Research isn’t always pretty.
Sometimes it’s in dusty basements and old libraries. Sometimes it involves adventures in bad weather in unknown places. Sometimes it means reading hundreds of academic documents without turning over a single treasure.
That is NOT research at the JFK Library and Museum in Boston.
The building itself is situated at Columbia Point, overlooking the water through four story glass windows. Its modern and clean design carries up to the Hemingway room, which then takes on the comfortable familiarity of Hemingway’s Key West writing cottage. A lion skin rug greets with its massive, open jaws. An antelope hangs on the wall next to Waldo Pierce’s famous painting of Hemingway. Four Andre Masson paintings grace the walls—three from his Forest Series over the fireplace in the room, and one by a research desk. Various memorabilia fill two glass cases, including original editions of the author’s work, a change purse of good luck charms he kept, a stamped, black travel valise, a trunk, and notes from his speech when he won the Pulitzer Prize for The Old Man and the Sea. A Hemingway bust watches over the whole scene in silent approval.
In 1972, Hemingway’s fourth wife, Mary, deeded her collection of manuscripts, letters, photographs, and other items to the JFK Library and Museum so it could all be kept together, preserved, and used for research. John F. Kennedy, himself, was instrumental in helping Mary collect the materials, as many of them were at Hemingway’s residence in Cuba. He gave Mary permission to travel there to retrieve as much as she could. Today, the Ernest Hemingway Archive holds the greatest collection of his paper and photo artifacts, library, and personal groupings of his press and reviews.
Tuesday, I spent the afternoon with all of Hemingway’s outgoing correspondence from 1935-1942. To my relief, much from 1935 remains—which is the time period I’m focusing on in my novel. I was hunting for clues to his daily life, whereabouts, and personal relationships, and the letters were a wealth of information. I was also given a good look at his letter writing style, which is important to me because the last section of my novel will be a correspondence between Ernest Hemingway and my protagonist.
Wednesday, I spent with the pictures. (That was in a dusty basement.) I initially thought I’d just use the pictures for imaginative purposes, but in poring over such great visual reminders of Hemingway and the people and places in his life, I decided to see about including them in the text of my novel—even though it’s historical fiction. I think interspersing the photos within the text would greatly enhance the reading experience. I do have to get permission to use many of the photos, though, so that could be a process.
The staff at the library and museum were extremely gracious and helpful. It was a very positive research experience, and I hope to get back soon.
I chose June 9th and 10th to visit the EH Collection because Lillian Ross—the New Yorker journalist who profiled Hemingway in 1950—was speaking. Ms. Ross kept up a correspondence with Hemingway throughout his life, following the time she spent with him for the New Yorker profile. She spoke very warmly of her friend, Hemingway, and told stories of his humorous letters, generosity in writing, and his tragic death. Of all of the Hemingway biographies I’ve read in preparation for my Hemingway novel (and there have been many) only Ms. Ross’ biography, Portrait of Hemingway, captures the essence of Hemingway as a man, rather than Hemingway as a writer, sportsman, or legend.
On writing, she spoke of her love of Hemingway’s short, clear, moving sentences. She spoke of the negative space of his work—what was left unsaid–that spoke volumes. I was particularly interested in her thoughts on Hemingway’s thoughts on the connection between art, music, and writing. (This subject has been on my mind for some time, and I now wonder if it was influenced by all the Hemingway books I’ve been reading.)
She said corresponding with Hemingway by mail or in person was a treat because he always used humor, was always original, and had a silly, meandering way of writing or speaking that was wholly different from his fiction. She said he would have made a great “texter.” (Which was funny to hear since Ms. Ross is almost ninety years old.)
It was a treat to hear Lillian Ross speak, and immerse myself in Hemingway for two days. It will make for some great writing.