Sunday, 26 November 2017

Crossdressing and the Macho Author: Dipika Mukherjee visits Ernest Hemingway's birthplace in Chicago

Two days after Thanksgiving, the day dawns beautiful in Chicago. Brown autumn leaves strew the colonnaded streets of Oak Park, but it is a warm nine degrees celsius in the bright sunshine when I join a group of writers gathered at Ernest Hemingway's birthplace.

Poets and Patrons of Chicago has organized this tour, to be followed by lunch and some writing time. I have lived in this city for six years now, but it is the first time I am visiting this stately Queen Anne building, with the turret and wraparound porch and inside rooms all lovingly restored by the The Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park.
Ernest was born in this home -- in an upstairs bedroom -- in 1899. His father, Dr. Clarence Edmonds Hemingway was a physician, and presided over the births of all his six children.

Ernest's mother, Grace, was a remarkable woman. Despite the constraints of her time, she had moved to New York to pursue a musical career and was a well-respected artiste who out-earned her physician husband.

We meet in the parlor, which has been recreated from photographs left by Dr Hemingway and the descriptions left in the writing of Ernest's sister Marcelline. The rose on the cornices match the wallpaper exactly, and dappled sunlight falls on the writing desk, cluttered with books from that era.

This is the house of Ernest's maternal grandfather, and Hemingway spent the first six years of his life with his Grandfather Abba, teller of tales and hater of war.

His formative years were spent within the arms of a family that embraced new technology as well as godliness; his physician father had one of the first three telephones connected in Oak Park. The home was wired for lights even before electric power was introduced into Chicago homes, so the lights in this home allow for gas lighting (with valves) that face upwards, as well as electric lights which face downwards.

This is a home filled with music and books and light streaming through the ancient trees. Years later, Dr. Hemingway would commit suicide with a shotgun, and Ernest would end his own life at the age of 61 in a similar manner. Ernest would lose two of his siblings to suicide, and his son, Gregory, would be found dead in 2001 as a transsexual named Gloria, in very suspicious circumstances. 

Hemingway would marry four times, write sparse prose on war and bullfighting which Virginia Woolf  would describe as "self-consciously virile".

He would build a cult of performative masculinity that writers like me find virulently misogynistic. 

Yet this house -- Ernest's home until he was six years of age -- frames the image of a gentle boy, his crib placed close enough to Marcelline's so they could hold hands through the bars at night.

There is also this picture: Ernest, aged about 1, is dressed like a girl, in frilly lace. 

This in itself was a fashion of the times, but Ernest's mother was also inexplicably determined to present her two eldest children as twin girls

So Ernest, younger than Marcelline by eighteen months, was dressed as a girl until he was at least five years old; Marcelline was held back in school by their mother so that the impression of twinhood could persist.

It is a matter of speculation of course, how much of Ernest's later hyper-masculinity was a rebellion against his mother, whom he hated and blamed for his father's suicide.

This home in Oak Park, filled with family memorabilia and photographs, is a poignant reminder of the early years of Ernest Hemingway. He was born into an elite family which revered learning and words and painting and music and modern gadgets, but there is also a pervasive sadness.

In the library, a pair of owls peek at the visitors from below the books. Dr Hemingway (also an accomplished taxidermist) shot the pair of birds dead during his honeymoon -- their nightly hooting was too noisy-- and stuffed them as a gift for his bride. The owls perch there, an enduring legacy, even after death. 

Dipika Mukherjee's second novel, Shambala Junction, won the UK Virginia Prize for Fiction (Aurora Metro, 2016). Her debut novel was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize and republished as Ode to Broken Things (Repeater, 2016). She was a Juror on the the Neustadt International Prize for Literature 2018 and founded the D.K Dutt Award for Literary Excellence in Malaysia. More here.


Wendy Jones said...

How fascinating. Thank you

Umberto Tosi said...

I've driven past this Hemmingway home, but have yet to explore it. I'll put this tour on my list, though, like yourself, I've never been a great "Papa" aficionado, having grown up in the 1950s when he was venerated. You made the place, and his early story come alive. Thank you.

Jan Needle said...

Copy in Wendy's comment! Rivetting.

Enid Richemont said...

Oh good god, I never knew that stuff about him. What an amazing post, and how strange and painful human lives can be. In future, any time I suspect I am bonkers or bad, I may turn to this.

Cecilia Peartree said...

I agree, this is really interesting. I wonder if the owl shooting helped to fuel Hemingway's fascination with bull-fighting later on. (Hope I'm not thinking of someone else! - Picasso?!)

Dipika Mukherjee said...

Cecilia, the bullfighting was Hemingway indeed :) Umberto, do visit, the docents are lovely and very well-informed. Thanks for the feedback Enid, Jan & Wendy!