During the 1930’s, Hemingway was severely criticized for not demonstrating a social conscience in his writing. Other writers of the time, such as Dos Passos, John Steinbeck, and Erskine Caldwell, were highly regarded for their commitment to changing a society that had allowed a worldwide economic depression—with all of the attendant hardship for millions of people—to occur. This novel was meant to be Hemingway’s answer to his critics, as is clear from the title.
The novel, however, is severely off-kilter, with the majority of the book devoted to the “have nots,” and the “haves” (from the point of view of material wealth) represented at any length only at the end. There are several reasons for this lack of balance; a major reason is that at the last minute, before publication, Hemingway was required to make significant deletions because of legal pressures on his publisher. Apparently, his portraits of the corrupt “haves” were all too recognizable.
To Have and Have Not unquestionably possesses a socioeconomic dimension not found in most of Hemingway’s other fiction, although this is not necessarily to the benefit of the work. Generally skilled at describing a social milieu when it serves as the background for his story, Hemingway here becomes laborious in his rather transparent setup of the different social classes, and how they are perceived by the characters.
A minor novel in the Hemingway canon, To Have and Have Not nevertheless was successful in its day. Although it never has been as highly regarded critically as his well-known masterpieces, it has remained popular, serving as the basis for the memorable Humphrey Bogart-Lauren Bacall film of 1945. In the 1940’s, it was considered a forerunner of the “tough guy” school of fiction, but it has come to be seen more as a unique work, reflecting Hemingway’s own personal devils. Uneven though it is, it is a fascinating and vivid achievement wedged between Hemingway’s great works of the 1920’s and the 1940’s.