IN HEMINGWAY COUNTRY
HORTON BAY, Michigan--The road is narrow. No traffic. I haven't seen another car for a long time. I hoped it would be this way. It's like a journey back in time.
This is the little town in which Ernest Hemingway really grew up. Hemingway spent all the summers of his formative years here. He described it fully in the first short stories he ever published.
But I'm not making this trip expecting to come upon any startling revelations. I'm not on a literary pilgrimage.
My sole purpose is to see the little town he wrote about and to get an idea about how Hemingway used the raw materials of his life to create his fiction. It may turn out I will learn nothing.
In a way, it's a little like revisiting Monet's hayfields or those trees along the riverbanks in the French countryside that Monet painted over and over again.
What do you learn that you hadn't already learned in libraries and museums? I made a trip to West Springfield, Massachusetts, once to see the ball field where Leo Durocher played as a teenager. It was a wasted trip. The field was still there, but it taught me nothing about Durocher that I didn't already know.
I could never go to see Monet's hayfields. They are gone. So are the tree lines. I caught up with them in a museum in Boston, where an exhibition of Monet's paintings was being held. It taught me plenty about how Monet worked.
I am lucky with Hemingway. Horton Bay is still here--almost unchanged--and it's just up the road.
It's a sunny, cool day. Half an hour ago, we left Charlevoix, the colorful port town from which most vacationers head out on the ferry to Beaver Island and the famous Shamrock Cafe.
Christina the Lawyer holds the big highway map spread out on her lap, so it won't blow away in the steady blasts of air coming through the open windows of the rental car.
I think about it. Most people don't read Hemingway much these days. Nowadays, there seem to be as many biographies of Hemingway in the bookstores as there are novels by him.
People spend time discussing Anne Tyler or Michael Crichton and John Grisham, who now writes a best seller every year.
Hemingway's not culturally correct. The women's movement disapproves of him. Feminists like Lettie Cotton Pogrebin and Hillary Clinton don't read him.
Nowadays, Hemingway's taut, tough-guy prose is called pseudomasculinity. It has become as out-of-date as are his wars.
Who cares about the retreat from Caporetta on the Italian front in the First World War? Who gives a damn about the Spanish Civil War?
But Hemingway didn't start out by writing about men at war. He started here, by describing the general store I can see on the corner to my left. He wrote about the church that's still standing in the next block up on the hill.
He began with small stories about the relationships between two people at a time he experienced here as a young man.
Hemingway lived with all those people he described in the early Nick Adams stories.
Here's the way he described Horton Bay in his first published story, called "Up in Michigan":
The town was only five houses on the main road between Boyne City and Charlevoix. . . . There was farming country and timber up the road. Up the road aways was the Methodist church. . . . You could look out across the woods that ran down to the lake. It was very beautiful in the spring and summer with the bay blue and bright and usually whitecaps out on the lake. . . .
The bay was blue today . . . and there were whitecaps. The Methodist church in which Hemingway married his first wife, on September 3, 1920, still stands on the hill.
I park the rental car on the overgrown lawn. A man I assume to be the minister approaches the car. He gives me a friendly smile.
"I can't tell you much about Hemingway," he says. "Go back in the next block to the general store. That's where everyone stops. They have all the articles about Hemingway you'd ever need on a wall of the store."
I drive half a block to the general store, the one Hemingway described. It is the same place in which Jim Gilmore, the young blacksmith, met the pretty waitress Liz Coates:
Notice the final words of that last sentence, "but he never thought about her." Those words appear in the second paragraph, and they foreshadow how the story will end.
There are men working out in front of the store. They point to a side entrance that is being used during construction.
Gloria Wyn, the proprietor, spots us as tourists. She is friendly.
"You're here about Hemingway," she says. "Just walk right down the counter and take a left to the wall. You'll see some photographs and old newspaper articles on the wall."
There were some framed newspaper clippings on the wall. There were some Hemingway memorabilia. None of it was very good stuff.
I realized these people in Horton Bay have no appreciation for what Hemingway accomplished.
Mrs. Wyn smiled.
"Can you believe, we had a busload of 50 women in here just last week all the way from Louisiana?"
I could believe it. The next year, that same group might head out for Oxford, Mississippi, to see where William Faulkner lived. Or perhaps they've already been there.
"How long have you owned the store?" I asked.
"Just four years," she said. "Came here to retire. I never knew much about Hemingway. I still haven't read his books. But I've read some of those articles on the wall about him by now."
At this point, a man with a slight swagger and the self-confident air of the small-town hustler walked in and took a seat at the end of the counter.
This would be John Arntwell, the town jester. He was, he explained without being asked, the chairman of the upcoming Fourth of July parade.
Arntwell knew all about Hemingway. Arntwell is a Horton Bay native and had owned and run this very store for 15 years.
"Tell you the truth," he said. "I don't enjoy reading him. Never did. I know all about the legend. He lived here summers when he was growing up.
"His father was a doctor from Chicago, and they built a place down on Wolloon Lake. And I read the early stories about his growing up here in Michigan. I just never liked them, and that's a fact."
Arntwell said that we should come back to Horton Bay for the parade. "It's the greatest event of the year in these parts. We expect to have 14,000 spectators. They come to see the Horton Bay Triangle. This is one of the great mysteries of the country. We have the only Dumpster that wasn't searched for Jimmy Hoffa's body. Some people think Amelia Earhart disappeared here, too."
Arntwell would have been a good character for Hemingway to study. There is more to Arntwell than I had time to study, but Hemingway would have gotten him down right.
Hemingway knew best of all how to create a poignant mood. He would have searched beneath Arntwell's shell and found the broken pieces.
Here, for example, is how he ended the story of the brief attraction between the young blacksmith and the waitress.
Jim comes back from a hunting trip with friends, and they all get drunk in the store. Jim takes the waitress down to the pier. She is afraid to go, but she wants him to fall in love with her:
"Don't Jim," Liz said. Jim slid the hand further up. "You mustn't, Jim. You mustn't." Neither Jim nor Jim's big hand paid any attention to her.
"I got to. I'm going to. You know we got to."
"No, we haven't, Jim. We ain't got to. Oh, it ain't right. Oh, it's so big and it hurts so. You can't. Oh, Jim, Jim. Oh."
Then Jim falls asleep, trapping Liz underneath him, the dead weight of his body crushing her on the planks.
Liz works her way out from under Jim's body. She walks to the edge of the dock.
There was a mist coming up from the bay. She was cold and miserable and everything felt gone. Liz started to cry. . . . Then she walked across the dock and up the steep sandy road to go to bed. A cold mist was coming up through the woods from the bay.
"Up in Michigan" was Hemingway's first published story. He wrote it and several others in a rooming house in the nearby town of Petoskey upon his return from World War I.
According to his biographer, Carlos Baker, the story dealt so graphically with sexual intercourse and near-rape that Hemingway was forced to publish it in the Toronto Star rather than in this country.
But Baker leaves no doubt that Hemingway was writing about his own early experiences with women.
Only this time, the two characters are called Nick Adams and Marjorie. This time they are sitting on a blanket on shore waiting for the moon to come up:
They sat on the blanket without touching each other and watched the moon rise.
"You don't have to talk silly," Marjorie said. "What's really the matter?"
"I don't know."
"Of course you know."
"No, I don't."
"Go on and say it."
"It isn't fun anymore."
He was afraid to look at Marjorie. Then he looked at her. She sat there with her back toward him. He looked at her back. "It isn't fun anymore, not any of it."
Hemingway may be out of style. But that doesn't diminish his stature. It's our fault we don't appreciate him. Christina the Lawyer and I ate lunch in the old general store. It served hot dogs that cost $1 each. At the edge of the counter, there were little guidebooks written by locals that you buy and read about Hemingway's time at Horton Bay.
They seemed a poor substitute for the real thing. I didn't buy any.