Ernest Hemingway circa 1917, when he became a cub reporter at The Kansas City Star. Photo via John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.
Dozens, if not hundreds, of Ernest Hemingway lookalikes will converge again in Key West, Florida, next week to celebrate the author's legacy and larger-than-life impact on the little subtropical island he once called home.
The annual Hemingway Days event, celebrated over five days in anticipation of the Pulitzer winner's July 21 birthday, includes readings and book signings, a short story contest, a quasi "Running of the Bulls," a three-day deep-sea marlin fishing tournament, and a contest for white-bearded men resembling Hemingway. (Last year, I interviewed a self-proclaimed "Mini Papa" who traveled to Key West to join the zany throngs.)
As a sometime resident of Key West and witness to last year's Hemingway Days extravaganza, I've digested certain anecdotal bits about his life over and over again. Through multiple guided tours of his 907 Whitehead Street home, rereading of his own work and biographical matter related to his life and surrounding legend, and conversations with people who actually knew him in Key West, I thought that I was well schooled in the Hemingway story. And then I discovered Nancy W. Sindelar's Influencing Hemingway: People and Places That Shaped His Life and Work, published this spring, a book that is overflowing with meticulously researched context for the writer's life.
Sindelar, a longtime teacher of American literature at Oak Park and River Forest High School, Hemingway's Illinois alma mater, has been a presenter at the International Ernest Hemingway Colloquium in Havana, Cuba, and is a board member of the Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park. In other words, she knows her stuff, and her book, full of concrete details foraged from decades of immersion in her subject, glows with a specific clarity he would have loved. Among my favorites: "On September 3, 1921, Ernest and Hadley were married at the First Presbyterian Church in Horton Bay, Michigan, and at the family's invitation, they spent their honeymoon at the cottage on Walloon Lake. Thirty guests attended their wedding in the little church decorated with Michigan wildflowers. After a wedding dinner, Ernest rowed his wife across the lake to the family cottage, where they slept on the floor in front of the fireplace on a mattress pulled from one of the beds."
While we can't go back in time to share in that wedding night – or in Hemingway's childhood interactions with two grandfathers who both served in the Civil War; or in his seminal experience of being injured by a trench mortar shell while in Italy as a Red Cross ambulance driver during World War I; or in his gallivanting with fellow ex-pat members of the "Lost Generation" in Paris; or in his immersion in the matador lifestyle of Pamplona, Spain; or in his skewering of lions and tigers on African safari; or his fishing adventures in the waters off Key West and Cuba aboard his beloved boat Pilar – we can go back and study the rules that made him the writer we now know and love in even more depth, thanks to Sindelar.
Like many of his biographers, she highlights the lifelong influence of his seven-month apprenticeship at the Kansas City Star from 1917 into 1918. The Midwestern newspaper's style manual promoted the use of short sentences, short paragraphs, and "vigorous English." Hemingway once said that the 110 rules contained on the style sheet were "the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing. I've never forgotten them."
"His assignments gave the cub reporter opportunities to explore his love of action and adventure and took him to the Fifteenth Street, Number 4 police station and the general hospital," Sindelar writes. "His boss, Pete Wellington, has said, 'He liked action … He always wanted to be on the scene himself' and recalls that Ernest would take off in hospital ambulances without letting the city desk know where he was going or he'd cover crime at the Fifteenth Street station hoping something larger would hit."
This facsimile of the Star Copy Style sheet in use when Hemingway was a cub reporter is composed of raw, straight-shooting advice, like: "Don't say, He had his leg cut off in an accident. He wouldn't have had it done for anything," and, "He died of heart disease, not heart failure – everybody dies of heart failure."
Everybody cannot possibly write like Hemingway – or look like him (with apologies to those making the pilgrimage to compete in Key West next week) – but with enough steady focus on these rules and on pursuing a life of adventure, it might be possible to live and write with the "grace under pressure" Sindelar celebrates in her compelling story of his influences.