Tuesday, July 8, 2008

This Day in Literary History (Ernest Hemingway Wounded in Italy)

July 8, 1918—Passing out chocolates and cigarettes to soldiers in frontline trenches around midnight, Red Cross ambulance driver Ernest Hemingway was wounded in a mortar attack—an incident he would recreate in one of his greatest novels, A Farewell to Arms.

Before the American entry into World War I, the 18-year-old Kansas City Star reporter volunteered for ambulance corps service in France. By the end of June 1918, he had been transferred to the Paive valley region of Italy, an area, he was reliably told, that saw some of the hottest action of the war.

On the west bank of the river Fossalta, Lieutenant Hemingway noticed a trench mortar burst over his head, then felt the slugs, as a New York Sun article put it subsequently, “like the stings of wasps as they bore into him.”

The Italian government’s citation of him for valor continued as follows: “Gravely wounded by numerous pieces of shrapnel from an enemy shell, with an admirable spirit of brotherhood (fratellanza), before taking care of himself, he rendered generous assistance to the Italian soldiers more seriously wounded by the same explosion and did not allow himself to be carried elsewhere until after they had been evacuated.”

In the commons of
Oak Park, Ill., Hemingway’s hometown and the place where he lived the longest, I came upon a plaque that commemorates the involvement of the novelist and other local boys in World War I, which transformed him and his nation forever.

Exposure to the elements had left the lettering on the memorial faint. But ferreting out the true person behind the Nobel laureate was even harder for me than picking out his name on the plaque that drizzly early October day.

Americans love their heroes as simple as their politics. Despite his best efforts, Hemingway didn’t oblige in his life and work. He was not the macho legend he created, and his views can disturb our age as much as the Oak Park of his youth.

Four years ago, I came to this leafy Chicago bedroom suburb in the last month of a bitter Presidential contest, fought over matters that obsessed the twentysomething Hemingway: a vast war in a distant land, with the origin of America’s involvement, the language used to justify it, even the meaning of victory itself at issue. A “farewell to arms”? Hardly.

“If people bring so much courage to this world,” Hemingway wrote in A Farewell to Arms, “the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them.” But some, he noted, managed to survive, though “strong at the broken places.” He might have been describing himself.

I am more removed from the Papa Hemingway persona than anyone I know. I never bled in a foreign war, boxed, cheered my lungs out at a bullfight, fished in a big two-hearted river, hunted for big game in Africa, liberated the Ritz Bar in Paris from Nazi control, or even had one wife, let alone four.

But ever since sophomore year of high school, when I first read The Sun Also Rises, I have responded to that unique voice that barely quells emotional chaos – the person I thought I glimpsed in Oak Park.

For most of his twenty-odd years in Oak Park, the Hemingway family lived in two homes. The second, at 600 North Kenilworth Avenue, up the street from where I stayed, was not open to the public at the time of my visit, and was being renovated by a young couple. Built in the prairie architecture style of the early 20th century, it resembled the novelist in its surface simplicity. Ironically, it was built to the detailed specifications of Hemingway’s mother Grace, whom he despised for her conventional mores and blamed for the suicide of his father.

Hemingway’s 339 North Oak Park Avenue home, a three-story Queen Anne Victorian, was inherited from Grace’s father, Ed Hall. Serendipitously, the architect, Wesley Arnold, also was responsible for the home where I was staying, now converted into a bed and breakfast
, Under the Ginkgo Tree. The proprietor, Gloria Onischuk, told me she had been approached by the Ernest Hemingway Foundation early in the restoration of the birthplace.

The restorationists were puzzled by the architectural plans for her house. Why was it built with expensive quartersawn oak when the Hemingway birthplace wasn’t? “Simple,” she remembered telling them. “The original owner of this house was a banker, and was used to being paid in bullion. Hemingway’s father was a doctor. Many of his patients were too poor to pay him, so they gave him crops or chickens instead.”

Hemingway left Oak Park after he married his first wife and returned only once, for the funeral following his father’s suicide. The town, he noted, was a place of “wide lawns and narrow minds.” The wisecrack didn’t endear him to residents. One, a tour guide at the
Hemingway Birthplace, told me that as late as the early 1970s, the novelist was not taught at the local high school.

In some ways, Hemingway would not recognize the town today. The Oak Park of his youth – Republican, devoutly Protestant, Victorian enough to enforce 9 pm curfews in spring and summer – is gone.

Like Frank Lloyd Wright, another, older Oak Park resident, Hemingway crafted an American means of expression – direct, but only simple on the surface. And, like Wright, Hemingway shocked the straitlaced residents in town – in his case, with his skepticism about the War to End All Wars, his characters’ profanity and his then-frank treatment of sex.

Nowadays, however, Hemingway’s earthiness pales next to nearly anything you care to pick up on the bestseller list. He is also regarded in some quarters as politically incorrect – anti-Semitic, misogynist and homophobic. (Were he alive today, the novelist would probably toss off a nasty remark or two about an exhibition in the local library highlighting books by gays and lesbians.)

Even a political liberalism so strong that it elicited an FBI investigation of his background is no longer particularly out of place in the village: I saw only one George W. Bush bumper sticker during my six days in town. (And four years later, after more years of war, Hurricane Katrina, and home foreclosures, even that slogan has probably gone missing.)

Moreover, for whatever motives stemming from the passage of time, a desire to increase tourism, or newfound appreciation of his work, Oak Park has embraced Hemingway (though attendance at the Ernest Hemingway Birthplace and the Ernest Hemingway Museum, just a few minutes walk from each other down the street, remains significantly below the nearby Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio.)

In the last few years, the village has held Hemingway Days, featuring a mock running of the bulls, concerts, a picnic in the park, and lectures. On the morning of his birthday, someone steps on the porch of the Hemingway Birthplace and repeats the novel manner by which Dr. Clarence Hemingway announced the arrival of his firstborn son on July 21, 1899: with the blowing of a cornet.

Blowing horns remains a favorite means of communication elsewhere in the nation, only primarily through the spin of Hollywood publicists or Washington pollsters. “Develop a built-in bullshit detector,” Hemingway advised a young writer.

At times, “Papa” should have heeded his own advice. Somewhere along the line, the lies Hemingway told as part of the novelist’s art, those told to heal traumas of family strife and war, and those told to inflate his public reputation merged into an amorphous mass.

Take what happened to him at the Italian front. Biographers Jeffrey Meyers and Kenneth S. Lynn, working separately, have catalogued a wide range of exaggerations:

* He wrote his mother from the hospital that he was “the first American wounded in Italy.” Not so—another American had been killed in early June.

* He told a friend—who passed it along to his parents in a letter—that after regaining consciousness during the mortar attack, he had picked up a badly wounded Italian soldier on his back and carried him to the nearest first-aid station.

* He told an interviewer from the local paper that he’d been hit not just once but twice by machine-gun fire. And he told a local committee of women assisting in the war effort that he had joined an Italian brigade as a first lieutenant, and had subsequently fought in three major battles.

Hemingway told more of the truth in his fiction than in his first-person accounts. Frederic Henry’s wounding in A Farewell to Arms is rendered with great accuracy, believe several of his historians. The short story “Soldier’s Home” describes the embarrassment of returned vet Paul Krebs, who feels compelled to lie about his experiences in the war to townspeople.

Another guide in Oak Park told me about Hemingway’s third wife, the journalist Martha Gellhorn. Years after the marriage collapsed, a friend offered to drive Gellhorn, then visiting Chicago, six miles outside the city to visit her ex’s birthplace.

On Oak Park Avenue, the friend stopped and identified the imposing Victorian structure across the street as Hemingway’s childhood home. “The son of a bitch!” Gellhorn said. “He told me he lived in a slum!”

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