The Big Read Blog (Archive)

What Were They Putting in the Water in Oak Park?

September 25, 2007
Oak Park, Illinois

Two things I learned in Oak Park, Ill.: 1) roughly a third of the world's fresh water is in the Great Lakes, and 2) roughly a third of America's creativity grew up or flowered in Oak Park. OK, I'm exaggerating, but it's not just O.P.-reared Ernest Hemingway, the Big Read of whose A Farewell to Arms recently brought me to this idyllic village on the outskirts of Chicago.

Just check out this honor roll of American writing born or bred in Oak Park (deep breath): Charles Simic, America's new poet laureate; poet Kenneth Fearing, whose mystery novels include The Generous Heart (my boss's favorite) and The Big Clock, later adapted by Jonathan Latimer into a terrific film noir with Ray Milland and Charles Laughton; Charles MacArthur, who co-wrote The Front Page with Ben Hecht and once, when writing for the Chicago papers about a dentist accused of taking liberties with his female patients, improvised the headline "Dentist Fills Wrong Cavity"; Carol Shields, who wrote The Stone Diaries and other lovely novels; Edgar Rice Burroughs, who created Tarzan and improbably gave my boss the reading bug with his novel Princess of Mars; and, so you shouldn't think Oak Park's distinctions are strictly literary, Frank Lloyd Wright. Not bad for a town Hemingway chided for its ?broad lawns and narrow minds? -- though if you can cough up a provable citation for that quote, still-skeptical Oak Parkers will stand you to lunch.

Why would so much talent cluster in one place? According to local Redd Griffin, there's a theory in Malcolm Cowley's book A Second Flowering to the effect that the best writers come from the penumbra between town and country. There, the young artist grows up equidistant from, and responsive to, big-city sophistication and natural beauty alike.

Me, I say if you really want literary greatness, see to it that your father goes bankrupt. I'm serious. Fitzgerald, Dickens, Steinbeck, Nabokov, Hemingway, quite probably Shakespeare -- each of these had his social awareness sharpened from an early age as a failure's son. Anyway, that's my hypothesis and I'm sticking to it.

The Oak Park Public Library and its partners are showing visitors and their neighbors such a good time this month, yet here I am nattering away about genius clusters. My two days in Oak Park began with a screening of the 1932 A Farewell to Arms, expertly intro'd and outro'd by genial film studies prof Doug Deuchler. The movie itself is an agreeable curiosity, with a stolidly sturdy Gary Cooper and a bracingly untheatrical Helen Hayes in the leads.

Then it was off to the Hemingway Foundation's capacious museum, which does on a shoestring what the Steinbeck Center so professionally accomplishes in Salinas: It refreshes, through well-chosen artifacts and well-written text panels, a sense of the man and a thirst for his books. In addition to a cavalcade of dedicated board members and local philanthropists, I also met Aaron Mrozick, the impressive college student in this picture. He impersonated the young Hem far more convincingly than I impersonated a keynote speaker, and gave me new hope that Hemingway can speak to a younger readership beyond the obligatory English majors and fly-fishermen.

Next morning I took a fascinating tour of Hemingway's birthplace and childhood home, lovingly restored by the Foundation after decades spent virtually unrecognizable as a boardinghouse. Next on this outfit's to-do list is the sprucing up of Hemingway's teenage family home, just a few blocks away. Later I met up with David Krause of nearby Dominican University, whose new gig on campus portends great things for Hemingway in particular and crosstown relations in general. Dominican and the Foundation are just two more examples of high-minded neighboring organizations with slightly overlapping missions who might never have found their way into each other's Rolodexes if not for a certain nationwide reading program.

I could rhapsodize about the two sensational meals I had with Oak Park library executive director Deirdre Brennan, Keith Michael Fiels of the American Library Association, the Oak Park libe's gifted P.I.O., Deborah Preiser and other dignitaries, but it would only make you hungry. Suffice it to say that, after a night of Italian food in neighboring River Forest, Hemingway himself would have forgiven the retreat at Caporetto...