The ‘wide lawns’ myth: Ernest Hemingway in Oak Park

It’s a very compact, Hemingway-esque line, repeated often here in Oak Park. But it appears that Ernest Hemingway never said ­­­— or wrote — that his hometown was a place of “wide lawns and narrow minds.”

“We’ve never found it,” says Rose Marie Burwell, scholar and author of “Hemingway: The Postwar Years and the Posthumous Novels.”

However, Burwell thinks the line expresses what Hemingway saw as “the narrowness of the social and religious teachings that were so dense in his home.” Oftentimes, his frustration seemed to be with his family, rather than Oak Park itself.

In his early letters, Hemingway expressed a fondness for friends and family in Oak Park. In fact, he participated in school plays, varsity football and was declared “class prophet” in his high school yearbook. As an ambulance driver in World War I, he told a friend that he was from Oak Park, near Chicago, “Way out where the West begins.” When he was wounded in 1918, he sent letters home asking for copies of his high school newspaper The Trapeze, and the Oak Leaves.

He even came back to Oak Park to speak about his war experiences and was treated as a hero. The March 22, 1919, edition of the Oak Leaves recounted a nervous Hemingway’s address to his high school.

“Anybody who says he wasn’t scared in this war was either a liar or else wasn’t in it,” he said. “One way a soldier has of telling he is scared is that he can’t spit. I couldn’t spit right now to save myself.”

Then, of course, the 20-year-old Hemingway regaled the crowd with tales of his own heroism and the horrors of trench warfare.

But his relationship with his parents becomes tense after he starts publishing fiction.

His father, Dr. Clarence Hemingway, sent back all six copies of the 1924 Paris edition of his son’s autobiographically-inspired short story collection “In Our Time.” His parents were particularly horrified by their son’s matter-of-fact prose about a war veteran catching gonorrhea from a sales girl in the back of Lincoln Park taxi. Dr. Hemingway said he would not tolerate “such filth” in his house.

“Trust you will see and describe more of humanity of a different character in future,” the doctor wrote to his son. “Remember God holds us each responsible to do our best.”

Later, Hemingway jokingly wondered if the U.S. edition of his book “will be burned on the steps of the O.P. Library” in 1925 missive recently reprinted in “The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Volume 2, 1923-1925.”

Tensions with his family boiled over when Hemingway’s first novel, “The Sun Also Rises,” made him a literary star in 1926. His mother, Grace Hall Hemingway, called it “one of the filthiest books of the year” and objected to his use of foul language.

“What is the matter? Have you ceased to be interested in loyalty, nobility, honor and fineness in life?” she wrote him. “…Every page fills me with a sick loathing — if I should pick up a book by any other writer with such words in it, I should read no more — but pitch it in the fire.”

In reply, Hemingway defended himself in a letter to both parents: “…I am in no way ashamed of the book, except in as I may have failed in accurately portraying the people I wrote of, or in making them really come alive to the reader. I am sure the book is unpleasant. But it is not all unpleasant and I am sure is no more unpleasant than the real inner lives of some of our best Oak Park families.”

Nancy Sindelar, author of “Influencing Hemingway,” said Hemingway’s relationship with Oak Park and his parents was complicated.

“He had a work ethic all his life because of his parents. He got a fabulous education in the Oak Park schools, and his parents were very loving, but very strict,” said Sindelar.

Hemingway was hurt by his family’s reaction and lack of acceptance of his early work, she said, “but later on they did accept it.”

In 1929, Hemingway’s mother applauds his book “A Farewell to Arms,” and included positive press reviews in a letter. She wrote to her son: “It is the best you have done yet and deserves the high praise it is receiving.”

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