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Why I’m Stalking Hemingway

November 11, 2009

Why am I in Idaho stalking the ghost of Ernest Hemingway? I’m asking myself the same question. I don’t hunt. I don’t fish. I don’t even bullfight. We’re hardly kindred souls, manly man Hemingway and scrawny man me.

I’ve found myself drawn to him, though, through place. Our taste in geographies is one thing we have in common. Some of the places in the world I have loved the most are places Hemingway was drawn to generations before. I studied in college in his beloved East Africa. I ended up living in the American West, where he finally settled, for much the same reason as I did. We both were drawn to that sense of wild still abiding in modern America. I traveled to Paris, Spain, Cuba, Key West and Ketchum, and fell in love with each one in my own time only to marvel at how much more spectacular they must have been in Hemingway’s day.

The place led me to the writer. Like me, he was trained as a journalist, and though my taste leads to slightly more flowery exposition, his taut prose helped define American writing, and taught me quite a bit, too. Hemingway was not a travel writer, penning narratives of his global adventures. He was a writing traveler who sought out the still wild places on earth and lived in them fully.

The writer led me to the man. He was a tragic puzzle. A Chablis-sipping great white hunter with a thing for housecats. He was either swashbuckling or shy, depending on to whom you talk, or more likely, both. He loved boxing and he loved Cezanne. At first, I thought we would have little in common if we sat down over Scotch. Hemingway, I figured, would write me off as another soft American who couldn’t handle a gun. His interests are so broad, though, it seems he could strike up a conversation with anyone. He was captivated by the vastness the world had to offer. Maybe that was a secret to his success as a novelist.

Here was man born in the waning days of the 19th century, an age of exploration giving way to machine modernity. He seemed ill-fit when the world turned into Technicolor. As a young author, his chums were Modernists, but he never squared with modernity. During the Great War, the Illinois-bred boy fled the Midwest to sink himself into the world. Today, even as America reigns as a superpower in what we are told is a flat world, our country seems more insular than ever. Hemingway transcended that. He became an American at home in the world at a time the borders were starting to melt.

The man led me to the myth. Hemingway killed himself before the Sixties were redefined by Martin Luther King or John F. Kennedy or their ghosts; before the Beatles or Bob Dylan; before Vietnam and Woodstock became less place names than concepts. He lived and died before the culture rift and drift that still rips this country apart. There’s something in him we can all claim. He’s a fascist-fighting, communist-embracing, red-white-and-blue gun-toting patriot. A blood-sport nature lover.

I wondered if seeing the world through Hemingway’s eyes might give us a way to close our own war wounds and find a way for Americans to open themselves up to the world.

Over the years, my affinity grew as I found some of Hemingway’s struggles to be my own. Infidelity. Divorce. Depression. These were things we could talk about over that glass of Scotch.

So here I am in Ketchum, trying to solve a mystery of sorts. Hemingway has been dissected so many times, during his life and after. But no matter how much we know about him, it never quite seems to answer the question. Who was this man so full of life, who pulled not one but two triggers to end it all? What can he tell us about the world he never lived to see?