- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
It’s a spring morning in Oak Park and I’m seated at a desk in the childhood home of Ernest Hemingway. He was born in a room above my head, 122 years ago. His father, a doctor, delivered him. My laptop is open and I’m working on the story you’re reading right now. I’m wondering — what exactly am I supposed to be feeling here? Reverence? Adventure? The mix of self-loathing and self-regard that carried Hemingway far from Oak Park? Or a sheepishness? You could argue, after all, that Hemingway is exhibit A of the Dead White Male 20th Century Author with fading relevance in the 21st century.
The tone in the house is respectful, coupled with a musk of antiquity. It looks just as you might imagine it looks from outside — fusty, with taxidermied owls and wallpaper striped like old circus tents. But the desk I’m working at was never owned by a Hemingway, and most of the furniture here are not family heirlooms. Before moving a few blocks away to Kenilworth Avenue and starting again, Ernest’s mother burned many of their furnishings in the backyard. They had money. Still, the house stands, so I’m trying out a fundraising initiative from the Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park. Upper-tier memberships (starting at $250 a year) now offer the option of booking Hemingway’s home as a daily workspace.
But you don’t get instructions: So, I wonder, should I be writing in the staccato of vintage Hemingway? Or casting out the problematic ghost of Papa, tossing off adverbs freely?
Through curtains I notice a young woman with lavender hair. She’s taking a selfie with the house. Beside her, there’s a sign staked into the lawn: “Save a Literary Legacy.” It’s a nod to the struggling Hemingway Foundation, which openly wondered about its future last autumn, launching a GoFundMe campaign to raise $75,000 and continue operating.
Yet the meaning of the sign seems broader.
The Hemingway legacy, once a kind of common language in American culture, has grown quiet lately. It could get a big boost this week: A six-hour Ken Burns documentary about the life of Hemingway debuts Monday on PBS. John Berry, chairman of the Hemingway Foundation, said he’s optimistic that interest from the film will help turn things around. Still, the Foundation hears from people who never knew Hemingway lived here. Worse, it hears from Oak Park students who have never been assigned his books. Which, at first, sounds ironic: There are actually three Hemingway homes in Oak Park (though only one gives tours). In 2013, the neighborhood around the birthplace on Oak Park Avenue was re-christened (with the blessing of Patrick Hemingway, Ernest’s second child) the Hemingway District. And for a while there was even an annual running of the (paper-Mache) bulls in Oak Park, in honor of Ernest the bullfighting aficionado.
Oak Park is Hemingway Country.
On the other hand, the Foundation’s Hemingway museum closed in 2017, and it’s worth noting that Hemingway District overlaps the better-known Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District. At the Book Table in downtown Oak Park, “The Great Gatsby” (by Hemingway frenemy F. Scott Fitzgerald) outsells “all of our Hemingway combined,” said co-owner Rachel Weaver. And without international tourism (which brings about 30% of the visitors to the birthplace home), Hemingway sales would be likely even smaller. At Oak Park River Forest High School, Hemingway’s alma mater, there’s an early 1900s Hemingway Room, there’s a Siberian husky mascot named Hemmy. But of the school’s 36 English teachers, only one made a Hemingway novel (“A Farewell to Arms”) required reading this year. Helen Gallagher, head of the English department, said the school cherishes its literary history: “You can’t go to school here without being reminded of our Hemingway connection. But it’s not like you can’t graduate if you haven’t read ‘The Sun Also Rises.’”
Novelist Elizabeth Berg lives near Hemingway’s Kenilworth Avenue home. “Every time I walk past, I think of him being there. I imagine him moving about the rooms. I wonder if he walked to town taking the route I do. ... Truth be told, though, I wish I lived down the street from Alice Munro’s house.” Whenever she walks her dogs, “they always try to pee on the commemorative plaque on the lawn — so I guess they, too, prefer other writers.”
These days, Hemingway in Oak Park is a lot like Hemingway in the rest of the country: Always there — so woven into the cultural DNA as to be invisible — yet somehow out of place. As Burns’ documentary explains across its three nights, Hemingway was a cornerstone of the modernist vanguard who moved contemporary literature out of sitting rooms and politeness and away from a Eurocentric “cult of difficulty” that once defined “Important Literature.” The lessons of his prose — terse sentences, few adverbs, write what you know (or pretend to know) — became seminal lessons for generations of writers. His “iceberg” theory of storytelling — leave only part of it visible, and submerge the meaning — became the backbone of American literature. But the man himself, more than even his contemporaries, lived ugliness in plain view: He was called a woman hater, and a racist, a big-game poacher, a bad father, a terrible friend. If you need a definition of toxic masculinity, the life of Hemingway is a starter kit.
Which means, having an organization hitched to Hemingway “can be tough in the current climate,” said Keith Strom, executive director of the Hemingway Foundation. “The mythology around him is often the first introduction people have, which can make it hard to get people in the door, considering that mythology goes against the grain of almost everything now.” Journalist Lesley Blume — whose 2016 book “Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises” strips away the romance of 1920s Paris — said she’s not sure she would have written it now. “It might have been too daunting. It’s no lionization of him. It’s an eyes-wide-open look at a complicated person who was a genius, but had more than a little poison for anyone who helped him, and who inspired a lot of self-destructive devotion in women. It can feel like, to admit you like Hemingway, you might as well say you like Woody Allen.”
Burns’ film is no rehabilitation, either.
It gets harrowing. When Hemingway writes back to his publisher that he will not blurb “From Here to Eternity,” the letter includes slurs, invectives — even the hope that its author, James Jones, would kill himself. Burns’ talking heads cringe, lower their gazes, seemingly embarrassed for Papa. The last two hours alone — if not the last two decades of Hemingway’s life — play like a long, detached, malignant decline. And yet, and yet ...
“Just when you write Hemingway off, he tends to return,” said Paul Hendrickson, a Kankakee and Wheaton native who wrote the 2011 biography “Hemingway’s Boat.”
Stuart Dybek, the celebrated short story writer and Chicago native, who teaches creative writing at Northwestern University, said he has never taught a class that didn’t include Hemingway. “He is one of those artists whose influence, acknowledged or not, exerts itself secondhand, the way that blues artist Robert Johnson hovers behind folk, rock and hip hop.” Hemingway’s innovations, Dybek once wrote, “rearranged the molecular structure of American letters.” Erasing him entirely would appear improbable.
And at best, questionable.
“If all the myths about Hemingway were so easy, if he were just an avatar of toxic manhood, there would be no reason to still pay attention,” said Mary Dearborn, author of the acclaimed 2017 “Ernest Hemingway: A Biography” (marketed as the first Hemingway biography by a woman). “But I see his decline as psychotic depression. People didn’t know what to do with him. He was bipolar, really. He tried walking into an airplane propeller. He thought lights were on late in a bank because the IRS was going through his records. (Burns’ film) feels forward-looking, I think. Because it complicates his myths. And shows a great writer crippled by them. I’m not sure he was even aware how damaging his legend — which he had a large part in constructing — was to himself. But the more we learn about him, the more it feels like a different person was in there.”
Still, that legend — Hemingway the war correspondent, Hemingway the street fighter, Hemingway the womanizer, Hemingway the boozer, Hemingway the outdoorsman, Hemingway the abuser — is so foundational to understanding Hemingway, Burns’ film begins with the almost comically plaintive claim that Hemingway was also human.
“All of this is really about a hugely talented, complicated man who deserves more than our superficial conventional wisdom claims he is,” said Burns in a phone interview. He said that when he started the film several years ago — after discussions about it that went back decades — “there was no cancel culture, there was no #MeToo movement. We didn’t worry about it because we knew whatever we did would resonate and rhyme with the present. This isn’t the first time we’re discovering men can be boorish, it isn’t the first time people wanted to shame Hemingway out of existence. But by appreciating his decline, we gain access to the fragile heart of Hemingway, who is born into a middle-class Oak Park family beset by mental illness — four of his family eventually take their own lives. How could his life be anything else, considering how it started?”
Contrary to local belief, Hemingway probably never said Oak Park was a town of “wide lawns and narrow minds.” But the sentiment is spot on, said former Tribune reporter Robert Elder, an Oak Park resident and author of two books on Hemingway (with a third, “Mythbusting Hemingway,” coming next year). “One way of thinking about Hemingway is that he spent most of his life rebelling against Oak Park. He comes from a town that’s founded on temperance — and becomes the world’s most famous drinker.”
The animosity, at times, was mutual.
Soon after leaving Oak Park to work at the Kansas City Star, Hemingway enlisted as an ambulance driver in Italy during World War I. He returned to Kenilworth Avenue a year later, wounded by shrapnel. When an Italian-American group from Chicago came to his the house to honor his war service, his parents were disgusted by the wine they brought as a gift. Later, after his first short stories are published, his parents are horrified by their bluntness. Tribune critic Fanny Butcher had a long correspondence with Hemingway (their letters are held by the Newberry Library) but the first novel, “The Sun Also Rises,” is so full of promiscuity and bad behavior, she panned it as filth. She begged Hemingway to “rise to be the man and the writer that God meant you to be.” Oak Park and Chicago (which he moved to briefly) felt constricting. A couple of years later, his father killed himself in the Kenilworth Avenue home. In the archives at the Oak Park Public Library, there’s a letter from the library to Hemingway, inviting him to come home for a talk. He mailed back a check for $100, to cover the fines of library books he never returned. (Those books were later discovered in his home in Havana.)
Hemingway started building an image early.
There’s a framed note in his birthplace, written by Hemingway at 13. It’s a statement of purpose, ending with: “I intend to travel and write.” In the Oak Park library archives, “you can see how aware Hemingway becomes, early on, of cameras,” said Leigh Tarullo, manager and curator of special collections. “There’s nothing casual there, there’re no off-guarded moments. It’s always a young man putting forth some version of himself. It’s so weird to see, and clearly, he gets it from his mother.”
Grace Hemingway was a music teacher and a singer and a painter — and a proper Protestant who made sure her kids stayed busy. Ernest Hemingway wrote for the school newspaper, played high school football, as well as cello in the school orchestra. When the family headed to their home outside Petoskey, Michigan, he fished and hiked and chopped wood. In fact, you might say Hemingway crafted a version of himself inversely spectacular to his background. Elder said that Hemingway was always protective of Oak Park, which in itself was a way of managing his image: “When a magazine doing a profile of him wants to talk to his mother, he told her he would never write her — he’d cut her off entirely — if she talked.”
At some point, as Burns’ documentary explains, the legend overtook the work.
Though it’s easy to imagine criticism of Hemingway as a kind of knowing contemporary enlightenment, many of the problems associated with Hemingway’s work and life have dogged him for decades. “You can’t grapple with Hemingway without running into issues of, for starters, whiteness and masculinity,” said Liesl Olson, director of Chicago studies at the Newberry and author of “Chicago Renaissance: Literature and Art in the Midwest Metropolis.” “They came up during the culture wars of the 1980s, and they’re in our cancel culture. He’s writing about safaris, bullfighting — he’s pushing us to think hard about what it means to be a man. His most famous protagonist, Jake Barnes (‘The Sun Also Rises’) gets an injury to his sexual organs. I mean, talk about putting it out there.”
Toni Morrison, one of Hemingway’s best readers and smartest critics, described his approach to race as ranging from “despicable blacks, to sad but sympathetic ones, to extreme black-fueled eroticism.” Yet when asked how she approached his stereotypes, she said: “I skipped past that part. Read over it. Because I loved those books.” Morrison got how “his identity was as formulated as the identity he built for others,” Olson said.
Which isn’t the same thing as forgiving Hemingway.
Contrary to his reputation, many of Hemingway’s most incisive scholars now are women, who embrace his contradictions as marks of complexity. Michelle Moore, a Hemingway Foundation board member and author of “Chicago and the Making of American Modernism,” said that when she was in college, “if you were a good female academic, you did not study Hemingway.” But, she adds, Hemingway “was writing about toxic masculinity before we had a name for it.” Joan Didion has written that, after Hemingway’s own suicide in 1961, “what followed was the systemic creation of a marketable product,” reliant on a familiar, roughneck image of masculinity. Yet it’s an image that sweats to avoid questions of gender that appeared throughout his lifetime.
“Hemingway was very interested in gender fluidity,” Mary Dearborn said. “One example is (the posthumous novel) ‘The Garden of Eden.’ Characters swap identities, and they all get their hair cut short. He liked that. He was interested in that conversation, if only because of his son Gregory,” whom Hemingway had learned preferred wearing women’s clothing. After his father died, Gregory began sex reassignment surgery and was known as Gloria. (He died in 2001.)
Some of this new Hemingway scholarship is driven by a massive project at Penn State, partly run by Verna Kale, an assistant research professor of English who is coediting 17 volumes of Hemingway letters for Cambridge University Press. (So far, they’ve up to volume six.) She said, for her, Hemingway has become a lens on the 20th century, offering insight into sexuality, celebrity, interior life. She has no regrets about focusing so closely on an author whose reputation swings so widely. And yet, considering the scale of the project, “I sometimes do wonder if Hemingway might get canceled, and if funding disappeared and the interest dried up. I suppose I would be sad it happened. But then literary tastes change.”
Maybe the way to think of Oak Park’s relationship with Hemingway is to think of Chicago’s relationship with Kanye West. Both are game changers, both left early, and both became such hot springs of embarrassment, unease is just part of the deal. Burns, who has made now two films about Oak Park natives, Hemingway and Frank Lloyd Wright, said: “Wright and Hemingway were both supreme narcissists, both rebelled against manicured lawns, but Wright rarely showed a modicum of curiosity into who he was, and Hemingway tore it all down in his writing. Another way to say it: I’d rather have a beer with Hemingway.” Lynn Novick, who has directed and produced documentaries with Burns for 30 years (including “Hemingway”), said: “I’m glad we live in a time with a more expansive notion of literary cannon. I don’t think it’s a given (Hemingway) should be taught today. He should earn his place like everyone else. But I hope he will be taught, I want my kids to read all kinds of fiction, and I want them to read Hemingway.”
Keith Strom at the Hemingway Foundation is not taking chances.
Hemingway still has cache, he said, but these days, the Foundation attracts mostly fans who are north of 50 years old. Which is not a recipe for growth. So Strom would like to see the Hemingway Foundation become a broader arts organization, going beyond literature, edging past the legacy of its namesake. Besides, Oak Park is no longer dry, or the model of conservative priggishness that Hemingway hated. It claims scores of pioneers, from cartooning (Chris Ware), to media (Tavi Gevinson), TV (Bob Newhart), poetry (Charles Simic), filmmaking (Steve James).
Jane Hamilton, whose acclaimed novels include “A Map of the World” and “The Book of Ruth,” said that while growing up in Oak Park, she “automatically knew we were supposed to feel pride and admiration” for Hemingway. She liked “A Farewell to Arms” (”It was a romance”), and didn’t understand “The Sun Also Rises” (”Impotence was not explained to us!”) But she doubts she would ever choose to go back and read Hemingway now. “I sometimes think about it. It feels dutiful. But I might completely surprised.”