The young man and his hometown, far from the sea

Writers travel in many different directions to reach their destinations. Ernest Hemingway's adventurous spirit carried him around the globe, fueling his ambitions and creative temperament.

From his youthful days in Europe as a Red Cross ambulance driver during the Great War to his flamboyant and glamorous Paris period and exploits in Africa, Key West, and Cuba, the Hemingway myth and legend were well under way early on.

A restless wanderer throughout his lifetime, Hemingway began mapping out his lofty literary dreams in Oak Park, Ill., his birthplace and boyhood residence. It was in this quiet, tree-lined suburb 10 miles west of Chicago that one of America's most prolific and gifted writers began his literary journey.

Hemingway isn't the only famous person to have called Oak Park home - so did architect Frank Lloyd Wright, author Edgar Burroughs of "Tarzan" fame, and journalist and playwright Charles MacArthur, who penned "The Front Page."

But it is Hemingway's name and legacy that clearly cast the longest literary shadow in Oak Park.

One of the most poignant reminders of him is the World War I Memorial in Scoville Park, where his name, along with those of other Oak Park soldiers who served in the war, is engraved on the monument's base. With so many of Hemingway's wartime experiences recounted in his novels, somehow seeing his name on this monument makes the larger-than-life legend seem more real and human.

But well before Hemingway left for the war, his experiences in Oak Park ignited his longing to become a journalist and author. It was here that he learned the love of storytelling from his maternal grandfather, and where his initial interest in writing took root during his high school days.

Early influences

The Oak Park years also provided him with an interest in nature and the outdoors, thanks to his father, Dr. Clarence Hemingway. He also learned to appreciate the cultural realm from his mother, Grace, an accomplished musician.

The Hemingway Museum is an ideal starting point for learning more about his formative years and the rest of his rich life.

The museum features letters, vintage photographs, and memorabilia collected and donated by the Hemingway family. The exhibits are divided into various chapters of Hemingway's life - the Oak Park Years, 1899-1919; his love of the natural world; the eye of the writer; and his experiences in World War I. "Hemingway and Hollywood" explores how his works were adapted for the silver screen.

Some of the most intriguing areas pertain to Agnes Von Kurowsky, his love in Milan, Italy, and model for Catherine Barkley in "A Farewell to Arms." Ms. Kurowsky's "Dear John" letter is on display - a letter that profoundly affected Hemingway's life after his return to Oak Park.

Just up the street from the museum is Hemingway's birthplace at 339 North Park Avenue. It's a 10-room house built in 1890 by his grandfather Ernest Hall, who shared the house with his daughter, son-in-law, and their children.

A guided tour provides a window into life in Oak Park at the turn of the century, and enables a visitor to glean insights into Hemingway's early years - hearing about grandfather Hall's storytelling at the breakfast table, seeing one of the writer's early scrapbooks pinned to the kitchen wall, and observing the parlor on the main floor where his grandfather presided over daily devotions.

Hemingway's upstairs bedroom displays his baby crib, bassinet, wrought-iron bed, and childhood toys. This was a happy chapter in his life.

Following the death of his grandfather in 1905, the house was sold. The family built a new home at 600 North Kenilworth Avenue, which is not yet open to the public.

This is where Hemingway grew up, matured as a young man, and from which he left in 1917 to work for the Kansas City Star as a cub reporter.

At the Oak Park and River Forest High School, also within walking distance, Hemingway wrote for the Tabula, the yearbook, and the Trapeze, the student newspaper, to which he contributed a host of essays.

Today one can arrange to visit the school, see the room where he studied English - it has been restored to reflect his era - and walk through the Hemingway Garden, where granite plaques display various quotations from his books.

When Hemingway returned to Oak Park after the war, it had changed, and so had he. The town seemed small and unexciting after he had witnessed war, experienced first love, and explored Europe.

He felt out of place and restless.

Time to move on

For a short time he wore his uniform proudly around town, visiting fellow soldiers, going to the library, and trying to recover from his broken heart and failed relationship with Von Kurowsky. But he soon realized that his aspirations to become a writer would never materialize in Oak Park. He wanted to see more of the world and write about it. In 1920 he left to write dispatches from Paris for the Toronto Star.

Oak Park would slowly become a faded memory of his childhood and youth.

Following his literary success, Hemingway rarely returned to Oak Park, but one of his final visits was in 1928 when he attended the funeral of his father. His parents are buried in Oak Park, but Hemingway's final resting place is in Ketchum, Idaho.

For information about visiting Oak Park, call 1-888-Oak Park or see www.visitoakpark.com. Contact the Ernest Hemingway Museum at (708) 848-2222 or see www.ehfop.org.

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