One of the joys of being a writer is to visit places that link you to the work of other scribblers. Over the years I’ve met and conversed with several well-known Midwestern writers, and toured the homes of a few who are no longer with us. But for me the twin high points of such visitations include standing in the study in Key West, Florida, where Ernest Hemingway wrote a couple of his most important novels, and, just recently, walking through the house in Oak Park, Illinois, in which he was born.I’ve always regarded Hemingway as a very modern artist. His famous no-frills style coupled with his unsentimental portrayal of human behavior have struck me as quite contemporary. But when, a week ago, I stepped into his birthplace, I realized how much things have changed since he came into the world back in 1899.The house, which belonged to his maternal grandfather, is preserved with meticulous attention to the details of the time, including furniture, wall coverings, appliances, and decorations. With its nine-foot-high ceilings, ornate oak and cypress trim, and busily patterned wallpaper, the house everywhere embodies the tastes and values of the Victorian era–exactly those things against which Hemingway so vigorously rebelled. And the presence of his strong-willed and domineering mother, Grace, is made manifest in the music room where she gave singing lessons to dozens of neighborhood youngsters and forced her own children, including Ernest, to practice playing musical instruments.
By way of relief, the house also contains several examples of Hemingway’s physician father’s taxidermy, along with photos of the family enjoying summers on the shore of Walloon Lake in the northern part of lower Michigan, where young Ernest learned to fish and hunt and where his first short stories are set. Later, of course, he volunteered for Red Cross service in the first world war, was badly wounded, and worked his experiences of the war into A Farewell to Arms, which many regard as his finest novel. But it all started right here in Oak Park, in a Victorian era house on a quiet side street.