Although William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway both became literary giants, in most respects the diminutive Faulkner from Mississippi and the strapping Hemingway from Oak Park, Illinois, couldn’t have been much more different. However, as World War I drew to a close, they followed a remarkably similar path. Both wanted desperately to be heroes in the Great War. Faulkner joined the Canadian Air Force, though the war ended before he ever flew a mission. Hemingway found his way to the front as an ambulance driver. Neither man had the opportunity to see much action. But one might say they improvised. Each saw a good tailor and returned resplendent in a uniform that was better than standard issue. They practically wore their uniforms out in those months after the war, walking around their hometowns with pronounced limps and retelling tales of their heroism to an unskeptical public still thirsty for heroes. Hemingway’s account of valor was in the papers the day after he stepped off the ship. He made sure of that. It was an early sign that he meant to assume full creative license with his life story.
Hemingway did in fact get shot in the leg, while delivering chocolate and cigarettes to soldiers on the Italian front. He spent many nights lying sleepless on a cot in Italy, troubled by pain and shaky nerves. While many young men in his position found their thoughts returning to their home towns and villages, to memories of their families or sweethearts, it seems that his alighted near Walloon Lake, a sliver of water close by Lake Michigan in upper Michigan where his family spent each summer. That was where he had had the most glorious time of his young life.
I had different ways of occupying myself while I lay awake. I would think of a trout stream I had fished along when I was a boy and fish its whole length very carefully in my mind, fishing very carefully under all the logs, all the turns of the bank, the deep holes and the clear shallow stretches, sometimes catching trout and sometimes losing them….Some nights, too, I made up streams, and some of them were very exciting, and it was like being awake and dreaming.
The words come from Nick Adams in the short story “Now I Lay Me,” but they were written by Ernest Hemingway. Nick Adams was the protagonist of 24 stories that were published over the course of many years. He was one of Hemingway’s first alter egos and it is easy to see why he often returned to him. Nearly every great American author seems preoccupied with his or her youth. But for Hemingway it was just the few months per year he spent at the lake that seemed to interest him. Nick Adams was the vessel for his reminiscence. Lying injured in the darkness in a wartime hospital, just like Hemingway had done, and with thoughts of death lurking in the periphery, Nick Adams did what he could to steel himself. He tried prayer. He tried thinking about girls. But the girls blurred together after a while. The trout streams did not. Nick could always reach the streams.
Nick Adams first appeared as a young boy on a fishing trip. He was ashamed. The night before, his father and his uncle had left him alone in the tent while they did some night fishing. He’d sat up thinking of the hymn that went “some day the silver cord will break” and realized for the first time, that one day his would too. He panicked and fired the rifle three times, their distress signal. “You don’t ever want to be frightened in the woods, Nick,” his father told him the next day. “There is nothing that can hurt you.” Indeed, the only thing that ever hurt Nick Adams was other people.
At Walloon Lake, Hemingway’s father taught him how to hunt and fish. And taught him well; he was an excellent outdoorsman and possessed of an incredible pair of eyes that saw, as Hemingway put it, “as a bighorn ram or as an eagle sees, literally”. It was at Walloon Lake that he encountered real Indians: the Ojibway tribe, whose members made their living by selling baskets or berries, or peeling bark from the hemlock trees to be used for tanning. It was there he learned woodcraft from Billy Gilbert, a man who was “a part of the forest, one of the last of the old woods Indians.” It was there too, under a canopy of trees, that a girl named Trudie did for the first time for Nick “what no one has ever done better.” We are meant to believe that such pleasure was also the young Hemingway’s, though biographer, Michael Reynolds, has pretty much debunked the myth.
All of this was quite far removed from Oak Park, Illinois, a bastion of morality and good sense outside of Chicago. There, the Hemingways were not in the upper crust but they were undeniably respectable. Grace Hemingway was a formidable woman with a large and beautiful voice—the very picture of the operatic “prima donna.” But her ambitions to be a top opera singer are said to have been thwarted by a most unfortunate physical defect: that the klieg lights were too bright for her weak eyes. Hemingway’s father, Clarence, had felt the call to be a missionary like his brother. But he produced a big family instead and ended up ministering to the less needy Oak Parkers. Grace and Clarence shared a love for their children, for God, and for writing letters. Hemingway took to his father’s interest in the Indians and to the compulsive letter writing far more readily than the religion.
In the early days, probably no one looked forward to summer at the lake more than Hemingway and his father. Weeks in advance, Doctor Hemingway would draw up the list of provisions to be shipped up. (This is one of the more fortunate traits that Hemingway inherited from his father; he became a careful preparer for trips, a cataloguer of supplies, aware that cutting corners could be deadly.) When the day of departure finally came, the trip to the lake was an adventure involving a steamer from Chicago, two train journeys, and then a jaunt on the steamer Magic, which plied the tiny lake.
Every summer up at the lake, Hemingway started out with a full set of arrows in his quiver. He would pitch a canvas tent near the cottage and make that his address until the heartsick end of summer came and all the arrows were gone and it was one last hike, one last dive in the lake, before heading south again. It was a bit different when Hemingway portrayed the lake through the Nick Adams stories. In the early stories, we never see Nick in any location besides Walloon Lake, even though he was depicted as a summer resident. Still, an awareness of impending departure was ever present, an eddy in the famous Hemingway undercurrent of things not said, of things endured but not remarked on, of forebodings that were either very accurate or self-fulfilling.
I Know How to Make Country So that You,
When You Wish, Can Walk Into It
— Ernest Hemingway
quoted from a letter to Bernard Berenson
March 20-22, 1953
When it came to woodcraft, Ernest Hemingway possessed the pride and certitude of one who has learned it well, and from masters. As for writing, Hemingway sometimes displayed the fervor of a schoolboy. In the story “On Writing,” Nick Adams professed that, “He, Nick, wanted to write about country so it would be there like Cezanne had done it in painting….Nobody had ever written about country like that. He felt almost holy about it.” Hemingway seemed to feel as though he were on a quest to master a secret craft, a wholly original method of painting the natural scene with words. It is probably in the Nick Adams stories that Hemingway had his breakthrough.
In those stories, Hemingway limned in the details of the land clearly, but with his customary restraint. He added details and movement and woodcraft. The reader did not stand back watching a flat tableau but approached to the edge of the clearing, the bank of the stream, the hollows behind Nick’s eyes, and experienced a living scene. For instance, in “Big Two-Hearted River,” Nick returns to Michigan, a war survivor with war baggage, to go fishing in the Upper Peninsula. He takes a train to get there, and then hikes in to the river. By the time he finds a level piece of ground, uproots some sweet ferns and makes a camping spot, cuts some tent pegs with an ax and sets up his tent, the reader of the story is very much along for the experience, smelling the pleasant canvas odor of the tent and how it exudes “something mysterious and homelike.” The next morning, the reader leaves the tent with Nick:
The grass was wet on his hands as he came out. He held his trousers and his shoes in his hands. The sun was just up over the hill. There was the meadow, the river, and the swamp. There were birch trees in the green of the swamp on the other side of the river.
The river was clear and smoothly fast in the early morning.
It is a testament to Hemingway’s method of rendering country that Nick spends the next 12 pages catching grasshoppers, and then fishing, and yet the story has all the tautness of a fishing line with a good-sized trout at the end of it.
The Country as Nick Adams Saw It
The land around Horton Bay was sacred ground for Ernest Hemingway. He visited his childhood haunts again and again through the character of Nick Adams, embroidering events from his own life into the stories. What could Nick Adams see? In those days, from the top of the sandy hill by the schoolhouse which still stands in Horton Bay you could spy the lights of Petoskey. If your eyes were young or as good as Nick’s (or Hemingway’s), you could make out Harbor Springs, across Little Traverse Bay. To get from there to Nick’s place it was necessary to take a path through the meadow, climb over a fence and down into a ravine and then up through the beech woods, climbing over another fence to reach the cottage. Nick usually made the trip barefoot, his feet toughened by padding around all summer without shoes.
Occasionally, a big storm blew in and big logs that were being floated to the mill in Horton’s Bay would detach from the rest and drift to shore. In one instance, in “The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife,” Nick’s father hired the mixed-blood Indian, Dick Boulton, and his gang of two Ojibway to cut up the logs. That went badly. Dick needled Nick’s father about stealing from the mill. There was a standoff but Nick’s father walked away. Hemingway had salted the incident away from an actual confrontation between his father and a mixed-blood Ojibway. It was an early sign of something. Not trouble yet, but something.
Between 1840 and 1910, all the white pines had been cut down so that by the time Hemingway was a boy the lumbering part of the town of Horton’s Bay, along the lake, was no more. Bunkhouses, dining house, company store and mill offices had all been abandoned and had decayed in a lot full of sawdust. Broken white limestone foundations were all that were left of the mill and they became the headstones to Nick Adams’s adolescent romance with a girl named Marjorie in “The End of Something.” He broke up with her in sight of them, then lay there by the fire, his face in the blanket, and listened to her rowing away. Like the confrontation in “The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife,” the breakup is believed to correspond to a real incident. However, since the story was written while Hemingway’s first marriage was disintegrating, some scholars maintain that he had his wife in mind, as well as the death of the way of life that was the Walloon Lake lumbering industry.
What else could Nick see when his face wasn’t buried in a pillow? A lot of water. The ground was saturated with it. A cedar swamp ran alongside Horton Creek, which flowed into Walloon Lake. Horton Creek was a clear running stream so full that the water bulged, a meniscus along its entire length. There was also a hotel patronized by the “change-of-lifers,” as the owner, John Packard, put it. The change-of-lifers paid good money to sit along the long porch fronting the lake in rocking chairs, and didn’t mind that the hotel didn’t have a bar. They negotiated dainty paths to drink from the sulfuric water that bubbled up through three pipes on the hotel lawn. John Packard hailed from the earlier incarnation of Horton Bay when there had been lumbering. He’d owned saloons. And he later aided Nick when he was on the run from the law.
The Nick Adams stories were not written in chronological order. Eight of the pieces in Scribner’s Nick Adams collection, where they have been arranged in order, were unpublished in Hemingway’s lifetime. Some of them are fragments. Taken as a whole, they tell much about the foundations of Hemingway’s interests (hunting black squirrels in the cool woods surrounding Horton Bay gave way to shooting lions in Africa), his obsession with bravery, and his longing for a time at Walloon Lake that was already past when he was a youth. One of the fragments, titled “The Last Good Country,” is a good example. In it, Nick and his sister, “Littless,” fled to perhaps the most treasured spot in Hemingway’s personal Walloon Lake landscape. It was an old growth forest, beyond the logged part of Horton Bay, with trees that rose high above the heads of the two fugitives and nearly blocked out the sun. “This is about the last good country there is left,” Nick told his sister when they arrived. “This is the way forests were in the olden days.”
Navigating by direction sticks that had been set on three ridges in the days when the land had been peopled by Native Americans, Nick brought Littless to the secret place in the depths of the wood: an old Indian campsite with ancient fire stones, alongside a creek that was the undisturbed haunt of large, hungry trout un-used to man. There, they made camp. Nick was on the run from two game wardens, one of them vicious. His sister was an innocent but willing accomplice. The story does not have an ending. Perhaps the ending was too terrible to contemplate. Someone would have had to die; definitely a warden, and quite possibly either Littless or Nick. The secret spot would have been despoiled. By not completing the story, Hemingway let them all live. Nick grew up, became a soldier, saw action at the front in World War I, and wound up dreaming of trout streams.
A Far-Off Glint of River
There is another bit of terrain in the Nick Adams stories worth exploring. That is the area around Seney, in the Upper Peninsula. Seney had been a den of sin back in the logging days. But when Nick got his bearings after landing from the train in “Big Two-Hearted River,” there was “no town, nothing but the rails and the burned over country. The 13 saloons that had lined the one street of Seney had not left a trace. The foundations of the Mansion House hotel stuck up above the ground.” The entire town had been burned over, a sight of devastation like the ones Nick had seen during the war.
Nick walked over to the railroad trestle over the river and looked down at the water “swirling against the spiles,” and trout holding themselves even with the current. Then he set out with his pack on his back for the wild country beyond. At the top of the hill he stopped:
Far off to the left was the line of river. Nick followed it with his eye and caught glints of water in the sun.
There was nothing but the pine plain ahead of him, until the far blue hills that marked the Lake Superior height of land. He could hardly see them, faint and far away in the heat-light over the plain. If he looked too steadily they were gone. But if he only half-looked they were there, the far-off hills of the height of land.
It is a passage that uncannily, but probably unconsciously, echoes Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving writing of the magic and grandeur of the Hudson and the Pine Orchard—the beginning of time for American wilderness writing. Nick had once more gotten away from civilization, but this time to settle his troubled nerves. Unlike his experience in “The Last Good Country”—a story that could not be concluded—this time the escape worked. That night after a strenuous hike Nick, usually tortured by insomnia, “curled up under the blanket and went to sleep.”
Ernest Hemingway in Michigan
Ernest Hemingway is not famous for being a Michigan writer. He is more recognized for his life in Paris and in Cuba, for big game hunting in Africa, and for his experiences in and novels about the Spanish Civil War. These are all fit subjects for another book of literature and photography. But Michigan is where the Hemingway legend started.
“Nick in the stories was never himself,” Hemingway wrote, as Nick. And upper Michigan was never quite itself either. Hemingway gave the Big Two-Hearted River its name. He invented stretches of that wilderness that Nick trod in. He invented rail lines that ran through the lonely swamp that Nick walked alongside after he got thrown off the train in “The Battler.” He put in the swath of old growth forest that Nick and Littless could hide in where there hadn’t been any old growth trees for decades.
“You should have been an Indian. It would have saved you a lot of trouble.” So Nick thought in “The Last Good Country.” Being one (at least, a romanticized one) would have saved Hemingway some “trouble,” too. For one thing, he wouldn’t have had to leave the lake at the end of every summer. For another, he could have drank and caroused to his heart’s content without any reprisals from his parents. Finally, it could have explained the chip on his shoulder. That chip sat strangely on Hemingway since he came from two loving parents who had given him much and asked for so little in return.
It wasn’t as simple as running away and becoming an idealized Ojibway. His father was suffering increasingly from his “nervous condition” and no longer went to the lake. He couldn’t tolerate having so many people around without becoming unhinged. Instead he stayed in Oak Park in the stillness of the empty house and wrote letters to his wife every day. But if he didn’t receive one in return he became agitated. He wrote many times to Hemingway that he would come to the lake and that they would hunt and fish together as they once had. But one broken promise led to another, and another.
His mother expected Hemingway to shoulder the responsibility for upkeep and farming on the two properties the family now owned on the lake (against her husband’s advice she had bought a farm with her own money, and defiantly named the cottage on it “Grace Cottage”). But Hemingway was having the time of his life with the “summer people”—all around 20, merry, and seemingly unencumbered. The summer of 1919 he shot a blue heron and got caught with it by a game warden. Unlike Nike, he wasn’t warned about it by his sister and he didn’t have to flee to the old growth forest. The matter was resolved with a $15 fine. But it was a strain on his mother and on his father, who managed things from Oak Park—or thought he did—by letter after letter.
In his 20th year, when all of summer’s arrows were spent, Hemingway didn’t leave Walloon Lake. He had no steady job. He was an ersatz war hero living what looked like an extended adolescence, but which could also be considered the preordained journey of the would-be writer. He wintered in nearby Petoskey, working on his stories (which found an appreciative audience among local girls like Marjorie Bump but were rejected by the Saturday Evening Post as regularly as they were submitted), generally casting the shadow of the great writer to come, and keeping up his voluminous correspondence.
The summer of 1920 came and he took up where he had left off. Since his father wasn’t there to challenge, Hemingway had it out with his mother instead. Grace Hemingway, whose mental condition was more stable than her husband’s but who was physically worn out from having raised her children increasingly on her own, reached the breaking point and wrote him a devastating letter in which she compared mother’s love to a bank. “Many mothers I know are receiving these, and much more substantial gifts and returns from sons of less abilities than my son,” she told him. “Unless you…come to yourself, cease your lazy loafing and pleasure seeking…stop trading on your handsome face, to fool little gullible girls, and neglecting your duties to God and your Savior Jesus Christ – unless, in other words, you come into your manhood – there is nothing left before you but bankruptcy: You have over drawn.”
Hemingway got the message this time. He moved out of the cottage. Soon he went to Chicago, where he met Sherwood Anderson and also the first Mrs. Hemingway, Hadley Richardson. On the advice of Anderson, they moved to Paris instead of Italy, as they had planned, living close by the Luxembourg Gardens where Faulkner had whiled away hours dreaming of his Estelle. Hemingway’s father shot himself while they were in Paris, initiating a tradition of suicide in the Hemingway family. Hemingway was distraught. “My father is the one I cared about,” he wrote to his editor, Maxwell Perkins.
If asked later, Ernest Hemingway might have said that his leaving Michigan was absolutely necessary. “The writer who can’t leave his country, “ he wrote, “is the local color writer.” A great writer, he suggested, “five thousand miles away from it looking at the whitewashed wall of a cheap room in any land you can name,” can “make it truer than anyone can who lives in it.” He spent several years in Paris before he had any publishing success.
Hemingway went back to Walloon Lake for his first honeymoon. So, too, did Nick Adams. Rumor has it that Hemingway returned once more and then never again, commenting that it had gotten too civilized. Nowadays, if one were to get in a car and drive north from Oak Park, Illinois to Walloon Lake, the trip would take about seven hours, counting a bathroom stop and a lunch break at a fast food joint off the highway. A hand-painted sign on the paved road to Horton Bay says, “Jesus died for your sins.” In September, some of the year-rounders have firewood for sale at the roadside. By winter those signs are gone. Horton Bay has the look of a place that feels the brunt of the Arctic wilderness but isn’t next-door neighbors with it. It consists now, as it did then, of a white painted one-room schoolhouse, the same general store, and a hotel and shop next to it that caters to Hemingway enthusiasts. It could never look the way it did in the Nick Adams stories. Nor did it back then. The writing of Ernest Hemingway made it truer than it could actually be.