Ed Pilkington

Among the gems are an unpublished epilogue to his novelFor Whom the Bell Tollsand a screenplay forThe Old Man and the Sea.

Students of the work of Ernest Hemingway, the Nobel prize-winning novelist with a powerful literal and literary punch, have been granted an important boon this week with the opening of a digital archive of papers he left from his days in Cuba.

The documents, photographs and books sat for decades in the dank basement of Hemingway’s home seven miles outside Havana. Among the gems are an unpublished epilogue to his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls and a screenplay for The Old Man and the Sea.

The entire collection of Hemingway’s draft writings and letters from the 21 years he spent in Cuba had been in danger of disintegrating amid the heat, damp and insect infestations of the basement of La Finca Vigia, or Lookout Farm.

For years conservationists were hampered by the U.S. embargo of the island which prevented the exchange of expertise and resources. But a renovation project was launched in 2002 after a U.S. anthropologist was horrified to find the house crumbling under a leaky roof with mould spreading across its walls. Special U.S. government permission was obtained for a joint Cuban-American rescue mission that has resulted in this week’s release of documents.

The papers have been restored, preserved and scanned for digital use. Scholars can now apply for access to specific documents to the Museo Ernest Hemingway in Havana, which is responsible for the treasure trove, or to the John F. Kennedy library in Boston which holds the rest of the Hemingway archive and which has received a set of CDs and microfilms from Finca Vigia. There are no plans to allow open public access to the documents on the internet, but the Cuban authorities say that may happen sometime in the future.

The digitalised collection already includes about 2,000 documents, with a further 1,000 to follow. “A lot of people ask: ‘What was Hemingway’s life in Cuba like?’ This answers some of those questions,” Ada Rosa Alfonso, who heads the Finca Vigia museum, said.

Hemingway lived in Cuba from 1939 until he returned to the U.S. in 1960. The passions and the torment of the writer are still visible at the home-turned-museum, including his heavy drinking in the form of half-full bottles of Old Forester bourbon and Cinzano scattered through the house; his love of bullfighting and hunting with paintings of fights and antelope heads on the walls; and pets, with his four dogs buried in marked graves in the garden.

In the dining room the table is set for entertaining: Errol Flynn and Cary Grant were visitors to Finca Vigia and Ava Gardner swam naked in the now-empty pool.

Hemingway’s 15-metre fishing boat El Pilar is also preserved in a dry dock. It was on this vessel that he scoured the seas north of Cuba during the Second World War in search of evidence of what he believed to be refuelling by German U-boats. Texts from those trips, written by Hemingway in code, are among the newly digitalised documents. But there are understood to be no unpublished literary works among the stash.

After the writer killed himself in 1961, a year after his return to America, his widow, Mary Welsh, enlisted the help of U.S. President John Kennedy to breach the Cuban embargo and make one last visit to Finca Vigia. She took most of the unpublished work in progress back to the U.S. But researchers are likely to be interested in correspondence Hemingway received from his U.S. editors and other writers, as well as letters relating to his relationship with the Italian countess Adriana Ivancich, who has been identified as a possible model for the heroine in his novel Across the River and Into the Trees, published in 1950.

Hemingway was an inveterate hoarder. Welsh once said that he “never discarded anything but magazine wrappers and three-year-old newspapers.”

His voracious literary appetite is also on display at La Finca Vigia, which houses 9,000 books, many of them marked with his comments in the margins.