Monday, March 15, 2021

The Beginnings of the Michigan Hemingway Collection

by Frank Boles

This blog is one of several we are posting in connection with the PBS documentary, Hemingway, produced by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, which will air April 5-7. Be sure to join us on March 31 at 6:30 p.m. for a special introduction to Hemingway when we join with WCMU-Television for an online event featuring Lynn Novick. To register for the March 31 event visit WCMU at .

The Michigan Hemingway Collection began in 2001 with a conversation between the then-president of the Michigan Hemingway Society, Michael Federspiel, and myself.

The Michigan Hemingway Society (MHS) had been organized years earlier. The members of the society, all of whom admired Hemingway’s writing, also believed that Hemingway was deeply influenced by the summers he spent on Walloon Lake as a boy and young man. But the “standard” biographies of the man gave short shrift to this aspect of his life. The biographies acknowledged that Hemingway spent his childhood summers in Michigan, but suggested that the “mature” Hemingway shook the pine needles from Michigan off his clothes when he boarded the boat for Paris, and sailed to fame. To challenge this narrative, Mike Federspiel made a modest proposal: build on the Hemingway material he had collected, and would donate to the library, to create a nationally recognized body of material in the Clarke about Ernest Hemingway’s life in Michigan.

That proposal was a stretch, a very long stretch. Hemingway was a world-famous author. As with any famous person, once he achieved fame others begin to save every scrap of paper he touched. A letter written by the best-selling author Ernest Hemingway had a good chance of being saved by the recipient, and sooner or later, had a good chance of being made available to collectors. And once he began to write seriously, Hemingway himself became a bit of a pack rat, keeping most every piece of paper on which he had written or more likely typed. But what of things from “Dr. Hemingway’s kid,” Ernie? Young Ernie likely saved little or nothing. Although his parents or family members might have preserved mementos of his growing up, it was unlikely anyone else would take an interest in him. He was, quite literally, just one of the kids hanging around the dock and splashing in the lake.

And, making the happy assumption there were things to collect, purchasing them would likely be expensive. Papers touched by acclaimed literary figures sell for high prices. Winning the Nobel Prize in Literature was about as much acclaim as an author can receive.

After some serious thought, and some serious conversations with the then-Dean of Libraries, Tom Moore, I made the commitment on behalf of the Clarke to accept Mike Federspiel’s gift, and everything it implied. This was going to be a challenge.

With Mike Federspiel to make key introductions, the work went well. There was both material worth collecting that remained in northern Michigan, and a willingness to discuss how that material might come from private hands to the Clarke Historical Library. There were people who expressed interest in helping the project along. To show what we had already collected, and to demonstrate commitment to actually building the collection further, in 2003 we planned an exhibit around our then-existing Hemingway material.

As plans for the exhibit advanced, something unexpected happened – an auction house offered for sale a superb Hemingway letter documenting his love of northern Michigan.

The letter was written by Hemingway in 1919 to Jim Gamble, a friend he had made during his time in Italy during World War I. Gamble had written and invited Hemingway to spend the summer in Italy. Hemingway responded, by saying he would love to see his friend, but he had a better idea about where they could meet. Gamble should spend the summer with him at Little Traverse Bay. Hemingway spent pages describing in luscious detail the place and its attractions. And he shared that he knew all the best places to fish and just what to do to catch the really big ones. Although Gamble never came to visit, the letter was a beautiful description everything Hemingway loved and valued about northern Michigan. But like any content-rich letter written by an important author up for auction was going to cost a lot of money.

We quickly decided that if we were going to spend significant money on something as esoteric as a single beautiful letter written by Ernest Hemingway, we were going to have to raise the money for the purchase from private individuals. Many special libraries acquiring material face this criticism, and the irrefutable answer to the criticism is simple – we obtained it because it was important to what the library was created to document and there were people who cared enough about the item to give us the money to make the purchase possible.

We raised money. But when the auction was held, we came up short. The Clarke Historical Library was the second to last bidder, but there are no consolation prizes at auctions. Auction houses do not reveal the name of the purchaser, but with a heavy heart I wrote a letter to the anonymous successful bidder asking he or she to loan us the letter for the exhibit. I sent it to the auction house asking them to pass it on to the letter’s owner. This they did, and the response was something I could not have imagined. A dealer had bought the letter and while he had no interest in a loan, he would happily sell us the letter, with an appropriate mark up for his trouble. We had a second chance. I asked the dealer to hold the letter for us while we found the needed money, something to which he was agreeable.

The problem was I had already found pretty much every dollar that was to be found. I really didn’t know where I was going to find that extra money. But my request to the amiable, and hopeful, dealer made available an extra week to find the money. Without telling me, Dean Tom Moore, who took a personal interest in the project, made a phone call to a person he knew, a friend of the library but not one with an interest in Hemingway. Dean Moore explained the opportunity, the work that had gone into trying to acquire the letter, and the amount of money we still needed. A few days later, I learned that “some extra money” had been found and we could buy the item.

The exhibit had been designed to put the collection “on the map.” Taking advantage of this sudden opportunity to add an intellectually rich, but financially expensive new item to the collection made it clear that the Clarke Historical Library was seriously committed to growing its Hemingway collection. It also demonstrated something more fundamental. That there was a community of interested individuals who would help make that growth happen.

Over the next eighteen years, the Michigan Hemingway Collection was enriched in many ways. Extraordinary material was added, some given, some purchased, and some obtained by a combination of the two. But all that came afterward, and the future hung in the balance for a few days in 2003. What would follow was made possible because of a visionary donor with a dream, the support of a small number of people willing to put their wallets where their mouths were, and a dean, who picked up the phone at a critical moment, and sold both the idea of building the collection and acquiring as a public legacy that one, beautiful Hemingway letter.