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

December 18, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN STAFF

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

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