What comes to mind when you hear the name? The famous author big-game hunting on the African savannah? The young aspiring writer in a Paris cafe, drinking cafe au lait and rum and writing about Michigan? The war correspondent on the front lines in the Spanish Civil War, or traveling with the U.S. Army and the Free French on their way towards Paris? The burly, bearded adventurer fishing near the Dry Tortugas, or tracking game in Idaho? An expatriate spending hours alongside of Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound and Scott Fitzgerald? The ambulance driver, his leg riddled with hundreds of pieces of shrapnel, falling in love with an American nurse in an Italian hospital?
Or is it the books that come to mind? A Farewell To Arms, The Sun Also Rises, In Our Time, The Old Man and The Sea, or one of his other works, some of them published posthumously.
The legend of Hemingway is so powerful and the images of him in the public mind so deeply etched that it’s easy to forget that he was once just a kid in Oak Park, Illinois, the son of a doctor and an opera singer, both of them conservative Christian Midwesterners. Now if you’re a fan of Hemingway, or have some deeper sense of the complete arc of his life, you might be familiar with this part of his story—after all, part of the Hemingway oeuvre consists of the Nick Adams stories, those semi-autobiographical tales about a young man wandering the northern woods, or following his doctor father on his rounds in an American Indian village in Michigan, or struggling to adjust to post WWI America. Nick is a kind of Hemingway stand-in, and these stories are linked to Hemingway’s youth. Or maybe you’ve visited the Hemingway home in Oak Park and have some sense of this boy who grew up in that house.
But since the legend and celebrity image is so potent, I think it’s worthwhile, for the sake of history and for perspective, to consider the fact that Hemingway was once just a boy from an upper middle class family in a Chicago suburb—a boy who graduated from what was then known as Oak Park and River Forest Township High School one hundred years ago on June 14, 1917. A glance at the boy he once was helps restore him to human status.
Hemingway was a complex person. His first wife Hadley famously said that he had more sides to him than a geometry textbook—a description which I’ve always found to be a great metaphor capturing the many sided nature of one man’s personality. He could be cruel and bullying, but he was also capable of great kindness and generosity. Over time his legend—which he had a hand in creating–has crusted over the complexity of his personality and reduced him to a one-dimensional figure: the hard-drinking, hard-living writer-outdoorsman bursting with machismo. There is so much more to him, and part of that is the person he was long before he became famous.
Think for a moment of a teenage boy shyly admiring some girl from across the classroom, or discreetly eyeing an older attractive woman and fancying himself pleasing her, although she might only laugh at him if he tried to make a move. Or believing himself a hard-bitten man of the world because he has wandered around on his own in the Michigan woods some, and looking with a kind of pitying distaste at the adults around him and feeling sorry for them because they are so clueless about life and love. Or maybe he sidles up alongside of some adult conversation and cracks wise about something he knows nothing about, or sees himself on equal footing in conversation with grownups who are trying to be patient but are getting irritated with this annoying kid.
Yep—despite the legend, Hemingway was once a teenage goofball just as you and I once were. Well, I was anyway.
Although this was a very different era and culture, Hemingway’s life wasn’t all that much different from a lot of kids in Oak Park now, or any kid from middle to upper middle class suburbia today. Both of his parents were working professionals: his mother, Grace Hall Hemingway, was a musician and singer who worked as a choir director and orchestra conductor for their Congregational church, and his father Clarence ran his medical practice from their home and also made house calls. They had domestic help and owned a vacation cottage in Michigan. The family was comfortable.
Hemingway played sports, hunted and fished, hung out with his pals. He had siblings. He spent his time in his studies, with his friends, participating in sports and outdoor activities and reading and writing. He had a paper route. The Hemingways and their neighbors in their community enjoyed a kind of comfort and privilege that many Americans did not. Hemingway’s experiences might seem normal and typical today—but they were the exception compared to the lot of many boys and girls across the U.S. at this time.
Keep in mind that graduating high school was far less common then than it is in our time. It was standard for many boys and girls in working class America during this time period to leave school after eighth grade or at some point during the junior high or even late elementary school years. Elementary education was far from being standardized as well. Some kids never went to school at all. My paternal grandfather, seven years older than Hemingway and the son of an illiterate Irish immigrant, left school after eighth grade to apprentice as an ironmolder. His wife attended high school briefly, but had to leave to help out at home. The student bodies of many city high schools in early 1900s and teens seem to have consisted largely of the children of merchants, prosperous small business owners and other professional men. The curricula at some of these schools were rigorous, and a student might leave with not only a diploma but also the equivalent of two years of college-level work.
It was shortly before Hemingway entered high school that what became known as the High School Movement developed. More secondary schools were created in the United States in recognition of the need for more educated workers and due to an increase in white-collar managerial positions, but robust graduation levels weren’t seen until the 1940s. According to Claudia Golden and Lawrence F. Katz in an article for The Journal of Economic History, “In 1900 just 6 percent of all 17-year olds in the United States graduated from secondary schools. By 1930, 30 percent did—35 percent outside the South.”
Life was also a lot tougher for many Americans. Most adults and many children worked six days a week. Worker health and safety protections were scarce. Disease still took a heavy toll. Child labor laws were just being implemented broadly in the country when Hemingway entered high school. It was not unusual to find homes lacking indoor plumbing across America well into the 1930s. There is a caption of a photograph from Lee Kennett’s book G.I.: The American Solder in World War II that has stayed with me since I first saw it. In the photo two G.I.’s are shaving in front of mirrors in a barracks restroom during the Second World War. The caption: “Shaving in the barracks. Though Spartan, the bathroom facilities of the barracks were better than those in many American homes.” It’s striking to me how much Hemingway’s youth was a lot closer to that of a young person today than those in his own time given his level of comfort, security and education.
Hemingway seemed to have a pretty good time at Oak Park High. He played football, awkwardly, and made the first team his senior year. His dad was thrilled when Ernest won a varsity letter to wear on his sweater. He was on the swimming team in the winter and was captain of the water-basketball team. His writing was admired and often read aloud in class, and he published stories in the Tabula, the literary magazine, and the Trapeze, the school newspaper. He had his own typewriter, a second hand model that he pecked away on in his bedroom. His school had a spring break, just like many do today, and he and some buddies took a canoe trip in Starved Rock State Park in Illinois. He went camping again with some friends as the school year wound down.
Commencement week actually began with Class Day on Friday, June 8, 1917. Ernest was “Class Prophet” and presented what he believed would be the fates of his fellow classmates. The U.S. had entered the war just two months earlier, and the school auditorium was decorated with baskets of red, white and blue flowers in patriotic recognition of the recent declaration of war. The actual commencement ceremony was held on Thursday, June 14. Ernest Hemingway’s formal education was over. By the fall he would be off to Kansas City and a job as a cub reporter, and in the new year of 1918 he would join the Red Cross as an ambulance driver. His world was waiting.
A couple of years ago one of my nephews graduated from high school in Michigan. His dad, my older brother, commented on how many of the kids in his son’s class had a kind of stunned look about them now that high school was over. I knew right away what he was talking about. And I could remember how that felt—all those years of education, going back to kindergarten or even pre-school, and now it was over. What now? Yes, maybe you know a destination—college, a job, the military. But what will happen? What is waiting out there? Who will you become?
On June 14, 1917, the seniors at Oak Park High celebrated, but surely had a lot of the same feelings. We know the rest of the story for one of them. The kid was soon on his way, and our literature is the richer for it.
Well done, graduate. Well done.
Here’s a fun article from Huffington Post with a lot of great pictures about Hemingway’s high school days. The authors are Robert K. Elder and Mark Cirino, two of the three authors (the other is Aaron Vetch) of Hidden Hemingway: Inside the Ernest Hemingway Archives of Oak Park. Kent State University Press, 2016.
Wikipedia article on Grace Hall Hemingway
G.I.: The American Soldier in World War II by Lee Kennett. University of Oklahoma Press; Norman, Oklahoma. 1987, 1997.
“Education and Income in the Early Twentieth Century: Evidence From The Prairies.” Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz, The Journal of Economic History: 60 (3): 782-818.