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The Ernest Hemingway Birthplace Home at 339 N. Oak Park Ave., where Hemingway lived from birth until age 6, has been home to the Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park since 1992, when the group acquired the home and began an ambitious restoration project.
In 2001 after years of restoration, the house was returned to its roots, with the interiors resembling the 1890 Queen Anne-style home built by Hemingway's maternal grandparents, Ernest and Carolyn Hall. Rich with Victorian décor and many original family pieces, the home has been drawing tourists and Hemingway buffs since that time, but it's been some time since the home housed an actual storyteller.
Legend has it that Grandfather Hall used to keep his grandchildren entertained with stories every morning. According to the foundation's executive director, Allison Sansone, Hall had the tables turned on him by a young Ernest.
"There were a lot of kids in the house, and it was very loud and chaotic," Sansone said. The grandfather told the children a story every day if they let him have his coffee in quiet. One day, 5-year-old Ernest came downstairs with a story of his own about a boat, a giraffe and a lion."
During his time in the home, the boy continued his forays into storytelling, and young Ernie also was influenced by trips with his father to the wilds of the nearby Des Plaines River, as well as his opera-singer mother's love of the arts. The family left the home for their own Oak Park residence (located at 600 N. Kenilworth Ave.) when Ernie was 6.
A not-so-lost generation
While countless Hemingway fans have made pilgrimages to the home for inspiration, the home has not housed a writer since novelist Bill Hazelgrove spent the better part of a decade writing in the unfurnished attic. Aiming to continue the tradition of encouraging the arts in Oak Park, the foundation launched a writer-in-residence competition this spring. In exchange for some community outreach through local workshops, the foundation offered the winning writer a chance to work in a newly-designed office space in the Hemingway Birthplace Home's attic for one year, free of charge.
"Part of our mission as a foundation is to promote thoughtful reading and writing," noted Sansone. "One of the obstacles of being a writer not attached to an institution is finding a place to write. We thought we have to be involved in nurturing the next generation of Hemingways."
The application period opened in March, and Sansone was pleased with the reaction. "We went from having 120 to 200 hits on our website each day, to over 12,000 the day after the announcement of the contest. In the end, we got more than 50 serious applicants, from people as nearby as Chicago and as far away as Germany and Canada. People are really attracted to the idea of drawing inspiration from Hemingway's home."
The space set aside for the winner was part of a year-long project to renovate and refurbish the home's attic. Sansone said the attic has never been included on tours, and never will be, making it the perfect spot for a writer's retreat. The small attic office is believed to be originally a maid's quarters, but the room required quite a lot of work to become a useable space.
Sansone notes that interns and volunteers put in countless working hours to making the space habitable. "Clyde Russell built the shelves and put in drywall, and Hometown Handyman repaired the floors. We had wonderful interns who cleaned the attic up."
Thomasville furniture, which has a licensed brand of Hemingway furniture, styled the room with pieces from their Hemingway line. A desk, chair, chest and elephant-accented table in dark wood colors coordinate to create a safari theme.
"They wanted it to look like a young Ernest's dream, what he would have dreamed of for a writing spot," observes Sansone.
We have a winner
The winner of the contest was announced on July 21 at celebration honoring the 114th anniversary of Hemingway's birth in 1899. According to Sansone, a committee of board members chose the winner based on three primary factors: the applicant's professional and educational background, the substance of the project the applicant intended to work on in the space, and the community workshop ideas (because the foundation wanted a partnership with the winner).
After wading through what Sansone characterizes as very impressive resume, the committee chose Susan Firestone Hahn, a Winnetka resident and published poet, playwright and novelist. The winner of two Pushcart prizes and a Guggenheim Fellowship, Hahn published her first novel, The Six Granddaughters of Cecil Slaughter, in 2012.
Hahn notes that like many aspects of her writing life, her decision to enter the contest seemed fortuitous. "I was recovering from an illness and had just moved to the point where I could watch television. I turned on Channel 7 News to find a piece about the contest. If I had not turned on the television, I would not have known about it. Life can be strange sometimes. You have to be in the right place at the right time. Success is not just one thing; it takes timing, luck and talent. It's all those things. It's something in the air."
Hahn, who writes longhand, then literally cuts and pastes her pages together during the editing process, is looking forward to having a quiet space to work.
"I am attracted to having a place to write that has no telephone and no TV," she says. "The concept of the isolation and being left alone drew me in. I've never been able to understand those writers who can work on their laptops in the middle of a busy Starbucks."
The history of the home also appealed to Hahn. "Of course, this was attractive because it was the Hemingway Birthplace," she says, "and Hemingway was such a giant. He carried with him all the complexities of a great artist."
When we interviewed her in August, Hahn said she planned to use the time in residence at the Hemingway Birthplace to work on her second novel.
"I have two ideas right now, and I have to choose one and go for it. I know I will eventually write both, but coming from a poetry background, and given that it's handwritten, I can't imagine it taking less than a couple of years. It's a condition of plenitude that I have all this time and this place to work on it."
Hemingway energy haunts Hahn
Several weeks into her use of the Hemingway Birthplace Home office, novelist Susan Hahn finds herself in a position she didn't imagine possible when she was named the writer in residence in July. At that time, she was torn between two concepts for her next novel, and she figured the majority of her time would be spent working on deciding between the two ideas. Instead, inspired by the award, she has already nearly completed the first draft of her novel.
Hahn said that, until August, she had no idea which novel she would go with.
"I was driving myself batty trying to choose which one to focus on this year. I was asked by an agent if she could see what I'd written, so I made a decision. The next day, I started working on the other book. Once I decided to start it, I just could not stop. I'm in revisions now and looking to send it to the agent at the end of October or early November."
Hahn said the pace of the writing surprised her. "It was beyond fast this time. I became so immersed in the writing that I can't pull myself out to work in the real world. It's been great to work in the Birthplace Home. When I walk in, it's completely quiet. I love to work at night, after the tours are over."
While the book's subject will remain a mystery until it's read by the agent, Hahn is pleased with where it is at this point. "It's a strange, strange piece, and I like it for that. I was a psychology major, not an English major, so I haven't read everything, but I can honestly say, I've not read a book like this before."
Hahn used the Hemingway office to handwrite a draft of this novel and credits the foundation's writer-in-residence program with pushing her forward. "It was this way with the Guggenheim as well, when I quickly wrote three books of poetry. Once someone gives me something like a fellowship, I'm like a faucet. I'm very productive. So far, it's been a very positive experience.
"As a writer, if your currency is language, it has been a profitable experience."