I found Burmese Days at a bookstore not long ago. Once I finish rereading Homage to Catalona, which I’m close to doing, I’ll read that for the first time. It’s a wonder that George Orwell escaped Spain with his life in 1937. How close the world came to never having Nineteen Eighty-Four, Animal Farm and the rest.
What have we missed because antibiotics weren’t quite good enough yet to save Orwell in 1950? The man might have written for another 30 or more years. To modify a line of Tom Lehrer’s, it’s a sobering thought to realize that when Orwell was my age, he’d been dead six years.
Actually, I’m taking a detour from Orwell to read a book I chanced on at the library the other day and couldn’t resist, Storm of the Century: The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, by Willie Drye (2002). I’m pretty sure I first heard about that storm watching Key Largo. Lionel Barrymore’s character mentioned it, at a time when the hurricane would have been still fairly fresh in memory, as Katrina is for us.
“On Labor Day in 1935, a hurricane that produced the record low barometric pressure reading of 26.35 inches hit Florida’s upper Keys, destroying virtually everything in its path,” the Publishers Weekly blurb cited by Amazon says. “In his meticulously researched work, Drye gives a vivid, detailed account of the storm’s approach and impact when it made landfall. Drye was drawn to the story of the unnamed hurricane not only because of its intensity, but also because it killed nearly 260 World War I veterans who were building a highway as part of a federal construction program.”
So far it’s pretty good. The book even has occasional funny asides, something you wouldn’t expect. For instance, Key West as a modern tourist destination was largely invented during the 1930s, to help it recover from the Depression but also the contraction of the area’s ship salvaging and natural sponge businesses earlier in the century. The Florida Emergency Relief Administration led the effort to clean up the town and its attractions, hiring a PR man named E.M. Gilfond to handle publicity.
“Gilford and his staff, which included talented graphic artists, launched a nationwide advertising campaign to lure tourists to Key West,” writes Drye. “When the visitors arrived they were given a booklet published by the Florida ERA that included a map of the city’s attractions.
“The effort was a rousing success. About 40,000 tourists visited Key West during the 1934-35 season, and the city’s income from tourism increased by about 43 percent…
“No one had bothered to confer with Ernest Hemingway before putting his house on the maps handed out to visitors. The author’s home was listed as attraction number 18, and a fair number of those 40,000 tourists tramped onto his property and peered into the windows of his home or gawked at him from the sidewalk as he tried to relax on his porch with a drink and a cigar. One especially bold visitor opened the front door of Hemingway’s home and marched into his living room as though he were walking into a museum.”