Come Home, Papa, All Is Forgiven
Oak Park tries to be proud of Hemingway
New York Times Book Review
July 8, 1990
Like a lot of young men of my generation, I went through my Hemingway phase; I passed a dull winter in the 1960s working as a tour guide and when there were no tourists I was off with Ernest to Paris or Cuba or Spain. Later biographies made him interesting for other reasons, and moving to Oak Park, Hemingway’s home town, made writing about him inevitable.
In the interest of accuracy, I reprint this letter I felt obliged to send to my editors at the Review, which appeared there on August 19, 1990.
To the Editor:
Inaccuracies of some importance survived to spoil my complaint about Hemingway as a draw for tourism.
For example, the ''entire wildebeest'' described as resident at his Key West house was, I was disappointed to learn, merely a head. It hung in the dining room until it went the way of all flesh and had to be withdrawn; I am told that there is still an antelope head in the study, which ought to be worth the trip.
Also, the dish concocted for that famous Hemingway family reunion was a torta rustica, not a tortica rustica. A tortica, I believe, is a part essential to the carburetors in Fiat engines.
James Krohe Jr.
Readers more interested in Illinoisiana than writers should know that this piece is rather good on Oak Park, which some Oak Parkers did not like. I also wrote a lengthy piece about the writer for the Reader but that one took a very different tack from this one.
I had fun working with the Review's editors, and had hopes of doing more such pieces, but soon after, the editor who liked my stuff was promoted within the Times and the opportunity disappeared.
The story is told in Oak Park, Ill., about how in 1899 a proud Dr. Clarence Hemingway blew upon his cornet from the front porch of his family's house to herald the arrival of the newborn Ernest Miller Hemingway. The incident stuck in people's minds because three-quarters of a century would pass before anybody else in Oak Park would make any noise about Ernest Hemingway having been in it.
The future Nobel laureate was not just born and raised in the western Chicago suburb. Biographers may disagree about whether Oak Park made Hemingway a man but it certainly helped make him a writer; the Oak Park High School English department administered doses of Kipling as if he were castor oil, to build the blood. That alone makes the town an essential stop on any Hemingway hajj.
Since 1980 the traffic in biographers alone has supported a modest bed-and-hreakfast industry. The traveler, alas, finds no signs on the expressways hinting that the man who wrote "The Sun Also Rises" had been born only a left turn away. The guidebooks scarcely mention him; perhaps he, almost alone among Oak Parkers and their neighbors, did not live in a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright, of course, is the hero of a guided tour. But there is no regularly scheduled tour of the haunts of Ernest Hemingway's youth.
Hemingway's Oak Park was a bastion of progressive Christianity, a veritable den of achievers, built as a haven from Chicago by well-to-do WASPs. Having no troubles of their own, Oak Parkers of that day devoted themselves to solving everyone else's. They were missionaries, social workers, cause-supporters, moralistic and a little smug; as Michael Reynolds put it in "The Young Hemingway," Oak Park at the turn of the century was an easy town to be bad in. Today a troubled world, seems a lot closer to Oak Park than it once was, but otherwise Oak Park, a village of nearly 55,000, has not changed much. Its voters have banned handguns and nuclear weapons within its limits out of the same spirit that prompted their grandparents to ban taverns, and with about as much effect on the wickedness around them.
Opinions about the writer in his home town have remained edgy long after Hemingway's death in 1961. He is alleged to have made a remark about Oak Park being a place of broad lawns and narrow minds, but no one has been able to find out when he said it or to whom. His detractors reply that even if Hemingway did not invent the insult he would have claimed it. He made plain to friends and interviewers his opinion that the town had been too primly Victorian for a young man of his robust appetites. His opinion of both himself and the town was exaggerated, but it caused Oak Park to reciprocate in kind. When Hemingway won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953 for "The Old Man and the Sea," for example, the local paper gave the news two inches on the back page. The performance of a local barbershop singing group was judged to be worth four inches on the same page, but then harmony of all kinds was usually over-praised in old Oak Park.
As recently as the 1970s, the town still could not bring itself to list Hemingway on its honor roll of notable high school graduates. And while it is true that the Oak Park Visitor Center now has two kiosks of captioned photographs that recount the tales of Hemingway's mother, Grace, and the Rifle Club and Walloon Lake, the exhibit has been placed inconspicuously behind a display of T-shirts, postcards, and books about the town's rich array of Prairie Style houses. (Two dozen dot the area; Oak Parkers were conservatives about culture but radicals when it came to pretension.) Hemingway—whose books were kept off the open shelves of the public library until some 30 years ago—is still hidden behind a counter in Oak Park.
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Most of Hemingway's disapproving contemporaries are dead by now. Curiosity has replaced condemnation among most of their successors. Among some Oak Parkers, in fact, Hemingway is cause for pride, proof that even if you can't make art in the suburbs you can at least make artists. Finding a way to make that point to a sceptical world was one of the main reasons the Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park organized itself in 1983 and set about founding a museum there devoted to Papa's life and works.
Ideally such a museum would be housed in one of the three Oak Park houses Ernest spent time in during his 20-odd years there. They are big enough; like most of their neighbors in the posh part of town, the Hemingways lived on what today seems to be an institutional scale. Alas, all three houses are owned by people unwilling to sell just yet, which has left the fledgling foundation with the job of building a tourism industry with nothing for people to tour.
That is not the problem it may seem. In an era of declining literacy, Hemingway may be the last of our literary Nobel laureates that a general audience in the United States is willing to read. Besides, we are producing tourists so much faster than we are producing writers that the supply of birthplace museums and restored studios lags well behind demand. Were it not a seller's market, one foundation official asks, would busloads of people roll into Lackawaxen, Pa., every year to see Zane Grey's house?
Prurience will always be popular even if reading is not. Recent biographers such as Kenneth Lynn have argued, more or less persuasively, that beneath the bourgeois facade of Hemingway's Oak Park upbringing lurked destructive sexual tensions, confusion about gender, incestuous longings, and fears of masculine inadequacy. Those dark secrets may have tormented Hemingway's life, but they are a boon to the tour promoter. Up the road at a Great America amusement park a 55-mile-per-hour thrill ride is being installed to draw weekenders away from their backyard pools. It is the sort of attraction that cannot be built in Oak Park—the town is not zoned for fun—so tourism boosters look instead to a day when thousands of day-tripping plumbing suppliers' wives roll into Oak Park on spouse trips organized by the big Chicago trade shows, eager to peek into the closet where young Ernest's mother stored the dresses he wore as a boy.
Oak Parkers who are not history-minded are a little uneasy about all this. The foundation warns in reply that if Oak Park does not take credit for the writer's formative years, some other place will. They note that Chicago—Chicago!—is marketing itself these days as a renaissance city. Culture is expected to be a mainstay of its postindustrial economy, the experts say, which means that Hemingway and Algren and Sandburg will have to keep the turnstiles clicking until Saul Bellow gets too feeble to fend off the landmark bureaucrats.
The State of Illinois tourism office has been running full-page magazine advertisements in Europe and Japan touting Chicago as a "destination city," one of which uses Hemingway as a come-on. His photograph appears beneath a caption that reads, "Dedicated to everybody who thinks Chicagoans only write cheques." (The fine print explains that the only link between Chicago and Hemingway's writing was the hours the boy spent in the Field Museum's Hall of African mammals flexing his trigger finger.) A North Side hotel recalls in its recent ads the brief artist-in-a-garret apprenticeship Hemingway served in Chicago. He lived across the street from the hotel that today exhorts travelers to "be creative" by staying in the same neighborhood. That was more than Hemingway was able to do in those days, when he was trying to break into The Saturday Evening Post while he and his wife lived in a nasty fifth-floor walk-up. The most creative thing Hemingway did in Chicago was to decide to leave it for Paris, but the copywriters make no mention of that, perhaps because they got bored and quit reading Carlos Baker's biography before getting to 1921.
The real threat to the foundation's hopes comes not from the other side of town but from the other side of the continent. Hemingway's house on Whitehead Street in Key West, Fla., is today privately owned but it is open to the public as a museum. People stand in line to get in, although whether they crowd in to see where "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" was written or merely for a chance to suffer their hangovers out of the hot sun would be hard to say.
Key West is both a model and a rebuke to its Midwestern cousin. A few years ago, when the closest the Oak Parkers could come to re-creating their hero's hikes to the headwaters of the Irati was slide shows in a local ristorante, Key West was making headlines with its annual Hemingway Days, during which book lovers enjoy the chance to get drunk at Sloppy Joe's or fall out of a marlin boat in the course of an annual seminar so invigorating that it had already made the pages of People.
Hemingway, in other words, was one more trend to which the Sun Belt beat the Midwest. Among the treasures that some day will be displayed in an Oak Park Hemingway Center is a stuffed loon that the young Hemingway shot in Michigan. Visitors to Key West, in contrast, may mull the significance of an entire wildebeest, shot by the author while on safari in 1933 and mounted by him as if to show one and all what a man can do once he leaves the Oak Parks of the world.
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As far back as 1973 some Oak Parkers had sensed an impending rise in Hemingway's stock, and petitioned the United States Postal Service to issue a Hemingway commemorative stamp. But in 1989, when postal authorities finally announced plans to issue a 25-cent stamp bearing the writer's likeness, it was announced that the first-day issue would take place in Key West. Incensed Oak Parkers protested, but all they got out of it was the Postal Service's agreement to an unusual second-day issue to be made in Oak Park, in July 1989. Disgruntled locals mumbled that the bureaucrats would have arranged to issue the stamp in the town where Hemingway had been issued if the marlin fishing were better in Oak Park.
The writer himself deserves some of the blame for Oak Park's low status among tourism's trendos. Hemingway did not transmogrify his hometown experiences into popular prose the way, say, Mark Twain did. The Hemingway Foundation is thus forced to borrow motifs from later, more lively periods of the writer's life to decorate its annual Hemingway Festivals, which are week-long programs of readings, lectures, films, and public entertainments held each July to advance the notion that literature can be fun.
In 1989, Hemingway's 90th birthday coincided approximately with France's 200th. The result was a two-day street party held at a local bistro and called Hemingway's Bastille Days. The event recalled Hemingway's Paris less vividly than it did Disney's Orlando. But confused Hemingway devotees must have wondered if they had missed a biographical expose or two. Had it been revealed at last that Gertrude Stein did the cancan? Was it really Joyce shown in those fading snapshots of the backyard cookouts at Sylvia Beach's place?
Fortunately, period authenticity is not as essential to a really good street party as it was during the French Revolution. Much "Equality wine" and "Liberty beer" was consumed by the 2,500 people who showed up for Oak Park's event, with effects on the crowd that were both liberating and leveling. The aesthetic instruction took the form of the Papa Doble, a venomous daiquiri that was Hemingway's favorite drink and which was heard described by a beer drinker as the kind of drink you would expect him to like, since it hits you when you aren't expecting it. The economic development possibilities of such conferences were suggested by, the survey of the crowd taken by foundation members; the 300 people able to remember reported that they had to come to Oak Park from eight different states.
English majors out for a good time hold no terrors for most Oak Parkers, since the town has some experience already with highbrow tourists. Some 70,000 people a year wander through Oak Park and environs gawking at the two dozen or so buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, whose restored home and studio stands only three blocks from the house where Hemingway grew up.
Boosterism is thus allied more closely with the arts in Oak Park than most places. Since 1978, visitors have been able to purchase a locally published "Oak Park Literary Map" that directs them to the homes of 21 of what the authors are not embarrassed to describe as the "astonishing number of prominent literary figures" who have lived in Oak Park. Hemingway is on the list of course, as is Edgar Rice Burroughs, the poet Kenneth Fearing, and the screenwriter and playwright Charles Mac-Arthur. No less deserving in the committee's eyes are a nationally syndicated child-care columnist, a memoirist better known as the founder of the sixth largest advertising agency in the country and even the prolix Frank Lloyd Wright, who believed that one sentence was worth a thousand words.
Hemingway's pre-eminence in Oak Park's brochures, if not in its hearts, is proof of how successfully the foundation has infiltrated the local cultural propaganda apparatus. The authors of "The Oxford Illustrated Literary Guide to the United States" list Burroughs as the star in Oak Park's firmament, mentioning Hemingway among what they call "other, no less remarkable writers associated with Oak Park"—a list in which Hemingway is second to Fearing and ahead only of Edward Wagenknecht, author of college English texts unremarkable enough to have been put into wide use.
Oak Park, however, has found it difficult to take pride in Burroughs. While Hemingway wrote Literature, Burroughs wrote only books. The problem is not that Burroughs made money. Oak Parkers love to make money. It is just that it is considered a little unseemly to make it in Oak Park. The presence of Wright tourists already has incited some residents to commercialism. (The local Haagen-Dazs shop advertises itself as "the Wright ice creamery.") A robust Hemingway tourism industry will probably turn such occasional lapses of taste into a marketing trend. A restaurant on a "Key West" theme, reportedly planned for Oak Park, raises all the usual questions about authenticity and taste. The swordfish they can fly in, but where will the owners get the hurricanes?
The sale of Hemingway manuscripts by his sons and their licensing of the family to sporting-goods manufacturers provide a model. Some 120 guests paid $40 each to attend a gourmet picnic during last summer's festival. There they mingled with the most tangible remains of Papa's works while they munched on tortica rustica and cucumber soup. The box lunches—served, it must be noted, on the very broad lawn of a local mansion—were by way of a promotion for a book of recipes by a Hemingway granddaughter titled "The Picnic Gourmet."
No Edgar Rice Burroughs Foundation has surfaced to organize a Burroughs Jungle Days. Perhaps it is just as well; a swing on vines through the local parks would create a liability nightmare for sponsors. Things promise to be animal enough in Oak Park without Cheetah impersonators. The 1990 Hemingway Festival will feature a running of the bulls through the streets of Oak Park. Not real bulls—cattle have been banned everywhere in greater Chicago since Mrs. O'Leary's cow started the fire—but representatives of Chicago's popular professional basketball team, who will race the locals for charity.
Visitors to Oak Park may be able to demand their choice of teas in their bed and breakfasts, but as host the town will decide what flavor of Hemingway will be served. Oak Park thus will have the last word in what Frederick Crews called "the anxious, resentful quarrel" that Hemingway carried on with his hometown his entire life. Hemingway Foundation officials, for example, make clear their distaste for what one describes as the "far-out psychographic stuff" being offered by prying scholars, and prefer to focus on church, school, and the extended family. Something more precious than prosperity is at stake in Oak Park, and that is pride. Washing the Hemingways' dirty linen in public is one thing. Putting it permanently on display is something else. ●