At Home with Ernest Hemingway: Oak Park and Havana

(Personal Report – this article has not been proofread yet)

1. Introduction

Ernest Hemingway lived in Cuba longer than anywhere else in the world. His fictions such as To Have and Have Not (1937), The Old Man and the Sea (1952), Islands in the Stream (1970) and some of his short stories are located in Cuba. Therefore, the exploration of Cuba’s influence on his writing serves as an important key to understand his personal thoughts and works in the later ages. On the other hand, Oak Park in Illinois, where the author was born, represents a crucial aspect to understand his personality and his writing in the earlier ages. This paper attempts to explore the geographical, socio-cultural influences of Oak Park and Cuba on one of the greatest American writer in the twenty century, Ernest Hemingway. The first part of the paper focuses on the influences of Oak Park on Hemingway while the second part of the paper concentrates on the influences of Cuba on the author. In conclusion, my personal thoughts regarding the author and his works will be presented.

2. Influences of Oak Park on Hemingway

2.1 At ‘Home’ with Ernest Hemingway

The son of Clarence Edmunds Hemingway and Grace Hall Hemingway, Ernest Miller Hemingway, was born on July 21, 1899, in Oak Park, Illinois. The specific address of his home was 439 (now 339) North Oak Park Avenue. This wood-made, Victorian style kind of house was built by his grandfather, Ernest Hall Hemingway (we call him Abba). This house was the first house that started to have electricity in the house and a toilet in the room provided with running water. The reason why his grandfather built a house in Oak Park, which is considered as countryside at that time, is because in 1890 the Great Chicago Fire happened and after that, it was banned to build the houses with wood. So his grandfather moved into the house with his wife Caroline and two teenage children: a daughter named Grace Hall and a son named Leicester Hall. In 1895, Caroline was diagnosed with cancer. In order to make Caroline comfortable, every day a family doctor would come over to the house to look after her, and the doctor was Clarence Edmunds Hemingway (this is why we call him Doctor Ed), the future husband of Grace Hall. Doctor Ed lived just across the street from Grace’s house. Both of them actually went to the same high school but they never really knew each other that much due to a different social circle. This means that they started to know each other in this house. Day by day, Friendship eventually turned into love. Doctor Ed proposed to Grace: “would you marry me?” and Grace said: “Yes, but not yet.” Grace told him that she promised her mother to become an opera singer and after her mother passed away she would move to New York to study opera and she really did that. She went to New York and followed the best opera teacher in the New York City. At that time, the city was switching from gas day light to a blend new thing called electricity. Since she was young, Grace suffered from a fever and lost her sight for a while. Even though when she recovered her vision was always rather weak. Grace was getting a headache due to the light in the city. At some points, she realized that “this isn’t going to work for me” so she decided to give up New York life. Also, the whole time when she was in the city, Doctor Ed still told her that he loves her: he wanted to get married and have children with her. Finally, they got married. After Grace’s brother left the house in order to chase his career in L.A, Abba was the only one who lived in the house. So Abba asked the new married couple to move in and stay with him in this house, which eventually turned out to be Ernest Hemingway’s birth place.
The living room is filled with an atmosphere of art and music. Grace became a piano teacher after giving up her opera career. The Doctor’s income is reported around $50 a month. Grace could command a lesson for 8 dollars. She had 18 students and sometimes she had 50 students at a time; her income is reported around $1000 a month, which means she was the bread winner in this family. She required everyone in this house to learn a musical instrument. All the children were given the piano lesson but only Sunny/Madaline stuck with the piano; Ernest Hemingway played cello and Marshalla played the violin. Even Doctor was required to learn an instrument: he picked up the clarinet.

Both families were very religious. Doctor Hemingway does not drink or smoke. When the first child was born in the house, Doctor suggested that smoking in the house was not good for the child and the others. Liking his son-in-law, Abba came out with a new compromise: after dinner every night, Abba would go to the library and smoked his pipe and uncle will join him: this is “the man’s world.” Grace would complain about the noise that made by the owls and Doctor would go out and hunt the owls, stuffed them and gave them to Grace as their honeymoon present. There were two stuffed owls in the library. They were shot in 1986 and now they are still here.

Usually, after the morning prayer in the prayer room, the family will go to the dining room to have breakfast. Doctor and Grace would come down and have breakfast first. After that Abba would come down to have breakfast with his grandchildren. He supposed that child who stays quiet is considered as “good” (don’t forget we are talking about in Victoria era). Children who behaved well would receive a story provided by Abba. As we know, both sides of the family came from England so Abba would tell them about his growing up in England, his meeting with Charles Dickens on the street of London. Moreover, he would make up a story and take it to a certain stage and asked: how do you think the story is going to end? Finish that for me. That means the children were encouraged to develop the use of their imagination and eventually they were allowed to make up their own story. Sometimes Ernest got a little bit into the story that he would actually imagine himself as a character that appeared in Abba’s story. Let’s say Abba talked about Peter Pan’s story and Ernest would start calling himself Peter Pan and he wouldn’t answer you unless you call him Peter Pan (and normally he would play for a week long!). Abba then told his mother that this child was either going to be a great storyteller in the future or ended up in jail!

As for the kitchen, the mother of Hemingway normally does not appear at there. The only thing she knows is making tea and cookies. This is actually influenced by her mother since her mother would stop her from entering the kitchen: you will always have someone to do this thing for you. Indeed, Grace always has maids to help her up and her students would do the works in the kitchen in order to exchange for lessons. The one who was in the kitchen all the time is Doctor Hemingway. He made breakfast; he would cook what he shot in the forest and he was rather good at it.

There is a guest room in the house and it is for Benjamin Tyley Hancock, Grace’s uncle, and Ernest’s great uncle. In the case of Caroline Hall and her brother, they actually first immigrated to Australia before coming to America. So uncle Tyley told Ernest about the time in England and Australia, the time when he was left on the boat in New Zealand because he disobeyed his father—he would talk about his story as a travel sale man or he would just take the children out for a fancy meal and treated them like an adult. This means that everyone likes uncle Tyley, which includes one of the maids in the house. Sadly, the maid who he loves left him with a letter when he was out for a business trip: “I changed my mind.” We only know that her name is Emma and she really broke this poor man’s heart because he did not marry anyone after that. After the engagement was broken, the children could hear Uncle’s crying sound at night (see At the Hemingways).
Ernest Hemingway’s first experience of death was his grandfather, Abba’s room when he was only 6-year-old. Since Abba got sick when he was in Michigan, his sickness didn’t really recover and he brought back to his room. After his grandfather’s death, they moved out from the house and bought a new house a few blocks away from this house.

2.2 Home town Oak Park and Hemingway

Thinking of Hemingway often brings to mind his travels around the world, documenting the war and engaging in thrilling adventures. However, fully understanding this outsized international author means returning to his hometown, where his discovered and developed his interest in hunting, fishing, boxing, hiking, and writing while traveling. In his notebook, the young artist wrote: “My favorite sports are Trout fishing, hiking, shooting, football and boxing” and at the bottom of the page, a partly erased line says: “I intend to travel and write” (Elder et. al 82).

It is not until his junior and senior years at Oak Park and River Forest High School that Ernest Hemingway started taking the special writing classes from Miss Biggs and Miss Dixon. Miss Dixon was a person who “pushed the creative side and urged [her students] to use [their] imagination and dare to try putting into writing [their] original and interesting thoughts” (Fenton 27). Under this influence, Ernest then began to write for the school’s weekly newspaper, the Trapeze, and its literary magazine, Tabula. His first short story “Judgement at Manitou,” in which a hunter commits suicide, was published in an edition of Tabula in February 1916. Also, “A Matter of Colour,” a story on boxing, was published in 1916 in the third Tabula. This was how the artist to fictionalize his real experiences through the power of language and words.

Not only the theme of hunting, fishing, shooting, boxing and so on are often found in Ernest’s fictions, the issue of financial management and the connection between money and love/relationship appear frequently in his fictional world. For instance, the protagonists in The Sun Also Rises, For Who, The Bell Tolls and so forth are constantly concern about how much they have paid for the bills; the female characters use their sexuality to exchange for financial support. It is suggested that Ernest’s parents are the one who influenced his sensibility toward money and relationship. Ed Hemingway encouraged all of his children to keep account books, in which Ernest continued the habit of keeping account into adulthood. Perhaps it was his mother who inspired Ernest when she compared “a mother love” to “a bank” after she discovered that his son sneaked out to have fun with his friends in 1920: “Unless you, my son, Ernest, come to yourself, cease your lazy loafing and pleasure seeking…stop trading on your handsome face…and neglecting your duties to God and your Savior Jesus Christ…there is nothing fro you but bankruptcy: you have overdrawn” (Reynolds 138).

Besides that, religious aspect represents one of the main issues in most of Ernest’s works. This aspect of concern was developed mainly in his hometown, Oak Park. Oak Park was a place the author felt that he had escaped because it was a place that reminded him of “a claustrophobic family life,” of his “strict, religious upbringing” (Elder et. al 42). His parents’ exaggerated religious mind can be reflected through their comment on Ernest’s published works. Regarding in our time (1924), his father commented: “Trust you will see and describe more of the humanity of a different character in future. Remember God holds us each responsible to do our best” (qtd. in Baker 160). As to his first novel The Sun Also Rises (1926), his mother criticized that it was “one of the filthiest books of the year” and wrote to his son that “What is the matter? Have you ceased to be interested in loyalty, nobility, honor, and fineness of life? Surely you have other words in your vocabulary besides ‘damn’ and ‘bitch’—Every page fills me with a sick loathing—if I should pick up a book by any other writer with such words in it, I should read no more—but pitch it in the fire” (qtd. in Reynolds 53).

Another crucial point that we cannot miss in reading Hemingway’s works is the themes of gender and sexuality. It is suggested that the author’s gender anxiety was a result of his mother’s twinning experiments on his sister, Macelline, and him when he was only three years old. Due to this, gender anxiety, homosexuality, polyamory and so on crop up in his fictions, and more in his posthumous work, The Garden of Eden (1970). In 1925, Hemingway asked Fitzgerald in a letter, “I wonder what your idea of heaven would be—A beautiful vacuum filled with wealthy monogamists, all powerful and members of the best families all drinking themselves to death. And hell would probably [be] an ugly vacuum full of poor polygamists unable to obtain booze or with chronic stomach disorders that they called secret sorrows.” His own vision of heaven was quite different: “two lovely houses in the town; one where I would have my wife and children and be monogamous and love them truly and well and the other where I would have my nine beautiful mistresses on 9 different floors” (Selected Letters 1917-1961, 165). From the author’s description, one understands that Hemingway’s insistence on monogamy is the product of his strict Victorian upbringing while his desire toward polyamory reflects his rejection on that cultural phenomenon.

3. Influences of Cuba on Ernest Hemingway

3.1 Castro’s Cuba: From Machismo to Feminism

Today, the issue of patriarchy remains as a cultural phenomenon in Cuba. The problem with patriarchal culture is that qualities such as “sensitivity, sentimentalism, humanism, pacifism, and the willingness to negotiate” are more likely to be rejected (Padula 230). On the contrary, machismo qualities such as hardness, never yielding, virility and so forth are encouraged among the population. For example, sociologist Nelson Valdes recalled that Cuban boys played a game in which a ball is thrown as hard as possible at another player (Interview with Valdes, Havana, June 1994; Padula 230). The ability to inflict pain and to resist showing pain has become entrenched within Cuban nationalism.

Regarding feminism in Cuba, it seems that the women’s movement in Cuba has more to do with the needs of workers than with feminist ideas. Reynaldo Gonzalez claims that “In Cuba feminism is a sort of education of the female masses for work, but we have not had the theorizing that comes with this kind of work…The woman’s revolution in Cuba didn’t have any theorizing…” (13; qtd. in Padula 232). It was not until 1991 that the first public feminist critique of patriarchy was published: “Declaration of Principle” by poet Maria Elena Cruz Varela. From this, we can ascertain that the development and universalization of feminism in Cuba remain backward compared to other parts of the world.

Needleless to say, the main reason that caused the stagnation of feminist ideology is the patriarchal gender culture that has long been embedded in Cuba. Citing Cuban poet Severo Sandy’s view, Ileana Fuentes states that Cuba’s patriarchal gender culture “comes not only from Spain or Torquemada—repressive and fascinated by humiliation and death—but also from fanatical Islam and from black African cultures rigidly structured in a hierarchy of chiefs and subchiefs, of little kings and big operators…” (19; Padula 230). Thus, the problem of gender inequality in Cuba remains a complex issue to solve due to its deep connection with Euro-American masculine impacts, religious influence, the African hierarchal system and so forth.

One of the results of Cuban’s patriarchal culture is the expansion of homophobic culture. This intolerance of homosexuals was significant in the Cuban Revolution. Supposedly, this intolerance derived from Cuban President Gustavo Machado (1925-1933) who referred to the masculine organ as the key to governing. Decades later, Fidel Castro (El Caballo) continued this tradition as we can find that Castro’s revolution represented the victory of machismo. In a 1965 interview, Castro made clear that he would never consider “a homosexual” as “a true Revolutionary” or “a true Communist militant” (Lockwood 124). This exaggerated homophobic behavior resulted in the infamous system of the UMAP work camps in the 1960s, where gays were imprisoned and forced by using “scientific” methods to conform to accepted Hispanic heterosexual behavioral norms: “Verbal and physical mistreatment, shaved heads, work from dawn to dusk, hammocks, dirt floors, scarce food…” (Montaner 1981: 144; qtd. in Hirschfeld 216).

Opposed to this, Alberto Orlandini in El amor, el sexo y los celos states that homophobia is completely “unscientific” as it comes from an education in which children are told that homosexuals are “despicable, perverse, ridiculous, and marginal citizens” (135). Furthermore, Alberto sees machismo as the “sexual ideology that concentrates all power and ability in men” (156). The macho model is, as Alberto argues, “vigorous, hard, aggressive, autonomous, rational, practical, mature, and polygamous” (156). On the contrary, women are regarded as “passive, tender, incapable of resolving problems, dependent, emotional, romantic, childlike and monogamous, and not really interested in sex” (Alberto 156).

Interestingly, Marvin Lerner finds that Fidel Castro’s patriarchal revolution was paradoxically attempting to improve women’s condition, as the revolution focused on “the universalization of health care and education, social equality, the social mobility provided to ordinary people” (qtd. in Padula 231). However, the cult of machismo was so strong that it repressed any other kind of trend such as feminism. It was not until 2010 that Castro expressed a change of heart toward his discrimination against and the persecution of homosexuals in an interview with Mexican Newspaper La Jornada,

“If anyone is responsible, it’s me…We had so many and such terrible problems, problems of life or death. In those moments, I was not able to deal with that matter [of homosexuals]. I found myself immersed, principally, in the Crisis of October, in the war, in policy questions.” (The Globe and Mail 2010)

Perhaps Castro’s taking responsibility for his injustice will stimulate human rights activism and the feminist movement in Cuba, which would make the country a better place where everyone holds an equal right in society.

3.2 Before Castro: Cuba and Hemingway

It is clear that Hemingway admired Fidel Castro as he tried to assist him as much as he could during the revolution (when Castro’s representatives arrived at the Finca to take possession of the arms that were there, Hemingway told his helper, Rene, to “give them anything they want to take” (Paporov and Kinnamon 20)). In his interview to the North American journalist Emmet Watson, he claimed his confirmation to Castro’s revolution: “I pronounce myself in favor of Castro’s revolution because the people support it” (Paporov and Kinnamon 22). Hemingway also insistently sought contact with Castro and finally, on 16 May 1960, he met Fidel Castro and he framed the photo of them and “placed it on the table where he kept his most valued souvenirs” (Paporov and Kinnamon 27). According to Hemingway, “Fidel [Castro] is passionate about nature and is a worthy sportsman…He’s also a passionate deep sea fisherman” (Paporov and Kinnamon 27). These machismo characteristics of Castro are paralleled to Hemingway’s, which provides us for imaging both men, an American and a Cuban, share values about machismo, patriarchal thoughts, and the fear of homophobia.

Castro’s fear of homophobia and his machismo preference is a product of the patriarchal culture in Cuba. Similarly, Hemingway’s exaggerated machismo and his fear of homophobia can be seen as an influence on the patriarchal Cuban society. Beginning in 1929 Hemingway was constantly on the Cuba coast and since then he bought a house in Havana, which is called Finca Vigia, spending more than 20 years of his lifetime at there. In 1937, his novel To Have and Have Not was published. The setting of the novel is based on Havana, Key West, and the State. The cheap Chinese restaurant called La Perla café, the Morro lighthouse, the beggar drinking at the fountain, the out-of-work men sleeping against the buildings, all these details are accurate to the reality of Havana at the time. They represent the poverty that existed in the neo-colonized Cuba by U.S at that time. The struggle between morality and immorality, between legality and illegality that Harry Morgan represents in the novel, reflected the struggle under the economic crisis that began in 1929. Besides that, the story of smuggling Chinese immigrants is also relevant to the history as, at that time, the smuggling of illegal immigrants into U.S was common as rum-running. As to the name of the Harry Morgan, it is suggested that the character “Harry” refers to “the Spanish expression hombre de pelo en pecho (‘a man with hair on his chest,’ strong, brave, virile),” which implies, as I suggest, a mixture of machismo between America, Spain, and Cuba (Cruz and Delpino 91). In addition, Harry as a skillful fisherman, a responsible family guy, and his control from drinking while on the job reflect a sort of masculine quality that the author carries. However, unlike Hemingway’s other novels, Harry Morgan is not a positive figure. He breaks the law and murders in order to earn a living. Despite this, Mary Cruz suggests, “He is a man who wants to live and let live but finds himself pitted against a society that corners him. In his own way, he has a sense of honor” (95). In other words, the character’s dehumanized behaviors can be understood as a result of the Great Depression; the character himself is the victim of U.S interventionism in Cuban society.

4. Conclusion

From the research above, I would like to conclude that Ernest Hemingway’s personal emotion toward his home town and his home country remains irreconcilable paradoxical: he wanted to escape from his strict and religious upbringing but at the same time all his life he was restricted by those aspects and values that had made him Ernest Hemingway, the son of Clarence and Graze; he hated the restricted freedom that imposed by the country but when he was in the other country, ‘what to do when freedom comes’ became a problem, which can be found in his work such as The Sun Also Rises. Parallel to the author, the fictional characters often find themselves struggling in between morality and immorality, heterosexual and homosexual, monogamy and polygamy, masculinity and femininity, and so on. While the reality in Cuba serves as one of the important nutrition for the author’s artistic production, Oak Park serves as the basic need of the body: water. Without this ‘water,’ the novelist would not have survived throughout his fictional path, which is why the author never criticized Oak Park. Regarding this, Reynolds comments, “No other important American author has been so kind to his home town. Whatever else Hemingway became when he left home, he remained a loyal and native son who never fouled the nest” (Sanford xiv).


Baker, Charles. Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story. New York: Charles Scriber’s Sons, 1969. Print.
Elder, Robert. K., and Vetch, Aaron., and Cirino, Mark. Hidden Hemingway: Inside the Ernest Hemingway Achieves of Oak Park. Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 2016. Print.
Ernest Hemingway to F. Scott Fitzgerald, July 1, 1925, in Hemingway, Selected Letters, 1917-1961. Print.
Fenton, Charles. “Ernest Hemingway: The Young Years.” Alantic Monthly 193, No. 3, 1954. Print.
“Fidel Castro takes balam for 1960s gay persecution.” The Globe and Mail. 31 August 2010. Web. 15 March 2017.
Grimes, Larry., and Sylvester, Bickford. Hemingway, Cuba, and the Cuban Works. Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 2014. Print.
Hemingway, Ernest. The Have and Have Not. New York: Scribner, 1937. Print.
Hirschfeld, Katherine. Health, politics, and revolution in Cuba since 1898. New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers, 2006. Print.
Lockwood, Lee (1967). Castro’s Cuba, Cuba’s Fidel, Revised Edition. USA: Westview Press, 1990. Print.
Orlandini, Alberto. EL AMOR, EL SEXO Y LOS CELOS. Santiago de Cuba: Oriente, 1993. Print.
Padula, Alfred. “Gender, Sexuality, and Revolution in Cuba.” Latin American Research Review, 31.2 (1996): 226-235.
Reynolds, Michael S. The Young Hemingway. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1987. Print.
Sanford, Marcelline Hemingway. At the Hemingways: With Fifty Years of Correspondence between Ernest and Marcelline Hemingway. Centennial Edition. Moscow, ID: University of Idaho Press, 1999. Print.


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