Is Ernest Hemingway a Chicagoan? Hemingway of course grew up in suburban Oak Park, just eight miles west of Chicago. The editor of the local paper Oak Leaves, for whom Hemingway worked as a boy, dubbed Oak Park “the middle class capital of the world.” Hemingway liked to present Oak Park as a place in which he overcame the Victorian values of his parents and then left as soon as he could—after high school for The Kansas City Star, and seven months later to join the Red Cross ambulance corps in Italy. (He first arrived in Europe on a battered transport called the Chicago.)
When Hemingway returned from Italy, at twenty-one years old, he lived in Chicago for a year and a half. Hemingway’s time in Chicago is well documented in several of the modern manuscript collections at the Newberry, including the Sherwood Anderson Papers, the William Horne Papers, the Frederick Spiegel Papers, and the Malcolm Cowley Papers. Letters from this period are also included in the recently published first volume of The Letters of Ernest Hemingway, eds. Sandra Spanier and Robert W. Trogdon. The year was 1920-21, during what has been called the “Chicago literary renaissance,” when H.L. Mencken could claim that Chicago had become “the literary capital of the United States.” Hemingway was drawn into an atmosphere created by ambitious writers, journalists, editors, publishers, and advertising men who worked for the city’s newspapers. In Chicago, Hemingway met Carl Sandburg and Sherwood Anderson. Apparently Hemingway read aloud to Sandburg one night from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Known for his own bardic self-presentation, Sandburg appreciated Hemingway’s bravura. In Chicago, Hemingway also met his first wife, Hadley Richardson. When they set sail for Paris, Anderson would write the newly-married Hemingways letters of introduction to Gertrude Stein and Sylvia Beach.
Three north side apartments in which Hemingway lived no longer exist. Only the apartment at 1239 North Dearborn still stands, where Hadley and Ernest Hemingway lived for four months after they were married in September 1921. A few weeks ago, I walked by the Dearborn apartment with a friend in order to take a few photographs. By happenstance, we met the owner of the building outside. He took us into the ground floor where over many years he has curated his own exhibit of Hemingway memorabilia, cataloging Hemingway’s time in Oak Park, Chicago, Paris, Key West, Spain, and Africa. Most interesting were his homemade dioramas of significant moments (morbidly) imagined from Hemingway’s life: Hemingway receiving electroshock treatment at the Mayo Clinic in 1961, for instance. The dioramas are not open to the public, but the collections down the street at the Newberry are.