By Robert K .Elder
Hidden Hemingway started as a newspaper article – or, more accurately, a special issue of the Oak Leaves, the longtime chronicle of news in Oak Park, which Ernest Hemingway delivered as a teen.
In 2014, I was the editor-in-chief of a newspaper chain that included the Oak Leaves. I wanted to commemorate the 100th anniversary of World War I and write about Hemingway, the village’s most famous casualty of that war. I had moved to Oak Park from Chicago with my family in 2007, and had heard all the Hemingway stories, visited the museum and his birthplace home, both on Oak Park Avenue.
The special edition also gave me the opportunity to explore the Hemingway legacy and debunk the “wide lawns” myth (Hemingway never said or wrote that his hometown was a place of “wide lawns and narrow minds”).
It also gave me the chance to spend time with Barbara Ballinger, a legendary local librarian and longtime board member of the Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park, whose collection was housed in the third floor of the Oak Park Public Library. Over a couple of afternoons, we sifted through Hemingway’s family photos, teen notebooks, the “Dear John” letter from his World War I love Agnes von Kurowsky – even a dental X-ray.
The Foundation hosted a series of events that July when the Oak Leaves issue came out, celebrating the author’s 115th birthday and the release of Cambridge University Press’s second volume of his letters. Penn State University’s Sandra Spanier, the editor of the series, spoke to a capacity crowd about Hemingway’s letters, his almost pathological love of correspondence and his packrat tendencies.
She said: “Hemingway saved every scrap of paper he ever touched.”
Had I not already been through the Hemingway archives in Oak Park, I would have thought it a hyperbolic statement. If anything, Spanier was downplaying the amount of material not only that Hemingway kept, but that his siblings and parents saved as well. Since starting this book, my collaborators and I have debated – lightheartedly – if it was sentimentality or a hoarding instinct that led the Hemingways to document their family history so meticulously, to save news clippings, birthday cards, lists, sheet music, and childhood books.
Clarence “Ed” Hemingway always encouraged his children to keep account books, and Grace compiled voluminous scrapbooks, so it’s easy to trace the instinct. Their children—especially Ernest and his sister Marcelline—were constantly adding to an empire of letters, photographs, receipts and trinkets that seem to carry memories stronger than any blessing or curse.
That July, I approached John W. Berry, the chairman of the Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park. It was a hot July day during the “Running of the Bulls” events, where my 6-year-old twins – and hordes of children like them – ran around the park in boxes decorated to look like bulls. It was a part of the foundation’s yearly Hemingway celebrations. I asked John if he ever been approached about allowing a book to be done on the archives? He hadn’t. And it was also too hot outside to talk about it. John was wearing a red scarf around his neck, handing out balloons and plastic bull keyrings to kids. He needed time to think about it.
Within a few weeks, however, it was announced that Hemingway Society had chosen Oak Park to host its 17th biennial International Hemingway Conference. A book celebrating Oak Park, the collection, and the village’s most famous author seemed like serendipity.
For Hemingway the writer, of course, all the material he saved was not only biography but also research. He was gathering data and details that made the life lived in his books more real, tangible.
We endeavored to do the same with this book, to tell a life story through objects, ephemera and photos that will illuminate Hemingway’s history. Some of what we found contradicts the public image he built for himself, some of it supports his larger-than-life myth. We hope, in all, that it strives to make him more human and also to provide scholarly insight.
The items in this volume are more than stage dressing for a literary life, more than marginalia. They provide definition, and in some cases, documentation of Hemingway’s ambition, heartbreak, literary triumphs and trials, joys and tragedies. It’s Hemingway’s stature as a Pulitzer- and Nobel Prize-winning author that has drawn so many biographers and historians to his work. But it’s also the wealth of material that he left behind that makes him such a compelling, engaging and often infuriating research subject.
Lastly, a note on the word “archives” as used in title of this book. It’s very much intended to mean archives, plural. The Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park is the steward of the largest collection in the author’s hometown, which is itself comprised of many different collections, most notably the family archive of Marcelline Hemingway Sanford and items from private collectors such as Waring Jones (1927-2008). The Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest and the Oak Park Public Library are also treasure troves of Hemingway material, some of which we share in this volume.
For years, Hemingway scholars such as Carlos Baker, Jeffrey Meyers, Michael Reynolds, and Paul Hendrickson have used these hometown archives for their deeply researched biographies. A Monty Python alum even visited the archives for his TV series (and eventual book) Michael Palin’s Hemingway Adventure. As researchers ourselves, we’re indebted to all those who have chronicled Hemingway’s life and work in such detail.
Now, for the first time, my co-authors and I are offering the same intimate experiences we had with the Hemingway collections to the general public, without the searching through boxes and wading through folders. Not that this is a complete document of the treasures to be found in Oak Park. Not by a long shot. There’s still more to be catalogued, more to be found. We hope this book serves as a primer for all future Hemingway admirers and scholars who hope to meet the author in his hometown through the archives he left behind.
Robert K. Elder
Oak Park, IL.