HEMINGWAY, Ernest (1899-1961). Autograph letter signed ("Ernest"), to Charles P. Thompson, n.d. [ca. 1948]. 6 pages, lacking first page, surviving pages numbered "2" through "6", the sixth page covered recto and verso, the other leaves recto only. In a quarter morocco clamshell case.
"HE IS 50 YEARS OLD AND HAS BEEN FISHING...SINCE HE WENT OUT AT 13...WITH HIS FATHER..."
THE INSPIRATION FOR THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA
This remarkable letter not only describes the fabled Cuban fisherman, Carlos Gutierrez, who inspired The Old Man and the Sea, but we see Hemingway grasping, in embryo, the central themes of that novel: the heroic yet tragic struggle of a skilled, but weakened man against the dumb brutality of the natural world. Gutierrez "is 50 years old," Hemingway tells Thompson, "and has been fishing agujas since he went out at 13 years with his father...He fished entirely alone last season and caught 57 small agujas and 18 large ones--writes all his fish in a book--largest last season was 22 anobas--Big ones he lashes alongside--hoists the sail and comes in...Carlos says it is the same with them as with us, the biggest ones get away..." At times this letter reads like an outline of the novel, with several of the book's recurring images used frequently here as well: the East wind, the sardines, the flying fish: Carlos "says all these marlin bite as well...the thing necessary is the East wind...[Carlos] has seen a 450 lb striped marlin hitting and eating sardines on the surface..."
He looks forward to more fishing with Gutierrez: "Carlos will fish with us Boca de Jaruco 23 miles to eastward of Havana is best place of all for agujas he says. Current comes right in to land--very deep--lots of flying fish. He has fished from Cape San Antonio to and beyond Cardenas. He says at Cabo San Antonio the agujas pass in a regular stream. That is where the gulf stream makes the curve at extreme west end of Cuba. That would be finest place but it is 180 miles away. He says they go to Mexico and into the south Gulf in winter..."
Hemingway evidently had in mind a fishing story, possibly a piece for a sportsman's magazine: "Have enough material for a splendid article if I can only catch Marlin of even 150 lbs to hang it on." But we see him moving imperceptibly towards the realization that a more powerful story exists in the tale of a heroic defeat, as he narrates, in gripping, almost breathless, telegraphic prose, his own crew's desperate struggle with a mighty marlin. "...I slacked to him and Joe was reeling his fast to get it in and take wheel when he yelled 'He's got mine!' Before he could hand it to me 1/2 of line was out. By time he grabbed wheel there wasn't 30 yards. Every bit went in one rush--wheel going too fast, it was so hot, you could not touch it afterwards. He jumped once clear...when line popped at knot of double line near leader. He stayed on surface a moment and went down. Truly he was so wide and thick I could not have reached around him...Joe didn't speak for an hour. Then said he couldn't speak because if he did he would cry--that's the fish it was." The two strands of this letter--the fascinating story of the highly skilled Carlos Gutierrez and the tragic tale of the big one that got away--soon merged together in Hemingway's mind to achieve his crowning masterpiece. (The explanation for the missing first page of the letter is probably answered in Hemingway's final paragraph when he tells Thompson to pass the "fishing part of this letter" to another fishing buddy, adding, "you can just cut off the first paragraph.")