Hemingway Comes to Mind

ernest hemingway, oak park illinois, chicago

Whenever there’s a discussion about American literature and culture Ernest Hemingway’s name pops out without fail. He’s the most popular American writer not only of his generation but of all time. Whether he’s the best American writer or not is another matter. Critics and writers have different opinions about his contributions and writing style. He remains a polarizing literary figure here in the US and the rest of the world.

While I was in Oak Park (after seeing Frank Lloyd Wright’s House & Museum) I dropped by the houses where the Hemingways once lived. There was an impressively informative guided tour in the first house, called the birth house, where the writer and his siblings were born. The tour guide has a story for every piece of furniture, small and big, in the house where the doctor father and the singer mother stayed with their kids up until Hemingway was 6. You could ask him why a certain painting or flower base is placed where they are and he would have a ready answer. Now the boyhood home, located in Kenilworth Avenue, was owned by the Ernest Hemingway Foundation until they sold it in 2011 to private owners. I read that they run into some financial issues with it. The good news is that the historical house is in no way in danger; the buyers are aware of its historical significance and are actually looking into opening it to public.

I forgot his name but that guy, with his sleek mustache, is a great tour guide. He knows the story of every single appliance, art work or article in that house!

The Hemingway’s house in N. Oak Park have an interesting story. It was sold (around the time Grace’s father, who invited Dr. Hemingway to live with him and her daughter, died) after the family decided to move to the bigger Kenilworth house. It had undergone several owners and renovations before the Hemingway Foundation bought it. They managed to restore it back to the original by studying photographs Dr. Hemingway took of the house. I like the idea of these non-government foundations taking over these heritage houses. They act independently but gets funding from private and the government. Their business is heritage conservation; they raise money from fund raising and other projects. Back home there are heritage groups but none has ever ventured on purchasing heritage houses and managing them like museums.

When the tour guide (pictured above; forgot the name, sorry) asked whether any of us read “The Sun Also Rises” (I was tempted to raise my hand to impress but decided not to because I never did!) an old couple responded and they went on talking about the novel and all little details as if they just read it that day. They said he was sharing his WWI experiences through his fiction and whenever theses folks eyes would glance on me, I would nod to show I concur with whatever they’re saying. Of course, I have no idea what they’re talking about.

The tour guide shared a tremendous amount of detail about the author’s life. Like where he probably got his love for the seas and stories about it. Turns out that an uncle, a seasoned Mariner who loves to tell stories, used to stay with them. The father was an honorable doctor who treated many locals for gratis. Invented a kind of forceps for delivering baby but refused to patent it. A company would later register it and they got millions for selling it! Now, the father’s side is the scientific side, the mother’s side is the artistic side; Grace, the mother, taught music and earn around 1000 dollars a month which at that time was a big sum of money. She was earning more than his doctor husband.

A few months ago F.Sionil José expressed that he’s not impressed by Hemingway’s work. He found it, especially The Sun Also Rises, boring. John Updike, the Pulitzer winning writer said, “Hemingway’s apparently, simple style, easily parodied, is dismissed as semi-literate when in fact it was a refined and thoughtful product of modernism in its youthful prime.” I’m too uneducated to even comment on this matter but I’ve always read about these criticisms and never understood why he gets a lot of it.

This photo I took from “Ernest Hemingway and World War I”. This is in Oak Park. The streets still looks like it was when the photo the photo was taken. Hemingway was just discharged from the Army hospital and is seen here still walking with a cane.

I’m no big literature reader; I struggle to finish most fiction titles I get my hands on. I’m in my 30’s and have only managed to read two Hemingway novels (Farewell to Arms and Old Man and the Sea). I have seen movies made about him and his stories too. Now these movies romanticize his adventures serving only in making his star shine brighter.

Books written about him that gave me a good idea what kind of a man he was were: “Ernest Hemingway and World War I” and “An Interview with Ernest Hemingway,” both were biographical and elementary. I’m still working on “The Letters of Ernest Hemingway,” this one’s a lengthy compilation of some of the writer’s interesting correspondence. I have downloaded a collection of all his novels online for my kindle, and yes, I have not yet added any to my “Hemingway list of novels I finished.”

Hemingway was a pioneer in “dehumanizing psychological effects of combat.” He most probably discovered PTSD as a real psychological disorder. Prior to his stories about the effects of wars on a person’s mind, no one really spoke about it in public. It was his experience, being wounded in WWI and later covering the Spanish civil war, that gave him a unique experience that enabled him to write his fiction and reportage like no other.

The neoclassic building is the Hemingway museum, just a few meters from the birth house. I forgot to take a picture of the boyhood home in Kenilsworth which was where the Hemingway stayed up until his early 20’s I believe.

The writer was a Hispanista; He loved Spain. One of the few American writers of his generation that spoke Spanish. The New York Times correspondent, James Markham, in his article “Hemingway’s Spain” said, “It was in this heartland that he encountered, and reinvented in literature, a tragic Spain of impassioned living and violent dying, a nation of Goyas and Garcia Lorcas that seemed cast to his own virile, existentialist morality. Since he had virtually abandoned America (and never wrote a novel about it), this Spain was, arguably, the closest thing he had to home.”

The Illinois native believes that Fidel Castro used “For Whom the Bell Tolls” as his guide book in his war against Batista. They knew each other and the writer supported the Cuban revolution; which placed him under the US intelligence agencies radar. His book “The Sun Also Rises” inspired many Americans to try living overseas. “Transplanting yourself” he said teaches you “dislocation,” “sharpens the memory…makes you able to recall details you take for granted when you’re in the actual place.” And at this point in my life I believe this to be true.

Now, is there any connection between Hemingway and our country? There’s a bistro (Hemingway Bistrot, they added a “t” for legal reasons) in Puerto Galera named after him, which I suspect to be the idea of American owners who knew about the Hemingway Bistro; located not far from the Hemingway Museum in Oak Park. I’m sure Hemingway has never seen Mindoro but he had visited Manila, with his new wife at the time, and  they stayed in the Manila Hotel. The famous visitor’s response to one reporter’s question about what makes a good story became part of the Hotel’s history, and later ad campaigns: “It’s a good story if it’s like Manila Hotel.”

Inside the Hemingway museum. The green cafe, the last photo in the collage, is the Hemingway Bistro, which has a French theme menu—the man they named it after enjoyed Spanish food too; but the place was just named after him. The building where the bistro was establish is the “Write Inn” a historical building where writers once stayed, hence the name “write”

December 2014


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