Miles From Fenway


To Have and Have Not
May 19, 2005, 2:38 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Oak Park, IL wasn’t quite what I was expecting. A town just “8 miles from the Chicago Loop” it boasts 25 Frank Lloyd Wright homes and buildings and is the birthplace of Ernest Hemingway.

With the way the town was described in our tour book, I was expecting a more metropolitan area. Something like what Brookline is to Boston, or Brooklyn is to Manhattan. But as MM and I stepped off the El in Oak Park on Sunday we were reminded of exactly where we were. The Midwest. The suburban Midwest to be more specific.

A small town most likely only on the map because of Wright and Hemingway, it took me almost half an hour to find an ATM. And I was in the center of town. This is the kind of place where everyone knows everyone, and the small diner in the center of it all is still called a soda shop.

It was, however, very picturesque and as MM and I wandered the streets armed with our respective brochures (hers a guide to the Wright home and studio, mine to the Hemingway museum) we noted how welcoming a place Oak Park was. For a town that was probably overrun with tourists in the summer, these people still seemed to enjoy the extra company.

As we walked towards the Wright home and studio, we passed Hemingway’s birthplace. A beautiful Victorian home, I was amazed at what little fan fare there was for what was, to me, almost sacred ground. The only indication that this wasn’t just one of the many other family homes in the area was a small sign announcing it as the great writer’s birthplace and an “Hours of Operation” sign posted on the front door.

My feelings of disappointment were somewhat quelled a few blocks later when we passed the Hemingway museum:

Clearly this was going to a good day.

Before going into the Hemingway museum, however, we headed first towards the Wright Home and Studio since it’s hours ended earlier than the Hemingway museum’s did. Now, being the literary dork that I am, and not entirely up on my American architects, if it weren’t for the fact that I live with MM I never would have even known who the hell Frank Lloyd Wright was in the first place. Apparently I am alone in that stance, however, as the place was packed, with people literally from around the world. Our tour group consisted of men and women from Uruguay, Australia, Canada and of course the states.

The Wright museum was apparently a bit of a disappointment to MM as the home had been reconstructed a few times after various owners had remodeled it. To me that wasn’t such a big deal, but to her it was devastating. Our tour guide did tend to lose credibility in my eyes when she asked us where we were from and we said New York City. She then promptly said, “oh you’re so far away from any Wright designs is this the first one you’ve seen?” Lady, I didn’t know anything about this guy until a year ago and even I know he designed the Guggenheim.

So after a lack luster tour we wandered the surrounding neighborhoods viewing as many Wright structures as we could, including the Unity Temple, which I must admit was impressive. But I was anxious. It was my turn to be a dork. On to the Hemingway museum!

I should have known we were in trouble as we were talking to the woman at the information desk. She asked us to sign in and note where we were from as they used the data to help get grants and funding. We did so, and started discussing New York and the fact that this woman had never left Illinois. In course of conversation, she mentions that she had never once read an Ernest Hemingway novel.

Huh?

That’s right, one of her friends had roped her into volunteering there, and she loved meeting all the visitors, so she took the job. She’d been working there for a year and had never even picked up one of his books. I felt personally offended. MM tried to laugh it off, but I had to walk away. Little did I know it was only going to get worse.

After buying our tickets in the bookstore (which was about the size of a storage closet, I might add) we entered the “museum” through two large double doors and into what looked like a really good 8th grade book report.

This one room exhibit, which was trying to pass itself off as a museum, almost broke my heart. This display:

supposedly covered the life’s works of Hemingway. What it did was give a timeline (which was clearly typed out on an old computer, TAPED to the wall, and included many typos that were enough to make an editor cringe) and the dust jackets for as many of the texts as they could find. What about all his war reports? The stories he first published serially in magazines? And if this was his birthplace could they not have found some of his school writings?

It only got worse from there, and all I can say is that given two hours I could have put together a better showing. There were SOME things of interest: a photograph of Hemingway’s high school report card (he sucked at math even worse than I did), a photograph of the Dear John letter that supposedly inspired A Farewell to Arms. But that was about it.

Of course, trying to find SOME redeeming quality I still spent an hour reading every word in the place, but MM, no literary slouch herself, actually fell asleep in one of the desks in the recreation of Hemingway’s childhood classroom. I left feeling completely dejected.

Now before I go further, it should be noted that when Hemingway lived in Oak Park he had not yet begun his writing career. He lived there from the time he was born until right after he came back from the war. On the flip side, Wright started his career in Oak Park and some of his most famous designs are actually IN the town. But is I were to go out onto the street and ask a random stranger if they knew who Frank Lloyd Wright and Ernest Hemingway were, which name do you think they’d recognize? Yet Oak Park is a town obsessed with the architect, giving only a small nod to one of the greatest American authors of all time.

Since returning to New York on Monday, I’ve done a bit of research and it seems that Hemingway is given much more attention around his home in Key West, FL. Oak Park, IL however, will always have a black mark in my book. And Hemingway has now become a bit more dear to me.

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