Ernest Hemingway: Oak Park & Childhood
Ernest Miller Hemingway was born on 21 July 1899 in Oak Park, Illinois, a comfortable suburb located just west of Chicago. He was the second child born to Clarence Edmonds Hemingway, a local doctor whom patients called "Doc Ed," and Grace Hall Hemingway, a once-aspiring opera singer who taught music and voice lessons in Oak Park. The family eventually grew to a total of two sons and four daughters. Decades later, it became clear that the Hemingway family shared a tendency toward depression and suicide. Ernest eventually took his own life, as did his father, his brother, and two of his four sisters.
The tragic side of the family wasn't yet apparent during their days at Oak Park, an attractive, well-to-do enclave that Ernest would describe years later as a place of "wide lawns and narrow minds." Grace Hall was a strictly religious woman with a melodramatic and mercurial temperament. Not long after Ernest's birth she developed an odd fondness for dressing him and his older sister Marcelline as "twins"—sometimes as boys, with short hair and overalls, and sometimes as girls, with flowery dresses and long hair. This game of dress-up occurred frequently enough that three-year-old Ernest worried at Christmas that Santa Claus wouldn't know he was a boy. Ernest was six when Grace finally allowed him to cut off his long locks for good.
Hemingway then spent the rest of his life proving his masculinity to himself and everyone else in his orbit. His friend, the writer John dos Passos, said later that Hemingway was the only man he ever knew who truly hated his mother. His bitterness toward his mother over his upbringing spilled out in the way he treated female characters in his fiction—and in the way he treated his four wives. "Deep in Ernest, due to his mother, going back to the indestructible first memories of childhood, was mistrust and fear of women," wrote Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway's third wife and a prominent journalist in her own right, in a 1969 letter to her son from another relationship. "Which he suffered from always, and made women suffer; and which shows in his writing."4
The young Ernest Hemingway liked sports and being outdoors, hunting and fishing on trips to the family's vacation home at Walloon Lake. As a student at Oak Park and River Forest High School he played football and boxed. He was also a strong student who showed an early affinity for writing. He wrote for Trapeze, the student newspaper, and Tabula, the yearbook. Found among his papers after his death was a list the teenage Hemingway kept entitled "Good Stuff for Stories and Essays," which includes gems such as: "Mancelona, rainy night, tough looking lumberjack, young indian girl, kills self and girl."5 He was a born journalist. Even as a teenager he kept notebooks filled with his thoughts and observations about the world around him.
Upon his graduation from high school in June 1917, Hemingway opted not to go to college. Instead he took a job at the Kansas City Star newspaper as a cub reporter, writing stories about crime, war recruitment and other local issues. Hemingway said afterward that the principles outlined in the Star's style guide—the book that spelled out the rules writers must follow when writing for the newspaper—influenced his work for the rest of his life. Readers of Hemingway's fiction will recognize the key elements of short first sentences, short paragraphs, declarative prose, and an active voice. "Those were the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing," Hemingway said later. "No man with any talent, who feels and writes truly about the thing he is trying to say, can fail to write well if he abides by them."6 As much as he enjoyed his newspaper work, Hemingway quit in April 1918 after only six months on the job. There was a war going on, and he had bigger adventures in mind.