Posts Tagged ‘Paper under the Palms’


Early Key West Account Found in Charleston

07/22/2014  by Arlo Haskell  1 Comment
David Henry Mordecai, 1849 ey West travel diary

Page three of David Henry Mordecai’s 1849 travel diary, including his sketch of “a cocoanut tree.” From the Lowcountry Digital Library of the College of Charleston. (Click for the complete digitized version.)

One of the earliest known travelogues of the Florida Keys and Key West has been uncovered in South Carolina at the College of Charleston. It establishes, among other things, that Key West’s reputation for drunkenness and questionable behavior has done nothing to dissuade talented writers from visiting the place for 165 years.

The 1849 account is contained within the pages of a diary written by a fifteen-year-old boy named David Henry Mordecai. He was the son of Moses Cohen Mordecai, a prominent South Carolina businessman and politician whose shipping company held a contract to supply Key West with delivery of the United States Mail. Prior to the Civil War, Mordecai’s “Isabel,” a three-masted paddle steamer, represented a vital connection between Key West and the outside world, providing twice-monthly mail, cargo, and passenger service to Charleston and Havana.

Donated to the College of Charleston as part of the Thomas J. Tobias Papers in 1994 and added to their Lowcountry Digital Library in 2010, young David’s handwritten document transmits an impressive breadth of sense-impressions and acute observation. And though the section devoted to the Keys is just four pages long, its detail makes it one of the important documents of Key West’s early history.

As the diary begins, Mordecai describes his surprise at sailing through the wild and fecund waters of the Florida Straits, while acknowledging the armed conflict then underway between the U.S. government and Florida’s native population:

     About noon we passed a part of the gulf stream, this is a great natural curiosity for it is a current running north I believe about 60 miles broad and its waters are of a different color than the ocean and they do not mingle with it. I am ignorant of the cause. In the stream we saw turtles, sharks, flying fish & some dolphins. During all this day we sailed along the Florida Coast and passed two keys belonging to Father one called Indian Key and the other Salt Key. Indian Key has some houses of fishermen upon it. We also passed Cape Florida and the place where stood the light house in which the keeper was smoked by the Indians in the Seminole War.

Upon arriving in Key West, Mordecai conducts a survey of the island and its natural and man-made features:

     About 7:00 we arrived at Key West an island and a safe place for vessels in distress. It contains about 3,000 inhabitants. We walked about the place and here I first saw a cocoanut tree. It is beautiful from 50 – 60 – 70 feet high and no leaves except at the top… All the tropical fruits grow in Key West except the Orange which does not thrive on account of the Salt air. The houses are some wood and some stone all with piazzas and no chimneys except in some kitchens or placed for ornament for they never need fires there.

Finally, Mordecai turns to the inhabitants, describing the human character of the frontier island, whose remoteness from the rest of the world his father’s shipping company had just begun to lessen:

     We strolled along the different places and found in almost every place men as drunk as they could be. The population is composed of but few really respectable persons, a great many wreckers, sailors and negroes who when they get a chance generally take more than their fill in intoxicating drinks.

Mordecai left for Cuba the next day and filled the remaining 150 pages of his diary with vivid and arresting descriptions whose sound composition belies his young age. The precocious youth would soon go off to Harvard, where he presumably met some “really respectable persons,” and travel widely throughout Europe and North Africa. He died, tragically, at 25.

Mordecai & Co.'s three-masted paddle steamer, the "Isabel," provided mail service to Key West during the years before the Civil War.

Mordecai & Co.’s three-masted paddle steamer, the “Isabel,” provided mail service to Key West during the years before the Civil War. From the Monroe County Public Library in Key West.

Major Archive Donated to Key West Library

10/10/2013  by Arlo Haskell  3 Comments

A General Order to raise the American flag over the island of Key West, issued by Commodore David Porter on April 6, 1823. From the Scott De Wolfe Collection, Monroe County Public Library, Key West. Click for original document.

The Monroe County Public Library in Key West is the new owner of a major historical collection following a ceremony this morning in the Florida Keys History Room. Local dignitaries including City of Key West Mayor Craig Cates and Monroe County Mayor Pro-Tem Heather Carruthers attended along with representatives of cultural organizations and members of the media as the Key West Maritime Historical Society officially presented the Scott De Wolfe Collection—amassed by the obsessive Maine collector during the past fifteen years and recently purchased by an anonymous donor—as an outright gift to the library for the benefit of the public.

Key West 1865

Photo of Wall Street from above, showing the W.H. Wall and Company Building and, in the background, Front Street’s Louvre Hotel. Circa 1865.

The De Wolfe Collection—seven boxes containing thousands of documents dating to Key West’s earliest history—is considered by local historians to hold some of the island city’s most important historical records. Among them are the 1823 letter (reproduced at top) from Commodore David Porter of the United States Navy. Called “Key West’s Magna Carta” by local librarian Nancy Klingener, the letter orders a seventeen-gun salute and the raising of the American flag over “Allenton,” which was Porter’s preferred name for what had previously been known as Thompson’s Island, and which is now much better and more suitably known as Key West.

The collection includes historically significant items ranging from nineteenth-century street scenes and stereoscopes to early color postcards and cigar-box labels to court transcripts from the trial of legendary Key West Fire-Chief-crook Joseph “Bum” Farto.  Announcement was also made this morning that Monroe County will fund the creation of a new Archivist position at the library to ensure for the correct care and cataloging of this and other important library resources.

Scroll down for selected images from the collection and click to link to full-size versions or go to flickr to browse the Scott De Wolfe Collection at the Monroe County Public Library, Key West.

R. M. Roberts of 1606 Pierce Street with two unknown persons. Photo by Burgert Brothers, circa 1900.

A street scuffle in front of the El Polaco restaurant, circa 1900. “El Polaco” was the nickname for Carlos Roloff Mialofsky, the popular Polish-Jewish hero of the Cuban Ten Years War and War for Cuban Independence.


Revolutionary Letters on Love Lane

09/16/2013  by Arlo Haskell  1 Comment
1892 Map of Key West's Love Lane

The Spanish-language publishing house of La Propaganda can be seen on this 1892 map of Key West’s Love Lane neighborhood. Click for full-size view.

Key West’s Love Lane begins in the shadow of the public library on Fleming Street and runs south for a single block to Southard Street. Not quite a right-of-way, the crooked alley doglegs through private property near its middle, where you’ll find the offices of the Key West Literary Seminar and Sand Paper Press. The lane’s literary character goes back much further, to the heady days of the Cuban Revolution nearly 125 years ago, when the Spanish-language press known as La Propaganda operated out of a single-story frame house located at 730 Love Lane.

La Propaganda was closely allied with the 19th-century Cuban Revolutionary Party led by José Martí, a charismatic orator, influential poet, and brilliant politician. More than a generation before Fidel Castro, Martí sought to free Cuba from Spanish rule and establish a democratic state founded on humanist ideals, where people of all races and creeds would live as equals. The populist movement’s heart and soul lay in Key West, where roughly half of the island’s population was born in Cuba or had at least one Cuban parent.

Shortly after the armed phase of the Cuban War for Independence began in 1895, the Love Lane press issued a twenty-five-page tract entitled The Cuban Revolution and the Colored Race. Released under the anonymous byline “a Cuban without hatred,” the book offers an overview of race relations in Cuba under Spanish rule and promises that blacks and whites will have an equal say in the governance of an independent Cuba. Today we know the book to have been the work of Manuel de la Cruz, a poet, essayist, and biographer who was active in Key West during the period.

Revolucion y la Raza, Imprenta la Propaganda, Key West

Title page for “The Cuban Revolution and the Colored Race,” published by Love Lane’s La Propaganda Press in 1895. Harvard University Library.

Typographical similarities suggest that La Propaganda may also have published the text of an important speech delivered by General Carlos Roloff Mialofsky. Roloff was a Polish-born refugee from the Russian Empire and embodied the democratic mien of the party, which also counted Afro-Cuban, Dominican, Mexican, French, and American generals among its leadership. Roloff’s 1892 address “To the Honorable Council of the Revolutionary Party and its Allies,” included a visceral appeal to Key West’s growing population of Eastern European Jewish immigrants who, like Roloff, had fled the tyranny of Tsarist Russia and who came to provide financial and military support for the Cuban cause.

In 1896, La Propaganda issued The Cuban War (Its First Year), a meticulous, often day-by-day narrative account of the progress of the war from February 1895 to February of 1896. Author Lorenzo G. Del Portillo summarizes the war’s notable battles, including the tragic death of Martí at Dos Ríos on May 19, and provides a financial accounting of the war to-date.

After nearly four years of fighting and the last-minute involvement of the United States, Cuba was officially granted its independence in December of 1898, leading thousands of Cubans to leave Key West and resettle in their newly free homeland. The Love Lane printing press of La Propaganda probably relocated around this same time to Havana, where a publishing house of the same name continued to operate in the years following Cuba’s independence.

Elmore Leonard: Seldom a Mystery

09/11/2013  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post
Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard, in an undated publicity photo provided to KWLS in 1988.

We note the passing, last month, of Elmore Leonard, acknowledged master of crime fiction and one of the most influential writers of his time. He was 87.

Leonard joined us in Key West twenty-five years ago for the 1988 Seminar, “Whodunit? The Art & Tradition of Mystery Literature.” It was our first foray into crime fiction and Dutch, as Leonard’s friends knew him, was quick to call attention to the oversimplification of his work implied by so-called mystery writing. “I’ve come to accept,” Leonard wrote to program coordinator Les Standiford in the letter included here, “that what I do lies somewhere in the ‘mystery’ field, though there is seldom a mystery as to what’s going on in my plot or who done it—if in fact it’s even done. But I do deal with crime and that’s what we’re talking about really: works in which crime motivates the plot.”

Leonard’s career had taken off in the early 1980s as Hollywood producers discovered the lucrative potential for screen adaptations of his work. But his relationship with Hollywood was an uneasy one. “Dealing with Hollywood can be fun—” Leonard cracked, in preparatory notes for a KWLS panel discussion entitled “Mystery Literature and Adaptation into Film,” “’til you write the first draft. My advice: Refuse to be picked up at the airport in a limo. Otherwise, if you walk out of the meeting you won’t have any transportation.”

Speaking onstage at the seminar with novelist Donald Westlake and film critics Sheila Benson and Richard P. Sugg, Leonard went into more detail on the aesthetic compromises that working in Hollwood required. “The major mistake that producers make,” said the novelist, whose gritty realism earned him a reputation as “the Dickens of Detroit,” “is to cast stars in the role of characters who were never written as stars and were never meant to be stars.”

Leonard continued to create work for television and film throughout his life. But he’ll be remembered as a writer of books, a humbler form that better withstands the mutability of fashion and popular culture. “I’d like to write a good screenplay, but I’m not sure I ever will,” Leonard told us in 1988, with a touch of longing. “But that’s o.k., because honestly, I get lots of satisfaction—actually I get all my satisfaction—out of writing books.”

Elmore Leonard letter to Les Standiford 1987

A letter from Elmore Leonard to Les Standiford, June 16, 1987. Click for full-size view.

Print under the Palms: of days & presses gone

07/31/2013  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post

Players are going to play, and writers are going to write, but once upon a time writers depended upon an arsenal of heavy machinery and skilled technicians to bring their words to readers’ eyes. Herewith, a tribute to the backstage heroes that brought prose to the island city back when spilling coffee on your laptop meant you had to change your pants and a font could be held in the hand.

All images via the Monroe County Public Library; click for full-size versions at their excellent Flickr site.

Linotype workers at the Key West Citizen, circa 1960.

Linotype workers at the Key West Citizen, circa 1960.

The printing office at the United States Naval Station, Key West.

The printing office at the United States Naval Station, building 101.

Linotype press operator at the Key West Citizen, circa 1960.

Linotype worker, Key West Citizen.

Linotype worker, Key West Citizen.


Immortal Bird / Delinquent Library Patron

06/14/2011  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post

Another paper treasure from the Key West library: the last library card of great American playwright Tennessee Williams; paired with the “urgent request” to return an overdue biography of John Keats, whose “Ode to a Nightingale,” includes the line “Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!”

Tennessee Williams's library card

Tennessee, nicknamed “Bird” by Gore Vidal, may have had good reason for missing this due date. His death came in a hotel room in New York just one month later. Keats seems pitch-perfect reading for that final winter of 1982-83:

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
    My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
    One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
    But being too happy in thine happiness, —
       That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,
         In some melodious plot
    Of beechen green, and shadows numberless
       Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

from “Ode to a Nightingale,” John Keats

Lanford Wilson, 1937-2011

03/25/2011  by Arlo Haskell  1 Comment
Lanford Wilson photo by Diane Gorodnitzk.

Photo by Diane Gorodnitzki

Lanford Wilson died this week. The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright was 73.

Wilson participated in the Seminar twice, first in 1986 for an event dedicated to the work of Tennessee Williams; and again in 1990, for “New Directions in American Theater.” He served as an adviser to our board for the latter, and in this capacity wrote the letter reproduced here to then-director Monica Haskell. The “very private comments” it contains consist of frank, snapshot assessments of Wilson’s peers—among them Don DeLillo, Christopher Durang, Wendy Wasserstein, JoAnne Aikalitis, Terrance McNally, and August Wilson. Click the image below to read the letter in its entirety.

Letter from Lanford Wilson: "A few very private comments about the people you are asking down. Delillo wrote one very strange play and he's know, I guess, but he is hardly a theater person..."

Click to view in full size.


Hildegard Ott Russell’s Spanish Limes

07/17/2009  by Arlo Haskell  2 Comments


Alongside Key West’s tradition of acclaimed writers-in-residence like Elizabeth Bishop and Wallace Stevens lies the output of obscure authors whose work met the world through small press and self-publishing ventures. We found this autographed copy of Hildegard Ott Russell’s 1964 Spanish Limes an’ I got ’em Sweet at Bargain Books on Truman Avenue about two years ago, during one of that once-venerable bookseller’s restructurings of inventory that consistently result in a steeper pornography-to-poetry ratio.

The collection of 100 poems appears to have brought together more than 30 years of Russell’s previously published and new work. It includes a foreword by Florida Poet Laureate Vivian Yeiser Laramore Rader and six silhouette cuttings by Phoebe Hazelwood Morse. No press name is given and it is likely that Russell, a former teacher of creative writing at Key West High School, paid for the printing herself, expertly done by the Artman family at Florida Keys Star. Beneath its dust jacket, the sewn book is hardbound in green cloth, illustrated with the same Morse cutting. It is unknown how many were printed.

Russell’s title poem refers to the practice, still common today, of young boys selling bunches of Spanish limes which they’ve cut from trees around town. Known as ganip or canip in much of the Caribbean, the Spanish lime (Melicoccus bijugatus, seen on Ashe Street below), bears bunches of ripe fruit nearly the size of a ping-pong ball from July through September. The rigid green skin is typically cracked with the teeth to reveal the delicious sweet-sour pulp surrounding a single large pit. The trees, with silvery bark and thick, light green foliage, are among the largest in Key West.


    Spanish Limes
    Hildegard Ott Russell

    Black boys are calling their limes,
    “Got ’em sweet as honey of bees!”
    While St. Paul marks the hour with chimes.
    Black boys are calling their limes,
    Where men roll their accents in rhymes
    Under almond and flaming trees.
    Black boys are calling their limes,
    “Got ’em sweet as honey of bees!”

John Malcolm Brinnin to Octavio Paz, 1991

12/02/2008  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post

Click the image below for a full-size reproduction of the letter John Malcolm Brinnin wrote to Octavio Paz on October 13, 1991. Brinnin recalls the first time he and Paz met, in 1972 in Elizabeth Bishop’s Cambridge apartment, and invites Paz to be the keynote speaker of the 1993 Key West Literary Seminar.


Tony Hillerman

10/31/2008  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post

Tony Hillerman. Photographer unknown.

Tony Hillerman, bestselling author of detective novels set set among the Navajos of the Southwest, died last Sunday at 83. You can read his obituary in The New York Times here. It was written by Marilyn Stasio, who also wrote this piece for PaperCuts about meeting Hillerman at the 1988 Key West Literary Seminar, where they discussed Hemingway while leaning against the pink stuccoed wall of the La Concha.

Below is a reproduction of a letter Hillerman wrote on personal stationary to Les Standiford, the coordinator for our 1988 Seminar, Whodunit?, dedicated to the art and tradition of mystery literature.

Click to enlarge.

John Malcolm Brinnin’s
Travel And The Sense Of Wonder

10/09/2008  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post


We are proud to issue John Malcolm Brinnin’s Travel And The Sense Of Wonder as the second in our series of digital reproductions of obscure, hard-to-find, or just plain interesting books which have particular relevance to Key West letters (Harry Mathews’s Epithalamium was the first). The text of this 24-page staple-bound pamphlet, originally published in 1992 by the Library of Congress as part of the Center For The Book’s Viewpoint Series, reproduces Brinnin’s keynote address from our 1991 Seminar, Literature of Travel: A Sense of Place, and includes an introduction by KWLS founding member William Robertson. Brinnin’s essay is a deceptively simple discussion of the role of "the sense of wonder" in the impulse to travel, and "the spirit of investigation" required for said sense to "get off its aspirations and go to work." With characteristic good humor and disarming eloquence, Brinnin recounts his late-career transformation from a poet and literary critic ("one of those charity cases") into a chronicler of ocean liners and social change, revealing along the way a remarkable sensitivity toward the wondrous capacities of language.

John Malcolm Brinnin was a poet, biographer, critic, anthologist, and teacher. The director of the Young Men’s and Young Women’s Hebrew Association Poetry Center (the 92nd Street Y) in New York City from 1949-1956, he became friends with many prominent 20th century poets including Elizabeth Bishop, Octavio Paz, Richard Wilbur, and Dylan Thomas. His Dylan Thomas in America recounts Brinnin’s friendship with the Welsh poet and the reading tour which ended with Thomas’s death. Brinnin also wrote several collections of poetry, biographies of Gertrude Stein (The Third Rose, 1959) and Truman Capote (Truman Capote: Dear Heart, Old Buddy, 1986), a critical work on William Carlos Williams, and The Sway of the Grand Saloon: A Social History of the North Atlantic (1971). His behind-the-scenes influence on a number of writers was significant, if insufficiently recognized by the broader public. As a resident of Key West in the 1980s and 1990s, he was a crucial influence on the nascent Seminar, and was particularly responsible for the success of our tribute to Elizabeth Bishop in 1993, as he called on a lifetime of friendships to gather together the writers and friends who knew Bishop and her work best. He died in Key West in 1998.

We thank the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Brinnin’s copyright-holder, for their permission to reproduce this work; the University of Delaware Library’s Special Collections Department, whose John Malcom Brinnin Papers are a resource for Brinnin scholars; and David Wolkowsky.

Click the image above to view the book as a series of images in a popup window. Click here to download a .pdf (12.4 MB).

From the John Hersey Printing Office

10/02/2008  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post


This small broadside was designed and printed by John Hersey in 1969, and reprinted in 1993 by the Fellows of Pierson College at the John Hersey Printing Office.

Hersey, a Pulitzer Prize winner whose Hiroshima chronicles the destruction of that Japanese city in the wake of an American atomic bomb, lived in Key West with his wife Barbara for many years. Each was a good and longtime friend who did much good for the Seminar, and we honor John each year with our keynote spech, the John Hersey Memorial Address.

As master of Yale University’s Pierson College, Hersey operated the college’s printing press. Our investigation reveals a storied history of letterpress printing at Yale, fears for its extinction with the advent of desktop publishing, and a heroic revival by turn-of-the-century book-arts devotees. But there seems to be nothing on the web about the Yale Presses, or the John Hersey Printing Office, since 2002. Does anyone out there know anything more? Here’s what we found about the Pierson Press; and about Yale’s letterpress tradition. Click the image to enlarge.

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