Review: To Have and Have Not, Ernest Hemingway (1937)

HAHN CoverI have fond memories of this book from reading it in my late teens.  In the following few years I read a few other books by Hemingway, but To Have and Have Not has always remained my favourite. I was surprised to subsequently discover that it is widely regarded as by far his worst book.  I was therefore a little nervous picking this up to reread it, but having seen the battered, and to me evocative, front cover of my ancient copy during some book re-shelving, I had to do it.
It’s a short book, 206 pages in the 1963 Penguin edition, but even so it is fragmentary.  I’d remembered this from my earlier reading – it developed from two short stories, these making up part one and two, the first 72 pages, with part three a longer novella – and enjoyed the structure then. Now, while I have no objection to the idea of such an episodic structure, it felt uneven, and as though the parts hadn’t fully been worked into a whole, more just stitched together.
I remembered too the powerful, ambiguously charismatic protagonist Harry Morgan, and the strength of his relationship with his wife Marie.  Two scenes in particular had also stuck in my memory: Harry holed up in a mangrove swamp while running rum, and the edgy, violent evening in Freddy’s bar.
Plenty more of it came back to me as I was reading it, and I again enjoyed the skilful evocation of the atmosphere of desperation and necessary toughness in the equally tough and unforgiving world of Great Depression America, of men struggling just to feed their family.
I’d forgotten pretty much everything to do with the ‘Haves’ though, and reading it again they felt much weaker and less realised characters.  Towards the end there are a series of sketches of the yacht owners in the yacht basin, effective enough but barely memorable (it reminded me of the more fully realised yacht borne anguish of Aleksandr in David Szalay’s All That Man Is).
He does have a lot of fun with the writer character Richard Gordon though. He’s midway through a dreadful sounding ‘social condition’ novel, and is generally unbearably arrogant and self-obsessed. Hemingway seems to relish taking Gordon’s (and thereby his own) writerly arrogance apart in the scenes in the Lilac Time late bar and Freddy’s.
Gordon is also very effectively deployed in the chapter where he mis-imagines the life and inner world of Harry’s wife, Marie Morgan. Gordon congratulates himself on his perspicacity, having in fact constructed a disdainful caricature constructed entirely from his own prejudices.   This chapter is very powerful when paired with Marie’s actual inner monologue that closes the novel, giving another dimension, beyond the simply material, to the haves and have nots theme.
The book has its weaknesses. The end of chapter 11 in which Richard Gordon imagine Marie’s life betrays the occasional lack of care or thought. It ends with the redundant:

The woman he had seen was Harry Morgan’s wife, Marie, on her way home from the sheriff’s office.

If you had not already realised whom he had seen you would by then have missed the point of the chapter, and, to me once I’d  thought about it – and this final sentence broke me out of the narrative to consider it – it also didn’t matter whether the woman he saw was actually Marie or just any other woman similar enough for Gordon to exercise his disdain from a suitable class distance.  The reality of Marie makes the superficiality of his imagination, and heart, evident anyhow.
The social and political commentary angle of the novel is also awkward.  One of the negative reviews on its publication, by J. Donald Adams in the New York Times,  reacts very badly to this element. He sees Harry’s dying words on the impossibility of going it alone in the modern (1930s American) world as suggesting a socialist politics imbuing the novel:

if the have-nots haven’t the strength, standing alone, to get what they want, let them stand together, then everything will be all right. Harry Morgan’s failure to feel an obligation to society is of no matter. There is no other possible thesis for Mr. Hemingway’s tale.

I don’t think this analysis is at all right.  It does seem Hemingway is working through his own political thinking, and the validity of socialist ideas, in this novel. However, the book is darker and bleaker – and more confused – than a simple political allegory.
Adams notes, in to me a mistakenly negative criticism, that with Harry Morgan ‘[t]here is no tragedy; there is no ground for compassion’. And that is true of the ambience of the novel as a whole: it is bleak and hard, pitiless. It is summed up well by Albert’s comment on Harry, (and is powerful in the lack of self-pity in Marie’s closing inner monologue):

since he was a boy he never had no pity for nobody. But he never had no pity for himself either.

This overall ethic doesn’t mesh well with the more social/political commentary element of the book, and this latter part is also the target of self-satire through the character of Richard Gordon.  The effect is not of a propogandist tract, as Adams would have it, but of a writer who hasn’t finished working through his political thinking.  This makes it awkward but interesting to me.
Rereading it, I liked this book all over again.  It is fragmentary and elements of this along with the unworked through conflict between the political and social comment element and the more generally pitiless nature of the book and its protagonist mean the book doesn’t quite work, doesn’t quite mesh together into a satisfying whole. For me though these are interesting flaws, and are more than compensated for by the quality of narrative, the creation of the strong but morally ambiguous protagonist, and by the character of Marie and her relationship with Harry.