My Unintentional Hemingway Quest

Ernest Hemingway is not my favorite writer. I acknowledge he’s definitely talented. Look, I’ve even read more than one of his novels. As a person, I find Hemingway far too much of a caricature of toxic masculinity and aggression to develop any cult-like hero worship like some of his fans do, the sort of fans who would intentionally take on the quest I find myself undertaking.

I’ve actually been to an oddly high number of his residences without really trying. This series of coincidences slowly created my unintentional quest: to visit every place Ernest Hemingway ever lived.

I live only a short way from Hemingway’s birthplace Oak Park, Illinois. I’ve visited the town a number of times for the shops and other features before I eventually went with my book nerd family to visit Hemingway’s home, which has since turned into a museum. We got to take a tour of his house, and see it set up all reconstructed to the time it’s famous occupants lived in it. Perhaps because we were so close to my own home, in a neighborhood so like my own in a lot of ways, (minus the fancy Victorian period housing of course,) but I felt a bit weird, realizing how awkward it would be to have a whole bunch of strangers walking through your house, peering in at your bedrooms and bathrooms just because you once used them. Creepy.

Next up was Florida. Hemingway made himself a rather nice home in Key West later in his life. I went out there myself because Florida, and headed out to Key West because it’s supposed to be a lovely island and someone else would be driving the hours long trip from our place all the way to the tip of the Florida Keys. This person also knew I was a bit of a book nerd and said, if I liked, we could go visit Hemingway’s house there.

Another one? Well, I actually enjoy visiting historical sites and museums on my vacations, and it seemed like an odd  coincidence that two Chicago Suburbanites should find themselves out here. Most importantly, the house is well known for it’s only current residents, a large collection of six-toed cats, all descendants of the cat Hemingway’s family originally brought here. If my only legacy is a historical mansion full of weird cats descended from my family pet, I will have lived a good life, even if I prefer dogs.

I did get to see plenty of six-toed cats lazing about in the island sun, and learn more about Hemingway’s life since he was a little kid in Oak Park. By the time I met him in this historic house, he’d grown up, had his own children, and already put several wives behind him. He even had to build a big wall around this home, because he was famous enough by that time that privacy was a valuable resource.

So I’d seen two homes that housed Hemingway at two very different points in his life, young and old, an anonymous child and a famed author. Well, just now I’ve visited yet another one, and mostly by accident.

My family and I were actually returning from another trip, a short family getaway to Canada, when last minute we decided to break up the last day of driving and stop in Petoskey, Michigan for a night. You know who spent every summer of his childhood learning all the outdoorsy skills that would later become a part of his rugged persona in Petoskey? That’s right, Ernest mother-loving Hemingway.

The house by Walloon Lake that he visited every summer here is still owned by his family and kept as a private property, but I was able to explore the town. Really, it was a bit ridiculous. I definitely did not camp in my nice hotel room. I went swimming, but definitely not fishing in the hotel pool. I walked by a bar in town that an older Hemingway frequented when he stayed in the area, and the park where he would watch bare-knuckle boxing matches, according to my sudden flurry of research on the place. Really, I felt ridiculous trying to connect to that past in the current day Petoskey. Everything was all done up for tourists, gift shops and overpriced restaurants everywhere. The only thing scheduled in that park was a summer concert later in the week, definitely no boxing.

Even back then, the town was a favored summer retreat for wealthy families, so I can’t imagine all of these changes would surprise Hemingway. Maybe the only thing that would confuse him about these waterfront gift shops would be the addition of fidget spinners to their shelves. Still, I could feel Hemingway silently bemoaning the death of a world where bare knuckle boxing was no longer considered acceptable public park entertainment. Maybe he would agree the bookstore that I bought two more poetry books from was a good addition. As much as I loathe Hemingway’s obsessive masculinity, at least he was not one of those manly types that felt the written word was for pussies.

Here the story of my unintentional Hemingway mission comes to a close, for now, as that’s how many places I’ve visited with a connection to the author. The man traveled plenty though, so there’s still more. I could be persuaded to drag myself over to Paris, I suppose, and Spain of course. Traveling the world has always been a goal of mine, and it’s nice to know I might find the ghost of a guy from my neck of the woods waiting there for me, whether I mean to find him or not.

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