Hemingway's first and forever love
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WALLOON LAKE, Mich. -- At the beginning of the last century, when the Great Lakes steamships brought the summer people from Chicago, he was introduced to fishing, hiking and camping along these shores. He lingered alongside the lakes, he plied the streams, he set up tents behind the family home and on the trails. Ernest Hemingway loved northern Michigan.
Willa Cather had her Red Cloud, Nathaniel Hawthorne his Salem, Mark Twain his Hannibal, Henry David Thoreau his Concord. All were marked by these places, their work marked by their memories. They were shaped by their coming of age in these corners of America, shaped by coming back to these places, shaped perhaps even more by leaving them.
And so it was with Hemingway and this place. You may think that his place was Cuba, or Key West, or Paris or Spain, or Idaho -- for in truth so many places are associated with Hemingway, and he with them -- but it was here, on the tip of the mitt of Michigan, that he became the Hemingway we know, here that he was Ernest and not yet Papa.
He came here when he was but six and a half weeks old and in some ways never left. In Paris, where he shared salon evenings with Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and Sherwood Anderson, there are reports that a map of Michigan hung in his apartment. Indeed, Michigan formed a map for his life, so much so that he kept the family cottage here, known then and now as Windemere, until his death.
It was in Michigan that he learned to fish, and in pictures of him and his catch there is a pride in his posture and in his eyes that tells you that, as Norman Maclean would write in an unforgettable book published 15 years after Hemingway's death, for some people there is no clear line between religion and fishing.
It was in Michigan that he first married (the bride was Hadley Richardson, the place Horton Bay). It was in Michigan where he learned the rudiments of the outdoor life, and the intoxicating appeal of the country, the stream and the woods.
"This is about the last good country there is left," Nick Adams says in a story that takes part of that sentence as its title.
If you believe that Nick Adams was Hemingway's alter ego, then in the Nick Adams stories you learn a lot about Hemingway, a lot about Michigan and a lot about what Hemingway learned about life from Michigan.
In these stories Petoskey, the tourist town nine miles north of here, wins a ballgame, 5-3, Hemingway feasts on huckleberry pie with a glass of milk from the pitcher, his father catches perch and the son goes for a walk by an Indian camp. These are the rhythms of a Michigan summer, then and now, and the rhythms of Hemingway's prose, written for eternity.
"He heard a wind come up in the trees outside and felt it come in cool through the screen," he wrote. "He lay for a long time with his face in the pillow ... When he awoke in the night he heard the wind in the hemlock trees outside the cottage and the waves of the lake coming in on the shore, and he went back to sleep. In the morning there was a big wind blowing and the waves were running high up on the beach and he was awake a long time before he remembered that his heart was broken.''
These Nick Adams stories, particularly the early ones, are stories about growing up and the fears we forget when we look back, and the fearful, embarrassing discoveries we make when young and do not forget. These stories, too, are full of Hemingway's time-tested truths, such as the indisputable fact that a perch with the ventral fin still attached is better for bait.
"When a trout, feeding on the bottom, took the bait it would run with it," Hemingway wrote, "taking line out of the reel in a rush and making the reel sing with the click on." When Hemingway wrote about fishing he made the reel sing with the click on.
Hemingway's footprints are gone from here, yet there are trace metals in the landscape and in the towns around northern Michigan that marked his prose.
In Petoskey's City Park Grill, where legend dictates that he sat at the second seat from the end of the 32-foot bar, there hangs a picture of a happy Hemingway, his smile making him look curiously like a large-mouth bass. At the Walloon Lake Lodge, down the shore from Windemere, you can order the Salmon Trout Hemingway, pan sautéed with cognac, mushrooms and shallots. The landmark McLean and Eakin bookstore in Petoskey's Gaslight District has a full section devoted to Hemingway.
One of those books is the luminous new "Picturing Hemingway's Michigan" (Wayne State University Press). This volume, deftly assembled by Michael R. Federspiel, a Central Michigan University historian who is the president of the Michigan Hemingway Society, provides for us who can only visit this place an intimate and indispensable view of Hemingway and old Michigan.
What remains of Hemingway's Michigan is the place itself -- the long days of wonder and whitefish, sunshine and serenity. The evening skies are the shade of blue you only see on an Oxford cloth cotton shirt, the lakes a softer, translucent hue, the fog an opaque powder blue. What remains, too, is what Hemingway said -- not only about the world but about his world, shaped so much by this place.
He was a man of great passions. "He loved the long summer," Hemingway wrote in one of the Nick Adams stories. "It used to be that he felt sick when the first of August came and he realized that there were only four more weeks before the trout season closed."
Of Hemingway's passions none was greater than fishing, except maybe writing. Two pages on, the modern reader encounters this passage:
"It was really more fun than anything. That was really why you did it. He had never realized that before. It wasn't conscience. It was simply that it was the greatest pleasure. It had more bite to it than anything else. It was so damn hard to write well, too."
So damn hard, and yet so damn Hemingway.
First Published August 22, 2010 12:00 am