Key West, Florida has a well-known literary heritage. The island’s best known scribe is the legendary Ernest Hemingway, whose presence on the island can still be felt today, more than 50 years after his death, and whose impressions of this laidback paradise live on forever in some of his best known works.
Perhaps it’s because of the mystique of Hemingway, or simply the fact that the warm breezes, sunshine and clear waters could help break even the worst case of writer’s block, Key West is one of the most literary towns in the U.S. It may be hard to believe, when you walk along Duvall Street and watch tourists down margaritas and beer, and then laze in the sun all day, but it’s true: Hemingway’s spirit lives in the southernmost point of the U.S., and anyone with any interest in literature, writing and creativity owes it to themselves to visit and get a taste of this fascinating environment.
A Writer’s Paradise
After Hemingway, perhaps the best-known writer to make his home on Key West is Tennessee Williams. Widely regarded as the greatest American playwright, Williams lived on the island off and on from the early 1940s until his death in 1983. Although his home on Duncan Street is now privately owned and not open to tours (like the Hemingway House, one of the most popular attractions in Key West), fans still make the pilgrimage past the unassuming red-shuttered house to pay homage to the author of “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “The Glass Menagerie.”
Another well-known scribe who spent a great deal of time in Key West is poet Robert Frost. Although Frost is most commonly associated with New England, his poems evoking scenes of pastoral fields and woodlands in the colder states, he actually spent a great deal of time in Florida between 1945 and 1960, and even wrote one of his most famous poems, “The Gift Outright,” while staying in a guest house on the island. You can actually see where Frost stayed and wrote at the Key West Heritage House and Robert Frost Cottage, a private museum owned and operated by the Porter family, one of the first families to live on the island.
Among other writers who lived in worked in Key West include James Leo Herlihy, who penned “Midnight Cowboy” and portions of “Seasons of the Witch” while in Key West; Ralph Ellison, author of “The Invisible Man;” and Pulitzer Prize- winning poets Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop. On the more contemporary end of the spectrum, anyone who grew up in the 1970s and 80s will recognize the name Judy Blume — the popular young adult author makes her winter home on the island along with Annie Dillard, Meg Cabot, Phyllis Rose, Ann Beattie and Robert Stone, among others.
And of course, no discussion of the Key West literary scene would be complete without mentioning Jimmy Buffett. Some argue that his work is poetry set to music, but Buffett, who is credited with bringing the Key West lifestyle to the mainstream, is actually an accomplished author: His works “Where Is Joe Merchant?,” “A Salty Piece of Land” and “Tales from Margaritaville,” have all spent time on the New York Times’ best-seller list.
Key West Literary Seminar
Every January, Key West becomes a hotbed of literary activity during the Key West Literary Festival, one of the premier events for writers and readers anywhere in the world. Since 1983, some of the greatest voices in American literature have gathered in Key West for lectures, discussions, readings and parties over the four day festival; each year, the event features a different theme (in 2014, the theme is “The Dark Side” and will focus on the mystery, crime and thriller genre). The festival also includes a writer’s workshop, where aspiring (and established) writers can spend several days honing their craft under the tutelage of experienced and well-known authors and other experts in the writing and publishing worlds.
Although popular, the Key West Writers Festival is also relatively small, and the fewer-than-400 spots sell out quickly, so it’s important to sign up and book your Key West hotel early if you want to attend. But for a literature buff or a writer, it’s time and money well spent, as it’s one of the most respected literary festivals in the U.S.
Whether you come to Key West for the Literary Festival, or simply want to soak up some sunshine and see where Hemingway wrote “To Have and Have Not,” don’t overlook the rest of the island’s rich heritage of the written word. Who knows; maybe there’s something in the air that will inspire you to finally write that masterpiece you’ve been thinking about for years.
Hemingway house image by Adam Fagen from Flickr’s Creative Commons
Tennessee Williams quote image by Sam Howzit from Flickr’s Creative Commons