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Ernest Hemingway and Kansas City: A Literary Tour


``In those days the distances were all very different, the dirt blew off the hills that now have been cut down, and Kansas City was very like Constantinople.''
-- Ernest Hemingway, "God Rest You Merry Gentlemen," 1933

Ernest Hemingway lived and worked in Kansas City for more than a year, if all his trips here are added together. The longest, a six-month stay, was while a cub reporter on The Kansas City Star from October 18, 1917 to April 30, 1918. The rest was a series of six-week stopovers between visits to Arkansas, Wyoming and Florida. He used that time to complete two important works: A Farewell to Arms and Death in the Afternoon.

Using Hemingway's later writing as a basis, it's clear that his time in Kansas City was one of the most important periods of his life. His experiences during that short period were recast and presented in at least five of his novels, four of his published sketches and half a dozen of his short stories. And there were other unpublished stories, specifically about his days in Kansas City, that were lost in 1922 in a train station.

The following are a few selections of Hemingway's Kansas City-influenced writings. For specific works, use these links: Across the River and into the Trees, Death in the Afternoon, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, A Moveable Feast, The Sun Also Rises, In our time, Nick Adams stories, ``A Pursuit Race,'' ``God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen,'' ``One Reader Writes,'' ``Soldier's Home.''

Going to Kansas City

In early summer 1917, Ernest Hemingway was faced with three choices: he could go to college, go to work, or go to war. His father, Dr. Ed Hemingway, wrote his younger brother Tyler in Kansas City about a possible job for his son. Ed Hemingway was against his son going to war, and hoped to forestall Ernest's tour of duty as long as possible. Tyler Hemingway had been a classmate of Henry Haskell, chief editorial writer of The Star, and wrote his brother that Haskell could take Ernest in October.

Hemingway took the train to Kansas City in mid-October, arriving on Oct. 15, 1917. Dr. Hemingway accompanied him to the station. Ernest, who ``was disgusted with teary fairwells,'' recast that scene in For Whom the Bell Tolls.

    Robert Jordan had not felt this young since he had taken the train at Red Lodge to go down to Billings to get the train there to go away to school for the first time. He had been afraid to go and did not want any one to know it and, at the station, just before the conductor picked up the box he would step up on to reach the steps of the day coach, his father had kissed him good-by and said, ``May the Lord watch between thee and me while we are absent the one from the other.'' His father had been a very religious man and he had said it simply and sincerely, but his moustache had been moist and hie eyes were damp with emotion and Robert Jordan had been so embarrassed by all of it, the damp religious sound of the prayer, and by his father kissing him good-by, that he had felt suddenly so much older than his father and sorry for him that he could hardly bear it.

The train trip was recorded in another work, a Nick Adams sketch that deals with Nick's crossing of the Mississippi River:

    The Kansas City train stopped at a siding just east of the Mississippi River and Nick looked out at the road that was half a foot deep with dust. There was nothing in sight but the road and few dust-grayed trees. A wagon lurched along through the ruts, the driver slouching with the jolts of his spring seat and letting the reins hang slack on the horses' backs....
    The scenery seemed to flow past in a stream of road, telegraph poles, occasional houses and flat brown fields. Nick had expected bluffs for the Mississippi shore but finally, after an endless seeming bayou had poured past the window, he could see out of the window the engine of the train curving out onto a long bridge above a broad, muddy brown stretch of water. Desolate hills were on the far side that Nick could now see and on the near side a flat mud bank. The river seemed to move solidly downstream, not to flow but to move like a solid, shifting lake, swirling a little where the abutments of the bridge jutted out. Mark Twain, Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, and LaSalle crowded each other in Nick's mind as he looked up the flat, brown plain of slow-moving water. Anyhow I've seen the Mississippi, he thought happily to himself.

Images of Kansas City

As a reporter on The Star, Hemingway covered ``the short-stop run, which included the 15th Street police station, the Union Station, and the General Hospital. At the 15th Street station you covered crime, usually small, but you never knew when you might hit something larger. Union Station was everybody going in and out of town... Some shady characters I got to know and interviews with celebrities going through. The General Hospital was up a long hill from Union Station and there you got accidents and a double check on crimes of violence.''
Vignettes in Hemingway's In our time greatly resemble the work he did for The Star, especially his newspaper story ``At the end of the Ambulance Run.''

One in particular concerned the shooting of two robbers by racist cops:

    ...At two o'clock in the morning two Hungarians got into a cigar store at Fifteenth Street and Grand Avenue. Drevitts and Boyle drove up from the Fifteenth Street police station in a Ford. The Hungarians were backing their wagon out of an alley. Boyle shot one off the seat of the wagon and one out of the wagon box. Drevitts got frightened when he found they were both dead. Hell Jimmy, he said, you oughtn't to have done it. There's liable to be a hell of a lot of trouble.
    - They're crooks, ain't they? said Boyle. They're wops, ain't they? Who the hell is going to make any trouble?
    - That's all right maybe this time, said Drevitts, but how did you know they were wops when you bumped them?
    - Wops, said Boyle, I can tell wops a mile off.

Hemingway's General Hospital beat gave him much material for sketches and short stories. The best and most famous one is ``God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen'':

    In those days the distances were all different, the dirt blew off the hills that now have been cut down, and Kansas City was very like Constantinople...
    I was walking from the Woolf Brothers' saloon where, on Christmas and Thanksgiving Day, a free turkey dinner was served, toward the city hospital which was on a high hill that overlooked the smoke, the buildings and the streets of the town....

It is thought that Hemingway got the main idea for ``God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen,'' from Dr. Logan Clendening, a Kansas City doctor whom Hemingway met in 1931 while awaiting the birth of his son, Gregory. Clendening conducted a syndicated medical column, and he sent Hemingway a sheaf of six letters from his correspondents. One of those letters was from a woman in Harrisburg, Penn., whose husband had contracted syphilis while serving in Shanghai. With very minor alterations, Hemingway concocted a story: ``One Reader Writes.''

Another, unpublished, work mentions The Kansas City Star, ambulances and a ``Doc Kling,'' which might also have something to do with Dr. Clendening.

Another powerful story written from his Star experiences was ``A Pursuit Race,'' about an advanceman for a burlesque company who loses himself to drugs and booze and stays in bed all day with a sheet over his head:

    ...It was very cold in Kansas City and he was in no hurry to go out. He did not like Kansas City. He reached under the bed for a bottle and drank....

Hemingway's experiences in Kansas City gave him material for several of his novels. In The Sun Also Rises, Jake Barnes is a journalist:

    ``You're from Kansas City, they tell me,'' he said.
    ``Yes.''
    ``So you find Paris amusing?''
    ``Yes.''

In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway lunches with Ernest Walsh, the poet, at the ``best and most expensive'' restaurant in the Boulevard St.-Michel quarter, and reminisces about his days on the cop beat:

    He knew I knew he had the con, not the kind you con with but the kind you died of then and how bad it was, and he did not bother to have to cough, and I was grateful for this at the table. I was wondering if he ate the flat oysters in the same way the whores in Kansas City, who were marked for death and practically everything else, always wished to swallow semen as a sovereign remedy against the con; but I did not ask him.

And in Across the River and into the Trees, there are several references to Kansas City, including this conversation between Col. Richard Cantwell and Renata:

    ``Did you think I was a snob because I come from an old family? We're the ones who are not snobs. The snobs are what you call jerks, and the people with all the new money. Did you ever see so much new money?''
    ``Yes,'' the Colonel said. ``I saw it in Kansas City when I used to come in from Ft. Riley to play polo at the Country Club.''
    ``Was it as bad as here?''
    ``No, it was quite pleasant. I liked it and that part of Kansas City is very beautiful.''
    ``Is it really? I wish that we could go there. Do they have the camps there too? The ones that we are going to stay at?''
    ``Surely. But we'll stay at the Muehlebach hotel which has the biggest beds in the world and we'll pretend that we are oil millionaires.''

Coming Home From War

Hemingway left Kansas City in the spring of 1918 and did not return for 10 years. He became ``the first of 132 former Star employees to be wounded in World War I,'' according to a Star article at the time of his death. He used his return to Michigan as the basis for another story that related to his work on The Star. It was called ``Soldier's Home:''

    She handed him The Kansas City Star and he shucked off its brown wrapper and opened it to the sporting page. He folded The Star open and propped it against the water pitcher with his cereal dish to steady it, so he could read while he ate.
    ``Harold,'' his mother stood in the kitchen doorway. ``Harold, Please don't muss up the paper. Your father can't read his Star. Would you kneel down and pray with me, Harold?'' his mother asked.
    They knelt down beside the dining-room table and Krebs' mother prayed.
    ``Now, you pray, Harold,'' she said.
    ``I can't,'' Krebs said.
    ``Try, Harold.''
    ``I can't.''
    ``Do you want me to pray for you?''
    ``Yes.''
    So his mother prayed for him and then they stood up and Krebs kissed his mother and went out of the house. He had tried so to keep his life from being complicated. Still, none of it had touched him. He had felt sorry for his mother and she had made him lie. He would go to Kansas City and get a job and she would feel all right about it.

Writer in Residence

``In the searing heat of midsummer in 1928, Ernest drove Pauline to Kansas City to have her baby,'' writes Carlos Baker in Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story.

``Pauline's labor pains began at last on June 27, and she entered Research Hospital under the charge of Dr. Don Carlos Guffey. Her labor lasted for 18 hours and was terminated by Caesarean section on the 28th. The child was a 9 1/2 lb. boy whom they named Patrick. Pauline writhed for several days with postoperative gas pains....''

Pauline's difficult childbirth took place while Hemingway was attempting to finish one of his greatest masterpieces, A Farewell to Arms. In that book, Hemingway writes of Catherine Barkley's caesarean, while, in reality, his own wife is undergoing the same operation:

    And what if she should die? She won't die. People don't die in childbirth nowadays. That was what all husbands thought. Yes, but what if she should die? She won't die. She's just having a bad time. The initial labor is usually protracted. She's only having a bad time. Afterward we'd say what a bad time and Catherine would say it wasn't really so bad. But what if she should die? She can't die. Yes, but what if she should die? She can't, I tell you.

Hemingway and Pauline returned to Kansas City in 1931 because Pauline was pregnant again and wanted to have Dr. Guffey perform the delivery. Gregory Hancock was born on the morning of Nov. 12, 1931. During that time Hemingway completed Death in the Afternoon.

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