On July 21, the Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park will hold a birthday lecture on the life and times of the Oak Park native. Delivered by Steve Paul, journalist and editor at Hemingway’s own Kansas City Star, the lecture will be held at 8 p.m. at the Hemingway Museum (200 N. Oak Park Avenue)—just down the street from the author’s childhood home.
Oak Park is perhaps best known as the home of another famous artist: Frank Lloyd Wright. Though Wright was born in the small town of Richland Center, Wisconsin, this western suburb was the place he chose to settle, the place he filled with dozens of his earth-toned creations. His influence still peppers its residential streets.
The phrase “Ernest Hemingway Home,” however, conjures images of Key West’s palm trees, the heat of Cuba in the summertime, and attic apartments in 1920s Paris—not the two-story Queen Anne in which Hemingway was raised. It seems we are recognized not by the homes we are born into but by those we create for ourselves.
And yet—the former do define us. Though we cannot choose our childhood homes (perhaps this explains why Hemingway is more Cuba than Oak Park), they shape and, in part, explain our future selves.
In Hemingway’s writings, for example, we see his spirit of defiance—but until I toured his home, I could not place such feelings within the context of four walls, could not envision the wallpapered conservatism in which he grew tall and rebellious. And yes, books and letters tell us that the author and his mother quarreled; I’ve even read that his mother had always wanted twins, and so she dressed Ernest and his older sister identically for the first few years of their lives. To me, it all seemed like gossip and hearsay—until I saw the identical beds, the identical gowns, the framed photos in which the children have identical haircuts. Suddenly, the gossip was reified; the words were palpable.
I admit: an author’s biography is by no means necessary for an understanding of his writings. (It’s a fallacy, even.) But when an author becomes a public figure, when a human being becomes mythologized, when we care about the biography simply for the biography’s sake—its worth is real and true. And the home itself becomes necessary for a fully-shaded portrait of the artist.
On July 21, we celebrate the birthday of the brilliant and flawed Hemingway. We celebrate him as both person and creator—and while Mr. Paul’s lecture will certainly help reveal the artist, it is the home that ultimately uncovers the man.