It’s dead quiet. If the spirits of the Hemingways are here, they’re gliding noiselessly.
The entire first floor of the Hemingway birthplace is all mine for the day, not a soul disturbing my peace. Closed to tours, the only other sentient being in the place is the maintenance man’s wife, working from the basement because their power is out. Just me and the ghost of young Ernest, born in a bedroom above my head. He lived here from birth through age six, not a very long time. Not a big percentage of his life. Still, a formative period.
It is so Victorian, so opulent and over-wrought. Beautiful, in its exaggerated way, reminding of starched shirts and generous skirts with bustles. No one would be slouching as I am on the velvet chaise, of that I’m sure. Hardwood trim intricately carved, heavy furniture with thick brocade fabric, flowery wallpaper awash with pink roses on a Wedgwood-blue background. Carpet is true to the period, bright red with flowers mirroring those on the wall. It smells strongly of air freshener. Oppressively so. It’s cool and dark, save for this part of the parlor, awash in sunlight. In fact, I wish I had a heavier sweater.
I’m finding it tough to settle. Could be the Hemingways aren’t as thrilled to have me as I am to be working here. Could be ADHD. Pretty sure we know the answer to that.
Visitors keep popping by, walking around the porch. I’m working on my DO YOU MIND? glare. A family with kids. I’ve dragged my children to their share of dead writers’ homes. I can probably guess what they’re thinking: when’s lunch and why should I care who this guy was?
Imagine a young Ernest Hemingway barrelling down the stairs, running down to the kitchen to beg for a treat, servants either flustered or endeared, who’s to say. In my mind he was precocious. How could he not have been? The boy who’d go on to win the Nobel Prize. Backing up, think of the tender infant Ernest, cooing with milk dribbling from his wee rosebud lips. The tiny child who’d morph into the barrel-chested man bursting with toxic masculinity.
I cannot not feel self-conscious about where I am. It’s difficult to process. I’ll probably sit bold upright in bed tonight and yell out I HAD ERNEST HEMINGWAY’S HOUSE TO MYSELF. Instead of setting a goal for my first visit, I’m absorbing like a sponge. If it were Woolf’s Charleston, Austen’s Chawton, or Faulkner’s Rowan Oak I’d be a puddle on the floor.
In Hemingway’s house, I can be sensible. Maybe it’s best I’m here instead? Said the woman who hasn’t been offered the other options. And I hear you saying you’d switch with me. Sorry, no dice.
I’ll take it.
The air freshener’s starting to give me a headache. I’m starving, but I’m not leaving for lunch, not squandering a minute. I’ll eat while I’m waiting out rush hour traffic later. Or on the way home. Food’s a secondary consideration; I can enjoy that anytime. What I can’t get anywhere else is the oppressive weight of this scent I’m trying without success to ignore. It’s to the point I have to ask what on earth they’re masking. Would Victorians have gagged their visitors with scented oils?
I think not.
I can hear the maintenance man’s wife on the phone, working I suppose. Her husband left for whatever his day job is. Maintenance here can’t be that demanding. I wasn’t paying attention, if he told me. The tour he gave was cursory, leading me through the upstairs rooms as a matter of course. He stopped by the room where Hemingway was born and said some people break down there, dissolving in tears, which he couldn’t understand. I understand it but it doesn’t move me to that extent, personally. The maintenance man isn’t a docent. He said he could make things up as we go if I’d like. That may have annoyed me, in another author’s house. No offense intended to Hemingway, but it doesn’t here.
Again, I’ll be back and I’ll have read more about the house before I am.
I’ve visited the Hemingway House before, taking the tour lead by an actual docent. I’m sure they were a decent docent. Do I remember much? Why, no. Afraid I don’t.
I don’t worship at his altar but how can this not be affecting. Of course it is. If I were of the romantic sort, I’d wax lyrical about his spirit remaining embedded here. I am not romantic. A true thing: The Old Man and the Sea bored me to tears in high school. Nick Adams grabbed me marginally more. Hemingway is just so American. Unappealingly self-important, at least until you know more of his past. The bravado hid a little boy who never quite grew up, stunted by a painful childhood.
Raised by a cold mother, the little boy who pattered through this house felt unloved. He acted out. Kids do that when they’re trying desperately to win their parents’ attention. He grew up continuing to act out. Depression grabbed hold of his ankle and it never let go. Depression would kill him. It killed others in his family. A terrible legacy. Learning more about him hurt my heart. It also brought me to more of an apprecation of Hemingway the man. I couldn’t dismiss him anymore.
Matter-of-fact words, one true sentence after another. A form of greatness I appreciate only now – before sitting in his parlor, but only just. I’ve been aware of him a very long time but I am a Hemingway newcomer. I don’t have literary criticism to offer; I haven’t gotten that far. Bits and pieces, visits here, his home in Key West, Shakespeare & Co in Paris. Impressions, supplemented by Ken Burns and his brilliant documentary. I thought that would send more people clamoring here. Sounds like not, unfortunately. There’s a sign appealing for money in the front yard, next to the birthplace sign. Surely artsy Oak Park won’t let their hometown hero’s home run to ruin.
Along with Hemingway, Cather has recently crept back into my sphere of interest. Next week I’m visiting her home in Red Cloud, NE. What hath the pandemic wrought, that I’d settle on mid-America as my first trip after the country opened back up? I love the Pacific Northwest, love New England. I love/hate the South, home to my god Faulkner. But no, none of these tried and trues. But Cather. I stopped feeling the necessity of applying logic so long ago. It’s tedious and, frankly, who has time to care.
My familiarity with Cather surpasses my knowledge of Hemingway, but only just. I’ve read Death Comes for the Archbishop and My Antonia – My Antonia twice. Her writing’s so quiet, as I recall. Modern like Hemingway’s, yet not identical. It needs a literature lover to appreciate the meaning of such a nonsensical sentence. If you’ve read this far, I can only assume you, dear reader, are at the very least sympathetic.
Sarah Orne Jewett convinced Cather to concentrate her books on the sphere she knew, as Jewett did herself with her native New England. As with Cather, I’ve read little of Jewett, finding her work slow-moving and, dare I say, of little interest. Jewett is a minor American writer. Did I get away with saying that? She is. Cather is greater. I’ve also visited Jewett’s house, by the way. I was on a family vacation and didn’t drag the kids in but we did poke around outside. I saved the inside visits for later in the trip, for Melville, Wharton, Twain, and Hawthorne.
All about pacing when dragging kids on literary excursions.
Haven’t had much time to connect the dots between Cather and Hemingway. I mean, aside from these twinned visits. It’s nothing I strategized, no big literary study plan. As long as I’m doing things directly related to them, seems to me I’d find interest researching how and if they connect.
Lo and behold, they do! Tenuously, but considering they were contemporaries and very high profile, unsurprising. Hemingway famously despised Cather’s description of WWI in her Pulitzer-winning One of Ours, claiming it was taken, scene by scene, from Birth of a Nation. For her part, Cather disliked usage of profanity in writing, something she could not admire in Hemingway. As for any other connection, that’s yet to be determined.
I’ll keep reading, keep indulging curiosity.
Thank you to the Hemingway Foundation, thanks to Karma or whatever’s aligned the stars in order for this to all come about. I’ll be back over the course of the year, though I’m not yet sure when. In any event, it’s been an extraordinary experience.