I have a confession to make. I’m just now reading Papa Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream for the first time. It’s one I’ve put off, since he wasn’t alive to complete the editing and rewriting process. The thought of anyone besides the master – his last wife and publisher, in this case – preparing his unfinished manuscript for publication just scares me. The book got a lot of good press, but it’s Hemingway. The reviews will be either good or bad, mostly good, with none in between.
One of Papa’s famous quotes comes to mind with Islands in the Stream. He hit the nail on the head when he said, “The first draft of everything is shit.” Oh, the words seem brilliant as they go down on paper (or, in a more modern reference, scroll across the computer screen). Based on interviews I’ve read and memes I see on writers’ pages, I’m pretty sure most of us really believe we’re in the process of winning at least the National Book Award when we get rolling on the first draft of a new project. It sings! It walks and talks! It fairly screams, “Perfection!” Then, we go back and read what’s there.
The first reaction, for me, is to wonder who the hell rewrote my manuscript. I left brilliance and came back to, you guessed it, exactly what Hemingway said all first drafts really are. But mine was different! It’s hard to believe I actually wrote the crap I find the next day, and I surely don’t want anyone else to read it. It’s not until after the fourth or fifth rewrite that the piece is safe for human consumption. Now, I fully understand that the first draft of Hemingway’s worst project is infinitely better than the final draft of my best project, but his quote tells me he felt the same way. So, reading a book that came from a manuscript he didn’t finish editing seems like a gross violation of a man’s privacy, to me. Therefore, my hesitation.
Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, convinced me to finally read the book, though. So much excitement surrounded the announcement of Go Set a Watchman. The debate started immediately about her mental faculties and true intentions. She said Mockingbird was it, and gave her final interview in 1964. Why would she change her mind at nearly ninety years old? But, it’s Harper Lee we’re talking about, and most are going to read the book, even if it’s with a jaded eye and much grumbling. Once released, Watchman became the fastest selling book in HarperCollins’ history. And that’s when the wailing and gnashing of teeth really started.
Many felt betrayed, believing the book to be nothing more than a bad first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. Instead of a polished, timeless work of fiction, some folks have complained they bought the unedited scribblings of a new writer. One distributor got so many complaints, it offered refunds to people who pre-ordered their copies. I haven’t read the book yet, and it might be a while before I do. It’s hard to start something knowing the probable outcome is disappointment.
Reading Islands in the Stream, then, is really procrastination. It seems wrong to put off two questionable works written by celebrated masters, so soon I’ll be back to just one. I’m glad I waited so long to read it. I’ve learned enough about writing at this point to understand most of the things that would have put me off when I was younger. Hemingway’s voice is strong throughout the book, but sometimes it’s muffled by extraneous words and phrases I can’t believe he would have let see publication.
The main character, Thomas Hudson, and his friend, Roger, could never deny their Hemingway heritage, and the world they live in is all Papa. The rhythm of his words falters occasionally from the usually consistent slow, steady beat, probably because they haven’t been pared down to a bare minimum as Hemingway would have done. Mary Hemingway must have known, though, that his work, even unpolished, would stand, and that his fans would excuse any inconsistencies for a few more words from Papa.
I usually devour books, but I’ve savored this one, keeping a slower pace to find all the images I know are buried in the words and putting off the end until the last possible minute. I’m grateful to Harper Lee for pushing me into reading Islands in the Stream. I have to say, though, it has set a pretty high bar for when I finally get around to reading To Set a Watchman.