Growing up in Petoskey we were constantly bombarded with Hemingway stories. Mrs. Vratinina, my English teacher, told us about a house downtown that Hemingway rented where there were supposed to be characters from one of his novels scribbled on the plaster and lath walls. They renovated the place, but not before most everybody had a chance to view the stigmata. Initially I wondered why he didn't just use paper, like the rest of us. But really, the point of the story was to show just how unconventional and driven Ernie really was. Ernie didn't care about the landlord one iota. It was his stories that mattered. And so he developed his own system for keeping track - a sort of primitive flip chart for struggling artists.
We had friends on Walloon Lake who lived next to Windemere, the ancestral summer home of the Hemingways. I remember playing there, and being told all about the place, how it was the source and setting of "some of his stories." At that time, Sunny, Ernest's sister, was still living there. Partly out of respect for Sunny, but mostly out of respect for the location, we were told not to "pester" anyone over there. Maybe they thought we would go autograph hunting, or would deliberately throw a ball into the yard in order to impose ourselves into the world of the deceased great man. My parents were not big readers. Neither were their friends. But somehow they too had grown up in awe of the man and his oeuvre.
Hemingway was the nearest thing to local boy made good that we had going for us. Never mind the fact that he was really a well-to-do Chicago lad who only spent his summers here, and did not really live like the rest of us. He was a summer kid, not even perma-fudge. The locals in his stories were bit players in his own personal drama. But the mere fact that he saw fit to mention specific place names like Hortons Bay and Petoskey lent credence to our small lives. This, coupled with the fact of his bigger-than-life life and death, eventually reflected in some way on us and our lifestyles. Of course we still live this way today, flattered by the wealth that sees fit to grace us with its presence, never really questioning the insidious ways it insinuates itself into our communities.
In college they still hadn't gotten over Hemingway. I had an instructor who made us attempt to write like him, deliberately omitting as many adjectives as possible, in an attempt to pare down our writing to the barest of essentials. Our dialogue was to be all but devoid of speech tags, so that even the most careful of readers had to mentally keep track of the "he saids" and "she saids" that weren't there. Omit. Cleanse. Purify, Tell the truth. It was sort of the opposite of The Hardy Boys. None of this '"I say," chortled Chet quizzically.' stuff was allowed. No. It was all, "We drank the wine. It was good." Everything had to be very biblical, very full of pregnant meaning. The trouble was, most of us had very little idea what sort of existential weight we were supposed to put behind this style, especially the ladies, for whom the testosterone laden stoicism was really a bit much.
I ended up reading almost everything by Hemingway, and at some point he became the standard by which I measured every writer. In my youthful exuberance I had bought into the Hemingway mystique in a big way. Years later I would rebel, rejecting the style of writing completely. As a writer he was a bad role model. Now, in my mellower years, I have got over him, as Sylvia Plath never did with her Daddy. I neither love him nor hate him. He is just there, but not in such a big way. But, like a massive stone in the river, you needed to get around him somehow. He needed to be dealt with.
I still read Hemingway, but not because he is a "local writer". Ultimately he was a tourist, whether he lived in Petoskey, Key West, Paris or Spain. He can be embarrassingly bad, and is easy to parody. But this too is the sign of a great writer. Eliot is easy to parody, as are Whitman, Ginsberg, and Pynchon. Two of the writers in the preceding sentence are almost always embarrassingly bad, and generally overrated by the burger chewing masses. You decide for yourself. My point, however, is that writers are sometimes valued for all the wrong reasons, by people who, if they read at all, read superficially. And local people invariably overrate local writers.
I believe Hemingway was a "great" writer. Ultimately I think he will be remembered mostly for his short stories, laced with the glancing blows of description and permeated by unresolved tension. In a short story this style of writing does not seem silly or self centered, as can be the case with the novel. I am thinking of such stories as "Big Two Hearted River" and "The End of Something", both Michigan stories, as it so happens, and no better or worse for that. There is an almost palpable nervousness in "Big Two Hearted River" that has the power to "cut short all intermission" between reader and experience, and yet it's all done indirectly. You know that Nick is fighting for his sanity, and relies on the redemptive power of the trout stream to get him through. The description of the contours of the landscape, the burnt over pines, the climbing road - all act as extensions of Nick's own damaged psyche after the war. When I read the story, I find myself bending to its shape. "The End of Something" is just beautifully moody and oh-so modern in its unresolved treatment of lost love. It too is a Nick Adams story, and like all of Hemingway it avoids the expression of emotion and thought, glancing off itself without a clean ending.
Was Hemingway an emotional cripple? Did he regard the rest of the world as mere bit players in his own personal drama? Was he, nonetheless, a great writer? Yes, yes, and yes. Hemingway's spiritual heirs have had the benefit of his groundbreaking innovations to draw on. Richard Ford's characters, for example, can be seen as direct descendants of Hemingway's stoic heroes, the difference being that Ford's characters have gotten over themselves. As a matter of fact, it is apparent that Ford has gotten over himself, in a way that Ernie never could. Frank Bascombe, Ford's main character in "The Sportswriter" and his Pulitzer Prize winning "Independence Day" is a man of limited emotional range, a dogged optimist who chooses not to think too deeply about things in order to cope with life. The difference between Bascombe and your typical Hemingway hero is that Bascombe, though no more self-aware than the traditional Hemingway hero, is at least not as painfully and monosyllabically over-dramatic. Ultimately, it is this tendency to turn the spotlight on himself that Hemingway shared with his heroes. It can be a real bore when it doesn't work. So read him, if you want, and enjoy his writing, if you can. I know I always will. But it won't be because of the Northern Michigan factor. Writers belong to the world, and we do them wrong to limit them to our own narrow focus.