Surveillance at the Finca: Further Implications of Brasch & Sigman’s Hemingway’s Library

Posted on: April 15th, 2014 by Wayne Fraser 1 Comment

With a simple Google search, one can quickly establish the contribution to Hemingway scholarship of James D. Brasch & Joseph Sigman’s Hemingway’s Library: The Composite Record (Garland, 1981). Hundreds of hits appear, mostly bibliographical, indicating that any exploration of Hemingway’s writing requires reference to the books Hemingway read and hence to Brasch and Sigman’s bibliography. This manuscript is now available online, thanks to the generosity of its authors and the efforts of The John F. Kennedy Library.

Few people know, however, the story behind the creation of this valuable resource. As a student of Brasch & Sigman in the late 60s and again at the Graduate level in 1974-75, I was in on the story from its inception and have heard, over the intervening years, Jim Brasch recount the details of their adventure. Brasch has emphasized the complications and the levels of bureaucratic obfuscation the two men encountered. In this short article, I will share a few of these backstories which lead to intriguing speculations about the state of the library at the Finca Vigia and suggest avenues for research into the influence of Hemingway’s reading on the development of his craft.

In 1971, Emily Watts’ book, Ernest Hemingway and the Arts, raised awareness of and interest in the influence of painters, particularly Cezanne, on Hemingway’s writing. Michael Reynolds’ early explorations (1976 & 1980) offered excellent insights into the influence of Hemingway’s reading on his writing, but Reynolds never had access to Hemingway’s actual books. Furthermore, the many descriptions of Hemingway’s early years in Paris rarely explored the rich poetic milieu in which his artistic talents developed. A recent documentary, “Paris: The Luminous Years” by Perry Miller Adato, shown on PBS, illustrates the Paris of Hemingway’s time dominated by poets including Appollinaire, Eliot, Joyce, and Pound. How would the works of such poets have affected the young Hemingway’s writing? Woody Allen’s recent “Midnight in Paris” humorously but accurately highlights the rich mix of artistic influences in Paris of the 1920s. Hemingway’s library at the Finca Vigia reflects so much of this artistic development that an exploration of what Hemingway read, in the context of these recent insights and influences, could well shift the focus of Hemingway scholarship from increasingly minute details of Hemingway biography to deeper insight into the development of his craft.

The Library adventure had its origin in 1976, when Brasch & Sigman attended the Hemingway conference in Alabama. During the question and answer period after Mary Hemingway’s lively talk on the literary men in her life, cleverly omitting any mention of Hemingway, she referred to Hemingway reading the poems of Baudelaire to her at bedtime. Mary also commented that she and her husband always travelled with a huge bundle of books. She then referred to their extensive library still at the Finca and remarked that it was a shame that scholars did not explore the influence of Hemingway’s reading on his writing. Those hints by Mary suggested that Hemingway’s devotion to books was the aspect most seriously ignored by their biographers.

Brasch and Sigman spoke with Mary after the question period, pointing out that they were Canadians and therefore not prohibited from visiting Cuba as were the American scholars at the conference. The two Canadians asked if she would approve their admission to the Finca Vigia. Mary probably had her own agenda, yet nevertheless agreed on the spot to support their visit and promised to write a letter to Fidel Castro asking permission for them to catalogue the library. Neither Mary nor the two academics knew at the time that Castro had a sincere affection for Canada developed through his close friendship with Pierre and Margaret Trudeau and was most likely to give his permission. Castro’s little recognized admiration for Canada has recently been examined and recorded by Professor Robert Wright in his Three Nights in Havana, a book endorsed by James Hyndeman, the Canadian ambassador to Cuba in the 1970s who co-incidentally handed Mary Hemingway’s letter of request to Fidel Castro.

Castro’s permission secured, Brasch & Sigman arranged to visit the Finca on three consecutive days in early January 1977. During their inspection of the Finca library, many frustrating disruptions occurred. Their access to the house and its rooms changed, for on the first day they were free to roam unobserved just about anywhere, but on the second day they were watched closely, and passage to the basement of the main house, while open when they arrived, was now barred by step-ladders. One door off Hemingway’s bedroom remained sealed during their entire visit, while Mary’s bedroom was closed to them for renovations. The storage area of the adjoining guesthouse was completely forbidden to them. One of the Finca’s gardeners with dirt and grass still on his shoes was formally presented as the head curator of the property. Most frustrating, in retrospect, on that first day inside the Finca, Brasch had ventured half way down the basement stairs, but was driven back by the darkness he encountered. We all know now of the valuable stash of Hemingway letters and papers in that basement area; Brasch could have unearthed them on that January day in 1977.

Other incidents convinced Brasch and Sigman that they were distrusted by Cuban officials and were under close surveillance during their time in Cuba. They suspected this upon their first meeting with the Cubans who had agreed to take them to the Finca at 9am but did not show up until 4pm. Frustrated by the precious time lost, that evening Brasch and Sigman encouraged each other by recalling what Mary had told them about Hemingway reading Baudelaire to her. The next morning Brasch mentioned to Marta Arjona, director of the Finca museum at the time, that Mary’s statement about Baudelaire had sparked their interest in studying Hemingway’s books. Without taking a breath Ms Arjona said there were three copies of Baudelaire in the collection and pointed out where they were. The two academics were convinced by her ready response that she must have been aware of their conversation in the hotel room the evening before. In order to test the security of their hotel room, Brasch and Sigman arranged the contents of their luggage in such a way that they could tell upon return to their room, that their bags were searched daily. Since they were convinced that their room was both bugged and searched, they spent many hours comparing notes and developing plans while seated on an isolated stretch of Marazul beach. Even there they were constantly followed. As well, they were often approached by Cubans asking them to purchase electronic and other goods at the government stores which are for tourists only, but they refused, not wanting to jeopardize their mission in any way. Finally, museum staff prevented them from visiting the Finca on the third day to catalogue the record collection. The delays and cancellations and surveillance greatly hampered their efforts to catalogue the Finca library.

One of the most disturbing incidents took place in the Havana airport as Brasch and Sigman prepared to return to Canada. Brasch had arranged his hand luggage so he could take advantage of prepackaged parcels of duty-free rum at the airport. When he tried to slip the rum into his carry-on, he discovered there was no room. In the space he had reserved for the rum he found a large sophisticated East German Leica camera, apparently inserted during an incident of “loss” of the luggage on the way to the airport. Fearing close scrutiny by airport security at that time dominated by Russians, Brasch threw the camera to an empty corner of the waiting area. He admits he wasn’t thinking clearly, so shaken was he by the discovery after days of relentless scrutiny; whether the camera had been placed in his luggage purposely or accidentally, Brasch just wanted the camera away from him as quickly as possible. His luggage was then cleared through customs.

Several days after returning home he called a former student who worked for a travel agency, and she discovered that the camera was in the lost and found at Toronto’s Pearson airport. No one knew how it got there, but she was able to arrange for Brasch to retrieve the camera. He finished the roll of film already in the camera and had it developed. The few pictures from Cuba were of groups of people standing rather formally at what appeared to be a gallery exhibition. Brasch deduced from the photos that the camera belonged to Marta Arjona, and he mailed copies of these pictures to her, explaining how he came to be in possession of the pictures and the camera, and offering to return the camera on his next visit to Cuba. Several months later he received a letter from Arjona, on plain lined paper, in a small handwritten script, thanking him for returning the pictures; the tone of the brief note made it clear that Brasch and Sigman would not be invited to return to the Finca. Brasch still has the camera and the letter.

Another disturbing incident occurred just after their return from Cuba; sitting in Brasch’s office at McMaster University, the two men disagreed on a small detail about the holdings in the library. To settle the matter, they decided to consult the 1200-page list of books, prepared by Cuban staff at the Finca library in 1966 for display at Expo ’67 in Montreal, a microfilmed copy of which had reached them through a German contact–another intriguing story, but not relevant to this one. This list, which Brasch and Sigman had taken with them to Cuba, was sitting in a cardboard box in the office. When Brasch opened the box, he found blank pages staring at him, 1200 blank pages. The implications hit Brasch and Sigman so compellingly that they sat in stunned silence for the better part of half an hour. The disappearance of the list—fortunately a copy of the original microfilm they had been given–made them realize how much they had been watched and tracked. An entire litany of incidents occurred to them, all pointing to the same conclusion: they had been constantly spied on, their hotel rooms bugged, their luggage searched. The reason behind the brief disappearance of their bags on the way to the airport was now apparent: someone stole the library list and substituted 1200 blank pages. During the process of this exchange, or while searching the luggage for possible theft from the Finca, someone, either inadvertently or purposely, must have placed Arjona’s camera into Brasch’s bag. It was clear that the Cubans had not trusted these two scholars and had been constantly monitoring, even frustrating, their research of Hemingway’s library.

Some bibliographical anomalies, however, have emerged from their exploration of the Finca library. The Composite Record of Hemingway’s Library prepared by Brasch and Sigman includes three rather curious texts. What interest would Hemingway have had in the following volumes?

Antonio Foresti, Mappamondo istorico, 13 volumes, published in Venice by Girolamo Albrizzi in 1695.

Pasqual Ramon Gutierrez de la Hacera, Descripcion general de la Europa, y particular de sus estados, ye cortes, especialmente de Espana, y Madrid antiquo y moderno, published in Madrid by Doblad in 1771.

Relatione della corte di Roma, published in Venice by Brigenci in 1664.

How do these books fit into any understanding of Hemingway’s creative process?

For example, all thirteen volumes of the Foresti were moved by Toby Bruce from Hemingway’s home in Key West to the Finca in the late 1930s. Why would Hemingway go to such lengths to hang on to them? Where did he get them? What possible use could Hemingway have had with such texts? Moreover, how have they survived the blistering heat and humidity of the Cuban climate? Indeed, are they still in the collection at the Finca Vigia? The list of the library’s holdings made by the Cuban staff indicates that these books were part of the collection in 1966.

Brasch and Sigman’s visit to the Finca in 1977 could not confirm that these books were still there, although Brasch made every effort to examine every old book he could see, for they were concerned about damage from dampness and bookworms. Originally, Brasch and Sigman had hoped to return to Cuba at a later date to film each and every book’s title page; consequently, during their first and ultimately only time there, they chose to read the titles of the first, middle and end books on each shelf, to compare their findings to the 1966 shelf list when they got back to McMaster. Brasch also photographed all the bookshelves, but the quality of the slides does not allow for close reading of the titles of texts. Where are those ancient tomes?

These ancient volumes lead to a number of questions about the present integrity of the library and about Hemingway’s craft. The project announced in 2002 to photograph Hemingway’s marginalia—a task Brasch and Sigman tried to arrange but refused by Marta Arjona–will perhaps shed some light on how Hemingway used these mysterious texts. Ernest Hemingway often initialed his comments in the margins of books. Such a survey could compare the inventory of the Finca library as it is today against Brasch and Sigman’s Composite Record or against the list made by the Cubans in 1966, to see if all the volumes are still there. If Adrian McKinty is giving us the true gen in his 2008 Times article, “Any book in Hemingway’s Library for $200,” there exists the real possibility that books have disappeared from the Finca. The possible toll of the Cuban climate is furthermore problematic. The lack of co-operation of Marta Arjona as experienced by Brasch and Sigman, and clearly documented by Rene Villarreal in his recent memoir, The Cuban Son, raises serious questions about the integrity and maintenance of the library. Hopefully, however, a close examination of the Finca library might reveal that these valuable ancient books were safely removed long ago to the excellent facilities at the Jose Marti Library.

The adventure of Brasch and Sigman in their pursuit of the books owned by Ernest Hemingway emphasizes the necessity for haste in preserving the Finca library. Scholarly exploration of the books on those shelves, with Hemingway’s signed marginalia, would enhance our understanding of the literary influences, rather than details of the author’s life, on Hemingway’s craft. A short anecdote will suggest the further implications of Brasch and Sigman’s Hemingway’s Library. Adeline Tintner, in a personal letter, enthusiastically praised the work of Brasch and Sigman in compiling Hemingway’s Library as “the greatest contribution to Hemingway studies that has ever been made . . . not only useful in itself but . . . [in] the cause of other uses.” Tintner states that her own work on “the impact of Henry James on Hemingway could never have been completed with any kind of authority if [she] had not had recourse to the Brasch-Sigman volume.” As well she could not have written of the link between Edith Wharton and Hemingway, and between D’Annunzio and Hemingway, “without the library volume.” But beyond her own academic use, Tintner explained, in private conversation with Brasch, that in the early 1980s she touted Hemingway’s Library to Leon Edel who immediately responded that he would undertake to compile the Library of Henry James. Tintner’s acknowledgements point to the rich material available for scholarly research in the libraries of all our writers. Writers are readers. Readers need to know what writers are reading and how they are reading them. To quote Tintner’s letter again, Brasch and Sigman’s Hemingway’s Library “has single-handedly changed the popular conception of Hemingway as purely an outdoor man without literary inclinations, to a ‘ferociously literary’ one, a phrase Henry James used about himself

. . . and Hemingway’s list [of books] is almost four times longer than James’s.” In her introduction to the Letters of Ernest Hemingway, Sandra Spanier suggests that “the letters represent the last great unexplored frontier of Hemingway studies.” Perhaps, but Hemingway’s library, especially the books currently at the Finca Vigia with his signed marginalia, remains the great undiscovered country for Hemingway studies. Too much time has elapsed since Brasch and Sigman’s exploration of the Finca. The library at the Finca Vigia is the key to the next level of understanding how his reading shaped the craft of his writing.
Works Cited


Brasch, James D. and Joseph Sigman. Hemingway’s Library: A Composite Record. Garland, 1981.

Reynolds, Michael S. Hemingway’s First War: The Making of “A Farewell to Arms.” Princeton, 1976.

__________. Hemingway’s Reading, 1910-1940: An Inventory. Princeton, 1980.

Spanier, Sandra and Trogdon, Robert. W., eds. The Letters of Ernest Hemingway, Volume 1, 1907-1922. Cambridge, 2011.

Tintner, Adeline R. Letter to Dr. Maureen Halsall, Acting Dean, Faculty of Humanities, McMaster University. November 13, 1986.

Villarreal, René and Raúl. Hemingway’s Cuban Son. Kent State University Press, 2009.

Watts, Emily S. Ernest Hemingway and the Arts. University of Illinois Press, 1971.

Wright, Robert. Three Nights in Havana: Pierre Trudeau, Fidel Castro and the Cold War. HarperCollins, 2007.


One Response

  1. Michael Wood says:


    I wanted to see if I could get your permission to post your article on my Hemingway blog at

    thank you


    Michael Wood

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