Touring in ERNEST Essay: Chasing the American spirit of Hemingway from his old haunts to his final resting place.


For men of my age who were basically programmed in the '50s, and who dreamed of writing books some day, there were only a few models. One could be a regionalist, like the little drunk genius Faulkner, soaked in the woe of his 25 square miles. One could be a novelist of society, like the loud drunk Fitzgerald, who always wanted to be the most popular boy at the party. Or one could be the novelist in extremis, far from society, in the sun, getting shot at, shooting back. That was Hemingway, possibly a blood drunk. Without ever thinking rigorously about it, that was my choice then and it still is today.

So it can't have been coincidence that I recently made a complete circle of the great American Hemingway sites. It was so chaotically imagined that not until the last stop, Ketchum, Idaho, where Hemingway ended his life on July 3, 1961, with a 10-gauge shotgun, did I see the pattern. But I had not been looking for patterns: I had been looking for Hemingway.

I suppose I should begin with the house in Oak Park, Ill., where he was born in 1899. The house, on a quiet street in the Chicago suburb, under a typically suburban canopy of elms, radiates no pain and no genius from its sedate clapboard exterior. It boasts a tower as its only eccentricity, but that is really not so much of an eccentricity: The tower was a conceit of residential architecture at the turn of the century in the suburbs of one of the world's richest cities. Yet for all its normalcy, for its implicit endorsement of the rugged pieties of the stable, bourgeois life, the inside is yet another zone of American strangeness.

It's privately owned, and its new proprietors have turned it into a museum, but Hemingway seems not to be the center of attention. Rather, the house is a kind of shrine to his "misunderstood mother," Grace, by most accounts an outsized egoist and tyrant, chronic husband nagger and bully. She was also the woman who -- according to some biographers -- changed American literary history forever by dressing her little boy in girl's clothes until he was 3.

Maybe it's me, but the whole thing felt extremely bizarre. It wasn't merely that it's only half done and that bare rafters and unfinished rooms compete with the blank professional emptiness of a small museum. Odder yet, the woman who owned it threw herself at us with more naked longing than I have seen in some time, and her constant, pressing attention somewhat unhinged the visit.

The key theme in the house was suicide and the mother's lack of responsibility for it. These ideas seemed to emit vapors that filled the half-done rooms and clung to our host like the odor of ammonia. She had a theory: that some kind of chemical imbalance haunted the Hemingway clan and she pointed out that the whole mob was afflicted -- Ernest's father, Ernest, Ernest's brother and one of his sisters had killed themselves. This, of course, was before Ernest's granddaughter Margaux did the same to herself.

Yet I had the odd feeling of another agenda being advanced, or another, unrelated tragedy being justified. It was as if the Hemingway self-extinctions only had meaning in the reflection of something else, not in and of themselves. They were not tragic, but echoes of tragedy. The exhibit that made the diagnosis was the one thing the woman told us we had to see, and she planted herself next to us, reading the words out loud. She would not let us leave.

We escaped as soon as we could, feeling not educated but used, and tasting the fresh Oak Park air with thanks. In his own birth house, there'd been very little sense of Ernest Hemingway. A very odd place, and certainly a different experience from the one I'd had earlier in Key West.

I had gone to that temperate city, I suppose, to get a sense of the man at the height of his powers and the peak of his career. There, the house that he lived in between 1931 and 1940 is open to any tourist with the money and the inclination. It is a beautiful structure, on the corner of Whitehead and Olivia streets, majestically Hispanic, ferny and dank with Jurassic gardens and walled off from the rude, non-paying public by an evidently drunken bricklayer. Palms soar above it, shading it from the sun; dozens of cats prowl its glades, devouring its rodents and toads; gardeners keep it pristine; janitors wax its bright floors and dust its display cases.

The house beckons anyone who ever tried to write one true sentence or fake his way through one untrue sentence, and communicates that somehow, even now, Hemingway cannot be safely ignored. Like a mad father, who whispers in your ear and judges you years after his messy death, he will not go away. After all, at one point in the century, he not only lived the writer's life but he was the writer's life.

Like a god

What remain at the house are memories either real or fictitious and the almost tragic sense that somehow it didn't have to turn out as badly as it did. But it's possible still to stand on the porch, and feel just a whisper of what he must have felt on the booming high after publishing, in a seven-year span, "In Our Time," "The Sun Also Rises," "Men Without Women" and "A Farewell to Arms."

He must have felt like a god, looking out on his conquered chunk of jungle, standing in a house that was one of the world's great clean, well-lighted places, hearing his beautiful, rich wife discipline his handsome little boys, trying to decide whether to fish for marlin or tarpon that afternoon. Should he write to Abercrombie's to see how his custom Springfield .30-06 was proceeding, or check the mail to see if any gushy reviews had come in, or head down to Sloppy Joe's for a Papa Dobles?

If you close your eyes and push aside the prattle of the guides, perhaps you can hear Hemingway arguing politics with Dos Passos; or squawking at Maxwell Perkins over the money Scribner's spent advertising "The Green Hills of Africa" or glumly admitting that Charlie Russell, with the dumb luck of the rich, had outshot him all across the African plains in '34, on that famous safari.

Close your eyes more tightly and other faux memories intrude: the horrible things he was capable of saying about Gertrude Stein; his contempt for Ford Maddox Ford; the way poor Scott the rummy destroyed his own talent with booze, cheap stories for the Saturday Evening Post and a wife who wanted to eat his liver.

Look about, and you see tropic radiance, books, a sense of order and grace, the space of a professional man of letters. Still, it's a house of death, but death of a different sort than at his Chicago birthplace. Fish writhe on the white walls, shellacked into a frozen torment that represents their last throes but looks impressively noble to the ignorant. There are dozens of fishing photos, but somehow they are all the same: He's lean, tan, muscular, movie-star handsome, standing out on some dock. Behind him, inevitably, a huge, recently slaughtered marine creature hangs on a gut hook, its entrails dribbling to the deck. When you see these photos you see so much that is essential Hemingway: life as a food chain, the man with the rod at the top of it, celebrating the brute nobility of those beneath, but killing them all the same, then smiling about it to show teeth that look like porcelain spades.

Usually he is at the center of a ceremony of adoration, sometimes provided by a son, sometimes by a wife, sometimes by a woman who is not his wife. (He met Martha in Key West, in Sloppy Joe's -- which is now Captain Tony's, where I had a Papa Dobles and a cigar and listened to someone sing "American Pie" -- and then he dumped Pauline for Martha, although he had previously dumped Hadley for Pauline and soon he would dump Martha for Mary.) In the photos, you feel his pride, his primeval bloodlust, his sense of having, however provisionally, mastered for a bit the treacherous fragility of the universe. It feels so pure, a bloodsong of triumph.

As I say, you can taste and hear that still -- but just barely. For the famous house, to my surprise, is now less shrine than attraction, full of mild, pale Ohio tourists and the prosperous adult children of the Wehrmacht. If you go in search of an old America, the America of Hemingway's public values, well-ordered, with duty at its center, courage as its highest value and stamina as its fuel, you will be disappointed. If you hope that the walls protect what endures from what prevails, you will be doubly disappointed.

And if you think that what lies outside the walls is the present, a bleak place where Hemingway is no longer remembered, except as a famous face, again you are wrong. Walk Duval Street, the heart of commercial Key West, with its ticky-tacky tourist shops, its third-rate restaurants, its gay bars, its Hyatts, its mopeds, its seething sense of appetite, gratification, of the immediate nowness of satisfaction, and you feel not disconnected from Hemingway but somehow more intimate with him.

There is no longer any true contrast between the Hemingway house and Duval Street. The former is just as jammed as the latter, or as any movie theater; you have to stand in line, plunk your six bucks down and there's only the sense of people crowding in to touch celebrityhood in one of its guises. There's an official gift shop out back. I bought a campy poster in which Papa Hem advises the guys of 1955 that he always churchkeys open a can of Ballantine Ale after a tough day in the Gulf Stream.

At the grave

This man now lies under a full-figured pine tree and a bright blue sky in a completely nondescript cemetery in Ketchum, where he blew his brains out in a rented house. You cannot see that house, for the town fathers guard its location rather snootily, and their employees in the Ketchum tourist office roll their eyes when you ask them its location, and say that they can't tell you where it is because they'd have to tell everyone where it was. They seem to think they own the franchise and it's only for their enjoyment. It had the same sense as in Oak Park: Hemingway's life, certainly his death, had been taken from him and from us, to advance someone else's agenda.

So I went to the graveyard. The flat stone is without ornamentation: it merely says "Ernest Hemingway, 1899-1961." It doesn't identify him as a writer, a hunter, a father, a cuckolder, a drunk, an abuser, a sycophant and networker or anything: just a corpse under the flat slab of marble, next to the grave of his last wife. The pines tower overhead, and I recalled in the beginning of "For Whom the Bell Tolls" the American guerrilla Robert Jordan lies on pine needles. Ironic that his inventor should come to lie under them.

And of all his books, it's "For Whom the Bell Tolls" that seems most in evidence in Idaho. Hemingway wrote it at the Sun Valley Lodge, where he'd gone to sponge off the largess of Averill Harriman, the developer of the resort, with other late '30s swells like the elegant aristocrat who made a fortune playing cowboys under the name Gary Cooper. If you look about, you'll see the imagined landscape of that book. Behind the graveyard, for example, rises a chancre of a hill, barren and isolated, a hill without shade or mercy and it's almost exactly of the sort upon which El Sordo made his last stand. I closed my eyes and could hear the chatter of the machine guns and the final arrival of the Fascist planes, and heard the boy Joaquin praying as the bombs whistled down. In other hills and passes, you look for bridges to blow up or quiet glades in the pines where you might make love to a woman in a sleeping bag.

But there's little of the Spain of 1937 in Ketchum itself, a smug, rich, condo-dense town with its share of Lexuses and BMWs and $1.5 million homes. It's Aspen North, so pleased with itself and its prosperities that it demands to be deconstructed by a Sinclair Lewis, not the burial site for one of his greater contemporaries.

At any rate, I stood next to the grave trying desperately to feel something, and of course feeling nothing. I had nothing to say, I felt almost no emotion. It was lonely, hot, bright, the wind whipping through the pines. He was in some sense a spiritual father to me, and he lay there demanding that I confront him, that we have it out, man to man, a great screaming spasm of a fight, in which all unsaid things would finally be said. But I couldn't say a thing.

Mostly I just tried to figure out why I still loved him so.

Loved him, that is, not his books, which seem so infantile, with their good lions and Papa-speaking heroes and Little Rabbits and 10-pound ironies, that I can no longer read them. No, it was his sordid mess of a life I loved, bleak and as full of betrayal as it was. Loved the women he dumped, the children he screwed up, the rivals he slandered, the critics he feared, and the demons that drove him, finally, to spray his brains onto the back wall with both barrels. Loved the complexity, the difficulty, the ugliness, the squalor, the messy maleness of it, and its secret message, dear to all men, which is that nobody's perfect and nobody can put his little worm can of bitter hatreds and ratty little doubts aside forever. I loved his monstrousness more than anything.

The message in his gray tissue on that wall was ugly but necessary: We are, he was saying, what we are. We can be no other. Hate me, he was saying, if you dare. But look what I built. I built something that will last. It only cost me my soul and turned me into a monster. Cheap, at the price.

I felt that I should leave something. I reached in my pocket for an offering and came up with just the thing. Someone had given it to me at a book signing, and in some ways it seemed appropriate. It was a bench-rest quality hand-made 6-mm bullet, a long, copper-sheathed missile as beautiful as it was accurate. Hemingway would have approved, I thought. Then I realized Hemingway wouldn't have cared: he was dead. Some kid would steal the bullet and swallow it or stick his brother in the eye with it.

So I left something else, in recompense for the pain he had caused, a small morsel of civilization that seemed even more appropriate for us grouchy old white guys and the consequences of our lives.

Right on the tombstone, between the "Ernest" and the "Hemingway," I left a Tums.

Stephen Hunter, The Sun's film critic, is the author of seven novels.

Pub Date: 12/18/96

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