Sunday, April 13, 2014

To Have and Have Not

In 1937 Ernest Hemingway published what even he called his, worst book. Critics agreed. It was a hodge-podge of short stories and a novella pasted together. He had lost his way after Farewell to Arms. Disappointing as the novel was you have to admire the title.

The name was about all that remained when Hollywood got through with it in 1944. Cuba, the setting in the book, became Martinique, under control of the Vichy government. Warner Brothers’ Howard Hawks tried to reincarnate Bogart’s Rick from Casablanca and give it a WW II twist. After all Casablanca was cash in the bank. In this version Bogey runs a small fishing boat in the Caribbean. The studio enlisted Hemingway’s rival, William Faulkner, to weigh in on the script and cast Hoagy Carmichael at the piano to play it again, Sam like Dooley Wilson to whom it was never quite said in the first place. The result owed more to Casablanca than Hemingway’s novel but was far more than a hill of beans.

The most memorable moments were Bogey’s liaison with Lauren Bacall. She was a sultry 19 year-old model from the Bronx who taught 45 year-old Bogart how to whistle. Just put your lips together and blow, became the most enduring line from the movie. They sizzled on screen and off in marriage till in death did he part in 1957.

The title had a double meaning or so it seems to me. The clear intention was to draw a distinction between the filthy rich and the great unwashed. However if an individual is to both have and have not anything it strikes me that it gets to a more metaphysical plane. To have achieved a measure of success or security is an illusory state which usually begs for more. You have it and you don’t. It’s never quite enough.

In any case the Haves and Have-Nots might be a caption for our times. The gap grows wider abetted by the High Court, stoked by Congress and fueled by Wall St. The top 1% own 40% of our country’s wealth while the bottom 80% own just 7%. The disparity has never been greater. The wealth of the Walton (Walmart) family alone is equal to the bottom 40% (140 million) Americans.

The numbers are numbing and headed south. They only hint at the human toll. The security and privilege that comes with wealth translates into political power. This insures continued domination of our policies and instruments of decision-making. Middle class stagnation can lead to a loss of personal empowerment. Many Americans have grown dispirited, alienated and cynical which removes them further from the agencies of possible change. The landscape of our youth exists only in the rear-view mirror. We have witnessed the slow collapse and disappearance of family farms, factories, downtown stores and inner cities. Morals have been bent so that greed is admired and with it corruption is a normal way of doing business, particularly in Washington.

Bogart seemed to know what was coming. The hard-boiled cynic finds his moral compass joining with the cause of the French Resistance. How far has our ship of state strayed? Seventy years later we have richer Haves and far more Have-Nots.

This country has been through many storms. Every generation or two we seem to experience a sea change of a sort. Yet out of the wreckage something new and unforeseen emerges. As Wallace Stevens wrote, There is a substance in us that prevails.

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