In April of 1936, Hemingway published an essay in Esquire magazine entitled "On the Blue Water: A Gulf Stream Letter," which contained a paragraph about an old man who went fishing alone in a skiff far out at sea, landed a huge marlin, and then lost much of it to sharks. As early as 1939, the year he moved to Cuba, Hemingway began planning an expansion of this kernel into a fully developed story that would become part of a larger volume. (Indeed, other sections of that proposed volume were published after his death as part of Islands in the Stream.)
Early in 1951, Hemingway finally began writing The Old Man and the Sea at his home near Havana. The government of Cuban President Carlos Prio Socarras was in decline and would eventually be overthrown in 1952 by U.S.-supported dictator Fulgencio Batista, who in turn would be ousted in 1959 by Fidel Castro. The Soviet Union had detonated an atomic bomb in late 1949. The United States, under the Truman administration, advanced a policy designed to contain Soviet expansionism; supported such international actions as the formation of the United Nations, the Truman Doctrine of 1947, and the Marshall Plan of 1948; and became embroiled in the Korean War. Senator Joseph R. McCarthy initiated a Red Scare paranoia in his four-year search for communist sympathizers. And the booming U.S. population and post-war economy fueled American consumption. Although The Old Man and the Sea takes place in September of 1950, it exists outside (or just at the edge) of these and other significant events of the period.
However, the novella does reflect a universal pattern of socioeconomic change familiar even today among developing nations. In rural Cuba of the 1930s and 1940s, the traditional fishing culture (insulated and isolated from the industrialized world, closely connected to nature, bereft of modern technology, and bound to extended families and tightly knit communities) began shifting to the material progress of a fishing industry (dependent on the industrialized world for its livelihood, environmentally oblivious or negligent, increasingly reliant on mechanized methods to ensure profit, and much less bound to extended families and local communities). In The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway depicts Santiago as a dedicated fisherman whose craft is integral to his own identity, his code of behavior, and nature's order. On the other hand, Hemingway portrays the pragmatic younger fishermen as those who supply shark livers for the cod liver oil industry in the United States, use their profits to purchase motorized boats and other mechanized equipment, and approach their fishing strictly as a means to improve their material circumstances.
Similarly, Santiago's personal history represents something of universal journey, as critics such as Angel Capellán and Bickford Sylvester have pointed out. Santiago is culturally a Spaniard and therefore a European. As a native of the Canary Islands, who made frequent trips to the coast of Africa, he also embodies something of Africa. And as an émigré to Cuba, a journey made by many Spaniards from Europe, he is both a Cuban (symbolized by the image on his wall of the patroness of Cuba, the Virgin of Cobre) and an American. Santiago has brought with him to the New World some Old World European and African values of dedication to craft and acceptance of one's role in the natural order and joined those to a decidedly American preoccupation with living one's life according to an independent and individual code of behavior that redeems the individual's existence.
The novella is truly universal in its consideration of the plight of an old man struggling against age, poverty, loneliness, and mortality to maintain his identity and dignity, reestablish his reputation in the community, and ensure for all time his relationship with those he loves and to whom he hopes to pass on everything he values most. Ultimately, Santiago's heroic struggle not only redeems himself but inspires and spiritually enriches those around him.
After the critical disapproval that met his previous novel, Across the River and Into the Trees (1950), a symbolic love story and meditation on war in modern times, Hemingway, like Santiago, needed a big success to reestablish his reputation. He first published The Old Man and the Sea in its entirety in Life magazine in 1952. The novella subsequently became a Book-of-the-Month-Club selection and a best seller. It gained immediate critical acclaim and earned Hemingway the Pulitzer Prize in 1953 and the American Academy of Arts and Letters' Award of Merit Medal for the Novel. It also contributed to his receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. In 1958, the novella became a movie starring Spencer Tracy.