Sunday, September 07, 2014

Hemingway found a clean, well-lighted place to write in Wyoming

Me sitting at Hemingway's writing desk at Spear-O-Wigwam in the Big Horn Mountains.
Ernest Hemingway found something in Wyoming.

A book, or a way to finish a book. He wrote portions of A Farewell to Arms in Arkansas and Kansas and Sheridan, Wyo., eventually finishing it in a log cabin in Wyoming's Big Horn Mountains. Hemingway was a globetrotter back when it took a long time to get anywhere. You crossed oceans by ship and continents by rail. Travel was measured in days and weeks rather than hours. The author sojourned in Paris, Spain, Cuba, Africa, Canada and all over the U.S.: Chicago, Kansas City, Key West, Sheridan, Wyo. and Sun Valley, Idaho, to name a few. He hauled his typewriter and manuscripts along with him. After he became a successful author, he travelled with 26 suitcases, according to Valerie Hemingway, who served as Hemingway's secretary in the 1950s.

It's odd to think of a peripatetic author and war correspondent traveling with 26 suitcases. That's just one of the odd Hemingway facts you discover when hanging out at the Spear-O-Wigwam Mountain Campus near Sheridan with Val and other Hemingway fans. We were there to start the planning process for a 2018 Hemingway celebration. Why 2018? Since much of a A Farewell to Arms was written in Sheridan and the Big Horns, a 90th anniversary celebration is in order. The idea was hatched by Sheridan College's Susan Bigelow. Our August planning session coincided with the Spear-O-Wigwam presentation by Ms. Hemingway. More than 100 people traversed the rugged Red Grade Road for her afternoon talk.

A Farewell to Arms is based on Hemingway's experience as an ambulance driver in Italy during World War I. If you didn't read the novel during one of your college survey courses, you may have caught up with it as an adult. Perhaps you saw one of A Farewell to Arms movies. Gary Cooper as Frederic Henry in 1932 pursuing Nurse Catherine Barkley (Helen Hayes). In 1957, Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones were the ill-fated couple. There were stage plays and radio plays as well.

After A Farewell to Arms was published in 1929, Hemingway was a success. He wrote one best-seller after another. He accumulated residences and books and suitcases. Other writers began to copy his spare style, which Gore Vidal called "the careful, artful, immaculate idiocy of tone that has marked Hemingway's prose." "Idiocy of tone?" What's Vidal mean by that? Is the accent on "idiocy" or on "tone?" Not only has the author been copied -- badly -- but satirized, too, by Alan Coren and Woody Allen. There is the annual Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition, with winners announced at the annual Hemingway Days in Key West, which also holds a Hemingway Look-Alike Contest and marlin fishing tournament. There are Write like Hemingway and the Six-Word Hemingway Story competitions.

Some of these tourism-themed events may seem excessive. But think about it? How many writers are celebrities these days?   Not just those celebrities who are famous for fame's sake, but those who actually have been engaged with the world and pioneered a new writing style in the process? I can't think of any contemporary writer who's done what Hemingway did. Wyoming's own Mark Jenkins is a globe-trotting, mountain-climbing adventurer and a fine writer. As far as I know, the only people calling him "Papa" are his two daughters. Sebastian Junger has written of adventure on the high seas and in the Afghan battlefields, and he's considered a hunk, but he's not Hemingway. Montana's Jim Harrrison and Tom McGuane can be considered celebrities in the writing world, but I'm not sure if your average person on the street would recognize those names.

Hemingway was bigger than life and he liked it that way. He made a fine living as a writer and it enabled him to travel the world. Alas, he did have to find time and a place to write. In 1928, he tried sequestering himself at the Sheridan Inn before it was the Historic Sheridan Inn and just a hot and crowded hotel. So he rode up the mountains to Spear-O-Wigwam, sat down at a desk in a rustic cabin and finished the book that would make a splash over the next decade.

Hemingway killed himself -- did I mention that? He was bigger than life but in the end was felled by depression and a family trait. When Margaux Hemingway killed herself in 1996 in Santa Monica, she became the fifth generation of Hemingways to do so. We talk a lot about suicide but still it continues, by gun and rope and pills.

I sat at that desk in Hemingway's cabin. He wrote in longhand before breaking out the manual typewriter to do the finished draft. He'd do the revising on paper before getting down to the QWERTY keyboard. Wonder if the other guests at the ranch heard Hem's tap-tap-tap on the keys. Sounds like that writer fella -- says he's working on a novel about the war.

That was a small act by a big man. Left a lasting impression on the world. I think it's only right that the folks of Sheridan County want to celebrate it.

But how? There's the rub. And we have four years to figure out how to do it.

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