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Wild Michigan Through Young Hemingway’s Eyes

June 6, 2011
By

To understand Hemingway’s Michigan, you not only have to understand the Michigan that he saw, but how it looked through his eyes as a young boy experiencing the world with eyes wide open. Before he sailed to Europe, he sailed across Lake Michigan to the distant shores of Harbor Springs. Before he landed a Marlin in the Gulf Stream, he pulled trout out of Horton’s Creek. Before he hunted kudu in the wilds of Africa, he hunted in the forests of northern Michigan, and the rest of his life he seemed to spend chasing the same sense of wildness and adventure he found as a boy up in Michigan.

 

Ironically, the Michigan today is wilder, or at least greener, than it was in Hemingway’s day. Now, the farms around Petoskey and Horton Bay are surrounded by hardwood forests that seem to burst from the earth, ready to swallow up anything in their path. Within a few feet, the land becomes wild and dark under a canopy of broad leaves. When Hemingway explored this landscape, the woods had mostly been leveled by timber companies and reduced to slash piles. In that famous photo of a young Hemingway under the brim of a straw hat, fishing pole in hand, the unseen background, revealed in other photos, shows a tragedy of a trout stream trickling under slash piles. Hardly the wilds of a Tom Sawyer boyhood.

Ernest Hemingway fishing in Horton's Creek, near Walloon Lake, Michigan. Photograph in the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

 

In so many Hemingway places, Hemingway’s days are remembered as the good ol’ days. Not so in Petoskey. Things were quieter then, all right. But maybe a bit too quiet. In his youth, the timber mills had done their damage and shut down, leaving neither forests nor jobs behind. The towns coughed and died. Vacation-seekers like the Hemingways were just beginning to discover northern Michigan’s lakesides. The Odawa had lost their traditions, lost their land, then lost their jobs, leaving them with little more than baskets of berries and handicrafts to sell.

 

Compared to manicured Oak Park, though, this must have seemed like the real deal to a young Hemingway, so much so that he spent his last summer here before going off to newspaper work, then war, and when he returned from war, jarred and shaken by what he saw, and by the loss of love, this is where he returned. This is where he started to hone the craft of writing, penning sketches of the people he knew, spinning their stories into fiction, or sometimes attaching their names to tales they had nothing to do with at all.

 

The unpaved streets, the diners, the barbershops, the boarding houses, the stores, and most of all, the people, came to life on the pages Hemingway wrote.  Just back from the war, the young man walked with a cane through the streets of Petoskey looking for his voice, and his subjects. He hadn’t found it yet, but he would. Sitting in Paris, Hemingway had Petoskey on his mind and a map of northern Michigan on his wall. He sat in Closerie de Lilas and wrote about the Upper Peninsula.

 

So much of what Hemingway knew then is still around. The Dilworths’ place looks pretty much the same. The blacksmith shop is gone, but it’s been rebuilt by the old home. The Methodist church is gone, but the school’s still there. So is the general store, with a wall devoted to Hemingway and a sign that bears the words: “Hemingway shlept here.”

 

“We don’t know if he slept here,” says the woman at the counter, “but we know he shlept here.”