travels, Hemingway made acquaintances with other masters of literature and art of his generation, including James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso and Ezra Pound, earning himself a place in what US contemporary writer Gertrude Stein would call The Lost Generation. Hemingway had felt particularly drawn to Europe following his First World War experience in Italy and he moved to Paris in 1921 finding a job as a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star. His time in Paris proved to be a particularly productive period for Hemingway’s writings and he is famously quoted to have said, ‘If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.’

Hemingway spent a lot of his leisure time in Florida Keys deep-sea fishing. The waters there were and still are particularly favoured by one of man’s greatest challenges and species of the sea, the marlin – the inspiration behind The Old Man And The Sea, which won him the 1953 Pulitzer Prize. To celebrate his favourite sporting hobby and literary achievement, the Florida Keys festival encompasses the Hemingway Fishing Tournament, a three-day event which began in 1950, during his lifetime, and in which Hemingway himself participated, actually winning the first three tournaments. Today, this tag and release tournament attracts fishermen from around the world, promoting fishing as a sport while protecting the environment and the marlin species, reeling in catches of up to 160 pounds and cash prizes totalling $250,000.

Readings from the works of the master of the short story and novel genres, renowned for his use of simple words and simple sentences without forced literary techniques, can be heard throughout the festival from celebrated works including For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Green Hills of Africa, The Fifth Column, and The Snows of Kilimanjaro, all of which he produced while living on Key West. His house and adjoining writing studio are a Registered Historical Landmark and museum, where visitors can enjoy his home and the grounds, and befriend the multitude of six-toed cats, reportedly descendants of Hemingway’s cat that was a gift to him from a sea captain. The Museum of Art & History on the island houses a collection of memorabilia of the literary legend’s time in the Keys, including family photos and other documents, which is open to the public all year round.

The festival also holds an awards ceremony for the prestigious Lorien Hemingway Short Story Competition launched in 1981 by acclaimed author and granddaughter of Ernest Miller. The annual competition is open to US and international writers and is dedicated to support the work of emerging writers by giving them recognition, offering a first prize of $1,500 and their story published in Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts. Author of works such as Walk On Water and A World Turned Over, Lorien Hemingway heads the panel of judges and proudly presents the award to the winner at the Hemingway Days festival.

On a much lighter note, there is a hugely popular ‘Papa Hemingway’ look-alike contest which attracts brave and bearded men to compete from as far afield as Australia, adopting Hemingway’s famous seafaring style of casual cable knit turtlenecks and safari khakis. Contestants gather in the author’s favourite Florida Keys drinking hole, Sloppy Joe’s, where he notoriously knocked back rum cocktails while hanging out with the locals and other literary cohorts. Many contenders return each year, proving their dedication to the ‘macho novelist-adventurer’ and his ‘Papa’ persona to a judging panel of previous winners, who all gather at the festival finale to show off their strength in an arm-wrestling championship in the bar.

Another hilarious Hemingway Days annual event is the popular sporting spoof, the Running Of The Bulls, a humorous re-enactment of the tradition where the Hemingway lookalikes push plastic bulls to commemorate another pastime of the author, which was to watch live bullfighting at the Fiesta de San Fermin in Pamplona, Spain, providing him the basis for his first novel, The Sun Also Rises. Hemingway returned to work in Spain in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War as a foreign correspondent for the North America Newspaper Alliance.

When Hemingway won the 1954 Nobel Prize for Literature, Time magazine reported the news under ‘Heroes’ rather than ‘Books’ describing him as ‘a globe-trotting expert on bullfights, booze, women, wars, big game hunting, deep sea fishing, and courage’, major themes which Hemingway examined through his writing. The literary legend once said himself, ‘Every man’s life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another’. Visitors of the Florida Keys festival indeed get a taste of Hemingway’s days and his success, which most certainly distinguish him as a great thinker and celebrity, where the legacy of his lifestyle lives on, and his mastering of ‘the simple sentence’ remains accessible to all and much celebrated.