Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Gettting Hemingway's Crib

You assume people know who Ernest Hemingway is."Wasn't he that writer guy?" A biography comes on television and he pops up in old films of movie stars or on a safari, but that time is past--almost seventy years past and the century is almost gone. It's become passe to be a Hemingway fan. The biggest of the Dead White Male writers; a big man stomping around shooting bears and catching swordfish off the coast of Florida. Even his character has become old fashioned. I mean, really, the man of adventure, the swashbuckler of letters--in the twentieth century? I don't think so. Maybe Indiana Jones trying to fly around the world in his balloon, but a real man of action--it must have been a movie character.

So, you clear all that away and all we are left with is his writing. But even that gets tangled up in the current climate of "oh come on...tell us what really happened!" Fiction itself is now subjected to the same standards as nonfiction. Suspension of belief sounds good, but it really doesn't occur. How does fiction compare to reality is the new standard. Dare to put some poetry in there and people become venomous. So what is the reality of Ernest Hemingway's fiction? What is left that we can say, yes, this actually happened--or is it all just mannered, quaint, stories of the early century.

I had an odd task a few years back. I was asked by the Ernest Hemingway Foundation to go get his bed up in Michigan. The bed was in the possession of a nephew in the town of Petosky. This is the site of the Hemingway cottage on Walloon lake and the setting of many of his short stories; Big Two Hearted River, Up In Michigan, Indian Camp, Three Day Blow to name a few. Hemingway spent his summers up there, hunting ,fishing, camping and gathering fodder. I chose the weekend of the New Year to go.
Petosky was snow covered when I arrived. I drove down the winding road leading back to the Hemingway cottage. There were million dollar homes on the road now. I found out Petosky is a very hot vacation spot. I reached his nephews residence and picked up the bed and a few old chairs. The bed was a youth bed, one Ernest was said to have slept in. But there was nothing extraordinary, no markings of genius. Just wood painted a faded white with a rusty mattress spring. I then drove back down the road to the Hemingway cottage. The cottage is long and white with aluminum siding. Not very rustic. Not Hemingway at all

I plowed around in the snow that was up to my thighs, looking around the porch and glancing into some of the windows. Inside it looked like a cottage, wood floors and walls. A fireplace. I looked out to Walloon lake frozen and silent. The few flakes turned heavy just then and the dark clouds overhead seemed to break open. A wind came down and in minutes the air was rent with snow. I struggled back to my car and could hear the whistling of the storm. It was ferocious. I could not see and I turned at the car door. It was a blizzard. The cottage was no longer visible. I had never seen a storm like this before. Storms came up and you went inside, but I couldn't see my hand in front of my face.

The car wheels spun as I tried to get out of the snow. I kept thinking the storm would pass. I got back out of the car and started down the road, thinking I would see someone who could help me out. The wind roared through the trees and I thought of A Three Day Blow, then the road of pines the girl and the man walked down in Up In Michigan. I trudged on thinking of the lone camper in Big Two Hearted River and how he saw no one for days and the utter loneliness of the landscape. There were no houses anymore, just snow and the forest and I wondered if I might be in danger. I turned back with the panicked, quick feeling inside and returned to the car.
I sat and waited. It was all I could do. The snow slowly covered the car and I sat with Ernest Hemingway's bed on the side of a road he had walked as a boy. That weekend the worst blizzard in twenty years hit the Midwest. Fifteen people died and there was a hundred car pile up on the expressway. Indiana was declared a disaster area and Chicago nearly had to shut down. It took me two days to get home.

I dropped off the bed at his birthplace in Oak Park and it was then I realized who was fooling who. In the darkness of the parlor of his home, with the storm still raging outside, I realized he wrote of the world as he saw it-as it still is-- uncertain, dangerous, requiring courage along the lines of an adventurer to face it. We sit in our smug reality of bits and bytes, thinking we know the world, we know reality. Maybe we are the ones living in fiction now.
Rocket Man will be out in January

Books by William Hazelgrove