I’ve always been obsessed with archives.
While a student at the University of Oregon, I annotated the letters of Ken Kesey (author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). Some of his descriptions from those letters made it directly into his novels. For me, archives are a peek behind the curtain, a place where secret histories live and wait to be discovered.
In 2014, I wrote about the Hemingway archives in Oak Park, visited the museum and his birthplace and debunked the “wide lawns” myth. (In short: Hemingway never wrote and no one documented him saying that his hometown was a place of “wide lawns and narrow minds.”)
The piece also allowed me to spend time with Barbara Ballinger, a legendary local librarian and longtime board member of the Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park, which has a collection housed on the third floor of the Oak Park Public Library. Over a couple of afternoons, we sifted through Hemingway’s family photos, teen notebooks, the “Dear John” letter from his World War I love, Agnes von Kurowsky — even a dental X-ray.
That July, I approached John W. Berry, chairman of the Hemingway Foundation in Oak Park. Had he ever been approached about allowing a book to be done on the archives? He hadn’t. Within a few weeks, it was announced that the Hemingway Society had chosen Oak Park to host its 17th biennial International Hemingway Conference (ongoing this week). Creating a book celebrating Oak Park, the archives, and the village’s most famous author seemed like serendipity.
“Hemingway saved every scrap of paper he ever touched,” said Sandra Spanier, editor of a Hemingway letters series, published by Cambridge University Press.
Had I not already been through the Hemingway archives, I would have thought it a hyperbolic statement. If anything, Spanier was downplaying the amount of material that not only Hemingway kept, but that his siblings and parents saved as well. Since starting this book, my collaborators, Aaron Vetch and Mark Cirino, and I have debated — light-heartedly — if it was sentimentality or a hoarding instinct that led the Hemingways to document their family history so meticulously, to save news clippings, birthday cards, lists, sheet music, and childhood books.
Clarence “Ed” Hemingway, Ernest’s father, always encouraged his children to keep account books, and Grace, his mother, compiled voluminous scrapbooks, so it’s easy to trace the instinct. Their children — especially Ernest and his sister Marcelline — were constantly adding to an empire of letters, photographs, receipts and trinkets that seem to carry memories stronger than any blessing or curse.
For Hemingway the writer, of course, all the material he saved was not only biography but also research. He was gathering data and details that made the life lived in his books more real, tangible.
We endeavored to do the same with our book, Hidden Hemingway: Inside the Ernest Hemingway Archives of Oak Park, to tell a life story through objects, ephemera and photos that will illuminate Hemingway’s history. Some of what we found contradicts the public image he built for himself, some of it supports his larger-than-life myth. We hope, in all, that it strives to make him more human and also to provide scholarly insight.
We found a few gems: Hemingway’s first-recorded love poem to a woman named Annette DeVoe, a previously unseen photo of Hemingway in uniform circa 1919 and a secret note that suggested he had a more-than-friendly relationship with a sister-in-law.
The items in the book provide definition and, in some cases, documentation of Hemingway’s ambition, heartbreak, literary triumphs and trials, joys and tragedies. It’s Hemingway’s stature as a Pulitzer- and Nobel-prize-winning author that drew so many biographers and historians to his work. But it’s also the wealth of material he left behind that makes him such a compelling, engaging and often infuriating research subject.
Lastly, a note on the word “archives” as used in the title of the book. It’s very much intended to mean archives, plural. The Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park is the steward of the largest collection, but the Historical Society of Oak Park-River Forest and the Oak Park Public Library are also treasure troves of Hemingway material, some of which we share in the book.
Now, for the first time, my co-authors and I are offering the same intimate experiences we had with the Hemingway collections, without sifting through boxes and wading through folders. Not that this is a complete document of the treasures to be found in Oak Park. Not by a long shot. There’s still more to be catalogued, more to be found. We hope this book serves as a primer for all future Hemingway admirers and scholars who hope to meet the author in his hometown through the archives he left behind.
Robert K. Elder (@robertkelder) is a journalist and the co-author of “Hidden Hemingway: Inside the Ernest Hemingway Archives of Oak Park,” published by Kent State University Press, 240 pages, $39.95; more information at www.HiddenHemingway.com.
You can catch the authors at the 2016 International Hemingway Conference, hosted by Oak Park this year, July 17-22. Information: https://www.hemingwaysociety.org/oak-park-2016-0
The next signing/reading will be at 7 p.m., Thursday, Aug. 18, Barnes & Noble Oakbrook Center, 297 Oakbrook Center, Oak Brook, IL 60523 (630-684-0586; https://stores.barnesandnoble.com/store/2361)