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Ernest Hemingway - His Origins and Early Life

Although born in the very upper-middle-class district of Oak Park, Ernest Hemingway's roots go much further back.

Both sides of Hemingway's family came from Yorkshire, England. His maternal grandfather, Ernest Hall, was born in Sheffield in 1840, and as a teenager worked for the family cutlery business before, in 1860, emigrating to America. After serving bravely in the Civil War as a corporal with L Troop of the First Iowa Volunteer Cavalry - and stopping a Confederate rifle ball in his thigh - Hall, refusing a disability pension, started his own wholesale cutlery business in Chicago. He soon became wealthy and built a large house in Oak Park - not far from the Lloyd-Wrights - and cultivated the appearance of an English country gentleman by sporting mutton chop sideburns, carrying a silver headed cane, smoking cigars, and walking his white Yorkshire Terrier.

Hemingway's paternal grandfather, Anson Tyler Hemingway - born in East Plymouth Connecticut in 1844 - was descended from 17th century Doncaster immigrants. He too served bravely in the Civil War as a private with the 72nd Illinois Infantry before being promoted, in 1864, to the rank of Lieutenant by President Lincoln himself, who then ordered him to raise a Negro infantry regiment in Natchez, Mississippi. After the war Anson attended Wheaton College in Illinois before working as general secretary of the Chicago YMCA for ten years. In the 1880s he started his own very successful real estate business in Oak Park. Anson was a tall, upright, and religious man - and an active member of the temperance movement - who conducted Sunday morning prayers knelt upon the parlour rug of the large house he built at 439 North Oak Park Avenue, just across the road from Ernest Hall's home.

Anson, and his wife Adelaide, raised four sons and two daughters, who were all educated at Oak Park High, and Oberlin College, Ohio. Ernest Hall, and his wife Caroline, had one daughter, Grace, who was an accomplished singer and pianist. Grace had studied in New York under Madame Capriani and made her singing debut at the old Madison Square Garden. But when her mother was taken seriously ill she gave up her career and returned to Oak Park to nurse her dying mother.

After the death of her mother Grace started visiting the Hemingway home across the street and was soon smitten with Anson's oldest son, Clarence, a newly qualified doctor. After a short courtship she and Ed - his middle name was Edmund - married in 1896. Three years later, on the 21st July 1899 Ernest Miller Hemingway, their second child, was born in the front, south facing bedroom of widower Ernest Hall's home.

The young Ernest weighed in at nine and a half pounds, was twenty three inches long and had dark blue eyes that would later turn brown, and black hair that later became fair. Grace considered Ernest to be “ of God's little lambs.” Hemingway usually referred to his mother as “...that bitch.”

Grace always tried to raise Hemingway as a cultured child, ensuring he read widely and listened to classical music ( he learned to play the cello reasonably well), as well as attend church ( the Third Congregational Church, where Grace was the choir director and a soloist), and for all his later bluster and pretence of being a latter day Huck Finn, Hemingway – although he never went to university - was extraordinarily well read, with a love of music that spanned all genres, from jazz to opera, and although not much of a church-goer he was nevertheless a religious man.

But it would be the time that he spent with his doctor father, Clarence Hemingway, that Hemingway loved the most, especially hunting and fishing; and not least helping his father treat patients on on the Indian Reservations.

Consequently it would be his knowledge of the world through his reading, and his practical abilities as a hunter, fisher – plus his fund of medical knowledge – that gave him his sense of adventure, a sense of adventure that, in 1918, brought him to Italy as an ambulance driver for the American Red Cross. And it would be this adventure, and the serious injuries he received at the front that would change Hemingway forever, and create perhaps his finest and most moving novel, A Farewell to Arms.

And Hemingway never served in the Italian infantry during WWI, as some writers will have us believe.

After the war, the recovering twenty-one year old Ernest Hemingway found life in Oak Park rather boring. He could out-drink all of his old Oak Park cronies and still manage to walk home 'square legged' at the end of a session. He could out-curse any Chicago stevedore and gain their respect. He could work his way through a dozen whore houses and still want more. In other words he was unhappy and knew he had to leave Oak Park. But to where and to do what? He knew he wanted to be a writer (he was already writing story after story, learning his craft) and had, before taking off for Italy and the war, briefly worked for the Kansas City Star.

Perhaps he should try journalism again, anything was better than having his parents continually reprimand him for his un-Christian, morally degenerate ways.

He networked frantically and finally, for the best part of the summer of 1920, worked briefly as a staff reporter for the Toronto Weekly Star, writing on such subjects as trout fishing and taking a free shave in a hairdressing school. It was a good move, and he retained his connections with the Canadian paper when he finally did head for Europe.

But after his return from Toronto he finally knew Oak Park was not for him and packed his bags yet again and headed for Chicago, a handful of miles away.

Prohibition Chicago was a loud, colourful, dirty, violent place, and Hemingway loved it. He could always be seen in the gyms and cheap Italian restaurants. He was as comfortable with the derelicts as he was with the 'pearl-grey-hat boys' of the various gangs. As Kurt Singer reminds us, he was '...affable, smart, but not smarty.' He took his drinks without getting drunk. When times were hard and most of them were - and he never wired his parents for money - he often shared a room with his old friend from his Red Cross days, Bill Horn.

He continued to sell the odd article to the Toronto Star and the Chicago Tribune, usually about gang killings, ghastly drunken car crashes, or suicides. All of his fiction was returned with rejection notes, but he never gave in and kept on writing.

Hemingway's first regular paid job in Chicago was with an advertising sheet called The Cooperative Commonwealth, a monthly magazine put out by Harold Parker's Cooperative Society of America. His salary was forty dollars a week. The first issue he wrote for - and he wrote most of it - was the 1920 December issue. The company - which was wholly fraudulent - finally went bust in 1922, owing a huge $15 million, with only $50,000 in assets. Hemingway was cleared of any wrong doing and considered by the District Attorney to be as much a victim as any one of the thousands of creditors.

After leaving 1230 North State Street, Chicago, a Mr Y.K. Smith, a member of one of the oldest families in Horton Bay, found Horn and Hemingway accommodation in a large old apartment house at 100 East Chicago Street. It is entirely feasible the offer may have come about as a result of either Hemingway's mother or father interceding on his behalf - and they did move in pretty influential circles - and of course without their son knowing. And it was while Hemingway was at 100 East Chicago Street that he met Sherwood Anderson for the first time, a novelist and playwright who had influenced Hemingway hugely, and a man who opened many doors for the young writer when he later moved to Paris.

And it was at a party in one of the apartments that Hemingway met Hadley Richardson. He knew there and then that he would marry her. He also knew he needed to get back to Europe, to Paris.

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Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein

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In 1920 Ernest Hemingway lived his bachelor life at 1230 North State Street, Chicago, until he was offered an apartment 100 East Chicago Street.
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