A Note: In Petoskey, Michigan, at a beautiful bookstore called McLean & Eakin, there is a full section dedicated to Ernest Hemingway. I highly advise that at some point you walk in, absorb the mirth of Michigan books, pick up some stories by Hemingway, walk down to Bay Front Park, and read as you look out over Lake Michigan.
Featured Literature: Hemingway’s Boat, by Paul Hendrickson
So this month’s title is a bit of a stretch, as far as the direct relationship to Michigan goes. Many places, primarily Key West, Florida, Ketchum, Idaho, and the entire state of Michigan have claimed the unofficial citizenship of Ernest Hemingway. However, he was actually born in Oak Park, Illinois, near Chicago. There are things that make Hemingway an intrinsic Michigander though, and he spent much of his youth exploring Northern Michigan, learning all the classic Hemingway tropes. Perhaps, in many ways it would’ve been more appropriate to select The Nick Adams Stories for this column, which is Hemingway’s collection of coming of age stories taking place around the Mitten State. They are a quick read, and I highly recommend them, but it seemed way to easy to write about them here. While Hemingway’s Boat mostly takes place at Hemingway’s homes in Key West and Cuba, Hendrickson consistently leads us back to his childhood connections to Michigan, giving readers a clear look at the defining moments of this momentous writer.
Hemingway’s Boat was a finalist in the National Book Critics Circle Award. The biography focuses on Hemingway’s later years and uses his most prized possession—his boat Pilar—as a central motif to help examine Hemingway’s life. It’s worth noting that Pilar is also the name of one of Hemingway’s most famous characters in For Whom The Bell Tolls. What makes Hendrickson’s biography particularly enthralling is that he shies away from hypothesizing personal matters about Hemingway as an artist and human being. While many Hemingway biographies are ripe with theories on sexuality, incompetence, narcissism, etc., Hendrickson mostly allows facts and events to demonstrate Hemingway’s persona tacitly. Furthermore, he utilizes Hemingway’s love of fishing and boating in a way that almost personifies Pilar. Hendrickson also reaches out to a number of intimate relations to the late Hemingway, including his three sons, to fully examine Hemingway’s notorious polarization of brutish machismo and inexorable compassion. In the background lies the rampant reality of the Hemingway family’s riddled history with depression and suicidal tendencies, ultimately culminating in the loss of Ernest Hemingway himself.
However, throughout the text we also see glimpses of reminiscence when Hemingway was an adolescent hiking around Walloon Lake and other parts of the Lower Peninsula. It is also worth noting that some of Hemingway’s most transcendent and endearing stories take place here, such as “Big Two-Hearted River”. Although, these sections are short in Hendrickson’s account, they encapsulate the idea that Hemingway’s time in Michigan became a catalyst for his prose. This is not to suggest our plot of earth is Hemingway’s sole inspiration. But imagine, a young Hemingway at sixteen, out on his own with only one other travel companion, hiking, fishing, and living off the land, exploring countless lakes, examining the rustic, outdoor lifestyle that would become tantamount to his writing, at a pivotal point in his development. It was here that Hemingway was challenged by nature, and also by the inherent lack of it created by humanity.
I’m wearing a sweatshirt as I write this that simply reads, “Up North” across the chest. I believe in some ways Ernest Hemingway is part of the reason this sweatshirt exists. Hendrickson illuminates us to a young writer that found Utopia in Northern Michigan. (At the very least, he unrelentingly idealized this region in his writing) Michiganders constantly speak of up north as an idyllic land brimming with lakes and trees and lush fruit. I’ve spent many of my summers there, and I am always excited to visit. Visiting the North is a rich tradition for Michigan natives and tourists alike, and I believe the main reason we lay as much claim to Hemingway as Florida or Idaho. If you’re lucky you can still get up there and watch the leaves change.
Editor’s note: For more on Hemingway, check out our article “Hemingway’s Michigan.”