In 1934, Ernest Hemingway was the reigning king of American letters. Just back from safari in Africa, where he'd shot rhinos and giant kudu, he seemed to be on top of the world.
The first thing he did after returning from safari was head to the Wheeler shipyard in Brooklyn, N.Y., and buy a 38-foot fishing boat he named Pilar.
Pilar would be Hemingway's refuge for the rest of his life, a place to escape from bad reviews and broken relationships. It's also the inspiration for a new book about the author, Hemingway's Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961.
Its author, Paul Hendrickson, tells Rachel Martin, host of weekends on All Things Considered, that he didn't want to replicate what had already been done in the many previous Hemingway biographies.
"Emily Dickinson has a wonderful line," he says. "'Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.' So I think from the beginning I needed to kind of find a slant way to come at the story of Ernest Hemingway."
Hendrickson is not new to the study of Hemingway. In the 1980s, he'd interviewed the writer's famously troubled sons for a newspaper series.
"Each of them talked longingly and lovingly about their father's fishing boat, Pilar," he says.
Eventually, Hendrickson discovered a note he'd written to himself in an old journal: "If you can learn everything that happened on that boat, you'll get his entire life."
Hemingway is often pegged as a great writer, but a vile human being. But Hendrickson says he discovered another side to the man on board Pilar.
"He could be everything on that boat, he could be a boor and a bully and an overly competitive jerk, and he could save somebody who was in the water swimming from shark attack on that boat, and he could treat people with uncommon kindness on that boat," Hendrickson says, "and I think it began to occur to me, that someone who could write this beautifully, there must be cores of fundamental decency."
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