Hemingway's Chicago

July 16, 2013

National Archives and Records Administration
Ernest Hemingway's 1923 passport photo

I first encountered Ernest Hemingway in a most unpleasant way: I was forced to read The Old Man and the Sea in Mr. Hogan’s junior year English class, and my dislike for the old teacher was strong enough to color my perceptions of Hemingway himself.

I found the writing too stiff and lacking in the detail that could have helped me see what he was painting more clearly.

My imagination didn’t kick in enough to recognize the world Hemingway lived in, which he pounded into rough shapes and primary colors on his typewriter.

Then, someone gave me an old, dog-eared version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which led me directly to The Sun Also Rises, because you really can’t read one without the other.

I was in my early 20s, and that book more than any other made me want to leave for some new Paris or Spain, because like many generations before and after me, I could live vicariously through Hemingway "Papa’s" alter ego, Jake Barnes.

The beauty I discovered in Hemingway’s writing at that age was in the spare prose, bereft of details, forcing you to experience the story for yourself as it was, as opposed to through colorful descriptions open to interpretation. You had to work hard at it. And if you did, you were rewarded with a very real sense of place.

At some point, I fell in love with the places Hemingway wrote about, because they so profoundly influenced his own lived experience. There was nothing remarkable about those settings, other than the powerful evocation of his own experiences. 

Whether at a cafe in Pamplona, in a carriage on the Left Bank in Paris, a fishing boat off the Cuban coast, or camping in Northern Michigan, Hemingway is present in all the scenes of his stories because those places come alive, taking on the role of a central character in his writing. 

Time passed, and by 30, I had read a load of Hemingway biographies, and chased the old man all over the world. I looked for him in European cafes, where he was rumored to have spent months working on drafts of his early novels.

I followed him to Cuba, where I spent time trying to soak in as much of his life at Finca VigĂ­a as I could. I stared at his famous fishing boat Pilar for a long time, trying to absorb the stain from its teak decks, the salt from its hull and the stories from its ghosts.

In Idaho, I pursued him by fishing the rivers under the hills that he often compared to Spain, and I camped in the shadow of his old Ketchum home. I even took a little Scotch and a fine cigar, and sat at the foot of the writer’s grave, toasting him with a selection of my favorite short stories.

Kansas City, Toronto, Milan, Paris, Pamplona, the Florida Keys, Kenya and Ketchum are well-known haunts and influential posts for the writer, whose ego often eclipsed everything but the place itself.

When I moved to Chicago last year, I wouldn’t have included the city on the list of influential places in Papa’s life. Of course he was born in Oak Park, a suburb of the city, but he left at 18, seemingly fleeing the proper, suburban life of his family for the adventure and romance of journalism afield.

(Panorama of Hemingway's birth room in Oak Park)

And though it doesn’t complete my Hemingway world tour, visiting the house Hemingway was born in and his boyhood home made me realize that you can never really leave it all behind. Somewhere in his words, you’ll find soft memories of playing along the Des Plaines River and fishing trips with his father, as well as the memories we all carry with us from our 12-year slog through school.

But Chicago likely played more of a role in Hemingway’s life than just being the place he came from, according to Liesl Olson, the Director of the Scholl Center for American History and Culture at the Newberry Library.

Olson published a blog post on Newberry’s site last month, with this and other tantalizing details of Chicago’s influence on one of the greatest writers of the 20th century -

“The year was 1920-21, during what has been called the “Chicago literary renaissance,” when H.L. Mencken could claim that Chicago had become “the literary capital of the United States.” Hemingway was drawn into an atmosphere created by ambitious writers, journalists, editors, publishers, and advertising men who worked for the city’s newspapers. In Chicago, Hemingway met Carl Sandburg and Sherwood Anderson. Apparently Hemingway read aloud to Sandburg one night from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Known for his own bardic self-presentation, Sandburg appreciated Hemingway’s bravura.”

Like all the places Hemingway traveled, it was the influential people as well as the place that left their mark on the literary giant.

In Chicago, as Olson said, it was Carl Sandburg, a Pulitzer-prize winning author and editor, and Sherwood Anderson, a short story writer, who would continue to tickle his interest in writing. And indeed it was Anderson who provided what was perhaps the single-most influential event of Hemingway’s young life, when he wrote letters of introduction for Ernest and Hadley Hemingway to Gertrude Stein and Sylvia Beach.

By the age of 25, Hemingway was writing what is is often considered to be one of best first novels ever written in his The Sun Also Rises.

It covers Paris, France and Pamplona Spain, with a little fly fishing thrown in for good measure. But somewhere in between the words, it’s not difficult to see the pieces of Chicago that still lingered with him. 

Something of the city’s famously blustery braggadocio is inherent in the way Hemingway lived his life, which in turn shows through in his unforgivingly tough characters. There is that Midwestern naivete that he seems to want to undo with every cast of the fly rod, every drink and food order in Paris or Madrid.

And then there’s his audience. When Hemingway left Chicago in his early 20s, he was not yet world renowned. For a long time, he had an intended audience.

“He’s always writing back to Chicago,” Olson told me over the phone recently. “The readers he imagines for his work are Chicago readers.”

My Hemingway world tour is far from over. I plan to spend my 25th wedding anniversary fly fishing the Irati River in Spain, before finding a leather bag of wine -- if such things are still done -- and a nice cafe in Pamplona and from which to watch The Running of the Bulls.

I have also yet to discover Hemingway’s Key West, which I hear has been lost to an army of six-toed cats.

But while I’m here, I intend to find out as much as possible about Hemingway, the Chicagoan.

Liesl Olson is speaking about Hemingway in Chicago during the Hemingway birthday celebration at the Hemingway Museum in Oak Park on Sunday, July 21 at 7 p.m.

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