In the middle of summer on the beautiful campus of Dominican University in Oak Park, Ill., there was a lot of talk of icebergs. But it wasn’t because people wanted to cool off – it was because more than 300 people from 18 countries had gathered for the 17th Biennial International Hemingway Society Conference (co-hosted by the Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park, an American Writers Museum affiliate) to celebrate the work of one of America’s greatest authors known for the hidden depth of his works.
Ernest Hemingway was born on July 21, 1899, in a three-story Queen Anne style house on the tree-lined streets of Oak Park, a Chicago suburb known for its beautiful prairie-style homes designed and inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright. As a Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize winner and writer of such classics as The Sun Also Rises, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway continues to be the subject of much fascination, debate, and inspiration 55 years after his death, for old and new scholars and fans alike.
More than 75 panel discussions and hundreds of presenters covered everything from gender, sexuality, and race in Hemingway’s novels; how to teach Hemingway to today’s students; comparing his style to other American author giants such as Jack London, Cormac McCarthy, and Sherwood Anderson; and dissecting dialogue and emotion in the Nick Adams short stories.
First-time conference participant and presenter Justin Costello-Stebelton is a high school English teacher in Chicago, and attended at the urging of his friend and former professor, Donald Daiker, a well-known Hemingway scholar (note: I also am a former student of Daiker’s and attended at his urging). According to Justin, “Being around academics and scholars with such a focus on a single author gave me some new ideas for approaches to teaching ‘In Our Time’ and several Nick Adams Stories…I’ll certainly be borrowing some techniques in my classroom.”
Hemingway Society President and preeminent scholar H.R. Stoneback shared with attendees why he’s still crazy about the author after all these years – whose name he says was a “synonym for writer” in the 1950’s, and still is to some extent today. He recalled first reading Hemingway as a young boy in a dusty and dark attic, but didn’t fully become enamored with him until he was told to teach a Hemingway class at the last minute while completing his PhD in 1974. He read Hemingway’s complete works in two weeks. “I saw what was really there, beneath the surface,” he said.
The famous “iceberg theory” comes from Hemingway’s days as a journalist, and while not everyone is a fan of his spare and simply structured sentences, fans and contemporaries are quick to defend the writer’s extraordinary sense of observation and point out nuances and clues in his work that tell a larger story.
Keynote speaker and National Book Award winner author Tim O’Brien (Going After Cacciato, The Things They Carried) had his own story about Hemingway’s influence on his life and work. While as a boy he couldn’t understand the meaning in “A Cat in the Rain” or “Soldier’s Home,” as recommended by his emotionally distant father, when he became an adult and writer he realized that “good stories leave room for our fathers, our first kiss.” He embraced Hemingway’s approach to leave out the explanation and to absorb events and things for what they were, and he encourages us all to find our own Hemingway that leaves room for our stories.
For younger generations wondering if there is anything left to research on Hemingway, Stoneback says, “We’re just getting started.”
The next conference will be in two years in Paris, France. Learn more here.
All images courtesy of Jenna Sauber.