In Our Time, Ernest Hemingway
Boni and Liveright, 1925
“Where you say you’re from?”
“Chicago,” Nick said.
“That’s a fine town,” the Negro said.
–from “The Battler”
There are few things I can’t forget. My first trip to Chicago. The black sky and thunder there on that day I arrived. The smell of heavy summer rain. The sound of Midwestern cloudburst pelting hard against the el tracks at midday. The towering and beautiful architecture that seemed to rise up like silver rockets out of the azure blue of Lake Michigan. The black fire escapes that clung like dragonflies to the chocolate-brown stone buildings. My first encounter with a biomorphic Louis Sullivan facade. Running my fingers along the heavy organic curves of iron on its corner face on the Carson, Pirie, Scott building.
The tender green lawns of Oak Park. The peaceful Victorian houses and quiet streets of its neighborhood. My first visit to the Frank Lloyd Wright home and studio and Unity Temple. Sitting on the porch of Ernest Hemingway’s birthplace just a stone’s throw from Wright’s house. My fantasy of the two artists having met each other by chance on some warm summer’s day. Frank much older. Ernest very young. Hemingway perhaps the eager and bullish young protégé of Wright. Both discussing the sad and beautiful secrets that sketch out this giant and magnificent puzzle that is our universe.
No, these things I’ll never forget. Above all, I’ll never forget anything greater or sweeter than the kind and gentle people I met there. Chicago, Illinois. Even the name smacks of deep strength and permanence. Good, worthy, and solid human beings. Born of “good stock” as one might jokingly boast. Rooted and friendly and ultimately authentic. Born of the earth. Tied to the earth. Shall die back to the earth.
“Is dying hard Daddy?”
“No, I think it’s pretty easy, Nick.”
–from “Indian Camp”
Perhaps it’s these denizen’s history, their past that makes them what they are. Their hard, working-class background generated from mixed blood and fast growth in a rough and rugged slaughterhouse city. Perhaps it’s the Great Lake municipal without mountains that breeds such sturdy and amiable kin. Or just the flatness of the horizon that soars out like Native American eagle wings over a never-ending tallow plain. Like the square and compass in Wright’s hands laying out unbroken lines across the world that go on forever. The sweet cornfields stretching endlessly across the earth. Silver Ceres towering high above the city atop her art deco skyscraper widening the earth out for evermore. Behold the sheaf of wheat and bag of corn in her hands!
There was nothing but the pine plain ahead of him, until the far blue hills that marked the Lake Superior height of land. He could hardly see them, faint and far away in the heat-light over the plain. If he looked too steadily they were gone. But if he only half-looked they were there, the far-off hills of the height of land.
–from “Big Two-hearted River: Part I”
No, it’s the hearts and souls you never forget. Like the two small boys growing up in Wood Dale, a not so remarkable suburb just west of Chicago. A small town once inhabited by the Winnebago tribe of the Sioux nation and later an influx destination for German immigrants. These boys were nothing special. Neither privileged nor poor. Their town was no landmark. No tourist attraction.
Like Hemingway, these two boys grew up on the quiet streets of a small Midwestern suburb near the big city by the lake. They played football together. Baseball. Built snowmen in the cold winter blizzards. They hid in heaps of colored leaves laughing in the crisp fall. They went to school together. Their families were kindhearted middle class citizens who valued their family and friends and the heart of their home above anything else. Not in an overzealous, self-righteous right-wing way. Just kindhearted and giving folk who knew how to love and give love. Self-effacing human beings who respected the hard ways of the world and celebrated the fact that existence can be mean and harsh and fleeting, and so they exalted that actuality by honouring life and spreading love throughout their home every single minute of every day.
“You’re a tough one, aren’t you?”
“No,” Nick answered.
“All you kids are tough.”
“You got to be tough,” Nick said.
–from “The Battler”
Later, these young men watched films together. Read books. Discussed art and literature. Like young Hemingway, they too dreamed of one day becoming writers. Drafting the great American novel or perhaps even the greatest screenplay or play ever written. They wrote together and dreamed a dream they told themselves would one day become real. One day they parted going their separate ways as good friends always do. But their hearts and friendship and dreams never left Wood Dale.
And growing older it was the love of these two boys’ parents, the hot and immutable burning love, that they too carried deep within themselves as grown men. That same benevolence and altruism they too carried. The magnanimity they showed not only to their own friends and family, but also to all other humanity they encountered along the way. In sickness and in health. They were always there. Just a phone call away. They were decent and kind in a world that was lacking such character. As their parents grew older, they were more gentle and kind to them just as they had been to them growing up. When a friend was in need, they were always there. And it was this selfless ineluctable love that could not—nor never will—be ceased by anything, not even death; but a love that goes on forever, like flat Prairie rooftops across the amber Midwest. Like soft beautiful clouds stretching across a borderless plain.
“I know, Mummy,” he said. “I’ll try and be a good boy for you.”
–from “Soldier’s Home”
And Hemingway, too, had this magic of love, this rich ichor deep within his heart and veins. Whether in Paris or Madrid or Key West or Idaho. No matter how far away from Chicago, this glowing fire was always with him. This hometown love. Like the swift cold rivers and placid lakes of Illinois and Michigan he visited as a small boy. The warm hearths and smiles and laughter in all the November houses of Chicago. The north wind blows. But It was love and heart that infused and fired all his writing and stories and warmed the hearts of millions around the world. Pain and death we will all suffer. But the heart and love will be with us forever.
“Remember, that he who ruleth his spirit is greater than he that taketh a city.”
–from “The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife”
And it’s because of these two boys, these two now middle-aged men whom I had the great fortune of gaining friendship with during my short time in Chicago. Through their ineluctable kindness and caring and love I have seen them give to friends and family over the years. It is these two men who have taught me that special secret of the universe: how not to be afraid of death. Because even if we die. Even if we cease. As long as we love. As long as we are loved and give love. Everything will be okay. The loss of a mother or father or brother or sister. A close friend. As long as we have that hot fury in the soul, everything will be all right and there is no reason to be afraid anymore.
In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing, he felt quite sure that he would never die.
–from “Indian Camp”
For this dear Midwest friends, dear Ernest, dear Frank, dear beautiful and glorious and immutable never-ending and stretching Chicago, I thank you. And I will never forget you and love you forever.