(Photographs of Ernest and Marcelline Hemingway)

The Wednesday before Thanksgiving, M and I visited the birthplace of Ernest Hemingway at 339 N. Oak Park Avenue in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, Illinois. Though I make my living as a writer, I have not made many literary pilgrimages. I have stood in Oxford Square in Mississippi, but have not been to Faulkner’s estate. I have been to San Francisco, but did not visit City Lights bookstore. I have driven through Georgia, but did not stop in Milledgeville. I live near Oregon, but have never ventured to Pleasant Hill. Something about visiting the homes of writers never interested me. When it comes to Ernest Hemingway, however, I have made it a life’s goal to visit Finca Vigia in Key West and the residence in Ketchum, Idaho, where he committed suicide in 1961. Oak Park was the first stop in what I hope will be a series of Hemingway-related pilgrimages for me.

Setting foot inside the large Victorian, I was filled with warmth. While there’s no question he is a hugely misunderstood figure in literature, everything about Hemingway made sense as I walked through the home. One of the first things visitors are shown is a family portrait of Dr. and Mrs. Hemingway and their children. The two oldest, Marcelline and Ernest (also pictured above) are both standing on either side of their parents, their genders blurred by similar haircuts and attire. Grace Hemingway, raised by Ernest’s grandparents to be an opera diva, so badly wanted twins that she often cross-dressed Marcelline and Ernest in their early years. She even went so far as to hold Marcelline back in school so she and Ernest could graduate side-by-side, as twins would.

Grace Hall Hemingway was domineering and bitter about having not become the opera star she’d been raised to be. She forced her children and her husband to take up a musical instrument. Hemingway’s father chose the bugle and used it only one notable time…when, early in the morning of July 21, 1899, he delivered his first son Ernest in the master bedroom and ran out on the porch, blowing the horn and announcing to the neighbors “It’s a boy!”

Ernest did not think or speak highly of Oak Park, Illinois. As he got older, he would refer to it as a place of “wide lawns and narrow minds.” But it’s very obvious that Oak Park and his family life there shaped much of what Ernest Hemingway would become famous for. I’ve never considered Hemingway a macho writer, as many do. There is a tender, aesthete side to his work and it became clear to me that his mother’s insistence he be twinned to his sister filled him with the urge to prove himself a man while still retaining that softness I’ve long detected in his writing. Men who are tough guys do not write sentences like this:

“It is getting light now before the sun rises and the hills are grey from the dew of last night.”

Grace Hall Hemingway was not proud of her son. She wanted him to go to college. Instead, he went to war. When he shipped boxes of his first published book back to his parents, his mother sent them back with a note expressing her dislike of the subjects he chose to write about. After learning of Grace’s background, it seemed to me she was more jealous of his success than anything. His father eventually committed suicide and when Ernest went back to Oak Park for the funeral, his mother told him he could take anything he wanted of his father’s The only thing he took with him was the Civil War era pistol his father used to kill himself.

Ever since visiting his birthplace, I cannot keep from thinking of this quote:

“It’s none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way.”

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