Michigan Fiction

Inspiration: Folks still tell stories about young Ernest Hemingway, who spent a good deal of time in this land of bright blue waters and rolling wooded hills.

July 18, 1999|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Sun Staff

HORTON BAY, MICH. — "A steep sandy road ran down the hill to the bay through the timber. From Smith's back door you could look out across the woods that ran down the lake and across the bay. It was very beautiful in the spring and summer, the bay blue and bright and usually white caps on the lake out beyond the point from the breeze blowing from Charlevoix and Lake Michigan."

-- From "Up in Michigan"

by Ernest Hemingway

HORTON BAY, Mich. -- The first thing you should know about Ernest Hemingway and Horton Bay -- and maybe even about this sliver of northern Michigan, where the water is clear and blue, and where the wooded hills roll like gentle waves, is this: He got it right.

That Hemingway spent considerable time in Michigan comes as a surprise to most people, who more easily recall his bullfighting in Spain or his expatriate years in Paris. But Hemingway, first as a boy and then as a young man, roamed this land of lumberjack and Indian, of hunter and fisherman, of summer vacationer and weathered settlers. No one before or since has captured the beauty of the northern Michigan woods and lakes as Hemingway did in his fiction, most memorably in "The Nick Adams Stories."

Surprisingly, nearly 80 years after his first short story, "Up in Michigan," was published, much of the landscape remains unchanged, especially in Horton Bay, then as now, a cluster of summer cottages along the road north to bigger resort towns. The blacksmith shop is gone, but the road, since paved, slopes to the water, and from the crest of the hill, where the shop once stood, the whitecaps of Lake Charlevoix are visible through the woods.

No memorial or monument marks his formative years in these parts, but the young Hemingway, the hunter, fisherman and writer, is remembered here. Ask just about anyone and he or she has a story to tell, one probably passed down from a grandfather or an uncle. And there are a few, such as 99-year-old Irene Gordon, who remember Hemingway from the summers he spent here during his youth.

Wednesday marks the centennial of the writer's birth, and all week long, places such as Petoskey are celebrating the anniversary with a host of activities. The festivities in northern Michigan include tours of the family's summer cottage, Windemere, on Walloon Lake, walking tours of story settings and haunts in Petoskey, Horton Bay and elsewhere, and several lectures.

You don't have to wait for an anniversary to explore the place Hemingway once called "The Last Good Country" in one of his short stories. Seek and you will find traces of Hemingway, even though he left in 1921 and returned just once, a quarter century later and only for a day. There are no formal tours. There are no highway signs showing the way. I came with little to guide me except a curiosity about the young writer and this place. I carried with me "The Nick Adams Stories," a collection that includes much of his Michigan fiction, and a literary map to the local settings that sparked his imagination.

"He turned sharply around the corner of the barber shop and onto the Main Street of Petoskey. It was a handsome, broad street, lined on either side with brick and pressed-stone buildings."

-- From "The Torrents of Spring"

There's something magical about walking in the footsteps of someone as famous as Hemingway, especially when the streetscape -- the brick and pressed-stone buildings -- are pretty much the same. The elegant Stafford's Perry Hotel, where Hemingway once spent the night on a fishing trip, still stands on a bluff overlooking Little Traverse Bay, welcoming new generations of vacationers.

Other haunts remain. The Petoskey Public Library, where Hemingway spent the late morning or early afternoon reading newspapers, looks pretty much like it did then. There's even a bar or two, though the names have changed, that survive from his era.

Hemingway came to Petoskey in the fall of 1919 to recover from wounds he suffered as an ambulance driver in Italy during World War I. And he came to write. He rented a room at Mrs. Potter's Rooming House at 602 State St., just a few blocks from the broad main street -- Mitchell Street -- he would later describe in "The Torrents of Spring."

The two-story white-frame home still stands in a quiet neighborhood of shading maple trees and modest homes. Local histories and Hemingway biographies tell us that the young man was always writing during the fall and winter at the boarding house. All he received for his effort, however, were rejection slips. The home is a private residence but it's a good starting point for a walking tour of the Hemingway haunts.

"At this point in his life, he was really determined to make it as a writer," says Candace Eaton, executive director of the Little Traverse Historical Society, which maintains an exhibit of Hemingway memorabilia, including one of his typewriters.

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