Searching for Ernestina Hemingway in Oak Park


“My name is Ernest Miller Hemingway. I want to travel and write,” wrote Ernest Hemingway in his high school yearbook. Replace the name with “Ines Bellina” and I could have easily written something similar at the time. Much like the Papa himself, I knew from a young age that I wanted to devote my life completely, even exclusively, to those two things.

My relationship with Ernest Hemingway has always been troubled. I almost cried with boredom reading The Old Man and The Sea. On the other hand, I had no interest in visiting Pamplona until I read The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms was devoured in the span of a few nights. As a feminist, it’s almost cringe-worthy to admire a man who spent his life cultivating an aura of manly macho masculinity and he was a nightmare as a romantic partner. But what I can’t deny is my admiration of how he saw travel as part of his literary project and literature as being directly intertwined with a broader world. This is the part that makes me admire the darn man. More than read him, date him, or imitate him, I want to retrace Ernest Hemingway’s travel trajectory.

I’ve already been to Paris, Spain, Key West and even the Northern region of Peru where he  fished. But one mild January day, I decided to go back to where it all began: quaint and picturesque Oak Park, Illinois. A place that Hemingway is rumored to have described as “a neighborhood of wide lawns and narrow minds” (though no source of said quote has ever been found.)

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A neighborhood of wide lawns and narrow minds…and one stoic tree.

My pilgrimage began at Ernest Hemingway’s home. Built by his grandfather with all the latest in Victorian-era amenities, you can gawk at heirlooms, portraits of his loved ones and the odd object (a swivel seat for the kitchen sink? Yes, please.) But what really stuck out, was the info our tour guide gave us on the colorful characters that surrounded him from a young age. His uncle who was a traveling salesman! The grandpa that fought in the Civil War! Impressive, right? Until you get to his mother and grandmothers and realize they leave these two in the dust.

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Little Ernest will spend the rest of his life compensating for all the frills he endured as a kid.

Hemingway’s mother, Grace Hall Hemingway, was an opera singer who made more money than her husband and was respected and feared in her community. Hemingway’s grandmother graduated from college during a time when that was more scandalous than showing your ankles.

And a block away at the Hemingway Museum (admission covers the cost of both), there are more amazing women peeking behind the photos and writings of this man. His first wife was Heiress Elizabeth Hadley Richardson who graduated from Bryn Mawr. His second, Pauline Pfeiffer, editor for Vogue in Paris. Martha Gelhorn, his third spouse, was journalist, novelist and all-around badass. Mary Welsh, his last, was also talented in her own right as a scribe.

All travelers.

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Hey, Ernest, you look cool and all, but can you tell me where Martha is? Thanks.

Why haven’t I read more about them? In the case of Martha and Mary, why haven’t I even read them? Why did I spend my younger years wanting to follow in the footsteps of Ernest, when what I wanted was to follow in the footsteps of an Ernestina?

Of course the reasons behind this are many: institutional patriarchal systems of power, an education system that continues to see men’s narratives as more important, an entire culture that continues to undervalue our voices.

In another way, though, I have the power to change this. I won’t lie, I’ve stayed away from the behemoths of Eat, Pray, Love and Wild because a) I still have a teenage attitude that automatically looks at anything popular with suspicion and b) because they seemed to have transformed into a phenomenon that is navel-gazing beyond belief (which I doubt is what their amazing authors intended). And I don’t want travel narratives that are only about salvation, though I’ve used travel before to heal. I want travel narratives that are about feeling unsettled.

Two of my favorite books in the last year were Americanaby Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and A Life in Men by Gina Frangello. It shouldn’t be a surprise that both have at their center women travelers who are deeply affected by the locations that surround them. They also both speak to larger issues of immigration, globalization, female sexuality and the attempt to constrain it.

I’m sure there are many more. A million more. Help me be a better reader. What amazing women travel narrative should I add to my shelf?


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