ON THE ROAD WITH ANN – One Human Family in Key West

Key West has the stately palm trees, brilliant bougainvillea, azure blue sea, dazzling sunsets found throughout Florida, but it differs from much of the state in many ways.

LITERARY – A remote island of only five square miles, Key West has an intriguing literary heritage. Here are only some of the writers who have lived and worked here: Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, John Ciardi, John Hersey, Richard Wilbur, Alison Lurie, Joy Williams, Richard Wilbur, Annie Dillard,  James Merrill, Judy Blume, and, from Quebec, Marie Claire Blais.

And each January, Key West becomes temporary home for several dozen of the most celebrated writers in North America. This year, the Key West Literary Seminar celebrated its 30th anniversary with a surfeit of literary riches, among them Joyce Carol Oates, Gary Shteyngart, Michael Cunningham, Billy Collins, James Tate and Toronto’s literary icon and defender of public libraries, Margaret Atwood, whose Handmaid’s Tale we discussed. We had the great good fortune of hearing Margaret Atwood speak twice. It is a wonder that Atwood is both ubiquitous and unbeliveably prolific. No surprise she did not take up my invitation to join us for a drink or meal but, astonighly, she found time to pen a personal note of regret.

It is unclear why Key West became a literary Mecca, but is worth noting that Cuban cigar makers in the mid-19th century hired lectores to read to the often illiterate workers in both English and Spanish everything from Cuban newspapers to Shakespeare and Dumas.

OTHER SURPRISES– I could go on, in a similar vein, about Key West’s rich artistic life, its surprising clapboard and gingerbread houses reminiscent of New England, its home in 1832 of John James Audubon while he sighted and drew 18 new birds, the Truman Little White House, which served as the winter White House of President Harry S. Truman and a site for the Cold War response by later presidents.

MOST IMPORTANT – Key West’s official philosophy, adopted in 2000, is ONE HUMAN FAMILY. City of Key West proclaimed, “We truly believe that all people are our equals during our short lives here on Earth, and we are dismayed to see misleading ‘us versus them’ viewpoints presented to us daily in the media, entertainment and news. We want to proclaim that the truth, as we see it, is that there is no ‘them,’ there is just ‘us,’ all of us, together as ‘One Human Family,’ now and forever.”  We saw this in action.

OUR TRIP – Piggy-backing on the theme of the Key West Literary Seminar, “Yet Another World,” we spent our several days together exploring ideas of Dystopias, Utopias and Imagined Worlds, using two books, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees” as well as our remote and arguably utopian destination where not many people are born but choose to uproot and radically change their lifestyles to live. We had the good fortune of being hosted by George Fontana, a Boston transplant, who invited a dozen of his friends to talk with us about both the carrot and stick aspects of their decision to relocate to Key West and how it has worked out. (For all of them, it has been a thoroughly positive experience.) We sailed and ate and and talked and walked and…

TAKEAWAY – In our consideration of utopias, dystopias and imagined places, we each took away our own personal interpretation of the books we discussed and the experiences we had. Here, in a nutshell, are mine. Identifying and pursuing ideals are a natural and essential part of being alive. But when pushed to perfection, there are inevitable, unforeseen consequences that are often worse than the ills they were intended to address.  That is when utopian ideals drift into dystopian horrors. But resignation to an unsatisfactory status quo is essentially giving up on life. The middle way is always hard to find and to justify, because there is no clearly defensible line in the sand. The people of Key West seem to have found this way and offer an inspiring example to the rest of us.

The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino — One of the nicest ways to get away from it all is to go climb a tree—every child knows that. Seen from a stout limb and framed in shade, the world seems a safer and more interesting place. But sooner or later the child must come down to earth. In this novel, the hero never comes down. In 1767, 12-year-old Baron Cosimo Piavosco di Rondo refuses to eat the snails he’s been served at table and, in an Italian snit, takes to the trees. He spends the rest of his considerably long life in the trees in protest against his father and his family, then society in general. Related by his younger, more practical, down-to-earth (literally) brother, Cosimo’s life in the trees is steeped in history, philosophy and politics while at the same managing everyday existence in ingenious ways. The book seemed to me to be a sustained meditation on the role of the intellectual, alternating active participation in society’s delights and duties with independent study and  thought, ever true to his principles.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – In her dystopian vision of life in the United States in the period projecting forward from the time of the writing (1985), Atwood sought to demonstrate that extremist views might result in fundamentalist totalitarianism. Now, over 25 years since its publication, this bleak yet witty novel seems ever more vital in the present day. Atwood has always maintained that the novel is not classifiable science fiction, because nothing practiced in the Republic of Gilead is genuinely futuristic. She has simply amalgamated circumstances existing somewhere in the world in one frightening society. While the society Atwood conceived is a patriarchal theocracy, the book is a more general reminder of how power corrupts and morality is flexible.

STAY TUNED – Videographer Christina Skillman from Summerville MA was in Key West with Francis McGovern and Carly Cassano of Literary Traveler. Christina spent two days following us around so we will be better able to show as well as tell what is special about a Classical Pursuits trip.

MEANWHILE – Enjoy a slide show of our trip to Key West.

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