The Young Man and the Suburb
Oak Park welcomes Hemingway home, at last
March 30, 1990
I undertook a long piece for the Reader about Ernest Hemingway and his home town of Oak Park, but decided that it would make a good piece for the New York Times Book Review. They did too, and bought it. I still had not exhausted the topic, or my interest in it, so I completed a separate Reader version. They overlap, of course, and it probably won't help much to explain that the NYTBR version is about Oak Park while the Reader version is about Hemingway. Anyway, this version, which ended up at 8,000 words, is the better of the two.
The NYTBR version is here.
There's been loose talk going around Oak Park about staging a "running of the bulls" this summer. Not real bulls—Oak Park has a pooper-scooper law—but a charity footrace in which players from the NBA Bulls would challenge what organizers describe, with a straight face, as Oak Park's macho males.
The occasion would be the seventh Ernest Hemingway Festival, a week-long celebration staged for the last six years to remind a forgetful world that the famous writer was born and raised in the west Chicago suburb. Papa quit going to the real running of the bulls in Pamplona because it became rotten with tourists. But he would have liked being remembered in 1990 as the bullfight aficionado, the tough-guy hedonist, our Shakespeare of gore. Recently some biographers have taken to calling Hemingway a sort of pansy; it figures they'd wait till he wasn't around to challenge them on it.
If writers have tended to find Hemingway's life more interesting than his fiction, it may be because he put more of his imagination into creating the life than the stories. Hemingway caught the big fish, slept with the beautiful women, woke up hung over in a hundred posh hotels. When he wasn't writing, he safaried and fiesta-ed and rode in Army tanks and got the Nobel Prize and eventually made a lot of money. His life was marked by excess of every kind, save of kindness, honesty, and manners. And lived as it was in the pages of Esquire and Life, it was a more public life than any writer had had before.
"I can't think of a single other American writer who's stayed in the news this long after his death," observes Michael Reynolds. Reynolds is the English professor at North Carolina State University whose 1986 book, The Young Hemingway, is already regarded as essential. "His face is recognized everywhere as a sort of icon. Saul Bellow could walk down any street in the U.S., and no one would notice. But Hemingway . . ."
Hemingway is still being read; during the Reagan years, for example, his bwana's approach to the third world became fashionable again. More impressive, he is still being written about. Ten book-length studies of Hemingway have appeared since 1981 alone, and controversies about the posthumous publication of such unfinished work as his novel Garden of Eden have kept Hemingway's name in the headlines. His life has even inspired a TV miniseries (which may have been the perfect marriage of content and form).
But in the 20 years immediately following his suicide in 1961—Hemingway blew his head off with a shotgun in Idaho—his critical reputation and personal legend were both devalued. The best of his stories worked, his critics said, but his novels didn't because he never had a novel's worth of anything to say. And even the rationalizations of friendly biographers couldn't hide the fact that he'd led a life critic Frederick Crews called a "contemptible sham." Being revealed by Hemingway skeptics as a dud lover and false friend was bad enough, but the fact of deep-sea fishing with hand grenades was a deadly blow to his myth.
In fact Hemingway's critical career traces an arc, from the hero of the '20s and '30s to flawed hero of the '50s to fraud of the '60s and '70s. The newest students of his life, however, suggest that Hemingway may have been a hero after all, someone who fought a lifelong combat with unacknowledged inner demons. New biographies suggest that his hometown harbored a family history of dark secrets, secrets that demand that his work be read in new ways. Hemingway has been made interesting again, said one critic, and that means that Oak Park is important again.
* * *
A careless glance suggests that Ernest Hemingway's boyhood in Oak Park was quintessentially suburban, a happy footnote in the annals of privilege. Both parents came from established and respectable families. His father was a physician of modest ambition, his mother a musician of rather more, and they had six children, of whom Ernest was the second. The Hemingways were comfortable, if not rich by Oak Park standards. (They made their home in north Oak Park, where many of Chicago's commercial elite had fled to rebuild after the Great Fire.) They liked their culture refined and their religion unrelenting, which meant no booze and lots of the Bible. Beyond that, Hemingway was rather indulged as a boy. He hunted and fished under the tutelage of his father, dawdled his summers away in Michigan, even traveled a bit.
By all accounts, Hemingway the boy was bright and affable enough, a dutiful Christian and an eager student. Years later, however, he would insinuate that he had chafed under Oak Park's Victorianism until he was old enough to make his escape. It was in Oak Park, he insisted, that Papa-to-be apprenticed—boxing the pros in Chicago gyms, nearly killing a man with an ax, drinking precociously, and bedding sundry females.
Tall tales every one. True, Hemingway did not go to college, instead using family connections to land a newspaper job in Kansas City. That was unusual. Going to college was for north Oak Parkers what going down into the pits was for the sons of Welsh miners—a remarkable two-thirds of the graduating seniors at Oak Park High School in those days did so. The decision probably reflected the boy's inveterate romantic streak more than rebellion, however; while he was away playing the hard-bitten reporter, his mother regularly mailed him cookies.
He committed the usual misdemeanors as a boy, but he was by all accounts less Huck Finn than Henry Aldrich. Biographer Charles Fenton, in The Apprenticeship of Ernest Hemingway, properly took issue with what he called Hemingway's "legend of a turbulent youth": Fenton asked how a kid who was constantly in scrapes could have also found the time to be in the school play, write and edit the school rag, join the debating club and three uplift organizations for boys, play football, swim, manage the track team, and be chosen Class Speaker.
Hemingway's mother did once expel him from the family cottage in Michigan as punishment for his part in keeping his younger sisters and some of their friends out too late and scaring their parents. It was a minor crime, but it led his mother to brand him, melodramatically, a threat to youth. He may have taken her exaggerated opinion of his roguishness to heart; he always took his mother seriously.
If Hemingway found Oak Park constraining, it was because the opportunities for adventure it afforded failed to measure up to the extravagant expectations he seems to have acquired from his reading. Reynolds argues in Hemingway's defense that he grew up in an America where megalomania was the national style (as it would be again in the 1980s) and where any white doctor's son from a posh big-city suburb could grow up to live the life he dreamed about. But Hemingway fabricated events from the start, dreaming up the life he lived.
Never was that trait revealed more astonishingly than in his descriptions of his wounding at Fossalta on the Italian front during World War I. The facts are straightforward enough: While working as a volunteer ambulance driver, Hemingway was handing out chocolates and cigarettes to troops when an Austrian mortar shell exploded nearby. Shrapnel and two bullets caused bloody but non-crippling wounds to his legs and feet but did not break any bones; he was carried to safety and hospitalized.
The incident—which was central in both his life and fiction—grew in boldness and bloodiness with each retelling, first in letters home and later in press interviews and speeches in Oak Park, where he'd returned in 1919 to convalesce. (This he did mainly by strutting about town in uniform with a cane and a black cape he'd had tailored for him in Milan.) The credulity of his audiences—mostly schoolchildren and club women—spurred him to invention. Eventually he would claim that he'd been the first American wounded in Italy and had served as a first lieutenant with Italy's crack 69th Infantry, Brigata Ancona. He further insisted that, in addition to his shrapnel wounds, he had been felled by machine-gun fire that left his legs riddled with 32 .45-caliber bullets, and that in spite of that punishment he had carried a wounded Italian officer, Rambolike, 150 yards to safety.
The episode may have been crucial in the development of the novelist-to-be, and not merely because it provided him with material. It confirmed for him the transmuting power of stories, and how a man could use words to turn himself into anything he liked. Until then Hemingway had lived through other writers' stories; henceforth he would live his own.
His deceptions were essential, because the unembroidered Hemingway was not a very attractive fellow. He was unkempt, a bully and a braggart, at once fearful and resentful of authority, a spoiled child who resented having to obey any rule he found inconvenient. As an adult he took pleasure in shooting on posted land and fishing out of season. But even as a boy he was known to poach pheasants from a nearby private game preserve and shoot farmers' chickens when he was hungry; when he was nearly nabbed for killing a heron in violation of the game laws, however, it scared him so much he went into hiding for three days.
Even the people who liked Hemingway inadvertently confirm his unpleasantness. In the oral history collection Yesterday When I Was Younger, Lewis Clarahan, a Hemingway high school chum and hiking companion, recalled how Hemingway used to say insulting things to people just for fun. Clarahan also recalled Hemingway's lying, his recklessness, his desperate need to be, as Clarahan put it, "on top of everything." For example, Hemingway knocked out the smaller Clarahan while boxing, a foretaste of a career in which he never took on anyone in the ring who was as big, as sober, or as skilled as he was.
Once while hunting, Hemingway fired his shotgun and missed Clarahan's face by inches. "I suppose it was an accident," the victim was to recall. "He just loved to stir up excitement, but that was a very dangerous joke and I was very lucky." On another occasion Hemingway escorted Clarahan on the latter's first trout-fishing expedition; the lucky novice caught more fish than the experienced Hemingway, so, says Clarahan, "he made me promise not to tell."
Hemingway's boyhood in Oak Park, it turns out, was indeed cruelly unhappy, but Oak Park had little directly to do with that. This is not to say that turn-of-the-century Oak Park offered much scope to a boy eager to make an impression. At the same time, the town never was as narrow a place as Hemingway liked to recall it. It was socially more complex than a sheltered boy was able to comprehend. South Oak Park was already mostly Irish, Catholic, and Democratic in those years, a world away from the Hemingways' north Oak Park neighborhood. The town's ban on taverns suggested hypocrisy to Hemingway, since Oak Parkers still drank heartily enough in their homes and clubs; in fact the dry rule had less to do with alcohol than with the town's fears of working-class undesirables who might frequent the places where it was served.
Nor was the Hemingway household exactly representative of the town as a whole. Hemingway's father still railed against dancing, even though dances were routine parts of the social life at Oak Park schools and clubs. And when his mother complained to the school board about her freshman son having been assigned The Call of the Wild, which she called "unfit for a Christian gentleman," she revealed a nose bluer than most in the prewar suburbs of the Midwest. It wasn't Oak Park that was narrow as much as it was Hemingway's upbringing, but characteristically he found ways to blame his provinciality on his hometown.
The aspersions cast by the adult Hemingway on Oak Park won him no friends there, but it hardly mattered. With his first success, in the mid-'20s, a great many Oak Parkers dismissed him as the degenerate author of books that were crude, impious, or indiscreet. Eventually his friends realized, however, that what Hemingway disliked most about the town was the fact that the Hemingways—especially his mother—lived there.
Young Hemingway shocked Oak Parkers; worse, he disappointed them. Their dismay over his work seems to have prevented most of them from seeing at the time that for all the booze and bravado, Ernest Hemingway was a good Oak Parker at heart. The town may never have appeared in Hemingway's work as a place, but as a moral and social presence it is everywhere—as Reynolds puts it, "beneath the surface, invisible and inviolate." His putative moderns are in fact as old-fashioned as one might expect from a writer who numbered among his personal heroes Teddy Roosevelt and Rudyard Kipling. Evelyn Waugh was one of the few Hemingway contemporaries to notice that for all the "bluster and cursing and fisticuffs" in his writing, Hemingway "has an elementary sense of chivalry—respect for women, pity for the weak, love of honor—which keeps breaking in."
But in his personal life, Hemingway's disdain for Oak Park's social conventions could not have been more decisive; though fistfights, extramarital sex, and crude language were not unknown in Oak Park, they were considered private vices, not public amusements. But Hemingway flouted Oak Park standards with a diligence so systematic as to suggest that he had never really shed them. Mencken noted that Hemingway seemed to be showing off for an imagined reader who was the embodiment of "all the Ladies Aid Societies in his native Oak Park." Biographer Kenneth Lynn has noted that even in his mid-40s, Hemingway still showed "a strong oppositional streak" that led him to resist automatically whatever his parents had favored. Until the day of his death at 61, Hemingway remained the boy he'd wanted to be in Oak Park, delighting in not taking baths, staying up late, and showing off.
Despite the hold his home town apparently had on him, Hemingway was almost alone among recent American writers in completely ignoring his home town as a setting and topic. As Reynolds pointed out in The Young Hemingway, "It's hard to imagine Faulkner not writing about Oxford, Mississippi, or Steinbeck leaving the Salinas Valley out of his fiction. It is almost axiomatic that American authors write about their home towns, yet Hemingway did not." His heroes were all homeless men, and he left untouched the trove of fictive raw material in his clan, whose members included famous missionaries to China and Civil War heroes—and even rich Uncle Tyler, who once proposed to the maid.
* * *
Oak Park has as many writers as Yellowstone has bears, but Hemingway was the biggest and the hungriest of them all. There Hemingway received the whole of his formal education, there he was first published and learned to hike and hunt and fish. It was in Oak Park that Hemingway found out he'd been dumped by Agnes von Kurowsky, a rejection so devastating that it sent the 20-year-old to bed, ill—perhaps more than his brush with war, this experience brought Hemingway's Victorian childhood to an end. And Oak Park was the scene of his father's suicide, when Hemingway himself was in his late 20s.
For all that, Hemingway's Oak Park years were slighted by his early biographers, who fastened onto his wartime experiences as the ones crucial to understanding the writer and his work. "People don't connect Hemingway with Oak Park," Scott Schwar laments. Schwar is the chairman of the Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park, established in 1983 by people who, like Schwar, believe that spawning a Nobel Prize winner says something pretty nice about their hometown. Since boosters as well as book lovers make up the foundation's 175 or so members, it resembles a Rotary Club infiltrated by subversives from the local book-study circle. The foundation's active members range in age from the boomerish Schwar to retirees, and intellectually they run the gamut. What they share, Schwar says, is a regard for the Hemingway oeuvre; occasionally members will read aloud from it at meetings for inspiration and instruction.
The foundation's official purpose is to "establish a museum in Oak Park, Illinois, focusing on the life and literary creations of Ernest Hemingway." The writer lived in three Oak Park houses (one for just a short time) between his birth in 1899 and his departure for Paris in 1921, at the age of 22. Each has survived, each would make a dandy museum, but each is now in use as a private residence and has an owner not ready to sell. In a town whose cultural infrastructure is otherwise considerable, the lack of a Hemingway museum is galling. Roy Hlavacek is the foundation's treasurer and one of its founding directors. His job in trade journalism takes him everywhere, and he reports that there is no corner of the world so remote that Hemingway is unknown there. And all these Hemingway fans, upon learning that Hlavacek hails from the great writer's birthplace and boyhood home, are apt to exclaim: "You mean there's no museum?"
It seems at times that few places in the hemisphere do not have a Hemingway museum. His house in Havana is maintained by the Cuban government, and the house in Ketchum, Idaho, while not open for tours, nevertheless has been preserved. Visitors to his stone house on Whitehead Street in Key West—bought in 1931 for Hemingway and his second wife by her parents and now open as a museum—can watch the gamboling of the descendants of his six-toed cats and pause at the table where he worked on such essential stories as "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" and "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber." Visitors to Oak Park, alas, must content themselves with reading plaques.
That Oak Park has such potential, museum-wise, only makes the foundation more frustrated. The birthplace home, on Oak Park Avenue, is a gorgeous Queen Anne pile that speaks of big families and suburban summers on the porch; the boyhood home nearby, on Kenilworth Avenue, is a stolid two-story barn that bespeaks a domestic stability its first inhabitants unhappily never achieved. (The 86-year-old owner of the house on Kenilworth has added a codicil to her will that gives the foundation first crack at acquiring it upon her death.) But wherever it is located, the foundation envisions a facility more imposing than a souvenir T-shirt boutique. The modest local archives of Hemingway material would be stored there, and researchers might also enjoy access via computer to the vastly larger holdings of Hemingway papers in Texas and Massachusetts. The commodious music room of the Kenilworth house would make a fine site for seminars and lectures, and visiting scholars could be billeted upstairs.
Reynolds for one thinks that restoring the boyhood house to its appearance in 1915-1920, when Hemingway was in high school, is a great idea. "The Hemingway-house business is a growth stock," he says. "His house in Key West is an enormous tourist attraction. The last time I was there, people were standing in line to get in. We've done it for other authors." The bookish Illinois tourist can explore the houses of Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, and Edgar Lee Masters—all butch enough as poets go, but not one of them with a decent marlin to his name.
Ordinarily you would expect a museum foundation that didn't have a museum to mope a bit. But Oak Parkers do not mope. When foundation members are not lunching with bankers and real estate advisers, they devote themselves to a busy program of lectures, film showings, walking tours, and public amusements (loosely describable as educational) intended to restore Hemingway to the consciousness of his townspeople and Oak Park to the consciousness of the world.
Including that part of the world populated by officials of the U.S. Postal Service. Back in 1974, a local "Tribute to Hemingway" committee proposed that the Postal Service issue a Hemingway commemorative stamp on his 75th birthday; the Postal Service said Hemingway had not been dead long enough to meet postal regulations. In 1987, the Hemingway stamp activists, acting this time under the banner of the foundation, suffered an especially painful rejection; William Faulkner got his stamp that very year, and he had died a year after Hemingway. Hemingway thus stood as our only dead Nobelist not to have his own stamp, and his supporters made clear that Oak Park as well as history had been offended.
In 1989 the Postal Service relented, announcing plans to issue a new 25-cent Hemingway stamp by summer. But disappointment dimmed the triumph. For one thing, the stamp depicted the mature Hemingway—bearded, in a sweater, with his hair combed persuasively forward to cover his bald spot—posed before a setting African rather than Illinois sun. A quartet of antelope are shown on the plain behind him, taking advantage of the great hunter's distraction with his portraitist to trot out of rifle range. Worse, a perfidious Postal Service planned to make the first-day issue of the stamp not in Oak Park but in Key West.
Strings were pulled and resolutions passed in the Illinois General Assembly, but to no avail. A contrite Postal Service did agree to an unusual second-day issue, to coincide with what would have been the writer's 90th birthday, on July 21, 1989. A special cancellation was prepared for that day that showed the birthplace house, and a commemorative envelope was printed up, depicting the boyhood home on Kenilworth in watercolors.
They don't issue new stamps every day in Oak Park, and the occasion became the centerpiece for what turned out to be the biggest and splashiest Hemingway festival ever. The writer's sojourn in Paris in the 1920s provided a pretext for linking his birthday to the French bicentennial, and both were celebrated with a two-day street party at a local bistro. More sedate entertainments included formal ceremonies at the local post office, with remarks by A.E. Hotchner, Hemingway's confidant and biographer, and a Hemingway family reunion picnic, to which the public was invited.
In fact, the three Hemingway sons and their progeny were by far the most impressive artifacts the foundation was able to display that week; the collection at the time consisted of one of Hemingway's mother's hats, a leather hunting bag, and what a foundation member described to the press as "a stuffed loon he shot in Michigan." Last year's festival was also plagued by a few mishaps, but nothing serious. Eldest son Jack stayed home, it rained on the family reunion picnic, Hlavacek had to borrow a 16-millimeter print of The Macomber Affair when a 35-millimeter theater version couldn't be obtained, and the Chinese scholar brought in to lecture made it clear that he was in fact an expert on Willoughby Hemingway, the noted missionary who was Ernest's uncle.
Oak Parkers managed a satisfying rebuke to Key West nevertheless. More than 2,500 people showed up for the street party, and a local Hemingway look-alike dropped by to bolster the ambience. All the Hemingway relatives agreed that Oak Park seemed a very nice place. Hotchner even made his observation about its "small-town values" sound like a compliment.
When it comes to staging bacchanals, of course, a Gulf resort town has the near-west suburbs at a real disadvantage. People accustomed to marlin fishing will not be impressed to hear that Oak Park is only ten minutes away from the Oak Brook Shopping Center. And the fact that the foundation had to borrow motifs, such as that year's Paris cafe theme, for its promotions is a reminder that the writer did not do for Oak Park what Mark Twain did for Hannibal. There were no raft races, no whitewashing contests, no caves in which murderous half-breeds once lurked. There is only his old school, his church, the hill he used to sled on, and the name "E. M. Hemingway" etched on the war memorial in Scoville Park.
Dan Haley, editor-publisher of the weekly Wednesday Journal, is one of the Oak Parkers worried about serving up such thin gruel to hungry visitors. "There is nothing uglier," Haley warned in a 1987 column, "than a tourist who feels cheated." Even opening up the attic alcove where little Ernest did his math homework probably will not tempt a touring public that's been to Graceland. Now, if the foundation were to build a 70-foot water slide next to his house, Haley wrote helpfully, it would have itself "a highly promotable package."
"Dan loves to play the iconoclast," says Hlavacek good-naturedly. But the fact is that it is not love of literature that has won the foundation so much eager support from Oak Park's business and government leaders. It is the lure of tourism. Oak Park is a landlocked bedroom suburb with high property taxes, a stagnant retail base, and no industry. While there is no formal estimate of the dollars a busy Hemingway Center might generate, they may be assumed to be significant. One local couple is even making tentative plans for a restaurant on a Key West theme—west of Austin Boulevard, presumably.
Of course, the appeal of a favorite author is emotional as well as aesthetic, and Hemingway is read from Formosa to Russia. (Schwar says that when he once mentioned to a visiting Russian that the birthplace of the man who wrote The Old Man and the Sea was nearby, the man raced him to the car in his eagerness to see the place.) Literary tourists tend to be undauntable travelers. Thomas Wolfe fans eagerly brave the trek to Asheville, just as lovers of Mark Twain think nothing of a trip to Hartford, Connecticut, to see his house. Poe fans even venture into the Bronx.
Hemingway tourists, like other literary pilgrims, undertake a quest as much as a tour. They drink in the bars he drank in, fish the waters he fished, sleep in the hotels he slept in. The academically credentialed write monographs based on their perambulations, which have helped place Hemingway among the five most studied American authors. The amateurs confide their impressions to such publications as the Lost Generation Journal, a biannual that sustains the faithful with articles such as "Hemingway's Quest for Living" and "Destroyed But Not Defeated."
"An awful lot of people wander through Oak Park looking for Hemingway," Reynolds notes. Foundation volunteers surveyed visitors at last summer's Hemingway birthday bash, and found that the 300 people who replied hailed from 47 towns in eight states.
So the Hemingway devotee comes unbidden to Oak Park. But what about the more casual reader, or the person who only knows about Hemingway from TV? That is Oak Park's growth market. Presumably, among the roughly 10 million conventioneers and pleasure travelers who visit Chicago each year, they must number in the tens of thousands. Partly in order to reach that market, last year the state's official tourism agency, trying to rectify Chicago's lingering image abroad as a gangland theme park, ran full-pagers in the European editions of Time, Newsweek, and other magazines, touting such artistes as Frank Lloyd Wright and Hugh Hefner. Beneath Hemingway's picture was a caption that read, "Dedicated to everybody who thinks Chicagoans can only write cheques."
Hemingway was never a "Chicago writer," however. He never wrote of the city, indeed didn't write much of quality in Chicago during the 15 months he lived here in 1920 and 1921. (He did begin one of the first of his mature stories, "Up in Michigan," in Chicago but didn't finish it until he'd moved to Paris.) No, if the Chicago tourist wishes to find out about Hemingway, he must go to Oak Park.
One potential drawing point is that America's most brilliant architect and its most famous writer dwelt within blocks of each other at the turn of the century, a coincidence that Schwar at least takes pains to point out. (He has been known to refer to Hemingway, slyly, as an "architect of 20th-century literature.") The restored home and studio of Frank Lloyd Wright on Chicago Avenue is one of two dozen of his designs still standing in Oak Park and nearby River Forest, which draw close to 70,000 people a year from around the world.
"We're where the Frank Lloyd Wright house was ten years ago," says an optimistic Schwar. In those days, the famous architect's house was dilapidated and up for sale, and the local Haagen-Dazs shop had not yet seen the advantage in advertising itself as "the Wright ice creamery." Emulating the success of local Wrightians is, in the foundation's view, a matter of when, not if. "Tourism," insists Schwar, "is the only product we have."
* * *
Hemingway never offered a really convincing explanation of his reluctance to tackle Oak Park in his work. In the 1930s, he explained to Irving Stone that he'd never written a novel based on American experience because nothing important ever happened in American life—a fatuous judgment from a man whose early career spanned Prohibition, the Depression, the Red scares of the '20s, and the Chicago race riots of 1919. He told Charles Fenton 20 years later that he never wrote his Oak Park novel because he didn't want to hurt people still alive—an unconvincing claim from a writer who never went out of his way to avoid hurting friends and family, who even seemed sometimes to go out of his way to hurt them.
Recent scholarship—especially the work of Johns Hopkins historian Kenneth Lynn in his 1987 Hemingway—suggests that Hemingway's problem with Oak Park was not that too little happened there but too much. Though he never wrote about those experiences explicitly, they were seldom far from his thoughts. Late-night harangues and bitter letters to friends were just two of the ways he revealed the grave anxieties and insecurities connected to his family and boyhood. As the writer himself put it finally in A Moveable Feast, "Families have many ways of being dangerous."
"Dangerous"? It's a curious word to use. Many writers come from unhappy families; it is practically a requirement of admission to the guild. What made Hemingway's family dangerous instead of tragic or irritating or corrupting or embarrassing? Biographer Carlos Baker concluded that it was Hemingway's genius that put him at odds with his family. Fenton was only slightly more insightful when he wrote, "The spartan demands of his physician father invariably conflicted with the rich artistic aura which his mother attempted to cast over her family; there was inevitable confusion and bitterness for a boy as responsive and sensitive as their oldest son."
Scholars got closer to the truth when they focused on his troubled father, Dr. Clarence (Ed) Hemingway. He was a master outdoorsman whom the young Hemingway idolized, but he was also grimly puritanical and quick to punish, a henpecked husband who worried unnecessarily about money. A chronic depressive, Clarence Hemingway gradually withdrew from family life, and eventually shot himself in the head at the age of 57. That death set an unhappy precedent; of his six children, three for sure, and possibly a fourth, also killed themselves.
As a boy, Hemingway seems to have been gravely disappointed by his father. But as an adult, he inveighed against Grace Hemingway so often and so bitterly that his friend John Dos Passos decided that Hemingway was the only man he'd known who really hated his mother. She seems to have been the central figure in the drama of his youth, the woman Lynn calls the dark queen of his inner world. Grace Hall Hemingway was a joiner and improver, a frustrated performer and proto-feminist who out-earned her husband—she was much sought-after as a music teacher—during his early years of practice. She insisted on having servants to do the housework, and paid respectability more respect than it deserved. She was also vain, willful, and sensitive in a self-dramatizing way. In short there was a lot of Grace in Ernest, but for most of their lives neither of them would have wanted to admit it.
Recent biographers have tended to agree that the secret to Hemingway's life and art lies not in his wounding at Fossalta, as Baker and others assumed, but in the graver psychological injuries he sustained at the hands of his parents. They do not at all agree on the injuries, and who inflicted them. Consider the different ways that Lynn and Reynolds explain Dr. Hemingway's expulsion, when Ernest was a teenager, of his wife's longtime live-in companion. Lynn argues that the two women were lovers—which seems to be what the good doctor also concluded. Reynolds argues that a lesbian relationship was probably a figment of Dr. Hemingway's all-too-fervid imagination, and that Grace Hemingway was at most a surrogate mother for the younger woman. If they shared a secret, it was their belief in spiritualism, which the almost hysterically Christian doctor could not abide. The family has destroyed the letters that might have illuminated the incident, leaving open the question of whether the surviving Hemingways were trying to suppress evidence of the mother's sexual aberration or of the father's untoward obsession.
In his provocative rereading of the Oak Park years, Lynn concludes that it was not the son's genius that estranged him from home, or the father's example, but the mother's ambiguous and contradictory impulses, particularly as they regarded sex. For example, she persisted for years in the fantasy that Ernest and his older sister Marcelline were twins. She dressed them alike, cut their hair alike, even held Marcelline back a year in school so they would be in the same class.
Lynn notes that it was not uncommon in that era for little boys to wear dresses. They usually remained recognizable as boys, however, which was not always the case with young Ernest. Few boys were coiffed, even addressed as a girl, the way he was. Perhaps more confusing to the boy's sense of himself were his mother's inconsistencies: Grace not only dressed Ernest like a girl but sometimes dressed Marcelline like a boy; she gave them matching air rifles as well as matching tea sets. The same woman who praised her son as a "Dutch dolly" also exalted his every expression of maleness as a fisherman and marksman, and there is as much of the flirt in her letters to him as there is the scold.
The result, Lynn argues, was that Hemingway suffered enduring uncertainties about his manhood. Today, Hemingway's brand of compulsive masculinity plainly signals deep insecurities, which Hemingway tried to obscure with the wholesale slaughter of game animals, stunts and boasting, the glorification of blood sports, and wartime adventuring. Hemingway's taciturnity as a writer was essential—it made insight into himself unnecessary. He wrote about action, in short, because inquiring too closely into his feelings was risky.
Hemingway also brought from his youth a complicated, indeed confused relationship with women. His boyhood friends have said that they do not recall Ernest ever going on a date. (He took Marcelline, through their mother's contrivance, to the junior-senior prom.) His relationship with Marcelline was never happy, perhaps because she grew up to resemble her mother; as for her, Lynn says, she was so devastated by news of her brother's first engagement, in 1921, that she suffered a temporary nervous collapse. Ernest apparently felt the tug of incestuous yearnings for his younger sister, Ursula, a fact Lynn sees reflected in Hemingway's wives, whom he treated as playmates or tomboy sisters as much as lovers or mothers.
In Reynolds's nice phrase, Hemingway never went back to Oak Park and he never left. What he found fascinating in Paris, Lynn argues, was the lesbian community among its artists and expatriates; as Lynn puts it, the experience of looking like a girl but feeling like a boy was one Hemingway could relate to. Indeed, Oak Park proved a better preparation for worldly Paris than Hemingway could have imagined; Gertrude Stein, his mentor and would-be lover, in important physical ways resembled his mother, whom Ernest had years earlier nicknamed "Mrs. Stein."
In the stories and novels, androgyny, incest, and gender inversion are rife; so are cowardice and impotence (a remembrance of the ineffectual father, perhaps). Frederick Crews has written that Hemingway's fictive world is populated by "castrating shrews and shattered men and . . . sibling-like lovers whose deepest fantasy is to trade sex roles and merge into . . . oneness." Hemingway's characters, like their creator, are split—in their affections, impulses, identities. Some acquaintances who were not taken in by his bluster, such as Virginia Woolf, were surprised at his delicacy. Hemingway's public self spoke through his male characters, but his hitherto-unsuspected private self often spoke through certain of his female characters.
That, of course, is what writers of fiction do. That we are surprised to learn Hemingway did it too suggests how completely the world confused the macho writer with the writer about macho. In fact some schools of criticism hold that all of our great literary works are, in Richard Bernstein's phrase, "crucibles of sexual identity and conflict." Feminist critics, for example, have noted that Shakespeare's tragedies do not fulfill the classical requirements of the form—the requisite self-knowledge, catharsis, and return to order—and can only be understood in terms of his suppression of the feminine impulse. The same can be said of Hemingway's novels and stories.
So Lynn claims, defending himself against such critics as Benjamin DeMott and Wilfred Sheed, that his interpretations don't cheapen our appreciation of Hemingway's work, they deepen it. Neither his hatred of his mother, his frustrated attraction to his sister, his contempt for his weak father, nor the corrosive doubts about his own manhood (including a recurring obsession with impotence) could be admitted openly. The darkness that shadowed his private life also lurks in his stories' silences. A generation of scholars assumed that the darkness had entered Hemingway's soul at Fossalta. They came to that conclusion in no small part because Hemingway encouraged that—it "explained" what he didn't want otherwise explained.
* * *
Setting the record straight about Hemingway would in many ways also set the record straight about Oak Park. The town has been denigrated by biographers for 35 years, even by those who did not take Hemingway's slurs against it at face value. Fenton, for example, who visited in the early 1950s, rather liked Oak Park but made it sound a dull place: he wrote about the "pleasant sameness" of the town's streets, its "rather limited" social types, and the seedy antiquity of its houses. The impulse to defend Oak Park against the defamations of psychohistorians and PhD candidates thus comes naturally to some of the directors of the Hemingway Foundation, who are united in their dedication to what is, to quote one of them, "good for Oak Park."
But what's praiseworthy in a patriot is suspect in a historian. Michael Reynolds is a bit concerned about what the federation itself might do to Hemingway's reputation. "It's probably inevitable that any interpretation visitors get will be highly favorable to Oak Park," he says. "I've seen it elsewhere, and it's worrisome."
It may be that some foundation members have not grasped the nature of modern mass tourism. In a newsletter a few years ago, a foundation officer foresaw a future in which curious out-of-towners would drop by "to meet [Hemingway's] old friends and hear what they have to say about what the developing writer was really like." This charming vision ignores the fact that Hemingway's remaining old friends would be 90-ish by now. And what Oak Park is likely to get instead of earnest seekers of chat will be busloads of boorish tourists, hung over after visiting Rush Street, who piss in the lilac bushes. Still, the possibility that once-proud villagers might find themselves catering to people who don't obey the littering laws does not faze the foundation's leadership.
The recent acquisition from a Michigan collector of a genuine Hemingway treasure—the "Dear John" letter he received from Agnes von Kurowsky—has made the opening of some kind of interim tourist facility all the more pressing. Paul Newman recently made a donation of $10,000 toward that end (he's a cooking pal and business partner of A. E. Hotchner, whose TV adaptation of Hemingway's "The Battler" in the '50s starred Newman).
Meanwhile, plans for the 1990 Hemingway Festival are well under way. Scheduled for July 14–21, the festival will also include a Bastille Day celebration. (It's a good thing Hemingway didn't set The Sun Also Rises in Reykjavik.) Scholar James Nagel, coauthor of last year's Hemingway in Love and War, will be in town to add some intellectual dignity to the proceedings; a Michigan-style fish boil will add flavor. And there will be that running of the bulls, though it looks as if no Bulls players will take part. (Organizers say the players wanted too much money.) Instead the race will feature the Luvabulls, and maybe mascot Benny the Bull.
These annual fêtes have proven quite popular in a town where there isn't a lot to do once you've returned your library books. But there was a time, not that many years ago, when a Hemingway festival in Oak Park might have been prosecuted under the local obscenity ordinances. Most Oak Parkers—well, the Oak Parkers who mattered anyway—didn't think much of Hemingway's work when he was alive. Fenton, after visiting there in the '50s, reported that townspeople "invariably preface their discussions of his work by hastily disclaiming any actual acquaintance with it." The public library kept his books behind a counter rather than on the open shelves. The writers whom Oak Park admired produced "clean" literature of the sort encouraged by the local chapter of the Friends of American Writers. It's worth noting, however, that Hemingway, in a scathing letter to his mother, defended The Sun Also Rises against the local book club's condemnation by reminding her that what his characters did was no worse than what the best Oak Park families dreamed of doing.
The rest of the world took Hemingway seriously, even if the local book-study clubs did not, and today civic pride is at least as compelling a sentiment as prudery in Oak Park. However misguided the results may have been in their eyes, the fact has remained that their Ernest at least devoted himself to Literature. Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of Tarzan, also lived and worked in Oak Park between 1910 and 1919. He is mentioned in the brochures along with Wright and Hemingway, but only briefly, the way a salesman might note that, in addition to its engine and leather upholstery, the new Mercedes also has a very nice trunk light. Burroughs may have been even more popular a writer in his way than Hemingway, but he was never an Important Writer.
Today, of course, one can check Hemingway's books out from the open shelves. There is a bust of him in the Oak Park library, and since 1974 the high school has made an annual Hemingway Award for creative writing. A reading room at the school has been renamed after him, too—this at the same school that pointedly omitted Hemingway from its list of notable locals when it celebrated its centennial in 1973.
In fact, Hemingway's reputation in Oak Park seems to the visitor to have been fully rehabilitated, judging from the number of plaques and special film showings and lectures. The town is no longer run by people who, as one local letter to the editor put it, "choose Sunday tea manners as the criterion for inclusion in their libraries."
In today's Oak Park, its scandalous bohemian might even seem something of a bore. Descendants of the town's established WASP families, for whom Oak Park is the world, must increasingly mix with affluent new families from the city (who are getting away from the world) and lower-middle-class types from Chicago's west side or nearby towns like Berwyn (who are moving up in the world). One result is that the town that as recently as 1970 had only a handful of black residents (mainly remnants of a servant class) has become a nationally recognized innovator in open housing. Oak Park is no longer dry, you can eat Cajun and Japanese and Vietnamese, and its successful progeny include the likes of Judy Tenuta, who would have found Grace Hemingway's Nineteenth Century Woman's Club a very tough room.
So Oak Park may be more tolerant of Hemingway than it used to be, but in some ways it is hardly more approving. The causes may be new, but Oak Park's pride in being an island of enlightenment in a sea of ignorance and prejudice is not. Today's Oak Parkers include sizable numbers of teachers, writers, and artists, along with managers of the do-gooder bureaucracies that have largely replaced the church-sponsored charities to which old Oak Parkers devoted themselves. These citizens are the spiritual heirs of old Oak Park's earnest improvers—educated, committed, energetic. As voters they have declared the town to be a nuclear-free zone, banned handguns, and endorsed a policy of "cultural diversity" that stands in radical contrast to the crude racial exclusionism of the towns that surround them. As a result, people who used to gripe about Oak Park's snobbery today complain about its smugness.
Poor Hemingway has fared no better among his contemporaries' grandkids than he fared with them. His language and his frankness about sex seem tame. But feminists deplore his retrograde views on women, just as the save-the-earth faction is appalled by his recreational exterminations of endangered species. On the streets where Hemingway strutted, showing off his war wounds, today's Oak Park males nurture, showing off their kids. And it would be interesting to hear what the man who sneered at "queers" might have added to the recent debate about whether the "cultural diversity and human dignity" policy at his alma mater ought to include homosexuals among its protected minorities.
Last summer's hoopla over the Hemingway stamp sparked a public reappraisal of the novelist's place in the local scheme so pointedly disapproving that an outsider might have concluded he'd left town owing a lot of people money. The chain weekly Oak Leaves boosterishly declared him Oak Park's "favorite author," but the Wednesday Journal delivered a wider and franker range of opinion. A columnist wrote in with an anecdote from her physician grandfather, who had revealed, after treating the young Hemingway, that he was a dirty writer in more ways than one. Hemingway was even subjected to a posthumous personality analysis by the paper's resident handwriting expert, a Dr. James Murray, who concluded, "If you were here today, Ernest, I would advise you to get professional help."
"The guy won some big prizes and caught some big fish," Dan Haley complained in his column. Speaking for those Oak Parkers who are strongly Catholic and devotedly pro-family, who regard private failures as more damning than sins against public morality, Haley noted that the writer also was "a burned-out lush who was married four times, was preoccupied by sex, ignored his children, became quite paranoid and finally killed himself with a shotgun in the kitchen of an isolated farmhouse in Idaho.
"Sure, it's romantic," Haley concluded, tongue only partly in cheek, "but is it Oak Park?"
It's ironic that the new Hemingway—tortured, sensitive, a victim as well as a victimizer—is as little a model citizen as the old. Still, in his new guise he may actually improve the prospects of Oak Park tourism; Hemingway's books may go out of style, but prurience won't. Meanwhile, the writer's ghost must be enjoying himself, having found yet another way to confound his townspeople. ●