Chapter 5: No Home to Return To

His father appeared as he had looked when they met again in January, 1919.

The prosecutor’s manner was that of a townsman to a respected physician. “Dr. Hemingway, please describe for the court what happened when you and your daughter Marcelline met the train from New York that brought your son home from the World War.”

“I had seen the doctor’s reports, and so intellectually I knew the extent of the damage he had sustained, but I suppose I envisioned him essentially as I had seen him eight months before. Instead, I saw him get down from the train, stepping down so cautiously, concerning himself with his balance, leaning a bit on the cane he had in his right hand. He saw us, and came limping to us, walking so slowly, so gingerly. We had to go down some steps, and I offered him my arm as a support, but he wouldn’t take it. He walked all the way to the car that way, on his own, slowly.”

He could see it from his father’s side now, a father seeing his young son getting down from the train, seeing the boy who had left home whole and had come home damaged. At the time, he had taken it all as criticism. He hadn’t understood the anguish.

“Dr. Hemingway, perhaps you could describe for the court the changes you observed in your son when he returned from the war.”

“It was heartbreaking. For his mother, too, nothing less than heartbreaking.” There was that familiar look of resolute disapproval, but not aimed at him this time. “You must remember, we grew up before all these wars. We never heard words like `shell shock’ and `combat fatigue.’ Other than a few months in 1898, and Indian fighting on the frontier, the country had been at peace for 50 years, ever since the Civil War. We didn’t realize what war did to those who survived. So when Ernest came home from the war, we weren’t prepared for the changes. He had been such a fine boy, and he had come back so damaged!

“He came home so bitter! Nothing about our pleasant life suited him anymore. The ideals he had been brought up to revere were meaningless. Oak Park was narrow and provincial, our tastes in literature were moronic, our ambitions were silly and our ordinary life was unbearably dull. What was far worse, Ernest had succumbed to just those influences we had feared. He drank. He smoked. And in our worst nightmares, we had never envisioned his bringing the language of the barracks into the Hemingway parlor.

“We tried to make allowances, but his behavior didn’t get any better. He would have good days and we would think, `at last, he’s through the worst of it,’ and then he would be worse than before.”

His mother, too, had been so visibly taken aback at the toll the war had taken. She had babied him, at first, until he had had to push her away. With her, too, he hadn’t understood the anguish.

“No, Ernest, you were entirely centered on yourself. As sensitive as you were, you seemed to have lost the ability to feel anybody else’s concerns.”

“Oh, I know that tune! It was always straighten out and fly right. But none of you had any idea what was actually going on with me.”

“Perhaps not. The things that had happened to you were beyond our experience. But your grandfathers had had their war – and much more of it than you had! They had not come home changed in the way you did. It was beyond us to know how to deal with you. We did try.”

“You tried to make me into a child again, living in his parents’ house, with his parents’ rules, living by his parents’ values.”

“Try to understand. You didn’t seem to realize how much life you had ahead of you. Nineteen is too young to live in the past! You needed to prepare yourself for a career.”

“It worked out all right in the end.”

“We couldn’t know that, and neither could you. You could have gone to college, as your mother and I expected.”

“How could I, when she had spent all the money?”

His father looked at him straight and level, that look he had gotten so familiar with, that long year at home. “Ernest, you know that isn’t true, and it is time that you admit it to yourself.”

He felt the old anger rising, then felt the defense attorney’s hand on his arm. “Mr. Hemingway, a piece of advice. Clear your mind of preconceptions and look carefully. Your father testified that you could have gone to college, yet you would not. Why was that?”

Slowly, reluctantly: “Maybe because it was expected.” Vivid memories of Oak Park, so self-consciously cultural and respectable, the land of the Pharisee. “Going off to college would have cemented me into the family mold. I had to get out of there.”

His father: “Then, Ernest, whose choice was it, and whose fault was it?”

“All right, I see it. If you need me to say I’m sorry for getting the story wrong, I’ll say it. I’m sorry.”

So you could still hurt people here! Interesting. He worked to undo it. “I shouldn’t have said that.”

“Really, what you shouldn’t have done is spend years lying about your mother who loved you, telling people what an evil woman she was. Telling Hadley until she half-believed it. Telling all your wives, and your friends, and even strangers.”

“No, you’re right. I shouldn’t have. I see that now. I’m sorry.” And, for the first time, he really was. But that was almost too much.  “On the other hand, you can’t deny that I was thrown out of the family cabin the day I turned 21!”

“Dr. Hemingway? Is that what happened?”

“Ernest’s mother wrote the letter, and delivered it, while I was in Oak Park. But when I saw it, I approved of it, 100%. We were at the end of our rope, and thought, this may be our last chance to save our son. Understand, by that time he had been living at home for a year and a half. The help he provided was minimal and grudging, but he was always there at the dinner table. His attitude toward his mother and me was beyond disrespectful, it was defiant. And perhaps worst of all, it seemed to us that he was well on his way to becoming a loafer and a parasite, living off his charm – he could still be charming when it pleased him to be – and expecting to get something for nothing. Getting by on charm is one thing when you are young and handsome, but it wears thin later in life, and by that time you may have closed so many doors that none remain. We didn’t want to see that happen to our boy.”

“And so?”

“And so, on July 21, 1920, when we should have had every reason to be proud because our son had attained his majority, his mother had to hand him an ultimatum: As they used to say later on, shape up or ship out.”

“And I shipped out.”

“Yes you did. But Ernest, I ask you. Do you still think we were wrong to give you the ultimatum?”

He took a long moment to see how he felt about it. “You were wrong in your facts. I was working hard, learning how to write.”

“How were we to judge that? We couldn’t know what it would come to. We didn’t even know if you were really working, or merely pretending.”

“And I liked wine and beer and liquor, and I swore, so I must be becoming a monster of depravity. But those things were part of a man’s world, no matter what Oak Park believed. I had done a man’s job in Kansas City, and I had suffered a man’s wound in Italy. Two wounds, if you count Agnes. I wasn’t going to let your standards of propriety emasculate me.” But as usual his innate sense of fair play kicked in when emotion subsided. “Maybe it was just that we couldn’t understand each other.”

“No further questions, your honor. I should like to recall the defendant to the stand.”

And his father was gone, and he was back in the witness box.

.2.

“Mr. Hemingway, now please give the court your view of the year 1919, when you returned from the war.”

He tightened, remembering. “Tough year. I pretty much had to live at home during my convalescence, if I was going to stretch out my insurance payments; it bought me time to learn to write. But it also meant living where I didn’t fit. I was not the person who had left home for Kansas City after high school. How could I be?

“My parents thought I wasn’t doing anything, because I didn’t have a regular job. But I couldn’t go back to the Star. Hobbling around with a cane: Is that any way to chase ambulances? And I didn’t want to go live among college boys. I wanted to become a writer. I spent my time writing stories, hoping to break into the magazines. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I was trying. But none of it showed.”

Talking about his inner life seemed to be becoming easier as he went along.

“We need to speak about Agnes von Kurowsky, Mr. Hemingway.”

“Why? You know what happened, what’s the point? She sent me home, she told me she’d follow after a while and we’d get married as soon as I’d gotten a start on a career. But then in March – in March, not three months after I left Italy! – in March she writes me that she’s sorry, she still likes me fine, but we weren’t really in love and now she’s met somebody she’s going to marry. Three months!”

“Please tell the court how you reacted.”

“I got sick.”

“Literally?”

“Literally. I got sick enough I spent a couple of days in bed, alone on the third floor. I couldn’t take it.”

He would have liked to leave it at that, but the prosecutor prodded him. “Proceed, please.”

“Mr. Prosecutor, I had given myself totally, without reservation. Maybe it wouldn’t have lasted. Maybe even at the time it wasn’t what I thought it was. But I gave her my heart and soul, and somehow it wasn’t enough.”

“You were devastated.”

“Humiliated, too. Hurt, bewildered, hopeless. Mostly, blank. I couldn’t see how I was going to go on. It was agony.”

“And nobody to tell.”

“I told my sister, and eventually I told the rest of the family, after I had recovered a bit.”

“But you concealed the worst of the hurt from your family.”

“From my parents, especially, yes. It was just too humiliating. You might think it was just puppy love, and maybe it was, but that first day and night, I thought I was going to die. I wouldn’t want to go through that again. Of course, you can’t, you never have your first love twice.”

“Defense?”

“Mr. Hemingway, you have given us a good honest examination of a difficult year in your life. As you look back, who was right and who was in the wrong?”

“There’s always going to be conflict between a grown son and his father, if they have to live together in the father’s house. And it wasn’t all conflict. There were times when my parents and I got along okay. I tried to get along for the sake of peace in the family, but I also needed them to see that I wasn’t a child anymore. But my parents couldn’t see the writer struggling to be born, or the war veteran struggling against being forced back to being a dependent boy, or the traveler who was oppressed by living within narrower limits.”

“And perhaps, they couldn’t see a scared boy over-compensating with over-confidence?”

“I made sure they didn’t see that! I hadn’t really gotten into an army, I hadn’t really been a hero, maybe I wouldn’t really be able to become a writer. Maybe I wouldn’t really be able to get out of Oak Park. Really, when my mother told me I couldn’t live with them any more, and I moved over to Chicago – just a trolley ride, you know, not very far in distance – it was a big relief, even if it was financially inconvenient. I suppose it was going to come sooner or later, and maybe it was a good thing, in that it didn’t tempt me to drag the situation out. It hurt, though.”

“No further questions, your honor.”

Your honor, the prosecution calls Katharine Smith Dos Passos.”

 

 

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