Hemingway's Kansas City: Brief but telling early jottings reveal author's ties to town
09/27/2007 4:58 PM
05/16/2014 4:58 PM
This story originally appeared in the Sunday, June 27, 1999 edition of The Kansas City Star
"Kansas City was a strange and wonderful place," Ernest Hemingway once wrote but never published.
It was a place where "the food is good," where the people spoke "the purest American" and where, frankly, some years later he found it dull. To him, the city's memorable images included the warmth of wintertime lunch wagons, the varied inventory of downtown pawnshops, and the clouds of smoke and steam that rose from the rail yards outside the new and impressive Union Station.
Hemingway put these Kansas City observations on paper about 1932, when he was already one of the most celebrated of American writers. They are being published below for the first time, on the verge of the 100th anniversary of Hemingway's birth, July 21.
Amounting to just a few paragraphs, these fragments don't compare in scope with the unfinished Hemingway book, True at First Light, being published in July.
But they do something rarely seen in Hemingway's novels, essays and short stories: They give character and a sense of place to Kansas City, where Hemingway spent 6 1/2 months at The Kansas City Star and to which he returned from time to time.
They also provide a small but valuable piece of evidence that can help a reader solve a longstanding puzzle: Just what exactly did Hemingway mean when, in one notable short story, he compared Kansas City to Constantinople?
To be sure, the literary world at large has not been awaiting this fresh Hemingway. They will find little to chew on in these passages. But for those with an interest in how Hemingway and Kansas City go together, these nuggets, however small, will be a treat. Not too inspiring Hemingway long appreciated the writing advice and the shoe-leather experience he got cranking out police and emergency-room items at The Star in 1917-18. To a Kansas City reporter in 1940, he declared the newspaper's stylebook admonitions - "Use short sentences" and "Eliminate every superfluous word," for example - to be "the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing."
Yet of all the places associated with Hemingway, Kansas City ranked relatively low on his inspiration scale. It essentially was a layover in the 18-year-old Hemingway's exuberant journey from boyhood to the writing fame he so urgently sought.
When Kansas City appears in the short stories, novels, nonfiction books and journalism Hemingway wrote in the 40-odd years after leaving here, it's more often as a name than as a place - neither the place he saw nor the place he might have created in his imagination. Hemingway never preserved Kansas City's character in print as he did with, say, Paris or Pamplona or the woods of upper Michigan. Hemingway probably had some Kansas City stories on paper as early as 1922, but they would have met the same fate as the rest of his manuscripts in progress at the time: The valise his wife, Hadley, had packed them in was stolen in a Paris train station.
Here and there, one of Hemingway's characters admitted, without obvious derision or hometown pride, to hailing from Kansas City. For instance, despite his emasculating war wound, the journalist Jake Barnes, who is the central character of The Sun Also Rises, might have even made it kind of cool to be from Kansas City, given that novel's breezy and boozy hedonism.
But overall, Kansas City was - to borrow a phrase long associated with the importance of the unstated in Hemingway's writing - "the thing left out."
Green archival document boxes line part of one wall in the triangular Hemingway Room at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston. The library holds the largest collection of Hemingway manuscripts, letters and other memorabilia.
In one box is a folder relating to the short story "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen." Along with "A Pursuit Race," the story is one of two (out of 50-some published in his lifetime) that Hemingway set directly in Kansas City, not counting one paragraph-long vignette.
In "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen," a journalist-narrator recounts a tale he heard while visiting two doctors: A young man arrives at the hospital on Christmas Day and begs the doctors to castrate him because of his constant sinning. The doctors send the boy off, but overnight he is brought back in, bleeding profusely from the amputation he performed on himself with a razor.
The archive folder contains two typescripts of the finished story, which first appeared in print in 1933, and some manuscript pages written in Hemingway's generally neat and readable hand. It's on those latter sheets of paper that this new Kansas City material appears. One can see how they relate to the opening lines of "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen," in which Hemingway, as he often did at the beginning of a story, sets a scene.
Here is how the story, as published, begins:
"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. You may not believe this. No one believes this; but it is true."
The narrator goes on to describe a snowy afternoon walk from "Woolf Brothers' saloon" to the hospital, "which was on a high hill that overlooked the smoke, the buildings and the streets of the town."
Hemingway had spent three weeks in the Turkish seaport of Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1922, four years after his Kansas City stint and 10 years before he finished "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen." He was covering Europe for The Toronto Star in the early 1920s and got to "Constan" in time to witness the Greek army's retreat during the Greco-Turkish flareup.
How true was Hemingway's comparison of Kansas City and Constantinople?
To read some of these manuscript fragments is to wonder and to raise such questions as: What's the difference between literal truth and a writer's truth? ("A writer of fiction is really ... a congenital liar who invents from his own knowledge or that of other men," Hemingway writes in the soon-to-be-published True at First Light.)
One caveat about what follows: Unpublished fragments show a writer at work, and sometimes it's not pretty. Awkward sentence constructions occur as images make their way from brain to finger to pencil to paper. Sometimes a writer's impulse is to just get it down and save the polish for later. Good writers frequently note that the real writing is in revision.
Hemingway was a famous, perhaps compulsive reviser. Early drafts were never meant to see print. Hemingway's widow, Mary, recognized their value to students, scholars and readers when she gave the JFK Library the thousands of pages of writing and scraps that make up the heart of the archives.
Item No. 426 in the archives represents a false start to the story:
All of the distances are changed in Kansas City now and many streets have died to nourish the new skyscrapers and it no longer seems as much like Constantinople since they have cut down the hills, although the organization is the same.
After a crossed-out phrase and an unreadable word, Hemingway went on:
The people still speak the purest American, with no local accent or provincial turns, (begin crossed-out passage) and this is the size town where people have time to remember things that have occurred (end cross out) and the food is good, and there are many friends, yet it seems dull now. The second and longest fragment in the folder, Item No. 427, yields better information about the Kansas City-Constantinople connection, as well as some vivid descriptions of a street scene and Union Station, which at the time Hemingway first saw it was only 2 years old.
He crossed out his first try, then started again but quickly gave up:
(Begin cross out) In those days Kansas City was a strange and wonderful place. (End cross out) There were bare dusty hills above the new Union Station that were later the bare brown dusty hills of Constantinople. In those days Kansas City ... Here Hemingway interrupted himself. He drew a line across the page before going on.
But before going back to what he wrote, it's a convenient time to return to Constantinople.
That line - how the "bare dusty hills ... were later the bare brown dusty hills of Constantinople" - disappeared before publication of the story, but it helps make clear how physically Kansas City appeared to be "very like Constantinople."
Similarly, the fragment soon states that a viaduct near Union Station "later was the Galata Bridge," meaning one reminded him of the other in some unstated way.
The Galata section of Constantinople was the merchant district and, as can be seen below, the Kansas City viaduct in Hemingway's memory had a bustling, mercantile quality to it.
But the Galata district also offered many late-night attractions, Hemingway suggested in stories he published elsewhere.
To make the Kansas City-Constantinople comparison even clearer, it's necessary to piece together this fragment with those other writings. One was a dispatch for The Toronto Star in 1922; the other was a section of Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway's nonfiction book about bullfighting, published in 1932.
Judging from those brief published accounts, Hemingway must have spent more than one late night driving down to the Bosporus River at Constantinople to "sober up and watch the sun rise."
In Death in the Afternoon, while commenting on the after-hours attractions of Constantinople and Madrid, he is quickly reminded of Kansas City. In that section, Hemingway implies a late-night revel occurred after he visited the Republican National Convention there in 1928. Then, he was motoring back to his cousins' place "in the country" - they lived on Indian Lane in Mission Hills - and he saw what looked to be a fire in the distance. He drove in that direction, topped a hill and witnessed a glorious sunrise.
All of that imagery - the late nights, the sobering up by the river, the sunrise and, of course, the "bare dusty hills" - can now be brought to mind when one reads that "Kansas City was very like Constantinople." Picture of KC past Beneath the line he drew across the page, Hemingway had another false start, followed by an extended description of what he saw in Kansas City: In those days Kansas City was a strange and wonderful place and, later, (begin cross out) The New Union Station was a wonderful building (above this scratched-out line he placed four words:) the finest in America (end cross out).
You came to the Union Station from the Fifteenth Street Police Station across a long viaduct that later was the Galata Bridge and on the viaduct were the pawnshops with shotguns and banjos and field glasses in the windows and many kinds of watches and all sorts of jewelry and fur coats on (racks) on the sidewalk and the proprietors always outside the door to make a sale. Even in the coldest weather when some of them would be inside you could not look in a window without bringing the proprietor out. Between the pawnshops were the cut-rate ticket agencies with long lists of destinations and their prices Tulsa, today $2.00, Tucson, Arizona $5.40, Fort Worth, $3.50, and places further away ...
There were lunch wagons too off the viaduct lit up at night and warm inside (begin cross out) but the warmest places and the best to be in were the saloons (end cross out) and as you crossed the viaduct trains passed underneath and you would see ahead a cloud of smoke and steam puffing up on each side of the viaduct as an engine passed.
The new Union Station was (word crossed out) built (end cross out) all of marble inside and high and vaulted in different corners were drug stores and restaurants and a book store and the waiting room was back out of sight and what was in sight was great space with an information bureau in the center with a roll of white paper and an instrument that did automatic writing in purple ink.
In some ways, we see more of Kansas City in those three previously unpublished paragraphs than we ever have in Hemingway.
An exception is one delightful but little-known story about his gastronomic adventures that he wrote for the Toronto paper. The story, published in November 1923, has an entertaining anecdote about how Hemingway first ate sea slugs in Kansas City while making his way down the menu of a Chinese restaurant. It mentions an after-work fight between a reporter and a waiter at a lunch counter near The Star. And it also reverberates with an image from these unpublished fragments, offering evidence of what he liked about the nearby lunch wagons:
"Kansas City was a live town in those days, and the glory of its nocturnal life was the all-night lunch wagon," Hemingway wrote. "Many a night I have stood in the shelter of an all-night lunch wagon while the blizzard swept down from the great cold funnel of the Missouri River valley and eaten chili con carne, brown, red and hot all the way down, and real chilmaha frijoles while I learned about life and Mexican home cooking from the keeper of the wagon."
It's quite possible that more unites Jake Barnes and the boy of "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen" than Kansas City and their wounded manhood. Scholars have dug fruitfully in the territory of symbols and psychological motivation in search of something to say about Hemingway and Kansas City.
But for the purposes of this story, that topic will have to be the thing left out.
Editor's note: Unpublished manuscript fragments are copyrighted by Ernest Hemingway's sons and also used courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston and the Hemingway Society and Foundation.
Below are excerpts from The Kansas City Star stylebook that Ernest Hemingway once credited with containing "the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing."
Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative.
Never use old slang.
Eliminate every superfluous word.
Be careful of the word also. It usually modifies the word it follows closest. "He, also, went" means "He, too, went." "He went also" means he went in addition to taking some other action.
Be careful of the word "only." "He only had $10" means he alone was the possessor of such wealth; "He had only $10," means the ten was all the cash he possessed.
In writing of animals, use the neuter gender except when you are writing of a pet that has a name.
Try to preserve the atmosphere of the speech in your quotation. For instance, in quoting a child, do not let him say "Inadvertently, I picked up the stone and threw it."
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