Friday, January 28, 2005

Hemingway allegations are false and irrelevant

Guest opinion by Martin Peterson

Martin Peterson, a board member of the Idaho Hemingway House Foundation, is a Hemingway scholar and assistant to the president of the University of Idaho.

I spent considerable time pondering over Margaret McBride's recent (Jan. 19, Mountain Express) opinion piece on the future of the Hemingway House in Ketchum. As a literary agent and author, she seems to have a difficult time separating fact from fiction.

The piece was riddled with errors of fundamental fact. It was also filled with items that have a mystifying relationship to the issues involving preservation of the house. Working through the complex and sometimes strange group of allegations she presents, let me outline the highlights of her charges and respond to each.

1. Ernest Hemingway didn't find Idaho conducive to writing. On July 15, 1928, Hemingway wrote to his friend Archibald MacLeish that he wanted to try writing in the West, first in Wyoming, and if that didn't work, then Idaho. He waited over 10 years to give it a try and then, over the next 22 years, would write portions of "For Whom the Bell Tolls," "The Garden of Eden," and "A Moveable Feast" during various stays in Idaho—the work on the latter two while he was living in what is now known as the Hemingway House. In addition, his non-fiction work "The Shot" was about his antelope hunting experiences in Idaho. He not only found Idaho conducive to writing, but in 1959 he wrote a friend that he planned to move all of his manuscripts from Cuba to Idaho.

2. Mary Hemingway hated the Ketchum house. Mary Hemingway and I became friends in 1970. During the times that we talked and I was her guest at the house, I was never given the impression that she didn't like the house. To the contrary, she enjoyed spending part of each year at the house in Ketchum for over 20 years after Ernest's death. She only stopped living in it when her health deteriorated to the point that she was forced to remain in New York. Had she not liked the house, she had ample opportunities to, sell it at substantial personal profit, which she never did. To the contrary, by gifting it to the Nature Conservancy she was ensuring that it would be preserved for the future.

3. Maxwell Perkins, Hemingway's editor, worked hard on behalf of his clients. I'm unsure what the point is here, but I do know that Perkins had a deep respect for Hemingway and that has carried through with the current generation of the Perkins family. It is why Perkins' granddaughter, Jenny Phillips and her husband Frank, leaders in the effort to restore the Hemingway House in Cuba, are also strong supporters of the effort to preserve the Ketchum house and provide public access to it.

4. Mary Hemingway gave all of Ernest's personal belongings, including manuscripts and photographs, to the Kennedy Library. Not true. His personal belongings are scattered among numerous locations, including the Kennedy Library, the Finca Vigia in Cuba, the Ketchum house, and the homes of family and friends. Mary did, at the urging of Jaqueline Kennedy, give many of his letters, manuscripts, photos and other belongings to the Kennedy Library. The result is that the Hemingway archives at the Kennedy Library are the most complete archives relating to any American writer. But at the time that many of those items were transferred from the Ketchum house, Megan Desnoyers, who was then archivist for the Hemingway collection at the Kennedy, asked that numerous items remain in the Ketchum house, given its historic significance, so that they could be seen in their historic context. Those items remain in the house today.

5. Hemingway drank a lot. No secret there. A lot of fine upstanding citizens of Ketchum and elsewhere drink a lot. It's one of the reasons, one assumes, over 40 years after Hemingway's death, Blaine County has 1.5 percent of Idaho's population and 5 percent of the state's retail liquor sales. One day in 1985 I was having lunch with Hemingway's son, Jack, and Gov. John Evans. Jack made a comment about his father's capacity for drink. But the amount he claimed his father was drinking each day in the final years of his life was considerably less than the half-gallon a day that Ms. McBride claims. During the time that Ms. McBride claims he was drinking a half gallon a day, Hemingway covered World War II in Europe, hunted and fished in Idaho, Cuba, Africa, and Spain, worked on several books, including the "Old Man and the Sea," won the Nobel and Pulitzer Prizes, and traveled extensively. It is hard to believe that anyone drinking a half-gallon of alcohol a day could be that productive.

6. Ernest Hemingway had physical and mental problems late in life. Of course he did. It was undoubtedly the most difficult period of his life. But to suggest that because someone was having physical and mental problems means the house they were living in isn't worth saving is both insensitive and absurd.

7. Hemingway sometimes didn't get along with members of his family. Hemingway had a lifelong pattern of having disposable friends. Sometimes he did the same with family. That was certainly the case with his mother and one of his sisters. The major exception to this rule was with his Idaho friends. Only a handful of friends, outside of the Idaho circle, could lay claim to having been close to him for 20 or more years. This is another reason why the Idaho period of his life was remarkable and is deserving of commemoration.

8. Hemingway didn't spend a lot of time living in the house. Hemingway was a citizen of the world. His years of living in Paris, Key West and Cuba were disrupted for extended periods of travel that would see him away from home for months at a time. When he purchased the house in Ketchum, be wrote his friend, Gen. Buck Lanham, that he intended to continue that pattern, "This place was a wonderful buy. I plan to live here in the shooting months which correspond to the hurricane months and the early northers in Cuba. My health and Mary's needs a change of climate for the sub tropics for part of each year."

9. Ernest Hemingway committed suicide in the house. He did. And he is buried in the Ketchum cemetery. But that doesn't make the house any less worthy of appreciation and respect than the cemetery. Ms. McBride's morbid fascination with his death is unfortunate. Fortunately, most people do not share her fascination and are primarily interested in what Hemingway did in life. What happened in a single tragic instant in the house is not what makes it worthy of saving. Rather, the house is worthy of saving for many, many reasons in spite of his suicide. Those who wish to remember Hemingway's life in Idaho only because of its ending are missing a life that was generally lived well and enthusiastically.

Ms. McBride seems to believe that the sum of all of these issues means that Hemingway's Ketchum house has no historic value and is not worthy of preservation. It is a puzzling conclusion.

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