This month 51 years ago, the younger brother of Ernest Hemingway staked a claim to a small piece of land off the Jamaican coast, creating a new currency, flag and government for the fledgling nation of New Atlantis, many artifacts of which are now held at the Ransom Center. This post originally appeared in our July 2007 edition of the Ransom Center’s eNews.
Leicester (pronounced “Lester”) Hemingway is known to history principally for three things: For being the younger brother of the famous novelist Ernest Hemingway, to whom he bore a striking physical resemblance; for publishing a well-received biography of his brother a mere eight months after Ernest died; and for “founding” his own island nation, the Republic of New Atlantis. Artifacts related to each of these contributions have found their way to the Harry Ransom Center.
“There’s no law that says you can’t start your own country,” Leicester told the Washington Post in 1964. He was referring to the island nation of New
Atlantis, which he founded on July 4 by anchoring an 8 x 30-foot bamboo raft to an old Ford engine block in 50 feet of water eight miles southwest of Jamaica. The site lay on a shallow ocean bank in international waters, beyond the then-customary three-mile limit of Jamaica’s territorial sea, in an area where the sea floor normally runs to a depth of 1,000 feet.
Leicester soon informed the press that he had taken possession of half the “island” on behalf of the United States government under the authority of the obscure U.S. Guano Islands Act of 1856. Guano (bird excrement) was a valuable commercial fertilizer in the nineteenth century and there was something of a gold rush among Western nations to claim unoccupied areas having guano deposits during the middle part of that century. The Guano Islands Act of 1856 opened the game to U.S. citizens by authorizing them to take possession, on behalf of the U.S. government, of any unoccupied “island, rock or key” on which a guano deposit was found. The Guano Islands Act has never been repealed, rendering it theoretically available to 20th-century adventurers like Leicester Hemingway. Several U.S. territories—including Midway Island in the Northern Pacific—were originally occupied under the Guano Islands Act. Hemingway lay claim to the “unoccupied” half of his new island on behalf of the United States. He reserved the remaining half for the aspiring nation of New Atlantis.
In February 1965, the Republic’s seven voters—all chosen by the island’s founder—made Leicester their first president. The formal election of the republic’s first government incited another round of press notices, including a six-column front-page headline in the leading Kingston, Jamaica, newspaper. Leicester solemnly told the paper that his new Republic “would be a peaceful power and would not threaten” its Caribbean neighbors.
New Atlantis adopted a national flag, sewn by Leicester’s spouse, and christened its national currency the “scruple.” It seems Leicester believed the rich should have many scruples. Official exemplars of the national currency look suspiciously like things that might have washed ashore on a Caribbean beach in 1964. The Ransom Center appears to have the only “original” draft of the New Atlantis Constitution, for which there may exist no copies. It is typed on a manual typewriter and reads like a near-exact duplicate of the seven articles forming the main body of the United States Constitution.
The main activity of Leicester’s new country was the issuing of postage stamps. In 1964 and 1965 New Atlantis issued—or perhaps it is more accurate to say “printed” — stamps in five different denominations. Leicester told several reporters that he intended to finance the International Marine Research Society with the proceeds of the stamp operation, but the revenue plan ran aground when the Swiss-based Universal Postal Union refused to recognize the legitimacy of either the stamps or their issuer. The 1964 New Atlantis stamp honoring Lyndon Johnson, “protector of the entire free world,” merited a thank-you note from the White House but did not help New Atlantis secure diplomatic recognition.
New Atlantis went out with a whimper when it disappeared in a storm several years after its founding, but not before it came to the attention of Mary M. Hirth, a librarian for what was then called the University of Texas Humanities Research Center. In October of 1965, the Center mounted a small exhibition of New Atlantis artifacts provided by Leicester, who visited Austin to view the exhibition. Many of the exhibition artifacts now reside in the Center’s slender New Atlantis collection, which includes an October 1965 letter from Leicester to Hirth, whom he addressed as “Lady Mary.”
To twenty-first-century eyes, the Republic of New Atlantis may seem like little more than tomfoolery. But several elements of Leicester’s plan held a superficial plausibility in the 1960s, a decade that saw something of a boomlet in self-proclaimed island nations—some on man-made platforms. The Republic of New Atlantis was born with several advantages. Most importantly, the Jamaican government did not seem to oppose the project, perhaps because Leicester had the foresight to prohibit gambling in his new nation and because one of the Republic’s stated purposes was raising money to protect fishing resources in the area. In September 1964, a spokesman for the Jamaican Embassy in Washington told the New York Herald Tribune that Leicester was a “decent, well-meaning soul,” and variously described the project as “good” or “sound.” Additionally, the ocean bank chosen as the site for New Atlantis was in international waters and did not lie on a continental shelf, which eliminated several legal objections to the project. The mere fact that Leicester received a thank-you note from the White House—supposedly addressed to him as acting president—made New Atlantis “the closest a dreamer has come to official recognition” according to a 1988 interview given by the director of the U.S. Office of the Geographer.
Leicester himself said he founded New Atlantis mostly to have fun and “make dough”—presumably from the stamp operation. If he failed in the second objective, he clearly accomplished the first. Leicester seems to have shared some of this brother’s genius for publicity and reveled in his role as head-of-state for what he liked to call “the world’s smallest political entity.”
My Brother, Ernest Hemingway
Leicester’s biography of his famous sibling was published to good reviews in February 1962, just eight months after Ernest’s suicide. Playboy Magazine paid Leicester a reported $25,000—something like $160,000 in current U.S. dollars—for the serialization rights. The book was translated into eleven European and two Asian languages and went through hard- and paperback U.S. editions. It made the New York Times list of 100 outstanding books for summer reading in 1962.
The Ernest Hemingway collection at the Ransom Center includes a typescript of the biography with author edits, and the page proofs. The Center also holds a first edition of the published work.
On not being Ernest
“It’s a tough act to follow,” Leicester Hemingway once remarked to the Los Angeles Times about his famous sibling. By the time Leicester was writing for his high school newspaper, Farewell to Arms had been made into a motion picture starring Gary Cooper. He was a cub reporter for the Chicago Daily News while Ernest was off in Spain collecting $500—about $7,000 in current U.S. dollars—for 400-word dispatches from the front lines during the Third Siege of Madrid. Leicester published his first novel in 1953, one year after The Old Man and the Sea appeared in print, and one year before the Swedish Academy cited the work in awarding Ernest the Nobel Prize in Literature. A tough act indeed.
Seven letters written by Ernest to his brother, whom he sometimes called “Baron,” reside in the Center’s Ernest Hemingway collection. Their dates range from 1937 through 1947. Leicester indirectly quotes from two of these letters in his biography My Brother, Ernest Hemingway. Both are written in Ernest’s cramped scrawl, sometimes with little heed for punctuation.
The letter from mid-1938 gives the following brotherly advice to a 23-year-old aspiring writer: “When you write a story try to invent truly ie make up as well as record and remember and invent something of interest and significance. (Sounds easy huh?),” and goes on to recommend, “If you can’t make up stories you shouldn’t try to write. A real one remembered is always sort of flat compared to a made up one.” Ernest sent Leicester a letter from Key West the previous year, five days after returning from Spain aboard the French liner Normandie. It describes “19 straight days of heavy bombardment” experienced during his recently-completed stay with Loyalist forces on the Madrid front, and goes on to complain that his newspaper sponsor had held him to only one dispatch a week (he was paid by the dispatch).
Leicester Hemingway died in 1982 at the age of 67. His death, like his brother’s and his father Clarence’s, was a suicide. Leicester’s daughter told the Los Angles Times that he had grown depressed over his deteriorating health, due to complications from diabetes. He had undergone five operations in the previous six months, and doctors had recommended the amputation of both legs due to related circulatory problems.
Obituaries appearing after his death uniformly describe Leicester as a writer. His Los Angeles Times obituary says he wrote five novels, but only one, The Sound of the Trumpet (1953), was published. That novel was based on his wartime experiences in France and Germany and was called “an extraordinarily untidy and uneven performance” by a New York Times reviewer.
The impression of Leicester that emerges from newspaper accounts is that of a gregarious raconteur who resented not in the least his brother’s talent and reputation. An essayist for the Connecticut Review found him “articulate, vibrant and definitely his own man,” and admired that “he had managed somehow to accommodate himself manfully” to living in Ernest’s shadow. Perhaps that is a fitting epitaph for the founder of New Atlantis.
Author: Russell Hale