To Have and Have Not ~ A Capsule Book Review

To Have and Have Not ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

Harry Morgan is the working-class hero of Ernest Hemingway’s 1937 novel, To Have and Have Not. He has a frowzy, overweight, bleach-blonde wife named Marie (very unlike Lauren Bacall) and three young daughters. He owns a fishing boat for hire that runs between Cuba and Key West, Florida. Ordinarily he makes a living by taking rich tourists on deep-sea fishing expeditions, but the Depression is on and times are hard.  

When a tourist runs out without paying him after a three-week run on his boat, Harry is forced to resort to extreme measures (illegal activity) to support himself and his family. First he smuggles Chinese immigrants into Florida from Cuba. When this doesn’t work out very well, he begins to smuggle different types of illegal contraband between the U.S. and Cuba, including alcohol and Cuban revolutionaries. In an encounter with Cuban authorities over a shipment of booze, he is shot in the arm and has to have it amputated. Losing an arm is not the worst that happens to him.   

Harry, his family and friends are among the “have nots” of Key West who are struggling to get by. We also get a glimpse of some of the “haves” on their yachts, who don’t have much to do with the story but add an interesting contrast to Harry Morgan and his friends and associates. As with many novels written during the 1930s, there is an element in To Have and Have Not of social inequality and political unrest.   

The novelist, Richard Gordon, is a character in the novel who doesn’t have much to do with what is going on and doesn’t seem to serve any real purpose. He has written three successful books and is working on another one. He spends a lot of his time drinking in a bar and hobnobbing with the locals. He and his unhappy wife, Helen, both seem to be drifting into infidelity with other partners. Was Hemingway writing about himself in the character of Richard Gordon? What is he saying here?  

Background information tells us that To Have and Have Not started out as two short stories and a separate novella. As interesting as the book is and as much fun as it is to read, it still has that “cobbled together” feel of a novel made up of different parts. It doesn’t really have the “flow” and cohesiveness that a book by a major writer should have, but it’s Hemingway and apparently Hemingway could get away with it. The 1944 Warner Bros. movie of the same name with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall bears little resemblance to Hemingway’s novel. The movie makers took the title and the fishing boat and did away with most of the rest of the story. That’s what movies do to books.  

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

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