No, this isn’t a confession of something decades old. Yes, we were on the same planet for a couple of years, but I was toddling around the sidewalks of Berwyn, Illinois in diapers when Ernest Hemingway shot himself in Ketchum, Idaho. My summer with him was this past one, the summer that just recently breezed – or rather, whipped – through our muggy streets.
It’s not that I was completely unaware of Hemingway before last summer. For the past three years The Hemingway Foundation has hired me and my husband to sing at their Boxing Day event. Before that, I had a few brief high-school brushes with Hemingway’s writing which left me with the clear, haunting details of a story called “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” the vague recollection of having read “The Old Man and the Sea” and the distinct memory of some clipped prose describing a hunter named Nick Adams who went camping to soothe an unspoken grief.
These encounters, though somewhat entertaining, were hardly the stuff of solid friendship and so our flimsy acquaintance could hardly have been expected to withstand what came next. My post college delight in the short stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald and the concomitant knowledge that Hemingway had kicked his alcoholic friend when he was down sealed my negative opinion forever: I root for underdogs, not bullies. Besides, I prefer elegant prose about flappers and rich boys over short sentences describing the detailed actions of pained and possibly misogynistic hunters.
Singing Dickensian Christmas Carols at the Hemingway Birthplace Home for the past three years softened my opinion of Ernest just a bit. Surely, a man born and raised in these lovely rooms must have retained something of their Victorian charm even if he had evolved into someone who placed an equal value on drinking, shooting lions and trading up wives. Should I give him another chance? Alas, nothing in the elegant Boxing Day event – the gracious volunteers, the delicious treats, the fascinating readings, the informative tours, or even the check from the Foundation -- brought me one step closer to reading Hemingway. I was still rooting for Fitzgerald and would not crack one book of his foe.
But last summer, I was thrown together with Ernest in earnest and it was time to give the man and the writer a fair appraisal. Two of my children were in need of volunteer hours and the Hemingway Foundation – always looking for volunteers – came to the rescue. I decided to go along for the ride. What did I discover?
That people come from all over the world to visit the Hemingway Museum on any given day but that very occasional groups of American women – who react with marked suspicion to explanations of ticket pricing – have come only to use the bathroom. That the Hemingway Archives holds some very interesting materials which present even more interesting volunteer opportunities. That Hemingway loved cats. That Hemingway’s mother, Grace, was a founding member of the Oak Park Art League (another lovely, volunteer-friendly locale we discovered this summer). That someone should write a biography of Grace Hall Hemingway. That anyone who loves cats can’t be all bad. That watching Jack and Patrick Hemingway cut up while answering audience questions (“Roundtable Discussion,” July 21, 1999) causes the viewer to (almost) sense the gregarious presence of their father. That the MIT students who sit under the lectures of author Joe Haldeman – the designated speaker at last summer’s Hemingway birthday party – are very fortunate. That Howard Hawks obviously didn’t have Hemingway’s novel To Have and To Have Not in mind when he created the film of the same title. That although Catherine Barkley, the female protagonist of A Farewell to Arms, was based on Hemingway’s first love, Agnes von Kurowsky, she also bears a striking resemblance to Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley. That Hemingway was apparently regretting Hadley decades later when he wrote the beautiful memoir A Moveable Feast. That I’m not certain the exact grammatical implications in beginning umpteen consecutive sentences with the same word.
So I’ll stop and say, in short, that I finally discovered what all the fuss was about: Hemingway had a passion for writing that was matched only by his passion for living, a writer whose enormous characters often blurred the line between autobiography and fiction. So what if I still enjoy Fitzgerald more? Hemingway’s writing, although in a completely different style, is at least as good, and his output ten times that of his doomed friend. If Hemingway’s flawed personality often caused pain to others, he was equally adept at making them laugh. And read.
The Hemingway Foundation, the keeper of the Oak Park branch of the flame, is just down the street. Check them out.
(More information about the Hemingway Foundation can be found at www.ehfop.org).
John and Kathryn Atwood will be performing Songs of the Two World Wars at the Pleasant Home on Thursday, October 4, as part of “The Big Read” celebration of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.
Kathryn's poetry, reviews and essays have appeared in numerous online and print journals, including "The Aurora Review,", "Afterimage," "Void Magazine," "Wild Violet," and "PopMatters." When she's not writing or driving her three kids around somewhere, Kathryn is usually teaching at a local music studio or givng vocal performances with her husband on the subject of American song. Click Here To View Kathryn's Book Reviews.