A Literary Adventure: Discovering the Key West Literary Seminar

By Adria Mallin Posted on Adventure


                                                                                                                                  While 63% of luxury travelers look for a vacation where “being pampered” is primary, the cultured traveler doesn’t need to mask learning by calling it “edu-tainment,” as do some cruise lines with botanists, geologists, and other professorial types aboard.

For lovers of literature, it is easy to recognize a great learning opportunity, and one of the very best of its kind is the Key West Literary Seminar, hosting its 24th season this January 5-8, 2006 in Key West Florida with “The Literature of Adventure, Travel, and Discovery.”

There will also be individualized writers’ workshops, and this year, following the seminar, a small group will visit Havana, Cuba, once the Paris of the Caribbean, for “Havana Dreaming, from Graham Greene to Papa Hemingway,” a literary, social, political, and arts exploration. Experts will guide the group through the complex and intriguing time-warp of Old Havana, the museums, the fishing village of Coijmar where Hemingway set The Old Man and the Sea, his Finca Vigia outside Havana, a day’s excursion to Pinar del Rio, and a reception with the Union of Cuban Writers and Artists.

But for most of the devotees of the Literary Seminar, the focus this January is Key West. It’s nice to know that paradise, as Key West is usually called, claims more writers per capita than any other city in America, and thirteen Pulitzer Prize winners. It is a natural, then, for a literary seminar. Add cerulean blue sky sunshine, the intimate scale of a town just 2 x 4 miles, a fireball of a sun that sinks into the Gulf of Mexico to the cheers of hordes standing at Mallory Square, plus a zany hedonism unlike the carefully mapped spa culture, and you can see how twenty-four years of the Key West Literary Seminar, blending three full days of serious literary discussion, informal talks, panel discussions, intimate conversations, and festive parties, have attracted both speakers and audience.

Hemingway, Tennessee, Williams, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, John Hersey, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wilbur, John Ciardi, John Dos Passos, and Elizabeth Bishop made homes in Key West. Among the more recent habitués, including Judy Blume and Annie Dillard, is author Nancy Friday, who says she wanted to be with a “fascinating and outrageous group of people” and to be part of such an “accepting, warm, fruited place.” New York, she adds, “runs on envy, but I don’t smell envy here.” And that’s the tone of the Literary Seminar.

This year, the starlit roster of travel writers includes Pico Iyer, Peter Matthiessen, Tim Cahill, Billy Collins, Hanns Ebensten, Linda Greenlaw, Barry Lopez, Mary Morris, Ana Menendez, Michael Mewshaw, Eddy L. Harris, Dervia Murphy, Patrick Symmes,  Kira Salak, and more adventurers and discovers.

Being There

I first “discovered” the Seminar in 1999. As a professor of English, I figured that the theme of “The American Novel” would give me the chance to ask Joseph Heller the questions I’d had on hold since I first taught Catch-22.

If you read, you know the 1999 speakers’ names, all stellar: Ann Beattie, Philip Caputo, E. L. Doctorow, Joseph Heller, Jamaica Kincaid, Alison Lurie, Harry Matthews, Peter Matthiessen, Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Stone, Amy Tan, and John Wideman. Editors from key publishing houses moderated the panel discussions, ranging from “War and the American Novel” to “What’s American about the American Novel?” There was a panel on the interaction between the marketplace and the novelist, a conversation between Amy Tan and her editor, and a reading of a work-in-progress by Joyce Carol Oates.

To start, there was a walking tour, and then one of the 20th century’s finest photographers of literary figures, Rollie McKenna, hosted a cocktail reception for her work at the Lucky Street Gallery. McKenna had wintered here for decades and commented that all her senses came alive in Key West, with its heady stephanotis and jasmine and its “disposition towards lawlessness.” Standing tall at 80, she stood shoulder to shoulder with her portraits of Annie Dillard, Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, John Hersey, Ann Beattie, Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Wilbur, Dylan Thomas, and the recently deceased and most beloved among Key West literary figures, John Malcolm Brinnin. How many times had I read with my students Brinnan’s biography of Dylan Thomas in America…

At the close of the cocktail party, seminarians headed to the San Carlos Institute, a museum and cultural center dedicated to the preservation of the Cuban cultural heritage, and host to the seminar each year. Twice destroyed by fire and hurricane, the current building was donated by the president of Cuba in 1924 and was recently restored to its former Cuban baroque elegance, with high ceilings, crystal chandelier, and marble staircase.     

Here, E. L. Doctorow delivered the opening address and humbly shared his sense of writing as equal parts blundering ambition and craft, and of fiction as a system of knowledge with the chance to give counsel and connect. He spoke of his childhood love for the Bronx library to which he walked every week, remembering the feel of the soft pages, used and turned, the feeling of bonding with other readers and magically “co-authoring” whatever he read, of his awe at the ability to spin a tale, to bring something out of nothing. Doctorow particularly recalled a Romanian folk tale which began, “Once there was, and was not…” At the end of his address, Doctorow, like Oates and Heller and the others, graciously signed every book held out by a long, long line of admiring readers.

And then the international audience trundled off to a late dinner catered by Mangoes Restaurant. This year, Mangoes will present dinner at the Gala Reception in the gardens of the Key West Lighthouse and the champagne reception at the Key West Museum of Art and History at the Custom House.    

The next day, in a panel on the impact of feminism on the American novel, John Wideman challenged Virginia Woolf’s notion of “a woman’s sentence.” “Is there such a thing?” he queried, rhetorically. Then he proceeded to charm an audience heavy with women when he told of growing up in a house full of women telling stories, and how, as a writer, he tries to recapture the voices of his childhood.

When Joseph Heller agreed to talk about the subject of “How I Came to Write,” he said “that’s one of the few things left that I know about.” To wannabe novelists in the audience, the 75-year-old Heller, now deceased, proclaimed that “it’s good to be a writer in America because all you need is some envelopes and postage and some bad luck.” Bad luck? Well, the kind that leaves the writer feeling so lonely and isolated that he has plenty of time to fantasize on paper. Heller’s first book took four years to complete, and just as Catch-18 (the original title) was about to be published, suddenly, hot off the presses came Leon Uris’ Mila 18. Heller’s editor told him to get a new title, plunging him into a three-month gloom – until he realized he could just change the number! Mila 18 has come and gone, but the notion of a “catch-22” has entered the permanent American lexicon.

In a panel on war, Heller, Philip Caputo, and Robert Stone, three of America’s great war novelists, looked back on their 60’s and 70’s books and traded war stories. Heller was briefly a bombardier in WWII, Caputo had served in Viet Nam, and Stone was a journalist there, and the three mark the turn from the realistic war novel to the absurdist war novel in America.

What a surprise to hear Heller say he did not share the horror of war of his Catch-22 character, Yossarian, and that the book was written from a political stance which he developed only later. Actually, said Heller, he was 19, and war, to a young man who’d never left his New York borough, was a heady thing. Caputo -- whose 1977 novel, A Rumor of War, depicts its horrors – found himself saying that “part of me loved the war,” referring to the exhilaration and the moments ripe for leadership and heroism. Stone, who won the National Book Award for his 1974 Dog Soldiers, stood by the paradox that “war corrupts everything…yet somehow, it ennobles too.”

For those who care about warring truths, and truths that cannot be articulated easily, this sort of intimacy with the novelist struggling with himself and the universe brings literate audiences to the edge of their seats. And when the panel finished, there was still the walk together down the block for tea and sunset with the authors.

Where previous years have looked at such themes as children’s literature, the memoir, science and literature, poetry, biography and the spirit of place, last year, I attended again because the theme was humor, and the state of the world left me in need of some. While none of the authors claimed to have the secrets of humor writing, most of them seemed to have the gift – perhaps a disposition from birth – so that we laughed our way through sessions and into the evenings with America’s Poet Laureate, Billy Collins, with Roy Blount, Jr., with Dave Barry and Gary Trudeau, Nora Ephron, Wendy Wasserstein, and Molly Ivins, among others.    

So there is it. Reasons why people come back again and again.

Closing Remarks

The Annual Key West Literary Seminar was, until somewhat recently, a well-kept secret, but these days, the next year is nearly sold out even before the current seminar takes place, so the cat is out of the bag. (According to legend, that would be a descendent of one of Hemingway’s six-toed cats, except that Hemingway’s son Patrick, who grew up at what is now called The Hemingway House at 907 Whitehead Street, says there were absolutely no six-toed cats. None.)

When a conference is as exciting, as richly scheduled, and staffed by such dedicated and literate people as this one, there is hardly time to indulge in the locale. So do plan an extra two days for the “Duval stroll,” for sampling the Key lime pie, the homemade sapodilla ice cream at Flamingo Crossing, the conch fritters, the café con leche from the window of a little Cuban grocery. Take a sunset cruise on the sleek and mighty America replica, or stargaze with Joe Universe, an astronomer, from the two-masted schooner, the Western Union. Take a kayak into the quiet mangroves. Visit Mel Fisher’s emeralds and gold bullion bars from the sunken 17th century galleon, the Atocha, and then square that with the new and swashbuckling Pirate’s Soul Museum. Go to the Key West Aquarium to watch your favorite seafood alive or to pet a juvenile sand shark. Bicycle around the island, taking in the architecture of “eyebrow” houses and “shotgun” houses as you check out the gingerbread balustrades and porticos for the ones with violins or peace symbols carved into the wood.

And before the corporate stores and the millionaires, who have discovered Key West, take over entirely, let the perfumes of the island – the frangipani, the bougainvillea, and the jasmine – waft over you as you imbibe the mystery and the history of this place at the bottom of the country, with its shipwrecks and salvage, its shrimping and deep sea fishing, its cigar manufacturing, its wealth gained and lost, its collapse and restoration…

The 2007 seminar, scheduled for January 11-14, is titled “Wondrous Strange: Mystery, Intrigue, and Psychological Drama,” and will run once again from early morning until nearly midnight, with irrepressible luminaries, with dinners and receptions and book signings. Longtime Executive Director Miles Frieden, who makes it all seem effortless, says that people come “as a community of readers and writers, a nomadic tribe gathering each year to celebrate the written word, to honor our best lights, and to proclaim that literature still matters."



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