Saturday, September 17, 2016

The importance of finding Ernest

Ernest Hemingway came to Idaho first in the late 1930s, a guest of the developers of nearby Sun Valley Resort, then sporadically for the next 10 years, hunting along Silver Creek and the Sawtooth foothills. In the late 1950s he bought a house in Ketchum, and in 1961 died there, after two years reaping the rewards of a lifelong will to self destruction. The funeral was brisk, the burial local, the trout still ran and the geese still flew. But thus another place name went onto the map of literary reverence.

I found his grave as easily as one finds the neat Ketchum Cemetery, near downtown, a gravely slab bearing his name and often littered with pennies and pens—which are in fact an error in the liturgy, for Papa used only no. 2 pencils. By such commonplaces is communion with greatness achieved.

But the city nowhere advertises his last house's location, perhaps fearing a swarm of Papa wannabes, an invasion of acolytes, an asphyxia of aspirants. It is left to the cunning, the clever, the calculating, to find his house on their own. It is left to those with access to Google maps and a disinclination to ask the owners for a tour. Thus:

It sits alone on a small hill, this house, as it did when Hemingway lived there, despite the dazzling wealth that has thrown up its idols nearby. It's sat empty for many years, the gossiping river running ceaselessly along its front, and is now maintained by the Nature Conservancy, who can't figure out what to do with it.

I got to its driveway, with all the No Trespassing signs glinting nearby in the sun, yet with obviously no one near who could threaten me with jail—and decided not to go the whole way after all. Hemingway was in deep trouble when he lived here: depression, paranoia, attempted suicide, great physical pain, shock treatments at the Mayo Clinic, alcoholism of course. He took the final step with both barrels of his shotgun in the foyer. I didn't need to see the place to know the story. And I think: Which is more worthy of reverence, the life or the work? And how much may they be separated?

To my friend Sterling I recommended an old Esquire piece by a guy who found himself on this same pilgrimage I was. Sterling came back at me angry that, in the piece, Norman Mailer gets to call Hemingway a coward. If I want to know Hemingway, Sterling says, I should read his short stories, The Sun Also Rises, the hunting scenes in Green Hills of Africa and any of his journalism.

“That writing is all that you need to know about Ernest Hemingway,” Sterling says.

Yeah, maybe. I wish I it was all I did know. And I wish that my reverence might someday learn to be careful.


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