The confessions of Ernest Hemingway

New digital archive makes available hundreds of Hemingway letters and photos

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By Timothy Inklebarger

Staff Reporter

For Oak Park's most famous native son, Ernest Hemingway, learning Latin in high school was an "awful struggle" and being "expelled from class" his freshman year was a daily occurrence.

"Some of the causes of expulsion that I recollect were, eating oranges in class, 4 boys using identically the same theme, dropping a little glass gobule [sic] containing a vile liquid, and shooting craps with Paul Haase," he recalled in an essay titled "Confessions," a hand-written account of his misdeeds at Oak Park and River Forest Township High School.

His Latin teacher, Hemingway remembered, was "under the opinion that I was brilliant but lazy."

The young man — who would one day become famous for his novels, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Sun Also Rises and The Old Man and the Sea, among many other published works — also struggled to abide by the state of Michigan's fish and game laws.

Following Hemingway's sophomore year, his father was so pleased with young Ernest receiving a 90 percent in his zoology class that "he let myself and another equally shady character hike up through Michigan during the summer and was forced to wire money to keep us from the clutches of the law," Hemingway wrote. 

"$14.75 and costs satisfied the justice of the peace and we learned that it is foolish to leave game shot out of season in an open boat. Since then I have been very cautious and the calaboose has known me no more."

That same summer, Hemingway also learned "French cuss words," "illegal ways of catching trout," and "knowledge of the habits of every game warden in Charlevoix, Emmett and Sheboygan counties," he wrote.

Hemingway admits it all and more in the paper, which is part of the "Hacking Hemingway: Cracking the Code to the Vault" digital archive, recently made available online through the Illinois Digital Archives. 

Insight into Hemingway's life as a young man — as well as that of the Hemingway family — abounds in hundreds of never-before-seen photos, letters and works of artwork from the Oak Park Public Library's Hemingway collection and documents from the Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park.

Leigh Tarullo, curator of special collections at Oak Park Public Library, said the new digital archive, which contains 349 documents, is dedicated primarily to Hemingway's formative years in the early 1900s.

"They grew up just down the street [from the Main Library] in Oak Park, so we wanted to focus on Ernest and [sister] Marcelline and kind of what Oak Park was like when they were growing up," Tarullo said during a recent tour of the Hemingway collection, which is housed on the third floor of the main library. 

The archive was made possible through an $86,900 grant from Illinois Secretary of State and State Librarian Jesse White. The library partnered with the Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park and Elementary School District 97 on the "Hacking Hemingway" project, which aims to provide the material to middle-school students and teachers to "offer a unique look at Hemingway, his local ties, and his literary contributions."

The documents available through the archive include hundreds of photos — the archive is a treasure trove of images of Oak Park in the early 1900s — as well as artwork, classroom notes and short stories written by Marcelline and class papers by Ernest.

Among the topics he wrote about as a young man include: "School," exploring how school functions as a community; "How to Hike," a tutorial; and "Brooks," which details an adventure he took with friends.

Hemingway's early personal writing also is on display in the archive. 

In a love poem to a girl named Annette, Hemingway penned: "Your matchless grace and your sensuous loveliness, and beauty strikes me dumb. So that loving words I would to you address, stick on my tongue. The things I'd say to you Annette, (with all constancy) Oh god I love you so when I would speak I do forget, and murmur some inane banality! I'd gladly walk thru hell with you, or give my life."

These items and thousands more are usually only accessible by visiting the Hemingway Archive at the library, 834 Lake St. The physical archive also includes documents about legendary Oak Park figures, such as architect Frank Lloyd Wright and author Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Tarullo said the physical archive also includes a climate-controlled room where a museum-grade vault houses the rarest and most valuable items in the collections.

"The vault contains items from both the library special collections and the Hemingway archive," she said during the tour. "Here in the sarcophagus, we have the Frank Lloyd Wright collections, including the Wasmus portfolio [early drawings by Wright], the originals of our Frank Lloyd Wright photograph collections — so these include sketches and renderings of houses and buildings Wright would have designed and then a few odds and ends letters from Ernest Hemingway to the library."

These works are likely to be part of the library's future digitization efforts, Tarullo said, but the documents are currently available by making an appointment to come to the archive reading room.

"You can give us a call and we will set up an appointment for you," Tarullo said. "We will kind of ask you what you'd like to see, what you're interested in researching, so we can be prepared when you come in to have those materials available."

Emily Reiher, an archivist at the library, noted that the archive — most of which has not yet been made available online — is more than just hundreds of papers, books and other written material.

"There are a lot of fun 3-dimensional objects here," she said, highlighting a violin owned by Marcelline. "There are also costumes, hats and clothing that were worn by Marcelline and Grace Hall Hemingway [Ernest and Marcelline's mother], and, of course, there are some paintings of Grace Hall Hemingway that were done at the Oak Park Art League."


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