Although it is a matter of debate whether Ernest Hemingway actually said of his hometown that Oak Park was a village of “broad lawns and narrow minds,” it is certain that growing up in the Chicago suburb influenced his life and his writing. This influence, as well as numerous others, is detailed in Nancy Sindelar’s well-researched biography of the award-winning writer, Influencing Hemingway: People and Places That Shaped His Life and Work.
Sindelar, a board member of the Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park, taught American Literature at Oak Park and River Forest High School, and her students encouraged her to research Hemingway’s school years and how life in Oak Park affected him. From Oak Park to Cuba and places in between, Sindelar studied Hemingway and his life, and, she writes, this book is “a modest attempt to document how Ernest Hemingway’s early years and the people and places Ernest was drawn to in his adult life contributed to his thoughts, actions, and writing.”
And so it goes that Sindelar’s take on Hemingway follows a chronological trajectory from his birth in July 1899 to his death by suicide in July 1961. From his parents, siblings, and uncles to his several wives to his many friends and colleagues, Sindelar chronicles the key people who populated his life. From a childhood spent in Oak Park and Walloon Lake, Michigan, to adult years in Kansas City, Paris, Pamplona, Havana, and Sun Valley, Sindelar traces Hemingway’s travels, showing how various places influenced his life, his perceptions, and his writing. And, from war to bull fights to safaris, Sindelar also examines the events that shaped his life.
As with any human, the people, places, and events that colored Hemingway’s life colored his work. None of us can escape the things around us, and the same is true of Hemingway. In this way, Sindelar’s short biography doesn’t pose a challenging hypothesis: Of course Hemingway was influenced by the people and places around him. But Influencing Hemingway does reveal in detail the myriad ways in which Hemingway learned from and was affected by those influences.
With a mixture of analysis and reportage, the book presents an objective examination of Hemingway’s life and times. Packed with quotes from Hemingway’s letters and writings and observances from those who shared his life, Influencing Hemingway reveals Hemingway’s affinities, aspirations, and anxieties. Several dozen photos illustrate the people and places that colored his life, providing readers with glimpses of the world in which he lived.
Sindelar has done a fine job of documenting the people and places that influenced Hemingway. As such, the book does exactly what it has promised in its title and subtitle. Much of the material in these pages likely will be new to readers, providing a fresh perspective on the life of a famous author about whom so much has been written.
Unfortunately, the text doesn’t always feel so fresh. In some ways, it seems as though Sindelar herself has taken a page out of Hemingway’s own style manual, writing with few adjectives and adverbs. As a result, the text feels somewhat humorless and colorless. With its somewhat flat tone, the book reads rather like an academic text, making the material something that may be of interest more to scholars and students than to general readers. (Scholars and students, however, may well be disappointed in the book’s anemic index, which fails to include key figures and places. Martha Gellhorn, for example, one of Hemingway’s wives, is not even listed.)
The book also suffers from repetition as the author reiterates certain facts numerous times. Readers are told again and again that Hemingway’s parents were significant influences on his life, his character, and his writing, and that they were critics of much of his work, which they viewed as not in keeping with his conservative, Christian upbringing. At least twice are readers informed that upon his death, some of Hemingway’s fishermen friends melted down their boat propellers and anchors to create a bronze bust in his memory. Readers also are told several times that, as a young reporter, Hemingway was required to follow the Star Copy Style Sheet at the Kansas City Star, which contained 110 rules that were the best he “ever learned for the business of writing.”
Similarly, readers are told more than a few times that, even at an early age, Hemingway expressed a certain courage and bravery toward life. Early on, readers learn that, in a response to his mother, Hemingway claimed that he was “’fraid a nothing!” Oddly, though, this quote then appears in different formats through the book, including “afraid of nothing” and “’fraid of nothing.” Similar inconsistencies in editing are littered throughout the text.
Stylistic and editorial issues aside, Influencing Hemingway nonetheless provides readers with an interesting take on the life of one of the world’s most famous—and among the most analyzed—writers. Fans of Hemingway will find the book of interest, as will those new to his work or interested in his life in general.
May 2014, Rowman & Littlefield
$35, hardcover, 187 pages
—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen
“For a true writer, each book should be a new beginning
where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment.
He should always try for something that has never been done
or that others have tried and failed.
Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed.”
—Ernest Hemingway, 1954