Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Picturing Hemingway's Michigan

By Frank Boles

(to see a podcast of this February 16, 2011 presentation at ITunes U, click here)

Michael Federspiel, author of Picturing Hemingway’s Michigan (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2010) spoke at the Library on February 16. Mike offered an interesting, nuanced, and informative presentation that looked at three questions:
  • What was Petoskey like at the beginning of the 20th Century?
  • How did the Hemingway family compare to the many other “summer people” who came to northern Michigan “for the season?”
  • How did northern Michigan influence Ernest Hemingway’s fiction?
Petoskey, in 1873, was little more than a point on a map. Two European families had settled in the area. There were no hotels, no railroad connections, and most importantly no tourists. By the beginning of the 20th Century, the community had radically changed. It was home to 6,000 permanent residents. Another 25,000 or so individuals spent the summer in or near the community. In addition a vast number of “day visitors” came to the town. By one estimate in 1908, 128,000 day visitors came to Petoskey.

A vast infra-structure of trains and ships brought these visitors to the community. In 1906 13,000 trains arrived in Petoskey between June 25 and September 30, averaging an amazing 124 trains per day, or put another way, one train every 5 minutes. To house these many visitors, fourteen hotels offered 2,000 rooms for rent each night.

Petoskey had become a major tourist destination. Among those who came regularly to partake in its attractions were the Hemingways. They had built a cottage on Walloon Lake in 1899. Each year the family traveled from their home in suburban Chicago to spend the summer on the lake. How they spent their time during the summer would resonate with anyone who goes “up north” today. They spent time outdoors.  They regularly swam in the lake. Hunting, and in particular fishing, were regular activities. On rainy days they read books. Every now and again they traveled “to town” for “supplies.”

What is most notable, Mike pointed out, is how typical the family was. Biographers of Ernest Hemingway sometimes strain to find that moment when the young Ernest Hemingway revealed himself to be the great writer he would become. The truth is there was no such moment. The Ernest Hemingway who spent his summers at a cottage on Walloon Lake was a typical child. He was not “Ernest Hemingway, writer of great promise.” He was simply, “the Hemingway’s boy” doing what boys do during the summer.

Yet something about those years “up north” never left Hemingway. Late in his life he wrote a reminiscence about the years he spent as a young writer in Paris, where his fame as a writer first emerged. Eventually published as A Moveable Feast, in it Hemingway wrote:

“I sat in a corner [of a Parisian café] with the afternoon light coming in over my shoulder and wrote in the notebook.  The waiter brought me a café crème and I drank half of it when it cooled and left it on the table when I wrote.  When I stopped writing I did not want to leave the river where I could see in the pool, its surface pushing and swelling against the resistance of the log driven piles of the bridge. The story was about coming back from the war but there was no mention of the war in it.  But in the morning the river would be there and I must make it and the country and all that would happen. ”

The bridge he recalled so vividly was almost certainly in Seney where he began a fishing trip with two friends in August 1919. In many ways the trip to Seney and beyond was an important one for the young Ernest. Hemingway had returned from World War I slowly recovering from physical injuries. After his arrival at his parent’s home in suburban Chicago, he suffered a perhaps even more devastating emotionally loss when the woman he thought would marry him ended their relationship. In the 1920s, while living in Paris, Hemingway would transform his fishing trip to Seney and beyond into the story, “The Big Two Hearted River,” a story of a young man suffering in ways not well defined and seeking solace in nature. Near the end of Hemingway’s life, when reflecting upon what he had done during those years in Paris, that trip to Seney, that bridge, the rivers he fished while in the Upper Peninsula, and the emotions that played across his heart and his mind during that difficult summer, were still vivid in his imagination.

As Mike Federspiel concluded, trying to explain how Hemingway used his Michigan experiences to create world-renowned fiction requires and explanation of genius. It is something those who lack that genius likely cannot do. But it is perhaps enough to recognize that somehow “the Hemingway’s boy” used his inexplicable gifts to reimagine in words of beauty and power much of what had happened and much of what he had felt during his many years in Michigan. The stories that resulted created memorable fiction as well indelible images of summer “up north.”

It was a wonderful evening that the audience greatly enjoyed and from which they greatly profited. The Library was very pleased to have been able to make the event possible.