To Have and Have Not is the dramatic story of Harry Morgan, an honest man who is forced into running contraband between Cuba and Key West as a means of keeping his crumbling family financially afloat. His adventures lead him into the world of the wealthy and dissipated yachtsmen who throng the region, and involve him in a strange and unlikely love affair.
But anyway.... the book..... is just not good. It screams amateurish and first-time writing. Its not that its Hemingway's style that is bad; its just the execution of it in this book. The various chapters that are POV and then are omniscient, the going back and forth, the things like Harry losing his arm basically happening off-screen, the bad way that he tried to show the intersecting lives of the rich and the poor.... it all just comes off as .... so bad.....
Its funny, I have a hate/love relationship with Hemingway. Sometimes I find him deep and insightful and love his prose, and then others it just comes off as poor and amateur hour. I also mostly feel like the characters are him; so their actions and dialogue is his actions and dialogue, like surrogate characters, rather than their own entities. So things like racial language (the n-word and the Asian c-word) in the book more comes off as thats how E. Hemingway talks rather than thats how Character X talks. Especially how it transcends just this book and its in multiple works of his (books / short stories). Ultimately just none of the characters felt great in this either, Harry comes off as flat. We're told how amazing he is by his wife, we're told how handsome he is by an ugly woman at a bar, etc. The back blurb also doesn't do this book much justice (which luckily I only read after being 2/3rds of the way through the novel). The back blurb mentions an "amazing love" (I'm assuming Harry and his wife's, which is piss poor blurb-writing if I ever saw it), and it says he's caught up in a love affair (he barely sees two of the characters, one time at a bar, who THEY have the affair - not him). That back book blurb has about as much to do with the actual novel as a Bud Light can has to do with beer.... (hint, BL is more like water than beer.... and bad water at that).
Harry Morgan is a policeman-turned-fisherman down on his luck like so many others in the Depression-struck Florida Keys. To make ends meet, Harry begins engaging in increasingly dangerous illegal activities in the waters between the Keys and Cuba.
The book opens on Harry and several Cuban revolutionaries who want to pay Harry an exorbitant fee to transport them to the United States. Harry refuses, preferring to use his boat for legal activities, and as the revolutionaries leave, they are gunned down in the street.
However, after being tricked by a customer who charters the boat for three weeks and then vanishes without settling his account, Harry agrees to smuggle Chinese immigrants from Cuba to the mainland. Next, Harry begins running alcohol between the two countries, and a confrontation with Cuban customs lost Harry his arm and his boat. Undeterred, he signs to the next scheme he runs across: stealing a boat and ferrying Cubans involved in a bank robbery back to their homeland.
As he descends ever-deeper into desperation, Harry meets old friends and new faces. He has little patience for those who have not remained as resilient to the times as himself, and he has no patience for outsiders. Tensions mount between this hardscrabble jack-of-all-trades and several tourists who frequent his local bars.
One pair of tourists take special prominence in the book: Arthur, an unexceptional writer, and his beautiful, unhappy wife. When Arthur comes home one day after sleeping with yet another woman, his wife decides to leave him for another man, an alcoholic who has been seen sloshing around the bars as well.
Meanwhile, you are given a peek into the intimate details of Harry’s relationship with his wife, Marie. The quiet desperation with which they cling to each other is meant as a justification for Harry’s illegal maritime activity. Unfortunately, Harry does not return home after his trip with the Cuban bank-robbers, and Marie becomes yet another Depression-era woman left wringing her apron in desperation and rage.
I’ll be the first to admit that I have a bit of a Hemingway obsession. One of my literary goals is to read all of his books, and I’m not too far from the finish line. However, To Have and Have Not is my least favorite Hemingway book so far. Though Hemingway attempts to dissect grand social issues, such as troubled economic times and the relationship that exists between husband and wife, the entangled sub-plots and the erratic activities of the characters serve to distract from whatever statement Hemingway is trying to make.
The unexpected changes in viewpoints are disorienting, and the stories of other characters either stop abruptly or trail off seemingly without resolution. Harry remains the driving force of the novel, if there is one, even when the narrative meanders through the viewpoints of those who interact with him. Though his motivations inspire pity, his actions encourage judgment. Ultimately, I felt indifference toward him.
One aspect of the novel that I did enjoy, however, was the marine setting. I liked the descriptions of Harry’s boat and the protective feelings that he felt for her. However, if you want good writing by Hemingway about the nautical life, read The Old Man and the Sea. In fact, skip this book and read Old Man anyway.
It's hard to describe the book. It's rugged like its principal character, a gun runner working the route from Cuba to Florida. It's a book void of happiness or relief, and feels downright angry at times - making it a very powerful work.
-from To Have and Have Not
If you've read Hemingway you know what to expect. If you've seen the movie with Humphrey Bogart, it is only loosely based on the novel. The beginnings are rather similar, but the movie eliminates the grim nature of the book almost entirely.
"there aren't any lucky rummies."
"Mr. Hemingway has been for some years an outstanding figure in American literature; he has influenced greatly men a little younger than himself, and they have paid him the tribute of imitation. Whatever he does is of interest because he has, unquestionably, a very real talent. What has he done with it in To Have and Have Not?"
It's a good question, and one that hasn't really been answered in the 70 years since then. Some have said Hemingway hated the book himself and only wrote it to fulfil some kind of contractual obligation. But how could he be contractually obliged to write an awful book? Even if somebody did set the subject matter, surely he could have produced something better than this?
The main problem with the book is that it is schizophrenic. It's a cross between an adolescent high-seas adventure story and a social analysis of the effects of the Great Depression. Even if both could be crammed into one book, it's probably safe to say that fans of one genre are unlikely to be fans of the other.
The writing style, too, is schizophrenic, lurching from first person to third person, from one character's point of view to another's. Harry Morgan's character, too, changes. He starts out as a hard-drinking, hard-fighting Hemingway hero, but later on, as the whole idea of the book seems to change midstream, he becomes more of a Steinbeck-style poor old victim of the system. His wife and children then appear in the book, looking as if they have been grafted on to make him appear more sympathetic. Then rich people start to appear, being vile and self-obsessed but never fully drawn as characters. Their only role appears to be to act as "haves" to contrast against the "have nots".
Another major problem I had with the book was its racism. You could argue that Hemingway was showing his characters to be racist, but still the constant, overwhelming use of words like "nigger" and "chink" really shocked me and immediately put me off the book. And worse than the words themselves were the way the characters of other races were described as objects more than people, with no characters beyond crude racial stereotypes like lazy blacks and untrustworthy Chinese. They are hardly ever even given names, but just referred to by their race: "the [insert racial slur] said...."
Well, I suppose every good writer has a clunker. I still like Hemingway's writing, particularly in For Whom the Bell Tolls. So this book did teach me one thing: don't judge an author by one book alone. If this had been my first Hemingway book, I'd probably never have read another, and as a result I'd have missed out on some fantastic writing.
I typically read four or five books at the same time, and I quite randomly picked To Have and Have Not off the shelf as a nightstand book for the end of the day. Almost immediately, I rediscovered the electric thrill of reading Hemingway again, the way he gets inside your skin so you literally become the protagonist! Literary scholars can wax on about his brilliant technique of utilizing the objective correlative to transform the otherwise inanimate into dynamic moods and passion, but it is more challenging to qualify how the master transports you inside the story: you might be a ninety pound weakling who clerks at a drugstore, but when you read Hemingway you become - for a brief moment perhaps – Robert Jordan with a rifle facing certain death for something you believe in.
Hemingway is out of fashion these days, most prominently I believe because his larger-than-life personality became conflated with his literature, so that he became a caricature for himself the way Elvis did. But of course that the real-life Elvis became a fat, sequined, pill-popping fop in Vegas should not detract from the brilliance of Jailhouse Rock, and the loud, bullying, lion-hunting Hemingway should not overshadow the beauty of the author’s spare prose and the spell it casts on the reader in his many literary efforts. There are definitely aspects of the real Ernest Hemingway that should be out of fashion, but there are certainly critical pieces of his legacy as a great writer that should never be out of fashion. If you doubt that, read him; I encouraged my twenty-something daughter to read A Farewell to Arms and it blew her away. Genius does not go out of fashion.
To Have and Have Not (1937) is not Hemingway’s best book, in my opinion. In fact, I am not certain he ever figured out what he wanted to say in this novel, so he just said everything he could think of while he wrote it. It is actually two short stories and a novella, loosely woven together, and according to Howard Hawks (who directed the extremely loose film adaptation) Hemingway called it his worst book. It is certainly disjointed, but it is punctuated by the kind of brilliance Hemingway uniquely supplies in his fiction. This would be a good time to bring up the film, which is a memorable if sometimes trite 1944 Bogart-Bacall vehicle that leaves an indelible impression on the viewer so that it is ever after difficult to separate the Bogey version of Harry Morgan in the flick from the Harry Morgan character in the Hemingway novel. The Bogey Harry Morgan is a worldly, cynical yet larger-than-life cardboard cut-out (speaking of caricatures!) spawn of Rick in Casablanca whom you really can’t take that seriously: he is nothing like the doomed down-on-his-luck fatalistic fellow Harry Morgan in the book, who unlike the Bogey Harry Morgan (who has the hot statuesque future wife Lauren Bacall to trade clever jibes with) has a middle-aged overweight wife, mother to three girls, who is past-her-prime but pathetically hangs on to what they had together when he was the younger and more successful alpha-male. But reading the book, I think Hawks magnificently succeeded by casting Walter Brennan as the alcoholic shipmate Eddie; this is the only film character who even remotely resembles his fictional counterpart. Eddie is one of the best side-kicks Hemingway ever devised, but no matter how hard I shook my head I couldn’t help hearing Brennan’s screechy voice when Eddie spoke in the pages of the book.
Much of To Have and Have Not is about Harry Morgan and his struggle to tragically and hopelessly hold on against a world that is crushing him, but there are other incongruous characters introduced late in the book who assume control of the narrative for some time, men and women who are rich and flawed and troubled: superficial, supercilious beings with the world at their fingertips who squander it all for the frivolous or for the pure pleasure of rising roughshod over the pack. They are the “haves,” I suppose, largely miserable creatures, while Harry is one of the “have-nots,” by implication a better human being who nevertheless is broken against the rocks of life in a cruel, uncaring, amoral world. For me, these other characters are not nearly as well-drawn as the typical personalities Hemingway etches into his narratives, and I can see why the author would have been disappointed with the end product. Still, it was wonderful to read “Papa” Hemingway again. If flawed, this book is still far better than a couple of dozen other works of critically acclaimed works of fiction by “noted authors” that I have read of late. That in itself says everything that needs to be said about the master of twentieth century American fiction, although I might add that I have felt like Harry Morgan more than once in my life, which is testament to the genuine veracity that inhabit all of the central characters in a Hemingway book, even a book not quite as grand as some of the others.
To Have and Have Not follows Harry Morgan, a forty-something American skipper who divides his time between Key West and Havana and makes a living by chartering his boat for ventures ranging from fishing expeditions to human trafficking. You can tell straight away that it was developed out of a couple of short stories, because it’s a patchwork novel; it begins with a couple of disparate sections in which Morgan smuggles Chinese immigrants and then a load of rum, oddly switching between first person and third person perspective, and then it warms up to the crux of the novel – a scene in which the Cubans he agrees to smuggle back into the country rob a bank in Key West first and then essentially hijack him. This critical part of the novel is an example of Hemingway at his finest, and even the earlier segments, while unneccesary, were enjoyable in themselves. It’s a shame that during and after this mid-novel climax, Hemingway decided to focus on a bunch of extraneous characters back in Key West who are going through marriage break-ups and bar arguments are various other things that are not as remotely interesting as the lethal conflict between a skipper and his hijackers in the middle of the sea.
To Have and Have Not is a flawed but enjoyable Hemingway novel, with subtle Marxist undertones (hence the title) and a particularly vivid setting – you can almost feel the Cuban sun on your arms and see the light dappling on the Caribbean water. (Or maybe that’s because I read most of it on a beach in Western Australia.) When it’s good, it’s truly great – it’s just a shame that those moments are uncommon. There’s a very good short novel in here, encrusted with a bunch of other rubbish that simply didn’t need to be there. If Hemingway truly did think this book was “a bunch of junk,” he only had himself to blame.