Times change, but Ernest Hemingway was an inspiration to this youthful traveler


Originally published as “(Ernest) Hemingway in a time of mercifully silent thunder” on April 23, 2020. A Ken Burns documentary about Hemingway is coming in April, 2021.

It would be churlish and quite possibly childish of me to point out that after carefully considering all the episodes of Thunder Over Louisville occurring these past few seemingly endless decades, as always filled to the brim with superfluous noise and inanity, I’ve decided the one last Saturday was absolutely, positively my favorite … well, at least since 1988, when we were too busy gazing at Barry Bingham’s surreal Falls Fountain to notice there weren’t any pre-Derby pyrotechnics.

Tact isn’t my strong suit, so I’ll say it anyway: Best.Thunder.Ever.

Officially this exercise in mass garishness has been moved to August, helpfully enabling far higher levels of drunken heatstroke as a corollary of wretched hard seltzer and salmonella-laced potato salad. Of course if social distancing is still being maintained, we’ll be compelled to stretch the crowd along the riverbank at least from Bethlehem to New Amsterdam, and this would be highly amusing.

But if Oktoberfest in Munich already has been canceled owing to the coronavirus, how can we even be sure there’ll be a Kentucky Derby in early September? Granted, Bavaria isn’t Buechel even if both of them have Bosnian connections.

I know many of you enjoy Louisville’s springtime slate of fireworks, warplanes, horse pimps and the regrettable mint-borne despoliation of perfectly fine bourbon. Yes, I understand all about the economy, and your precious portfolios; a certain number of us must die so Trump might live, just as with Pinochet and Idi Amin.

Still, the prevailing peace and quiet amid the pandemic suits me just fine, and if we’re lucky, a returning black bear will defecate in the parking lot by the hotel atop Summit Springs.

Now THAT would be public art. Can someone send a drone and get the photo on Instagram?

Speaking of failed states, as we grow old and our brains begin unraveling, a strange sort of free association comes to grip vast tracts of our subconscious.

People, images and occurrences long forgotten suddenly are disgorged, to be examined while scratching one’s noggin and muttering, WTF?

Last week in my inner world this randomness turned to books. Out of nowhere the thought came to me that I’ve been unfaithful to Ernest Hemingway, which is to say it hasn’t seemed necessary for a very long time to revisit Papa’s seminal works, even though he might well have been my single most important formative influence during the period between college graduation and the first voyage to Europe in 1985 — apart from Arthur Frommer, of course.

I dimly remember that around the year 2000 someone gifted me with a collection of Hemingway’s short stories, and I read a few of them. Prior to that, perhaps the last time I’d read one of his novels was the late 1980s.

So, why would Hemingway come bobbing back to the surface after all this time?

Because Josh Turner brought up Hemingway during a barroom chat two months ago, and I’m guessing the seed was planted then, requiring time to slowly gestate.

Lately I’ve also been thinking quite a lot/far too much about Europe, or more precisely, the likelihood of COVID mandating an enforced absence from the continent this year. In 1985, prior to treading the soil, everything I knew about Europe came to me from secondary sources, whether classes, books, movies or television. Back then Hemingway was an inspiration to a youthful traveler. He had gone THERE and done THAT.

Papa was a Midwesterner like me, raised in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park. He’d gone to Europe seeking adventure, and found plenty, first as a volunteer ambulance attendant in Italy during the Great War, then as a newspaper correspondent amid troubled times afterward. He married and the couple headed for Paris to live among the expatriate writer, artists and musicians during the roaring twenties.

Subsequently the English-speaking world learned about Spanish bullfighting culture from none other than Hemingway, the American who somehow instinctively grasped it. Later he experienced the Spanish Civil War up close, and rode with American troops following the D-Day landings.

Even without obvious historical touchstones like these, there were Hemingway’s many compelling descriptions of eating and drinking, like this passage randomly plucked from A Moveable Feast:

As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.

Think so? Oysters and alcohol always dispel the emptiness for me. Crusty bread and salami work, too.

By the time my plane touched down in Luxembourg in 1985, I’d read most of Hemingway’s novels and a good many of his short stories, as well as a collection of his newspaper dispatches and at least two biographies. It took until 2005, but we made it to the family house and museum in Oak Park.

Perhaps someday his homes in Key West and Cuba will be crossed off the bucket list, too, although at the present time let’s not talk about travel. It makes me wistful, which urges me to drink.

There always were other components of the Hemingway ethos that I found less salutary. Fishing and hunting never did much for me, and for all his endless talk of rugged male values, the writer himself could be shrill, vain, bullying and a backstabber.

The fact that the late Hemingway — he committed suicide in 1961, perhaps as a result of instability brought on by brain injuries similar to those afflicting contemporary football players — remained very much alive as a writer well into the 1980s probably is a result of school curriculums of the era based on white American male writers.

This is far less the case today, which is good.

At this point in time there is little use attempting to salvage Hemingway’s cloddish and destructive personal peccadillos, which have been explored at length during the period of my own lifetime. He was as he was. Maybe I’ve also moved on, although his authority at a certain time in my life remains indisputable.

When I began thinking about Hemingway last week, the first of his books to come to me wasn’t The Sun Also Rises or For Whom the Bell Tolls. It was Across the River and Into the Trees, a poorly selling novel from 1950, prior to Papa rallying to produce The Old Man and the Sea, arguably the finest distillation of his artistic credo sans bombast, and a final triumph.

While not as dire as the reviews at the time suggest, Across the River and into the Trees surely is not Hemingway’s best effort. Married to his fourth wife at the time, and ardently (embarrassingly?) pursuing an Italian girl less than half his age, the author decided to base the novel’s plot on his own fevered imagination.

In an autobiographical sense, it wasn’t pretty, and yet there are moments of evocative description of people and places.

The novel is set in Northern Italy, in and around Venice, and near the battlefront where Hemingway served during WWI. This also is very close to Trieste, where we gloriously vacationed last winter, surely accounting for my selective recall about a book I last bothered opening some 35 years ago.

Bizarrely it still is there, lodged in a hidden cranium nook, waiting for something to extract it, or, as in the current period, subject to weirdness and whim ensuing from a societal template almost none of us have ever experienced.

I conclude with this thought.

All I must do now was stay sound and good in my head until morning when I would start to work again.

Alas, Ernesto; if only it might be that simple.